Biggin Hall, as we now call it, was built in 1881 of knapped flints pressed into the mortar to match the then Police Station opposite, which was built at the same time. The intention for Biggin Hall was office accommodation for the police station and the town council. In 1894, due to increasing health problems, caused by the lack of bathing facilities in many Dover homes, hot and cold slipper baths were installed.
At that time, there was a wrought iron fence in front of Maison Dieu House – now the Dover Town Council offices, which terminated at the Maison Dieu. Opposite the front door of Maison Dieu House was a single gate and double wrought iron gates nearer the Maison Dieu. The latter were ornate gates and had been made by Francis Morton of Garston in Liverpool. They were the carriage entrance to the House.
On 8 January 1899 the owner of Maison Dieu House, William Mummery (1845-1899), died and the mansion was offered for sale in June that year. It would appear that about this time the Corporation had made the double gates the entrance from Biggin Street to Biggin Hall. In 1900, the interior of the Hall was refurbished in a more luxurious style and Turkish, Russian and medicated baths installed.
John James Lewis had acquired the lease in 1903 at a yearly rent of £150. Employing two men, two women, a boy and a girl, his outgoings were greater than his income of £300 a year and Lewis was declared bankrupt. That was in 1905 but the next leaseholder seemed to fair better offering facial massages, manicures and a chiropody service. The original slipper baths remained but their surroundings were upgraded and the charges increased. These proved too expensive for the previous clients and the use of the slipper baths went into decline.
Following World War I, the affluent tourists no longer came to Dover but there were still affluent residents in the town. Nonetheless, in 1920, it was reported that the facility was making a loss of about £300 a year and consideration was given to turning the building back into offices. Research was undertaken and it was found that one of the reasons for lack of usage was that the Turkish Baths were not hot enough. Pumping steam from the adjacent municipally owned electricity works rectified this! Usage increased and the Turkish Baths and other facilities were reprieved.
Albeit, the shortage of housing saw many of the properties that once belonged to the affluent summer visitors, being refurbished into what best could be described as bed-sits. Whole families were renting one or two rooms with shared washing facilities and this led to a marked increase of communicable infections and infestations.
It was suggested that the slipper baths at the Hall should be made available free to the families of the unemployed while all other users paid a nominal amount. This caused uproar and in the end it was agreed that the families of the unemployed, who regularly used the municipal swimming baths, could apply to use washing facilities there on Mondays free of charge. There was one stipulation, they had to take one towel each and if they were unable to then they could not use the facility!
On 5 November 1924, Vice-Admiral Roger Keyes unveiled Dover’s War Memorial in front of the Maison Dieu House. In order to create a larger concourse, the railings in front of Maison Dieu House were removed and the ornate gates were moved to the Isolation Hospital in Tower Hamlets.
In the early 1930s, the Turkish baths were making a loss and the facility was closed in 1934. At the time the Museum, on the upper floor of the then Market Hall, was being refurbished and the curator wanted to reintroduce winter lectures. As there was insufficient room it was agreed, in 1935, to turn that part of Biggin Hall into a lecture hall accommodating 120 people.
The slipper baths remained and for a small charge made available to locals. A further charge was made for towels. It was at this time that the lavatories, we see today, were constructed and when the work was finished, the building was named Biggin Hall.
With the outbreak of World War II (1939-1945) and the subsequent influx of military personnel, in 1940, a much larger municipal slipper baths facility opened at Woodlands in Bridge Street. In the following spring Biggin Hall was made over to the Military Welfare Officer who collected donated books, periodicals and knitted ‘comforts’ for distribution to the members of Armed Services based in the town. On Boxing Day (26 December) 1941 the Dover Ladies Committee together with the Women’s Branch of the British Legion held a successful social evening in the Hall.
However, the public library, up to 1942, was in Biggin Street that year was destroyed by enemy action. Temporarily, the library was moved to 16 Effingham Crescent, at the same time, the slipper baths were removed from Biggin Hall. On 3-4 October 1943, the Hall was badly damaged by shelling and it was estimated that it would cost £1,780, to repair. The repairs were carried out and the library eventually moved to Biggin Hall in October 1945.
The library stayed in the building until June 1952 when it was moved to Maison Dieu House. That year, Biggin Hall was redecorated and furnished as a public hall at a cost of about £450. A year later Woodlands was sold as part of a package to the Dover Engineering Works and it was proposed that temporary slipper baths would be provided by adapting a building attached to Biggin Hall. These opened in September 1954 and the baths were still in use in 1975. Councillors becoming increasingly concerned at their cost – estimated at £3,635 a year, the baths were closed.
On 1 April 1988, following public advertisements, the Hall was let but only Councillor and Mrs G T Tyler tendered. They offered to pay a rental of £52 per annum with the proviso that, if letting income exceeded £9,000 per annum, additional rental of £500 per annum would be paid. The offer was accepted and renewed in 1991.
On 1 April 1988, following public advertisements, the Hall was put out to let but only Councillor and Mrs G T Tyler tendered. They offered to pay a rental of £52 per annum but Dover District Council added the the proviso that if letting income exceeded £9,000 per annum, an additional rental of £500 per annum would be paid. The offer was accepted and renewed in 1991.
In the meantime, the area around the Maison Dieu underwent a major transformation. The attractive wrought iron gates, which had been standing in a council yard for years following the demolition of the Isolation Hospital, were restored and placed between the Maison Dieu and Biggin Hall. As for the Hall, it is was still owned by Dover District Council and at the time the article was published in the Dover Mercury in 2012, the hall was leased by the Dover Oddfellows.
In October 2013, it was reported that following negotiations with Dover District Council, it had been agreed to ‘give’ Biggin Hall to the Dover Community Association. The Association was set up in 1969 by Dover Rotary Club but in December 2012, against much opposition, sold the existing Community Centre. This was Cleary House, bought by a donation from the Cleary Foundation, a general grant making charity with emphasis on issues local to Kent and reflecting the wishes of Fred Cleary (1905-1984) of St Margaret’s Bay.
The house was on Maison Dieu Road and although the Community Centre had gone through a financially hard time, Arthur Thomas as treasurer made it viable. Sadly he died in 2007, since when moves were made to sell the building. Against opposition, Cleary House was put to auction in 2012, and sold for £220,000. After three years of negotiations with Dover District Council, the Community Association bought Biggin Hall for £1. In the spring of 2016 they started work on extensive refurbishment, estimated to cost £60,000 and includes a new toilet block while the existing toilet block is to become additional meeting rooms.
- Dover Mercury: 16 & 23 February 2012