The Great Central Hall, Commercial Street, Newport, Monmouthshire

By the final decade of the 19th century, Newport was booming in every way but spiritual, and fewer than one person in seven belonged to any religious house.

The Forward Movement of the Presbyterian Church was quick to notice this dearth of godliness, having sought it out and conquered it in Cardiff and elsewhere.

In 1895, the challenge was taken up by the Reverend Seth Joshua and his brother Frank, who with their crusading parties moved into Newport, holding meetings wherever a few or a few hundred could gather. The effects were almost immediate and very startling!

People flocked to hear the new 'barn storming' preachers. The 1,200 seats of the Tredegar Hall were regularly filled, and in the Corn Exchange congregations had to be turned out every hour to make room for second and third sittings!

Following hundreds of conversions in 1901, the Church was constituted and it grew rapidly with the formation of Bible classes, a Christian Endeavour Society, a boys brigade group and other cultural and social activities. Finally, a site in Commercial Street, backing on to Fothergill Street, was obtained from the Tredegar Estate at a low ground rent and at an eventual cost of £10,000, a church was built to be known thereafter as the Great Central Hall. On 4th October 1906, it was officially opened.

Internally it could only be described as splendid and inspiring, with its high, vaulted ceiling arched over a majestic, unprosceniumed stage, backed by a magnificent organ and with floor and balconies seating well over 2,000.

In direct contrast, its outside appearance was not what one would have expected after viewing the imposing interior. The frontage was part of a grimy facade of shop fronts from which it was hardly distinguishable on the approach from either side.

The great hall soon became the envy of lesser religious and non-religious bodies, and when it was realised just how considerable was its appeal, it was decided to grant lettings to suitable applicants. Anything smacking of light entertainment was rejected, but warm welcome was given to lectures, serious musical concerts and grand choral festivals. In the 1950s, the stage and its surrounds used to disappear beneath massed choirs numbering 600 or more singers at concerts given by the Federation of Music Societies. No better recommendation for the building's excellent acoustics could have been than its use by the BBC for the broadcasting of concerts and religious services.

In the earliest days of diversification, weekly 'bioscope' shows were given; for these, admission charges were 2d in the balcony and 1d downstairs. Such entertainment was believed to be the town's first introduction to moving pictures.

As time went by, use of the Central Hall for such purposes became less requested. The great crowds were more eager for other forms of amusement in buildings being purpose-built. The new picture palaces were packed every night and all the diversion needed to quench the thirst of the homespun majority was to be found on a few reels of silent celluloid or in the more convivial atmosphere of the town's two theatres. There was still support by the purists for things classical but their numbers were growing too few for practicality and even the church stalwarts became reduced to a few dozen at Sunday services.

The struggle for survival ended in September 1960 with a concert given by Sir John Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra. Just before taking up his baton, Sir John said: 'Tonight it is the sombre privilege of my orchestra and I to play the last notes of orchestral music that will ever be heard in this hall'.

Those last notes were contained in Elgar's 'Enigma Variations' and they were heard by that last, rapt, capacity audience in the sad knowledge that they were present at another historic milestone. The last religious services had been held on Whit Sunday 21st May.

The ostentation of modern shopfitting made it impossible to imagine what had gone before. Fortunately however, it is still possible to get some idea as to the nature of the old building. Contrary to the impression given at the front by No 82 Commercial Street, a large portion of the original survives at the back. Off Kingsway, opposite Ebenezer Terrace, is Fothergill Court (once Fothergill Street). Now a nondescript parking and loading area for the main street shops, its prominent feature is the rear end of the great hall, very difficult to imagine as once being one of the town's more pretentious buildings. The stark, grey stone walls inset with large, arched, boarded-up windows, are more reminiscent of an old warehouse.

Text taken from Haydn Davis' excellent book "The History of the Borough of Newport".

Search the Baptism Records for the Great Central Hall.