George Mallows Freeman (1852 - 1934)

by Malcolm Pratt

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The Freemans took an intense and frequently generous interest in the community over which, it is reasonable to say, they presided. When grants for such work were hard to come by Mr Freeman made a generous donation toward the considerable cost of eliminating an infestation of death-watch beetle from the church roof. When an appeal was launched in 1901 for urgent church repairs, he and his wife donated a high proportion of the total amount collected. Quite apart from such munificence he served on a later occasion as treasurer of a similar appeal in which capacity he successfully raised objections to bills submitted by the architect in respect of work still to be undertaken. In the 1920s it was a gift of land rather than money which led eventually to a major development in the facilities available for Winchelsea residents. This land had an earlier history. In 1922, when Freeman remained the ground landlord, its lease was renewed for seven years at an annual rental of five shillings. On the land stood 'the building known as The Rifle Range at Hill Farm next to the wall of The Rectory garden and fronting Rectory Lane'. The building's original use as a rifle range was no longer required but the structure was to have two new uses, by the Winchelsea scout troop and the cricket club. It appears that it needed little amendment for use as a scout but but the cricket club were authorised 'to make any alterations which would allow the building to be used as a cricket pavilion'. These arrangements did not last long. The cricket club, instead of altering the rifle range, built its own pavilion on the other side of the ground. Whether the scout group folded or moved elsewhere is not known.

By 1924, it had become clear that the upper room in the Court Hall was becoming inadequate and inconvenient as the town's community centre and concert hall. A community hall was badly needed. G M Freeman to the rescue again. He offered to donate the land on which the former rifle range stood, together with an adjoining piece of equal size for the building of what became and remains The New Hall. Only two conditions were attached to this gift, firstly that he should be allowed a sight of the plans when they were eventually drawn up and secondly that the roof should be tiled. Freeman's gift was extremely generously accompanied by the offer of £1000 to enable work to begin immediately, from Lady McIlwraith another Winchelsea resident. She attached no condition other than that, if the eventual cost was greater, the Winchelsea residents should raise the extra. Mrs Freeman gave considerable further impetus to the project by donating all the necessary chairs. The resulting building, despite not inconsiderable problems in the meantime, remains in the twenty-first century in daily use by Winchelsea organisations and others from nearby communities.

Co-operation between G M Freeman and Lady McIlwraith was by no means always as successful as in the New Hall project. They viewed each other with considerable suspicion. When Harriett McIlwraith purchased Tower Cottage from Dame Ellen Terry there was an iron bracket attached to the adjoining Strand Gate and overhanging her garden. The bracket had been presented to Dame Ellen by Sir Henry Irving after its use in one of his productions in which she starred. Unfortunately no permission was sought from the Corporation, owners of Strand Gate, for it to be put there. When Lady McIlwraith's application to hang a plate containing her property's name from the bracket was received it was firmly refused on the grounds that the bracket had been fixed to the Corporation's property without permission and had thus become part of that property. No doubt Freeman's influence as a barrister was key to this decision. He certainly made sure that in his time the Corporation never wavered from it! His successors, seventy years later, asserted the Corporation's ownership by having the bracket removed from the Strand Gate, and, making use of a grant from the Ironmongers' Company (the bracket is an important piece of seventeenth century ironwork) had it restored. It was then securely fixed to the east wall of Winchelsea Court Hall where it remains.

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