Until 1928 the HQ of the Labour and Trades Union movement in Bridgwater was the Dockers Hall (Modern day Purnells the printers) 29 Friarn Street- the base of the Dockers Union (The Dock, Wharf, Riverside & General Labourers Union 1889-1922) which later went on to become the T&GWU (1922-2007) – now UNITE.
Although the Labour Party was formed in 1900 and stood candidates for elections, including Bridgwater, it wasn’t until May 17th 1917 that an individual membership based Bridgwater Labour Party was formed. This was in the Dockers Hall which it shared with the Dockers Union, the Labour church, the ILP, and the Trades Council. The building consisted of a large and small hall plus offices but with the growth of the Labour movement was becoming too small for all these activities
In November 1924 Jimmy Young from the NUR proposed that Bridgwater Trade Unions who were affiliated to the TUC should have a HQ of their own and should share this with the Labour Party.
In March 1925-the newly formed T&GWU took over financing the project and set up a building fund for a project known as ‘Labour Hall‘ and set about looking for properties
Unity House is Born
In 1928 no.5 Dampiet Street (until then the ‘Old Vicarage’ for St Mary’s Church) was bought as a permanent home for the ‘Labour Movement’ in Bridgwater. The key mover was Walter King an early Labour councillor from 1913 and who died 1956. A plaque on the wall of the staircase of Unity House is dedicated to him. The original minutes from 1928 show that the Labour Party and the Trades Union Council set up a Joint Committee to acquire and run the premises and appointed 6 ‘Trustees’ (3 Labour and 3 Trades Council). This meeting took place in the Old Vicarage which was thereafter named Unity House.
Unity House was run in these early days by a series of committees – Construction, Funding and Social. The Chair and Secretary of each committee formed a Management Committee with the Trustees. The first meeting was on 13.12.1928 and to commemorate the event Labour Councillor Harry Goodman gave the Chairman (Cllr Bill Norman) a ‘gold sovereign’ as the first donation.
30 JUNE 1928 Conveyance from Rev Rbt SBS Berry, Rev Basil Wynn, Douglas McG B Hailsham, Rev Randall Thomas to James M Boltz, Walter J King, Samuel Stone, Wlm R Norman, John B Reeve, Sidney A Bennett
2 JULY 1928 Mortgage to B’Water and West of England Building Society Mortgage to William Henry Palmer
22 March 1929 Mortgage to Alfred John Whitby
28 August 1933 Mortgage to B’water and West of England Building Society
Unity House was thereafter the base for not just the Labour Party but the Labour Movement and membership grew in strength during the 1930s and 40’s with political action such as May Day rallies and election campaigns alongside social events ranging from billiards, skittles and dances although throughout this time .However, after the Labour landslide of 1945 -which saw the party make gains in Taunton and Frome, the Party re-found its feet in Bridgwater.
1950s + 60s : The Red Borough Days
In 1950 the Labour Party introduced a full time agent Fred Phillips (a Czechoslovakian Socialist who had been active in the anti-Fascist movement) to the town with an office based in Unity House. The fortunes of the party turned around immediately with the Labour vote jumping to 16,000 then 19,000 replacing the Liberals in second place and during the 1950’s taking control of the Borough council with a massive Labour majority and maintaining this until it was abolished in 1974 to make way for Sedgemoor District Council.
Throughout this period Unity House was the hub of Labour Party activity and was also the meeting place of choice for many Trades Unions. The Walter King Hall was used for functions including not just party events, meetings and campaigning but dog training.
12 July 1956 declaration by Sidney Albert Bennett
29 March 1957 app new trustees John Cooper, Raymond James Gunter and Morgan Walter Phillips
28 Sept 1962 appointment of RJ Gunter,John Cooper and another. Herbert Richard Nicholas and Arthur Leonard Williams
12 May 1965 appointment of Raymond James Gunter and another, Herbet Richard Nicholas and David Henry Davies
1968 appointment of Andrew Cunningham, Herbert Richard Nicholas and Leonard James Callaghan
In 1962 the Labour Party had 5,559 members of which 1,272 were individual members and the rest affiliate members from Trades Unions and branches in Alcombe, Bridgwater ,Carhampton, Highbridge, Kilve, North Petherton, Puriton, Roadwater, Watchet, Weston Zoyland, Williton and Woolavington.
