VISITORS to Inwood Court, behind and between Alton’s Curtis Museum and Assembly Rooms, have been noticing a new bronze plaque fixed to a pillar of the main entrance.
It commemorates one man’s initiative back in 1970 and the campaign he led to stop the demolition of what had once been the Inwood Cottage Hospital.
The man was the late Les Packett, known principally as a gifted musician who taught scores of Altonians over many years how to play a variety of instruments, and remembered as a quiet gentle man, of enormous kindness.
How Les, without any knowledge of the law or local government, came to fight for what he considered a key piece of the town’s architectural scene, and in so doing launch the Alton Society, is quite a story. It shows what one determined individual can achieve to protect his town.
Generations of Altonians had seen hardly any change to their town centre since Victorian times until the 1960s when change began to happen very quickly – too quickly for Les Packett, who had lived here for so long and had walked and cycled every inch of roadway in the little town he had grown to love.
Within only three or four years, the dominant Victorian Manor House on the High Street and Kerridge’s Garage (a building of Georgian origin) had given way to the tile-hung block now featuring the Co-op convenience store, and the entire western end of the High Street, including the former Methodist Church, had been demolished up to The White Horse pub.
So, in the summer of 1970, when the NHS Estates department won the first stage of planning approval for the sale and demolition of the former Inwood Cottage Hospital, with no organised opposition in place, Les decided to act. With time fast running out, he recruited his many friends and acquaintances, including local historian Charlie Hawkins. He called a public meeting in the Assembly Rooms and proposed the formation of an organisation on the lines of the Farnham Society, whose advice he had sought in advance.
The Alton Society, headed by solicitor John Ambrose, was born there and then, with Les accepting a place on the original committee. At its first meeting, Les spoke strongly in favour of the formation of an Alton Community Association to be based in the Inwood building, and when this proved impractical on a number of grounds, he put his weight behind the acquisition and development of the former iron works on Amery Street. As if that were not enough, once the new community centre was up and running, he involved himself deeply in its musical activity for young people.
The Alton Society has gone from strength to strength since its creation, always seeking to respond to planning issues in terms which are firm but well informed.
To the stirring sounds of a small brass band formed for the occasion, more than 50 friends, former musical colleagues and residents from Inwood Court gathered recently to see a plaque, recording Les Packett’s achievement, unveiled by his daughter, Lorraine McGranaghan, on behalf of the family, helped by Bob Booker, a former Alton town mayor and then chairman of the Alton Society, on behalf of the community.
Mr Booker’s warm tribute to Les was supported by several others.
Nick Carey-Thomas, for many years architectural adviser to the Alton Society, not only drew attention to what the loss of the Inwood building, opened with its neighbours in 1880, would have done to the character of that end of the High Street, but also to Les’ foresight and energy in persuading the fledgling Alton Society to set about creating an Alton Community Association.
Helen Gardner, a founder member of the Alton Concert Band, remembered mentioning to Les at an orchestral rehearsal that the town lacked a concert band. “Well,” said Les, “why don’t we start one? So, we did, and the band now has more than 30 enthusiastic members!”
Sheila John, one of the regular volunteers at the Allen Gallery and Curtis Museum, recalled Les as a dedicated member of the volunteer team from the time, six years ago, when the Hampshire Cultural Trust took over the management of both establishments.
“Les was, above all, a gentleman in every sense,” said Sheila. ”He was always ready to support visitors and make them feel at home. He helped us until his final illness made it impossible to go on. All of us who knew him remember him with great affection and miss him still.”
Les’ son, Andrew, who had flown in from Portugal specially for the event, spoke movingly of his late father’s love of Alton and of his commitment to the community. He also thanked everybody involved for their kind support in recognising what his father had done for the town.
Luath Grant Ferguson, who had not long moved to Alton with his wife when he was recruited by Les to assist with the 1970 Inwood campaign, thanked everyone who had contributed to the cost of the plaque, and the Alton Society for being so helpful and generous. He also thanked Sanctuary Housing Association, which operates Inwood Court, for its permission to fix the plaque to the building and for its cooperation in the arrangements for the unveiling.
He acknowledged the advice and permissions given by East Hampshire District Council’s conservation officer with regard to the plaque’s scale and design and thanked the Allen Gallery team for laying on a generous tea after the event.
“Les would have been astonished that the community had thought fit to recognise him in any way,” Luath told guests over tea. “Together, we have settled on a plain, but elegant, design with words that mean something for the town. We urge Altonians to go and see the plaque. The battle fought by Les Packett was not quite on the scale of the better known battle in 1643 – but it was important all the same!”