The history of the Drill Hall is tied in with the history of Sidmouth Eastern Town which is covered in another section of this site.
There had been concern in the town from at least 1888 about cleaning up the eastern end of town and bringing it upmarket. Plans to buy the Ham field had been proposed but nothing came of it.
It therefore made sense that a new, high-profile building at the eastern end of the Esplanade was welcomed with open arms by those looking to raise the reputation of the town. Especially as the building was being funded by public subscription on land given for the purpose and therefore cost the Local Board (Council ) and rate-payers nothing.
J G G Radford gave the land for the Drill Hall because the Volunteer Rifles needed a home after having been evicted from their previous meeting place in the Town Hall, to make way for other uses. He was influenced in this matter by his partner J A Orchard who was an officer in the Volunteers. He was also influenced by the calls at that time for men to do their patriotic duty in the light of fears of invasion from the continent, and by his love of Sidmouth.
Mr Orchard took on the burden of finding the money to build the Drill Hall and stood surety for the cost. Due to his efforts mortgages were found, and much fund-raising also went on in the town. The final mortgage remaining to be paid off was held by Mr Wood of Belmont, who made a gift of this mortgage to the Volunteers as a mark of respect for Major Orchard at the time of his retirement as an officer.
The Drill Hall was intended to be, and was, an asset for the whole of Sidmouth society; as was stated at the opening ceremony. As can be seen from newspaper reports a whole range of activities took place there from balls for the upper levels of society to ‘artizan’s and cottager’s ‘ flower shows.
The land was given in early 1895, at the same time as Mr Radford announced a gift of the Ham Field to the town. When considering the Drill Hall it is important to see it in the context of this other gift.
By April 1895 the Honorary Architect Mr James Jerman had drawn up the plans and builders had tendered and been appointed, Miss Constance Radford then laid the foundation stone. The building took 7 months to complete as it was a high specification building.
The contour of the land meant that a lower level could be incorporated; and the drive for self-improvement in the society of that time required an area for study, which was housed on an upper floor. The main hall was left open to its full height so that it would be a suitable and attractive area for public occasions.
On its opening on the 15th Oct 1895 there was much praise for the workmanship and design. No expense seems to have been spared in order to make it a building the town could be proud of. The full height doors onto the balcony on the eastern side, and the view from there, were also mentioned with approval. This approval was partly in anticipation of the building leading to a change in habits of the townspeople who used that part of the shore as a rubbish dump!
At the beginning of the 20th century the Esplanade was extended along to the Drill Hall and the ground on the south of it was raised to produce a level road. The Esplanade was finally extended to the Alma Bridge around 1919.
In the aftermath of the storm damage to the sea wall in 1925 the wall at the mouth of the Sid was strengthened and built up and the land of the Ham seems to have been raised at that time too.
The final stage of development came in 1929 with the creation of the turning circle and the building of a combined shelter and toilet block. As described elsewhere this building might have broken the terms of the conveyance from Radford to Sidmouth UDC. The view from the Drill hall windows was no longer pleasant, as instead of the cliffs and sea all that was visible was the back of the toilets. This must have played a major part in the decrease of use by Societies and of hirings for social occasions. With the loss of this income the up-keep of the Hall must have become more difficult.
Perhaps this was a factor when, in 1931, the Drill Hall underwent a make-over in late Art Deco style. This style was moving towards the later fully developed International style of Le Corbusier, below left, and the Bauhaus architects. From a photograph of 1931 it can be seen that the ornamental tops of the pillars were not greatly eroded and so the removal of details was likely to be through choice not necessity.
The work would have been costly but it was obviously considered that the Hall was worth it, it must still have been seen as an important structure. A more modern building may have been thought likely to attract the custom which had been lost, despite the toilets.
The modern geometric style, as shown above, required the removal of old-fashioned ornamentation and the introduction of simplicity of line, so away went the oriel windows, the balcony and decorative tops to the gable and side pillars. The arches on the front above the ground floor windows disappeared at this time too, I suspect they were filled in with concrete (concrete was very fashionable). The plaques commemorating those responsible for the building were within these arches.
I have found no record of these changes in any Sidmouth or South West newspapers, so any information about them would be very gratefully received.
It would appear that few changes were made to the Drill Hall after this time, in fact even maintenance seems to have been minimal after the 1950s.
Eventually the Cadet Force, in whose hands it had ended up, found themselves unable to afford the up-keep and it passed into the possession of EDDC who tried to demolish it.
East Devon District Council has not permitted anyone other than themselves to have access to the building in order to establish any facts about its condition or remaining details of historical interest. There have been many requests made and refused.