Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Personal Memories of a Special Place - Three

Southwater Centre, St Leonards on Sea
I left the story last time saying that the Seaview Project came to the conclusion that it was time to stop sharing with a local Church, and to find a building of their own.

This was in the latter part of 1988, and links were formed with a local social enterprise called The Robert Tressell Workshops. The building shown opposite was identified by the Workshops as being suitable for multi-purpose use. It was in the heart of St Leonards on Sea, one minute from the Warrior Square train station, and a short walk from the sea front. It was smack bang in the middle of a residential area, which was to prove 'interesting' over the coming years.

It was owned by the Eversfield Estates, who for many years before this time had owned large amounts of properties in St Leonards on Sea. By the late 1980's their portfolio had dwindled considerably. For the previous eight years, the building had been leased to the Post Office, and acted as the local sorting office, but they now wished to re-locate. Robert Tressell Workshops came in and agreed to take over the lease, and they set about to create a unique establishment in the town, calling the building, The Southwater Centre.

Robert Tressell (Noonan)
Many will recognise the name Robert Tressell, particularly those interested in socialist, working class writings. He is best known for his one and only novel: "The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists".

Robert Tressell was the pseudonym of Robert Noonan, an Irish house painter, who came to England from South Africa at the start of the 20th Century. He settled in Hastings with his daughter and sister, where he worked as a sign writer for various building firms.

In Hastings he became immersed in local politics, and joined the Social Democratic Federation, which was one of the forerunners of the Labour Party. He was often seen with his soapbox on Hastings beach, expounding his socialist ideas. His experience of working in Hastings, and the plight and treatment of his fellow workers caused him to write his great novel, which to him was to be seen as a "socialist documentary", based on real people, and real events. In the novel, Hastings was called Mugsborough.

He was never to see it published; the manuscript was rejected by several publishers, and disillusioned, Robert decided to emigrate to Canada in 1910, but he fell ill on reaching Liverpool, where he was admitted to the Royal Liverpool Infirmary Workhouse. He died from TB on the 3rd February 1911, aged 40. I find it very sad that he was buried in a mass grave with twelve other paupers, and the location of his grave was not discovered until 1970. His novel was published three years after his death.  The Southwater Centre was built around the same time that Robert Noonan moved to Hastings, and was a Territorial Army Drill Hall. There were a couple of extensions added over the coming years, which gave it a rather unusual sky line. It was however large, bright and airy; ideal for the Workshops purpose.

It comes as no surprise to know that Robert Tressell Workshops was named after the great man, because their purpose in Hastings was to improve the lot of those in the town who were disadvantaged and impoverished. The Southwater Centre opened in 1989 as a multi-purpose building housing the Seaview Project Day Centre; a sheltered employment workshop for those with long term mental health problems; a housing advice project; a drug and alcohol advisory agency, and an area for local artists to work. In theory, this was an exciting opportunity for co-operative working, but in practise, it didn't quite work. More of this next time.

An empty Seaview Project
Seaview Project moved into the Southwater Centre on the 2nd October 1989, and I arrived as Manager a week later on the 9th October. Perhaps it's worth saying something about how I got the job.

I'd arrived in Hastings with no work, so I was keen to find something. It turned out that as well as moving premises, Seaview was looking for a new Manager. After sending in my application, I was short listed for interview, and turned up at the designated day and time.

I only remember the first interview question, which was something like, "Tell us what you know about mental health". I felt like I'd been hit with a boulder, as I knew nothing about mental health, and I was only on question one. Shall I try my best to answer it, or shall I be honest? I chose the latter, explaining that the job description didn't mention mental health (which it didn't), and that the additional sheet outlining Seaview's role in mental health was not sent to me (which it wasn't). So my answer to the question can best be summed up in the words, "Bugger All". I felt, well that's it then, I've miserably failed question one, so there's no chance of getting this job. This somehow relaxed me, as I went through to the end of the interview. Imagine my surprise when the following day I was offered the job - god knows what the other candidates must have been like (no disrespect intended of course).

So here I was, day one of my new employment, at 10.00am opening the doors to the public. As they filed in, I thought, "What have I let myself in for?" The answer to that will begin to unfold next time.

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