Built by and For the Local Billericay Residents
Behind the 19th century fascia lays one of the hidden gems of Billericay. If it had not been for the forethought of those residents who were concerned about the ` need to educate the working classes and to aid their growth and improvement' this would never have been built.
The mid 1800's were a terrible time in Essex, with dreadful weather for crops on the farms, meaning many families were thrown out of their tied cottages into Poor Houses. Disease was rife with tuberculosis being common with as many as 8 or 9 sleeping together in one room; no room to keep the sick from the fit. Access to clean water and proper sanitation was impossible as waste was just running into the streams and ponds, ready for drinking. Doctors only visited if you could pay.
The Government of the day were worried about an uprising and brought in many new laws regarding clean water, waste disposal, public health acts, schooling for children, and more Poor houses were built in each area. The major problems were that very few people could read or write, jobs were hard to find as there were no means was few find out about them, as had ever left Billericay and did not know when jobs were available outside the town.
Something had to be done and the residents of Billericay banded together to form the Billericay Reading Rooms, with the first official meeting being held on the 11th March 1864 chaired by a Rev. G. L. Hansen, with Mr. M. F. Robertson - Head Master at local Grammar School, as Secretary, and Mr M. Keaveny - Workhouse Governor, as Treasurer when it was agreed that a Committee should be formed including Rev. E. L. Cutts, William Carter - Surgeon, R. L. Williams - Solicitor, and Mr. Salter - Iron Founder, and they would meet four times a year. Members of the group included an Ironmonger, Draper, Baker, and a Butcher - just ordinary people who understood their Town. The original Minute\Accounts may be seen in the Cater Museum on request.
The Group agreed to raise money to build a Reading Rooms were periodicals, newspapers and books would be available for all (men only). The events organised included events where popular books by Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins were read with musical accompaniment at a cost of 1d and 3d per person, dinners.
Until 1886 when sufficient monies were raised and the Rooms were built, the meetings were held in Dr. Cater's house and in rented rooms. The new Reading Rooms were just one room with a cathedral ceiling, a stove which was only lit in extremely bad weather. They must have read with their hats, coats and gloves on, making turning pages difficult as the paper was so thin and the print so small in a room lit only by candle light or even oil lamp with any heat rising up to the ceiling many feet above.
With literacy so limited and no public library in Billericay until the 1930's, this would be one of the few options for people to practise their reading. The Rooms held a good selection of newspapers and periodicals including the Times, Daily Telegraph, Chronicle, Punch, Illustrated News, English Mechanics, Building News, Weekly News and Essex Independent. The local papers would have included jobs that were available not only in Billericay but in the surrounding areas. The papers were available to read for a month and then sold to local people to help raise funds.
In the 1930's when the first public library came to Billericay, the Rooms were mainly used for recreation with a billiard table, darts and similar pastimes; the purchase of periodicals and books stopped and the rooms closed for long periods due to lack of money.
Problems with monies continued, with the Committee becoming less active, the rooms less used and they appear to have closed for about ten years from 1951 with apparently no committee meetings held. In 1961 one of the Rooms’ Committee member, Mr. Horace O. Iles advised the local Rotary Club about the problems and it was decided that, as the Rooms were originally built by public subscription, they should try to save them as such a valuable asset was to a large extent being wasted.
With Rotary’s help a new enthusiastic committee was formed consisting of local professional people, other interested residents and organisations with the result that monies, including the proceeds of the Billericay Carnival were used to carry out much needed works. In 1965 the Rooms were registered as a Charity, the billiards were discontinued and an extension to the rear, a kitchen, toilet and storage rooms were added allowing the Rooms to be used for local events but finance remained a major problem. Grants were have been obtained from many local and national sources for a major and much need complete refurbishment, to bring the Rooms up to 21st Century standard. These included access for the less mobile and wheelchair users, new heating, a new ceiling in the original building to retain the heat and also to comply with the Health & Safety regulations. These changes were made whilst retaining many of the original features of the Rooms.
The Rooms are now being used by many varied organisations and local people. Our main hall with kitchen are used for lectures by the Workers Education Association, for classes for groups including National Childbirth Trust, people with poor or minimal sight, meditation, displays of local artwork, reflexology, plant sales, children’s parties and so much more. They are also used for fund raising events by many charities and groups and of course most important the annual visit by the Puppet Show during the Billericay Christmas Event in December. Our Committee Room is used for smaller events by both public bodies and private groups.
Recently the Trustees have built up a close involvement with 4 Local Junior schools that helped with the successful Exhibition held to celebrate the Reading Rooms 150th Anniversary in 2014.
In 2015 with a further exhibition to commemorate the involvement of Billericay people in WW1. In 2016 the same schools helped design a special Logo for the Rooms
The current Management Committee is still made up by local professional people, organisations and fund raising groups who are dedicated to keeping the Rooms open and available for the local residents of Billericay to use and enjoy. Why not think about us when you are next holding an event?
SLP FEBRUARY, 2017.