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Reading University should abandon plans to demolish hall used in WWI

The University of Reading should mark Remembrance Day by abandoning plans to demolish a hall of residence which housed Royal Air Corps cadets during the First World War.

Photo: David Owen, Liscence: Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported

The Victorian Society is urging the University of Reading to mark Remembrance Day by abandoning plans to demolish a hall of residence which housed Royal Air Corps cadets during the First World War. The Society believes that the 1913 building should instead be incorporated into redevelopment plans. The proposed demolition of St Patrick’s Hall is especially poignant at the centenary of the 1915 establishment of the ‘No 1 School of Military Aeronautics’ in the university’s buildings.

During the First World War St Patrick’s hall was used by the Royal Flying Corps, the RAF’s precursor, to house cadets at the No 1 School of Aeronautics. The experiences of the pilot who created Biggles, William Earl Johns, at the No 1 School of Aeronautics are thought to have inspired the book ‘Biggles learns to fly’. Nearly 100 years later, just before Remembrance Day and with a consultation of only a week, the University of Reading announced plans to demolish the historic building. A decision to destroy one of the country’s earliest examples of a hall of residence designed around single-study bedrooms and common rooms will do little to enhance the reputation of the University’s new School of Architecture.

Alex Bowring, Victorian Society Conservation Adviser, said: ‘Students from all over the world are attracted to Reading by its heritage and historic buildings. St Patrick’s was designed by C.Smith & Son - the same architect as the university’s listed Great Hall and Wantage Hall. However, unlike these buildings St Pat’s has not received the same recognition as a key part of the University’s early development. The important role it played in the First World War has also been largely forgotten. The University has in recent years demolished many buildings. This hall, which predates the establishment of Reading as a separate university in 1926, must be kept as an integral part of any redevelopment.’

Founded in 1908 by R. L. Pearson as a private hostel, St Patrick’s was rebuilt by the University in 1913 in a neo Georgian style. The Pevsner architectural guide notes that ‘Reading was conceived from the start as a residential university and it was hoped that each hall would have its own life and character like the colleges of its parent university at Oxford’. St Patricks was the first men’s hall, it architects, C. Smith & Son, also designed the Grade II listed Wantage Hall and much of the listed London Road Campus including the listed Great Hall. Smith Senior was an important Reading man - twice mayor and his son was the first president of the Reading Society of Architects. Historic England notes that Reading halls of residence ‘led the way’. The ‘practice pioneered there of single-study bedrooms, with a dining hall, common rooms and… tutors offering pastoral care… became a general model’. St Patrick’s was even pioneering enough even to have a lift - it deserves better than demolition.

The former President of St Patrick's and the former President of Reading Students' Union have now started a petition against the plans which can be signed here.

Notes to editors:

Painting of St Patrick’s founder:

Pictures of the Hall in the early 20th Century:

Extracts from letters from Royal Flying Corp:

Royal Flying Corps, St. Patrick’s Hall, Reading. 13th March 1917 The messing and quarters are A1 - quite different to Berkhamsted. I have still boards to sleep on but our bed is made each morning for us and our boots cleaned so you will see we have no cleaning to do. We are treated as gentlemen in everything now - called Mr. and Sir. At this hall besides we I. of Court there are still about the same number of “Artists’ Rifles”. It is going to be very hard work - nearly all studying. I understand we have a month’s course here in which we get some knowledge of engines, signalling, bombs, observation, map reading, machine gun and all about the different machines so you can see I will have all my time occupied. We may only remain at this hall for this week. pg 25

Monday evening, 14 May. I start work to-morrow morning, just the same course as before. No one is billeted out now as last time and we are all at one central place called St. Patrick's Hall. My original three friends are still here and I am to share my room with F. W. Memory of the Daily Mail, a very nice fellow. There is a high wooden partition dividing the room into two so I shall be more or less private and it makes all the difference being with someone I know.

St. Patrick's Hall is a new brick building looking on to a courtyard of green grass. In ordinary times it is a hostel of Reading University. One great thing about being up here is that morning parade is just outside and one is certain not to be late ! There is a lovely view over rolling fields and no houses are to be seen. We are on the edge of the town.

Wednesday 11 November, 2015

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