In autumn 2021, many of our Radicals contributors joined the celebration events for the delayed and much-anticipated launch of the Selina Cooper project at Nelson’s Unity Hall. Selina at the Unity has now been featured in the North West History Journal. Kevin Webb, one of the prime movers behind this lovely project, gave us this recap on how it all came about.
In the spring of 2018 the Unity Hall in Nelson, Lancashire was reopened as a resource for the local community after Nelson Town Council purchased the building and secured funding for its renovation. The hall was for many years the headquarters of the local Independent Labour Party (ILP) and local suffragist , Selina Cooper, was one of the two women who laid the foundation stones in July 1907.
At around the same time as the hall was reopening a set of display boards celebrating the life of Selina Cooper, who had lived most of her life locally, were discovered in the archive at Nelson Library.
The two brothers who discovered the Selina Cooper material, Kevin and Gary Webb, had visited the newly reopened hall and had seen that it had plenty of empty wall space and decided that the material was wasted languishing in the archive and an ideal location for it would be the walls of the Unity Hall.
Fast forward eighteen months to the autumn of 2019 and the news came through that, at the third attempt the National Lottery Heritage application that the brothers had submitted through Nelson Council had been successful and that £50,000 of funding had been awarded.
Kevin Webb who wrote the funding application said :
The history of the rich and powerful is usually well documented, whilst the history and achievements of working people is forgotten and uncelebrated. One of the things we wanted to achieve was to make sure that this particular piece of working class history was not forgotten and that the achievements of Selina Cooper, and the history of the Unity Hall and what it meant to local people, were commemorated in an appropriate way.
Since then the project, aided by the project facilitator, Charlotte Bill, who was appointed in the summer of 2020, has worked to achieve the projects objectives.
They have installed, in the Selina Cooper room, four replica stained glass ILP windows, these replace the original windows which were removed when the hall suffered a period of deterioration.
One full wall of the Revive café, which is located on the ground floor of the hall, is now home to a mural depicting the key events in the history of the Unity Hall from its inception to the present day.
Just outside the Revive café on either side of the main ground floor corridor you can find eight display boards. Four of these illustrate the story of Conscientious Objection in North East Lancashire during the first world war, with more CO’s coming from Nelson than nearly any other town in the country, a fact not unrelated to the ILP’s opposition to the war. The other four panels are devoted to the Women’s Peace Crusade of 1916 to 1918 , which although a national movement was particularly active in Nelson.
Just off this corridor is the Reading Room which is a reconstruction of the Library that the founders of the building created over one hundred years ago. This room is open to the public and contains some of the original furniture and a large collection of socialist books.
The project has also publicised the history and heritage connected to Selina and the Unity Hall by creating a webpage devoted to the project which can be found on the Nelson Town Council website.
Five thousand copies of a brochure advertising the Unity Hall and the project were also produced and were distributed before the delayed project launch event which took place on Saturday 26 June 2021.
A booklet which tells, in detail, the history of the hall has been created. Sections of the booklet have been written by a local historian whose grandfather was a founding member of the Nelson ILP and another section by a group of students from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) as part of their degree studies.
Four mobile displays have been created relating to the Clarion movement. The first of the four banners concentrates on the Clarion newspaper and the cultural influence it had on its readers. Another banner relates to the Clarion vans and Julia Dawson, a third to Clarion clubhouses (the last remaining clubhouse being our own local Clarion House at Newchurch-in-Pendle, near Nelson), and a fourth banner to the history of the Clarion cycling clubs. These could be seen recently at our co-commission for the British Textile Biennial at Helmshore Textile Mills Museum in October 2021. They complemented the artist James Fox’s work beautifully and we were very grateful for the loan.
Charlotte Bill, the project facilitator, has conducted sessions with students from both Nelson & Colne and Burnley further education colleges which have proved very successful with great feedback from students. Charlotte said:
I have really enjoyed learning about the people who created this amazing building, visionaries, internationalists, feminists, socialists, they believed the people who created the wealth of the nation should have a say in how that wealth is spent and that everyone should be represented in Parliament. This building is a wonderful legacy for Nelson’s community, with its Reading room, Archive and Revive café, ready to welcome everyone in, just as the founders intended in 1907.
The Unity Hall was closed for much of 2020 due to the Covid lockdowns, but gradually reopened as the restrictions eased. It was fully accessible from June 2021 (please check latest guidelines before planning a visit).
The project group and Nelson Town Council hope that people from far and wide will visit the hall, enjoy the displays, utilise the Reading Room and visit the Revive café. The Clarion clubhouse at Newchurch, which is run by a group of volunteers, is only a couple of miles away, and is open on Sundays throughout most of the year and is also well worth a visit.
None of this would have been possible without the support of the National Lottery Heritage fund. The project team and Nelson Town Council are extremely grateful to NLHF for allowing them to bring these stories to the attention of a new generation in Nelson and beyond.
Visit the Clarion House website