Throughout this whole period Unity House was crucial to the Labour Party operation and the party locally ran it, repaired it, refitted it and on occasion asked the National Party for extra funds for major repairs. Fred Phillips noted in 1965 “..the local party has spent over £1,000 on improvements and repairs since 1958” and that “Unity House is a tremendous asset to the Party. Every day people visit and make enquiries about Labour.”.
In 1967 the Party sold some previously adjoining cottages to the Borough Council and were able to install a new ground floor kitchen and the toilet on the first/second floor landing plus some works to upgrade Fred’s first floor office.
13 Nov 1968 Conveyance from Andrew Cunningham, Herbert Richard Nicholas and leonard James Callaghan to the Mayor etc Bridgwater of 3 Dampiet street and land to side and rear.Purchaser to erect 8 feet high superlap fence on concrete base between purchased land and remaining Unity House and rear garden.
The 1970’s: Facing the Sedgemoor Abyss
In 1969 the writing was on the wall for the Red Borough as Government proposals coming forward in the Redcliffe-Maud Report proposed submerging such Boroughs into wider Districts. Fred could see the dangers for Labour control of Bridgwater in this and produced a major essay ‘Bridgwater v Maud’ which made the case for keeping the Borough Council saying “the last bright light, the only shining red ruby in a cruel Tory blue sea in the south west would be extinguished”
In 1972 Unity House was for a while a hostel for striking miners . On Saturdays the very active ‘Young Socialists’ ran coffee mornings and produced a newspaper ‘Whats on Then’ . Unity House was fully booked and demand for rooms was high. In the final Borough elections Labour had 19 seats out of 24.
As the 1970s went on and Fred knew his time was limited with his impending retirement, he constantly drew people’s attention to the need to plan for the running of Unity House afterwards. Volunteers started a lunch club and this brought in lots of new people, a pop group hired the hall regularly for rehearsals, a dance group hired out the first floor studio. In 1976 Fred confidently announced that a surplus had finally wiped out the accumulating debt.
8 Jan 1975 agreement between Dorothy Patricia East Astell-Burt and Judith Rae East Cheek and Labour Party Nominees Limited (LPN) about use and maintenance of a soil drainage pipe
In 1975 Labour Party Nominees Limited (LPN) was appointed New Trustee to act in place of three individuals who had retired
Fred retired as agent on 31 august 1977. Carol Cowlin assumed the role of caretaker and bookings officer, while T&GWU’s Barry Leathwood, who had an office in situ, became financial secretary. Unity House was paying its way and the NEC had accepted an annual rent of £175 since 1958.
The 1980’s: A good old fashioned Labour Club
During the 1980s Unity House maintained a Party office and hired out rooms including for several years room 5 to the Sheep Worrying organisation, and downstairs a socialist book shop (Unity Books) and a second hand record shop (Good Value Records-now West Quay Records) and eventually in 1987 realised the long held ambition to open a social club in the Walter King Hall. The Labour Club had its own club membership and brought 100’s of new people into the building while the Labour Party ‘Premises committee’ maintained responsibility for the building as a whole with the NEC accepting responsibility for insuring the building.
The Labour Club was initially financed with a deal by Bass brewery and profits were allocated 30% to the CLP 30% to the Premises committee and 40% to the club
By the turn of the century Unity House was still a base for the Party, the Unions and other campaigning groups from the Somerset Community Defence Campaign to the Trades Council to Bridgwater Forward and the Labour Club itself was a popular venue not just for cheap drinking but for regular well attended rock concerts and other political and social functions.
in 1997 a lease was drafted between LPN and Bridgwater CLP. The Constituency were not happy with some of the terms of that lease and there was a suggestion the CLP should only pay a peppercorn rent. No rent was paid yet the CLP retained the benefit of use and the income derived from the lettings.
