In World War One Britain and her empire suffered approximately 744,000 men and women killed in the armed forces. Over 6 million men and women had served in the British armed forces in the First World War. Of those who returned 1.75 million suffered some kind of disability and half of these were permanently disabled. Many of the servicemen were left traumatised by what they had seen and undergone, but spoke little about their experiences to family members.
The one group they could open up to were former servicemen who had shared similar experiences. They banded together in clubs and groups such as the Comrades of the Great War and the Post War Brotherhood who had branches in New Milton.
The Lymington and South Hants Chronicle reported on 27th of November 1919 that the New Milton branch of the Comrades of the Great War held a first anniversary dinner at the Milton Hall where 130 ex-servicemen attended. After the dinner there was entertainment provided from the members with songs, monologues and jokes.
On 26th of September 1920 the war memorial in New Milton was unveiled and the Recreation Ground given to the people of the parish in memory of the 83 Miltonians who had lost their lives in the Great War.
In 1921 former Lance Bombardier Tom Lister felt that the Government were not doing enough to help and support former servicemen and their families. He started the British Legion which brought together the ex-servicemen’s groups into one organisation. He was supported in this by Field Marshal Earl Haig who became the first president until his death in 1928.
In November 1921 the Poppy Appeal was started. The previous year the 2 minutes silence had become established, and the Cenotaph in London had been built. The British Legion was granted a Royal Charter in 1925 and became the Royal British Legion in 1971.
New Milton British Legion branch started in 1928. At a meeting held on April 19th 1928 in the Milton Hall, it was agreed to form a local branch. Speakers included Major General Sir John Capper and Councillor West. The following were elected as temporary officers of the branch;
Captain F.H. Broach – Chairman [lived at ‘Homefield’ Barton Court Road]
Major L.C. Chawner – Vice Chairman [Lived at ‘Little Barrs’ Fernhill Lane]
Captain F. Warde – Treasurer [Lived at Highlands Road, Barton]
A.J. Stevenson, – Secretary [lived at ‘Newlyn’, Manor Road]
Colonel Burlton, Messers F.M. Whitcher [Lived at Yew Tree Cottage, Belmont Road, Ashley] E.S.G. Harvell, [Owner of the Milton Hotel] R. Blacker [Lived at ‘Court Peace’ Upper Ashley] and Commander L. W. Browell [Lived at ‘Kemptree Cottage’ Bashley] were the members of the temporary committee.
The first enrolment meeting was held at the Parish Hall on Friday 11th of May 1928. Over 90 people attended and 61 initially enrolled.
At the meeting Brigadier General Stewart stated that in the British Legion “everyone was equal, [it was a] non-political body. It was a matter of personal service in the cause of ex-servicemen, especially the disabled ones and their dependants and the widows and orphans of our fallen comrades”. He went on to state that 11 ½ pence out of every shilling subscribed would go to the relief fund. He urged those present to “bring their pals and renew the bon of comradeship, loyalty in all ranks [and] the bonds of friendship and unity”.
At the end of the meeting those present who had not enrolled came forward and joined, bringing the membership to 94.
Brigadier General Stewart was elected as the first president. The chairman, vice chairman, treasurer and secretary were all confirmed in their role. Commander L.W. Browell was elected as assistant Secretary.
The committee was elected and consisted of; Mr F.M. Whitcher, Major Howe [ lived at ‘Bahut Achehtra’, Station Road], Major J. J. Courtney [Lived at ‘Clovelly’ Station Road] Captain G.M. Waggott [Lived at ‘Grinden’ Elm Avenue], Mr. J.E. Dawes, Mr A.W. Currie and Mr J. Bugler [lived at Old Milton Road].
It was also agreed to form a women’s section of the branch. It was also agreed not to acquire a clubhouse until the membership exceeded 200.
The newly formed Legion Branch met in a variety of locations including the Church Hall, the Milton Hall on the railway bridge, the Scala Cinema building in Station Road and the Milton Institute at the junction of Old Milton Road and Gore Road.
In the mid-1930s the Legion Branch started using the Public Hall located in Whitefield Road. This had been built in 1930 on land purchased from the Unionist Club (now Conservative Club) by the Post War Brotherhood. It was used as a public hall and was a very active in the 1930s with a number of local organisations paying rent for use of the building as a venue for their activities.
New Milton British Legion had a band in the mid -1930s based at the hall. They played at a variety of concerts. It appears that not all of the band were ex-servicemen or members of the New Milton British Legion as in a minute dated 24th of January 1936 it was decided to make all members of the band, honorary members of the local branch.
