Sunday, 16 February 2014

Spotlight on: Unity House

Spotlight on: Unity House
Unity House, Fennel Street

You may have read in the local newspaper, or seen on facebook, that Unity House had an open morning this weekend. As I can’t resist a bit of local history, I popped in for a chat and a cuppa!

I no longer have a direct connection with the building, but the one I did have was fairly recent: A couple of years ago my children used to go to dancing lessons in the building, run by Mrs Janine Clarke. Lessons used to be in the St John’s Ambulance Station building on Packe Street, but having outgrown this, the dancing school moved to Unity House, before moving to its current premises on Limehurst Avenue.

Architect's drawing

Anyway, if you don’t know it, Unity House is on Fennel Street, previously a moderately busy road, which has now become the inner relief road. The building itself was built in about 1889, the architect being W. T. Hampton*. It was originally used for meetings by the Friendly societies, who provided financial, social and medical support to people, before the existence of the Welfare State. The medical support was rather important and there was a surgery at the back of the building and a pharmacy at the front. The Friendly societies held their meetings in the upstairs rooms and funded the services of a doctor and bought medicines for distribution to those who would otherwise have been unable to afford the costs.

The early building
Unity House then became the headquarters for the local labour party, being bought by Mont Follick in 1945 to act as the labour party Loughborough HQ. More recently Andy Reed was based here when he was a member of parliament, and some of the building has been leased out since then, including being a licensed club and a booksellers. It is still the Loughborough labour party HQ, but has space to let out to community groups.

The promise of a chat, a cuppa and a chance to look at some old documents meant that I had just had to go along and take a look.

On entering the building, I noticed the short corridor was filled with portraits and pictures of people who had had associations with the building. [I would put a photo here but they came out blurred!] These included:

John Desmond Cronin, MP for Loughborough 1955-1979. He visited Russia in 1962 and met with Kruschev. Apparently, during his meeting with Cronin, Kruschev took a telephone call from the Russian cosmonauts who had just landed back on earth.  

Dr Mont Follick, MP for Loughborough 1945-1955. Born in Cardiff. He started a language school in Regent Street, London and bequeathed money to create a professorial chair, which is at Manchester university. He wrote a number of books including “Facing facts” (published in 1935 with the interesting subtitle of: “a political survey for the average man”) in which he warned Europe about Germany and Japan invading China. 

There were also group pictures of James Callahan with his wife, Cronin and his wife, and local labour men Mike Shuker, Mike Jones, and Andy Reed. 

Oddfellows rules, 1904
Annual report
In the main downstairs room, which used to be the dance studio, along the outside wall, were tables laid out with loads of little booklets pertaining to groups who have used the building for their meetings over the years - groups like the Oddfellows, and other friendly societies – and leaflets and pictures about the labour party.
And there was a copy of “Facing facts”, one of the books written by Mont Follick.

Mont Follick's book on the far left

There were also current leaflets describing the events that currently take place at Unity House. Some of these are connected with the labour party, but there are many other activities, like yoga, WEA classes, and so on, that pay to use the building.
A view of Fennel Street

Warner's Corner on the corner of Fennel Street
Just to the right is Unity House
The construction of the social services building

Early deeds
There were even more treasures laid out on the tables in the middle of the room! Photographs of the building and the area probably taken in the 1960s brought back a few memories, and showed me a few things I didn’t know about, as well as an architects drawing of what the building was expected to look like (see above). Newspaper cuttings about the history of the building jostled with more pictures, but the best bits of all were the historical documents from the 1800s that listed previous documents relating to the various sales of the land and buildings, going back as far as the Earls of Huntingdon in the 1600s.

While I was there, I took the opportunity to talk to as many people as possible, and met some wonderful people with some interesting stories. Mr Sharpe had memories of Margaret Thatcher’s visit when she was the Education Secretary: She met with everyone upstairs in the Town Hall, whilst there was some kind of noisy children’s party going on downstairs (in the “corn exchange”). Apparently, she was lovely and made time to talk to every one of the people who had been gathered together to meet with her.
Married Women's Property Act and history of Unity House

Then there were the people from the Remember Loughborough facebook group: Lovely to put some names to faces I’ve seen only on that website! And not forgetting the lady making the tea, who told me quite a lot of the history of the building and Marion who has an allotment on the same plot as me, and the lady whose name I missed, but who introduced me to quite a few people, including the gentleman who knew all about the Married Women’s Property Act of 1833!

Quite an adventure!! One mystery that has been solved for me is the wording that appears above the doors. The door to the left says: “Exit” while the door to the right says: “Entrance” – not “Boys” and “Girls” as it is sometimes thought.

So, an interesting couple of hours, passed, a few little mysteries solved and a few little snippets to follow-up!

Perfect morning!

*Wondering if this is the same W. T. Hampton living in Toorak, City of Sonnington, Australia in 1927?
18 February 2019 - In answer to this question, no, it is not the same person as I've just found a notice of the death of W. T. Hampton, architect of Loughborough, in The Scotsman, 22 August 1910, pg. 10.

Postscript: The Medical Aid Centre was an early employer of women doctors: Gertrude Hutton was based here in the early 1900s.


  1. Thank you for publishing this - it was lovely to take a walk through Unity House with you. I lived in Loughborough in the 1970s and was in and out of Unity House. I was a (very young) member of Charnwood Borough Council. I wonder whether the Michael Shuker you mention is the same Michael Shuker that was a Student Union Officer with me at Loughborough back in the day? I wonder if he remembers Ali Rowe?

  2. Hi Ali! Glad you enjoyed the "walk"! I remember Mike Shuker from my days at uni too (late 70s) so I would strongly suspect he's the same person! Lynne


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