After being saved from demolition in 1971, the Charlton Assembly Rooms have, after 47 years, been given a Grade II heritage listing. Chairman and founder member of Save Charlton Assembly Rooms Project Gwen Zammit shared the building’s rich history with the Greenwich & Lewisham Weekender.
Spencer, the eldest son of Sir Spencer Maryon Wilson, 10th Bart, celebrated his coming of age on 19th July 1880 by laying a 16 inch by 20 inch foundation stone for The Assembly Rooms, a new public hall, sited at the eastern end of The Village in Charlton. A dinner in celebration was held at Charlton House, followed by various sporting events held in the park.
John Rowland, architect and resident in the Parish, designed The Assembly Rooms, which were built from Sussex red bricks with a slate roof, by William Tamsett who resided in The Village. The building was formally opened by Dowager Lady Wilson on Tuesday, 26th April 1881, by cutting a ribbon tied to the porch doors. Afterward, in celebration, a formal concert took place. At that time, Sir Spencer stated that all profits accruing from The Assembly Rooms were to be devoted to local charitable purposes and the Rector of St Luke’s Church would be responsible for the lettings. The hall, at that time, had a seating capacity of 300 people, but due to present day safety requirements, this has now been reduced to 200. There was a wide stage in the main hall with two smaller rooms at the rear of building, with a kitchen and usual offices behind the stage. It was lit and heated by gas. Electric lighting was installed during the early 1930s. The building was leased at that time to St Luke’s Church for annual rental of £12.
Since the opening of The Assembly Rooms, the building have been in constant use by a variety of organisations. In August 1935 it was used for London’s largest radio show. During the Second World War, in December 1940, the Rooms were leased by Siemens on war contracts. The company fitted combustion stoves, increased the power cables and constructed air-raid shelters at the rear. For a short time, some electrical wiring assembly work was carried out, but due to severe roof damage during the “blitz”, production ceased. Also, a lot of damage was done to The Assembly Rooms when a land mine detonated in the park behind Charlton House, forcing Siemens to end their occupancy.
Viscountess Gough, daughter of Sir Spencer Maryon Wilson, 11th Baronet, presented St Luke’s Church with The Assembly Rooms in 1946, for a peppercorn rent. The Church used it mainly as its church hall. Various organisations, such as The Guides and The Scouts, St Luke’s Players, The Ambassadors Youth Club all had their meetings in the Rooms, some of which were interrupted when restoration and redecoration took place. The floorboards in the main hall were removed and replaced with the present day parquet flooring. The stage was enlarged, extending over the space of the old kitchen. The kitchen was re-sited in the rear rooms. The toilet facilities improved. The cost of the renovations exceeded £4,500, most of which came from grants from the South London Church Fund, the City Parochial Charities Fund and the War Damage Commission. It was eventually re-opened in October 1954 for the Festival of St Luke’s by the Rector, The Revd Harold Gatehouse Bear.
All of the groups returned to using The Assembly Rooms. A daily luncheon club was opened for the elderly. They were used for wedding receptions, shows and pantomimes. However, St Luke’s Church was struggling with the cost of the upkeep of the building and it was beginning to fall in disrepair. It needed a new roof, attention to the windows, among other things. Eventually, in 1971, the Church returned the building to Viscountess Gough, who, in turn, sold it to Greenwich Borough Council. However, the Council were unable to maintain the building and by 1972 it was boarded up ready for demolition and the land to be used as an extension to the existing car park. (The building and land on the east side of the building had already been purchased by the Council in 1966, under a compulsory order, and cleared for use as a public car park).
In 1971, St Luke’s Players, lead by Gwen Zammit and Laurie Cole, part of St Luke’s Church, had desperately fought, both with the church and latterly the Council, to keep the Rooms open for their productions. Eventually they joined local residents and the Charlton Society with an aim to taking on the formidable task of restoring the building. Other groups joined them, including the organisers of the daily luncheon club, St Luke’s Parochial Council and youth organisations. As a result, in 1973, SCARP was formed. (Save Charlton Assembly Rooms Project) with the slogan (following Sir Spencer’s intention: “To be Saved for the Benefit of the Whole Community”)
SCARP took over the daily running of the building at a peppercorn rent, with a legally binding agreement drawn up with Greenwich Council to hand back the building as and when it was completely restored. Various grants were obtained as a result of European Architectural Heritage Year followed by the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.
Eventually a schedule of works was drawn up and an estimated sum of £80,000 would be needed to carry them out.
Most of the Phase One restoration work involved making the building fit for use by installing a disabled toilet and renewing the existing facilities. It was at this time that Mr Laurie Cole, the Founder Chairman, died suddenly, giving the Committee a great shock. Mrs Gwen Zammit, the new Chairman, would be responsible for the final works of the Project. As the leader of St Luke’s Players, she had been with the Project since its outset.
Finally, in 1983, Mrs Gwen Zammit, acting on behalf of the SCARP Committee, handed back The Assembly Rooms to the Greenwich Council. A party was held for all those who had participated in the Project and a plaque unveiled by Mrs Marjorie Cole, the wife of the Founder Chairman, in commemoration of “Save Charlton Assembly Rooms”. The Rooms had been completely restored at a cost of £83,000, apart from the brickwork on the west side of the building which needed attention. The bricks had been purchased by SCARP and stored in Charlton House. Greenwich Council had promised to see this work completed.
At this time, another agreement was drawn up with the London Borough of Greenwich to ensure that they continued to keep the building to the standard in which it was handed over by SCARP for a period of 28 years. Eventually, with the full knowledge of Greenwich Council, SCARP became a registered charity and, therefore, had to redeem its “Limited Company” status. The Assembly Rooms are used practically every day of the week by youth groups, organisations, weddings etc. St Luke’s Players have returned to performing their pantomimes there.
Three years’ ago, The Assembly Rooms became part of the care administered by Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust as part of Charlton House. To this day, The Assembly Rooms cannot be used by anyone to make money for their own personal gain – it must be charitable.