In addition, there was a branch rifle club that met at Powell’s builders’ yard in Albert Road for target rifle competitions.
One member of the New Milton Branch was Lt Colonel George Campbell Wheeler VC who lived at “Maryville” in Beach Avenue, Barton on Sea.
He had been awarded the Victoria Cross in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) in February 1917 when he led a party of the 9th Ghurkhas across the River Tigris as part of the British campaign to recapture the city of Kut. Colonel Wheeler features in the minutes of the branch confirming he was a member. Strangely, no reference can be found in the minutes regarding his death in August 1938 or his funeral at St Mary Magdalene Churchyard.
In 1939 the Public Hall was taken over for use by the Air Raid Precautions service. Part of the building was let to Moody’s and Son limited and used as a furniture depository.
In 1945 there was a debate in the New Milton Advertiser as to how Milton would remember the WW2 casualties. The Rector, David Edwards wanted to build cottages for the elderly. The Legion wanted a club that ex-servicemen could meet and enjoy likeminded company. The Rector pointed out that there was a government scheme which enabled towns of a certain population to apply for a grant to build a hall which could be used as a community centre. The legion won the debate and funds were raised from public donations to acquire the freehold of pre-war public hall from the Post War Brotherhood and turn it back into a club. This was all reported in the New Milton Advertiser from 1945 onwards. The cost to purchase the hall in 1945 was £4000.
On 20th of February 1946 there was a Trust Deed signed between the trustees to the War memorial Hall and the Chairman and Committee of the New Milton and District Branch in which it was agreed that the trustees would hold the hall until sold, leased or otherwise disposed of. The trust was to permit the committee and members of the New Milton and District British Legion Club to use the same free of rent for the purpose of the club and of the New Milton Branch of the British Legion. It was also permitted to allow use of the hall for educational, social and recreations purposes of the residents of New Milton and district on payment of rent towards the upkeep and maintenance of the hall. There was a clause in the document that said if the New Milton British Legion club could no longer manage the hall a public meeting of all of the town’s residents should be called and a decision made as to the future management of the hall.
On 7th March 1948 the ‘new’ Legion Hall was dedicated in a formal ceremony. The building was officially titled the British Legion War Memorial Hall.
On 27th of November 1973 a public meeting was held where it was agreed that the New Milton Royal British Legion could no longer manage and maintain the hall. At a further public meeting held on 24th of September 1974 a fresh declaration of trust was made where it was confirmed that the hall would be held upon trust as a War Memorial for the purposes of a community hall for the use of the inhabitants of Becton, Barton, Bashley and New Milton Wards of the New Forest District Council (called in the trust document “The Area of Benefit”. It was to be used for meetings, lectures, classes and other forms of recreation and leisure time occupation with the object of improving the conditions of life for the said inhabitants. The trust document went on to detail who should be on the management committee including one member of New Milton Royal British Legion and one member of the women’s section of New Milton Royal British Legion along with five elected members. There were various stipulations and conditions of service for the management committee including that all had to reside within the ‘area of benefit’.
In the early hours of 23rd of July 1978 the War Memorial Hall was destroyed in a fire. The committee set about fund raising to replace the hall. Money was raised largely through public donation. The new hall was built and formally opened on Friday 11th of September 1981. A committee member Hazel Goddard, organised a variety concert put on to welcome in the people of Milton Parish.
Phase one of the rebuild cost £200,000. Phase 2 cost £50,000. The architect was William Penney of West Wellow. The builders were E.G. Dunford and Sons. They were very supportive of the project and signed the contract to rebuild the hall even though the fund was still short of the necessary amount. At the time of the re-opening of the hall in 1981 the trustees were James P. Burgess, George Stickland and John Hutchins. The secretary was Gordon Priddle. The management committee consisted of George A. Whiting (chair) John Bennet (vice chair) Ann Harding (Secretary) Derek Taylor (treasurer) and committee members Reginald De’Ath, Hazel Goddard, Kenneth Hodson, George Tootell, Mary Tootell and Kenneth Watts.
The Memorial Centre continues to be used as a public hall by the people of Milton Parish and the New Milton Branch of the Royal British Legion.
Looking to the future there are plans to transform the Memorial Centre into a much-enhanced charitable facility, which will be called ‘The New Milton Community & Cultural Hub’. This has been incorporated into the Town’s Neighbourhood Plan and is a major part of future town development. This article was first published in an abridged form in the Milton Mail and Barton Bugle Magazine in November 2020.