Crooms Hill resident and Greenwich Historical Society member Allan Watkins has sent this open letter to the new leader of Greenwich Council, Danny Thorpe, suggesting a new use for the Borough Halls in Greenwich…
To Danny Thorpe, Council Leader, Royal Borough of Greenwich,
THE BOROUGH HALLS AND A GREENWICH TOWN MUSEUM
I write to ask you consider a single possible solution to two issues over which you have control and responsibility, namely the Borough Halls in Greenwich, and the Greenwich Heritage Centre in The Royal Arsenal, Woolwich.
The Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich commissioned and built a brand new modernist Town Hall with attached Borough Halls in 1939. Designed by 29-year old Clifford Culpin in a cutting-edge style, it was influenced by Dudok’s Hilversum Town Hall in the Netherlands, and was considered a masterpiece. Nicholas Pevsner in The Buildings of England, London,1951, declared it “ the only town hall of any London Borough to represent the style of our time adequately”. It has Grade II* listing, recognised as in the top 8.3% architectural importance of buildings in the country.
Since 1965, when the Metropolitan Boroughs of Greenwich and Woolwich were amalgamated into The Royal Borough of Greenwich, the main council offices were established in Woolwich, eventually leaving the building without its original purpose. The Borough Halls part is now empty, and although there was news recently of a plan to relocate the Greenwich Theatre there, it was occupied until recently by a dance agency, and subsequently squatters. Its future seems uncertain.
Greenwich doesn’t have a town museum. Although it enjoys more magnificent historic buildings than most other London boroughs, and the very fine Royal Museums, it lacks something equally important, a museum of Greenwich town itself, – a people’s history of the area. The history of Greenwich town is the exemplar for the development of the entire Royal Borough of Greenwich. It should be central to the understanding of the history of the borough, including Charlton, Eltham, Kidbrooke, Plumstead and Woolwich.
The Tourist Information Centre does its job, and would not be expected to cover what I am proposing here. It is housed inside the Greenwich Hospital’s Discover Greenwich, which makes an interesting introduction to that organisation’s history, but again cannot tell the whole story. The exhibitions at The Royal Greenwich Heritage Centre in Woolwich cover Woolwich, but not Greenwich.
The Borough Halls could house a permanent display, utilising the Council’s amazing collection of paintings, prints and artefacts, emphasising the people’s history, the industrial and technological developments, and give an interpretation of the Greenwich people and the town, from prehistory to the present day. It would also include children’s and educational facilities, an eventing space, perhaps a performance space for lectures, music, and film screenings, as well as a cafe, bookshop, and children and visitor facilities. Possibly the rooftop could be developed as a summer space. What is also being proposed here is that the main collection of archives and artefacts be re-located to Greenwich into a new centre of the Royal Greenwich Heritage Centre, located in the Borough Halls, additional to the museum, the exhibition space, and the income-generating facilities.
The new museum and heritage centre would support the work of local history initiatives in the other areas of the Borough. This would benefit all, not least the Council itself, who would be seen to be preserving and promoting this extraordinary heritage, explaining the history of the town, and its place in the story of the whole Borough, as well as in the larger story of England and the world. The Royal Borough Council would also be seen to be giving new life to its magnificent 1939 commission, and conserving it. No doubt architects with known authority on mid 20th Century building would be engaged for the conversion.
The advantages of having a Greenwich Town Museum and Heritage Centre in Greenwich itself will be many. The visitor footfall would be higher than at present. I would point out to rapidly increasing numbers of visitors to the town over the past ten years, and would suggest that the Borough Halls, could have a useful and financially viable future as such a museum. The building is large enough to make a splendid display of the town’s story, reflecting the fascinating events and historical characters who have made up the borough’s history, something which will interest residents, students, and tourists alike. The proposed location is well positioned on the route from Greenwich railway and DLR station to the town, and would act as an intermediary stop for visitors, filling in what is a slightly blank spot in terms of visitor attractions.
We must continue to cherish the old Borough Hall, give it a useful future preserving its architectural value, and at the same time commit ourselves to the general preservation and dissemination of our local history heritage. The Greenwich Historical Society and The Greenwich Industrial History Society are already in agreement with this suggestion, and doubtless there will be much further support from other groups and individuals.