The Oddfellows celebrated their 200th anniversary in 2010, having been established as the Manchester Unity of Odd Fellows in 1810. As one of the so-called “friendly societies”, they trace their heritage back to the medieval Trade Guilds and provided services which we would probably associate with the modern-day Welfare State. By paying a small amount of their wages to the society, members and their families could get protection against the financial hardships caused by illness, injury or death.
Along with other friendly societies such as the Ancient Order of Foresters (formed 1834 in Rochdale), the Loyal Order of Ancient Shepherds (formed 1826 in Ashton-under-Lyne) and the Ancient Order of Druids (formed 1781 in London), they provided vital services to the working classes. However, during the turbulent years of the 1800s, these societies were often regarded with deep suspicion by the ruling classes. Most of these societies still exist, although with more modern names, and reminders of how important they were to local communities sometimes live on pub names such as the “Forresters’ Arms”.
The Meltham “Loyal New Year’s Lodge (No. 230) of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows Manchester Unity”, to give them their full name, were reportedly formed in 1827 at Holt Head. By 1850, their President was William Leigh Brook (1809-1855) of Meltham Hall.
One of the ways in which the Oddfellows invested their money was in the building of rentable houses and meeting halls. In Meltham and Netherton are surviving local examples which combined both functions in a single building, although the one in Netherton had to be moved to a different location after its foundations gave way part way through the construction!
The Odd Fellows’ Hall in Meltham combines a row of two-storey terraced houses with a third storey meeting hall spanning across the top of them. A later extension and entrance is situated at the right-hand side.
If we try our best to ignore the later extension, we have a rather plain and functional building. This is perhaps because the designer wasn’t a noted architect but rather a local Oddfellow and optician, George Creaser. There’s no obvious evidence that he designed any other buildings in the area but, as an optician, he was a renowned builder of telescopes and we know that they could be found in most of the local astronomical observatories.
The foundation stone of the hall was laid on the afternoon of Monday 21st April 1851 by William Leigh Brook and John Pogson of Meltham then oversaw the construction which cost a reported £1,200. It seems that meetings were being held in the hall by January 1852, despite construction work not being completed until February or March. The building was formally opened on Monday 12th April 1852.
At the time, this was probably the only sizeable hall in Meltham and the Oddfellows would have generated income by renting it out for meetings, presentations and concerts. It wasn’t until 40 years later that the opening of the Carlile Institute provide another large venue for events.
We can perhaps get a feel for George Creaser’s relative inexperience in designing buildings by the fact that the hall could only be reached by a “narrow winding staircase”. The Huddersfield Chronicle even went as far as to state that the building “might have been specially designed for the slaughter of many of the audience in case of fire of panic arising when the hall is crowded”! If that wasn’t enough, to help deaden the sound of people moving about in the hall from the residents below, the cavity space below the floorboards had been packed “cart loads” of flammable saw-dust.
It seems likely the concerns about being unable to safely evacuate the hall and the need to compete with the newly-opened Carlile Institute led to extension being added in 1894. Designed by the noted Huddersfield firm of architects John Kirk & Sons, who were also responsible for Meltham Mills Convalescence Home and the Church of St. Mary the Virgin at Wilshaw, the three foundation stones came from a quarry at Netherton and were laid on 2nd June 1894 by William Wrigley of Bent House, Captain Edward H. Carlile of Helme Hall, and the Grand Master of the Oddfellows, Mr. C.F. Claverhouse Graham of Burton-on-Trent.
The extension was formally opened the following March and it added a stone staircase, a ground floor kitchen, rest-rooms and toilets to the existing Hall.