A social and cultural hub – the history of the Corn Hall
In February 1854, the Bury and Norfolk Post and Suffolk Herald carried the news that Thomas Lombe Taylor, ‘Lord of the Diss Manor and grantee of the fairs and markets’ was going to build a Corn Hall for Diss at his own expense.
Building the Corn Hall
With a public-spirited desire to improve his town and despite local opposition,Thomas Lombe Taylorwent ahead with the construction of the Corn Hall which opened in November 1854 with a grand concert in aid of the dependants of soldiers fighting in the Crimea and began trading in January 1855.
The Corn Hall functioned as a corn hall until the 1990s making it the last trading East Anglian corn hall and one of the last functioning corn halls in England.
The Corn Hall was designed and built by George Atkins of Diss. The passage of time and familiarity has dulled just how radical the building was. Towering above those around it, its classical style was in deliberate contrast to the (un-restored) medieval parish church at the other end of the street.
From the start the Corn Hall also acted as a social and cultural centre for Diss. No hall or exchange could ever simply function by holding a market once or twice a week. The grand concert which opened the Corn Hall was the first of many hundreds or even thousands of social and cultural events which have taken place there and which give it a special place in the memories of many Diss people
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it became the venue for annual concerts of the Diss Sacred Harmonic Society and its successor the Diss Choral Society. It was also used for other entertainments, some more popular than others. To the modern eye ‘Penny Readings’, in which local worthies read aloud seem dull in the extreme yet they remained popular enough to fill the Corn Hall.
The Corn Hall was also used for a whole range of social events and activities. The Loyal Nelson Lodge of the Oddfellows Friendly Society held their Whit anniversary dinners there while the established church and local chapels used the Corn Hall for sales of work and bazaars to raise funds.
If the Corn Hall was one kind of social centre for Diss, its attached reading room and library became another. By the 1890s it was claimed it had between 3,000 and 4,000 books.
The Corn hall in the 20th century
Changes at the Corn Hall
Up to the Great War, the Corn Hall continued much as it had through the nineteenth century. In 1912, Kelly’s Directory noted the Corn Hall was ‘well attended by merchants and farmers’ and that ‘important stock sales’ were held weekly’.
The fate of the Corn Hall Library and Reading Room was less happy. It had grown steadily until the last decades of the nineteenth century but then membership began to decline and it was increasingly difficult to recruit new committee members. Sadly, the decline continued after the Great War and the Library was closed in the summer of 1931. In September that year, Thomas Gaze, the Diss auctioneer, sold the entire contents of the reading room, some 4,000 books. However the room became a County Public Library and remained in use until the 1970s.
Pressed into wartime use
The Corn Hall was also used on and off throughout the first war to billet troops. As early as December 1914, when a Welsh Yeomanry Cavalry Regiment was stationed in Diss, the officers were housed in Frenze Hall and the ‘men’ were billeted in the Corn Hall.
The Corn Hall continued trading throughout the Second World War and became a place of entertainment for civilians and service personnel including, after the autumn of 1942, increasingly large numbers of US servicemen.
A change of ownership By the early 1950s the Taylor family and their trustees were beginning to feel the Corn Hall was becoming a financial burden and in March 1956 the Corn Hall was gifted to the town.
What the Town Council took over was clearly not in a good state of repair and even before the lease was formerly signed they had applied for a loan of £2500 to carry essential repairs to update the toilet facilities. This was the beginning of constant minor repairs to the Corn Hall which culminated in major rebuilding in the mid-1970s and further major work in the 1990s.
The market survives… The council may have inherited a dilapidated space but the corn market was still very much a going concern, and was to remain so for ten or fifteen years. When the Corn Hall was taken into Council hands all the stalls were let – a total of 84 stands plus a much larger number of floor tickets. There were also a large number of regular bookings for the Corn Hall for social and cultural events, most generated by local organisations. Both these elements in the Corn Hall’s prosperity began to change in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
…but its days are numbered Virtually all the local corn halls, including many big ones like Bury, Norwich, Ipswich, Kings Lynn and Cambridge closed in the 1960s. What is remarkable were the local ones that hung on, and even within them, Diss was exceptional. However, by the 1970s, problems were becoming very serious. A study commissioned by Norfolk County Council in 1972 noted that ‘there is no good reason to expect anything other than a gradual decline in the importance of Diss’s agricultural market functions.’ Despite this gloomy forecast, trading continued at the Corn Hall until the market finally closed in 1998.
The Evolution of the Corn Hall Arts and Heritage Centre
In 2006 a Regeneration Group was established to consider the options for the Corn Hall. The Diss Corn Hall Trust was incorporated in mid 2009 to assume the management of the Hall and was registered with the Charity Commission in 2010.
A lively and varied programme of social involvement, entertainment, artistic achievement, community gatherings and workshops was established, and later were added a monthly family day and a prize winning Arts Award programme to cater for younger audiences.
In 2012 we welcomed The Keeper’s Daughter as our theatre company in residence.
In 2014 we added our ‘live’ screenings of National Theatre, Royal Opera House and Glyndebourne productions to the programme and hosted events for the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. The Corn Hall and its events are now firmly a feature of South Norfolk, a significant feature of its heritage and of its plans for the future.
A number of significant improvements were made over the following years with the financial support of Diss Town Council, South Norfolk Council and Diss Community Partnership. A professional projection and control room was built following winning the Pride in Norfolk award sponsored by the County Council and Eastern Daily Press.
In July 2015 the Corn Hall closed, we brought the Arts to other venues in Diss and the surrounding villages with our Corn Hall on Tour programme. There will still be the occasional foray on Tour. Look out for our series of events in Diss Park over the summer.
The Diss Heritage Triangle Trust | 11-12 Market Hill | Diss | IP22 4JZ