10 April 2002 charge on the property in favour of Co-op Bank PLC
29 Jan 2003 Title filed with Land registry. Owners-Labour Party Properties Limited. Valuation £200,000. Any disposition must be authorised by the LP-NEC
26 June 2007 any disposition must be authorised by the Co-op bank PLC (ref charge on the property dated 10 April 2002
Closure of the ‘Unity Club’
In 2011 new tenants took over the club and the running of the building became a source of tension. In May 2011 conflict between some of the new users of the bar and a Trades Council May Day event led to the Trades Council withdrawing from the building altogether and moving to the Railway Club where it still meets. Party members largely stopped using the bar and by 2014 the Premises Committee decided to hand the running of the building to Labour Party Properties in London in return for alternative premises.
On 28 May 2014 contact with Labour Party surveyors established that “The book value is £160,000.But we anticipate there may be greater value with alternative use”.
In Aug 2014 The Premises Ctte decided to recommend to the GMC to get rid of the building “.as it is becoming more difficult to keep it repaired and to update the fire system.”As a result, long-standing tenants in the Dance School and the Scout & Guide Shop were compelled to seek alternative premises.
Clive Herrington, the National Labour Party Building Surveyor, then asked for a resolution of the local Parties intentions and confirmed that once he received a resolution wishing to vacate the premises, he would thereafter be responsible for the rent collection and running of the building. Clive Herrington FRICS,Consultant Surveyor,Labour Party Properties Ltd,Southside, 105 Victoria Street,London SW1E 6QT,T: 020 7783 1468 firstname.lastname@example.org
On 29 Oct 2014 -a special meeting of GMC Exec, entitled Future of Unity House – Motion to the National Labour Party stated: Following discussion at previous GMC and Premises Committee meetings, this meeting had been called to formally agree a resolution regarding the future of Unity House. ‘That Bridgwater and West Somerset Constituency Labour Party will vacate Unity House with the utmost expediency on the basis that the transfer to the national Party shall be free of any claims for dilapidations and all other costs and expenses against Bridgwater and West Somerset Constituency Labour Party’. This was unanimously agreed by those present. It was further agreed that endeavours would be made to obtain a financial contribution from the National Labour Party to assist with the CLP’s future expenditures.It was agreed that the Premises Committee should remain in existence to deal with the handover of the building.
17 Jan 2016 The Clubs tenants finally handed in the keys leaving unpaid arrears. A burglary shortly afterwards saw considerable damage to doors and fittings but nothing stolen, as there was nothing of value left in the building.
In February 2016 property consultants visited the building on behalf of the National Party. Jones Shackel Oldham, www.jsoprop.com identified ‘residential ’ as the likely best outcome for the building.
From January 2016 to the present day Unity House has remained the base for the Labour Party in Bridgwater being used as an office, storage space and for elections.
Through the winter of 2016-17 Labour had a large increase in new members and many became involved in redecorating the place.
There is a socialist library and an office on the ground floor. The rest of the building is unused. The Walter King Hall has been locked since the departure of the Club tenants.
The GMC has already agreed to vacate the premises and so the result of this decision at the moment is the potential loss of a base and that could mean no longer having a physical Labour presence in the town. Not having a base could be seen as a disaster in a Labour run town with a newly growing party.
The decision is now in the hands of the Labour Party nationally. Currently they have put a planning application in to Sedgemoor for 6 flats and no space for any Labour presence.
The former Premises committee is redundant as there are no premises for it to run.
However, both Bridgwater Branch and Bridgwater and West Somerset CLP have instructed a NEW Premises Ctte to look at future options and to continue negotiations with Labour Party Properties and the NEC for an income stream or a capital sum and to consider options for future meetings.
Report of the Premises committee GMC/Branch Premises Ctte 27.7.2017
Mick Lerry had been delegated by both Branch and CLP to lead the investigation into the legal position of Unity House and a Premises ctte (Mick Lerry,Brian Smedley,Tony Heywood) was formed to look at the broader issue of ‘a home for Labour in Bridgwater’
5 May;- Mick wrote to Clive Herrington of Labour Party properties asking about the possibility of BCLP getting a future income stream from proceeds of unity house
10 May:- Clive replied outlining 2 options
i)If UH was converted to flats (as it has planning permission for) and is rented out and an income generated, then an element of that COULD be made available to BCLP.
ii)If UH was sold then the capital receipt generated COULD go to an appropriate recipient which COULD include BCLP.
The key factor in both of these will depend on an ongoing investigation into IF the property was being held in trust for BCLP thus demonstrating ‘Historic equity’. However this is not a short term solution but a long term project.
Things Come to a Head
At GMC meeting of 26 July 2017 Mick Lerry was asked to urgently investigate the public access & Fire regs situation in the light of the public events planned for Friday 28 + Saturday 29 July (as part of the Quayside Festival) and the premises ctte were asked to convene urgently to look at this.
26 July:- Following the GMC meeting Mick informed Clive of a public event planned for 29 July (Quayside festival arts installation & Socialist art exhibition) and raised the issue of public liability and fire cover. Clive confirmed that the party could use UH but solely for “elections and office use” and said his insurance was “ only 3rd party” and that “labour use should be confined to the ground floor”. In this mail Clive asked for “an urgent explanation of the nature of the event and who is running it”
On the morning of 27 July ,based on the response from Clive, Mick Lerry advised as follows-“…. the events taking place at Unity House should not go forward on the weekend. The agreed terms of the continual use of Unity House apply to an office and for elections on the ground floor. In order to make sure that the GMC does not subject the Labour party to any consequential liabilities, the building should only be used as outlined by Clive in his email. Further Labour party meetings should should take place in another venue, where there are the appropriate safeguards in terms of Fire Regulations and Insurance. “
Mick added “This matter relating to Fire Regulations and Public Liability Insurance was only brought to my attention yesterday and I reported this to the inquorate GMC last night. I know that this will cause some rearrangements or cancellation of activities, but as a member of the GMC I recommend that we follow Clive’s instructions.”
Secretary’s Action;- Secretary of the CLP (Brian Smedley) therefore urgently asked for a Premises ctte meeting which met at short notice to discuss these issues and to make urgent recommendations to put at once to the CLP and Branch executives.
Recommendations from Unity House Premises Committee 27.7.2017 (1230pm)
- BCLP could not knowingly allow members or members of the public to use Unity House for public or member meetings or events in the knowledge that we did not comply with fire regulations. All scheduled meetings for Unity House must now be relocate
- Unity House could continue to be used only for storage and basic office use and then only the ground floor area which we would restrict to the 2 front rooms where all party effects should now be stored.
- The Socialist Art event (29th July) would be cancelled and organisers requested to remove the exhibition as soon as possible. ACTION; BS informed Hadrian Speight at 1430 same day.
- The Quayside installation (29th July) was to be relocated. ACTION:BS arranged a deal with the Town Council to relocate this to the Charter Hall and informed Quayside organiser Sally Mann at 1500 same day. She was supportive.
- Long term ;- ML was asked to continue negotiations with LPP regarding a future income stream from the building and to continue to make the case for ‘Historic Equity’. At such future date the Party could consider a) the purchase or renting of a permanent Labour base -maybe a café, bookshop, office, meeting room b) to continue with just a series of ad hoc meetings without a base
- Short Term;- BS was asked to draw up a programme of alternative meeting places ..this was subsequently withdrawn when rejected by Bridgwater Branch
Saturday 29th July;- Mr & Mrs Jordan (owners of neighbouring properties) asked to be shown around the building and during the process informed us that a deal had been completed with Andrew Sheckel. Brian as secretary wrote same day to Shackel asking for confirmation and next steps. It was confirmed that a deal was in place – however within a week this deal had fallen through and a subsequent reply from Clive clarified that Unity House COULD be used for meetings on the ground floor only.
Current position ;-Regarding Unity House we have recognised the inevitable loss of the place and so our key interest in that respect is the onward settlement which is crucial for our ability to operate as a Party with a party base in the town (which we control politically) – ie either 1) an income stream from a letting arrangement or 2) a lump sum from a sale or 3)an arrangement to continue using part of the building for party purposes.
However, the new circumstances were put to the GMC exec of 7.8.2017 in order to offer the interim solution of temporary meetings in Unity House until an ultimate solution was found.
GMC EXEC 7.8.2017
The exec met but supported the Premises ctte original proposals to close Unity House and ask Branches of the Labour Party to seek and fund meetings elsewhere.