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  • Writer's pictureSadie

Sir Arthur Dilley MBE - Conservative Knight

A familiar building on the High Street in Fletton, on the corner with Milton Road, is the Dilley Hall. Many will associate the Dilley Hall with dance lessons, others will perhaps remember dinner and dances, wedding receptions, darts matches or perhaps other local events and meetings. (1)

The Dilley Hall was built in 1936 by Mr. C. L. Palmer of Churchfield Road, Walton. A report in the Peterborough Standard, on Friday August 28th, set out the appearance of the hall. The front of the building will be built ‘in the rustic style with a stone coping’ there will be a porch ‘made of snowcrete’. To access the main hall the visitor will have to pass through ‘three pairs of swing doors’ and on either side of the main door there will be cloakrooms. The main hall ‘will be 52ft by 30ft’ and at one end ‘includes a 9ft stage’. Behind the stage will be two dressing rooms and a kitchen. Along the sides there ‘will be ten windows, with metal casements’ and the ‘roof will be made of steel and match-boarding’. Around the exterior there will be ‘parking space for many cars.’

But how did the Dilley Hall gain such a distinctive name?

The Dilley Hall was opened on 15th April 1937 by the Fletton, Woodston and Stanground Conservative Association. At a meeting of the Hunts Women’s Conservative Association, reported in the Peterborough Standard, on Friday April 30th 1937, Mrs. Fox addressed the meeting saying that ‘All Conservatives, appreciated from the bottom of their hearts, the services and kindnesses rendered by Sir Arthur Dilley’. She continued by commenting that ‘by his help and generosity the new hall would be a new source of strength to the party in the north end of the division’.

Arthur George Dilley, referred to in the Peterborough Standard, on June 10th 1927 as, ‘Huntingdonshire’s most popular public man’ was born in Huntingdon, on 25th September 1854, to James Dilley, auctioneer and estate agent, and his wife Martha. Arthur was baptised on the 10th June 1855 at All Saint’s Church, Huntingdonshire. All Saint’s church was significant in Arthur’s life. It was here that he was a choirboy, here that his wife Elizabeth was baptised, and here that both his and his wife’s funeral services was held. Arthur had one elder sister Marianne.

On 10th October 1870, after being privately educated, first in Huntingdon and then at Kingston’s School, Northampton, Arthur joined his father’s auction house. Only three years later he was made partner and the firm became Messrs Dilley and Son. Between his father’s death and 1901, Arthur continued the business as a sole trader. It was then that he took two partners, firstly Mr. J. Jackson Read and later Mr. Wm. P. Theakston. J.P. M.B.E. The business was now Dilley, Theakston and Read of Huntingdon and St. Ives. The Dilley family lived at the very centre of commerce in Huntingdon, on the Market Place. The auction house had offices in Huntingdon, St.Ives and St. Neots with auction yards in St. Ives and St. Neots, and no business transaction, in the area, would have been able to escape their notice. Arthur’s association with Dilley, Theakston and Read would span 60 years, until his decision to retire on the 28th February 1931. In Arthur’s obituary, in the Peterborough Standard on Friday May 6th 1938, it was observed that his achievements came by ‘professional prestige and personal qualities’ and everywhere his name meant ‘excellence, promptitude and integrity’.

Arthur was certainly a very eligible bachelor and on the 8th June 1881 he married Elizabeth Jane Ashton at St. James, Westminster, Middlesex. When the couple were married both their fathers had died, James Dilley on the 3rd May 1878 and James Ashton, an ironmonger, on 13th February 1874. Elizabeth was also a native of Huntingdon, having been born in the town on 31st December 1860.

Following their marriage the young couple settled at 10 Market Hill, Huntingdon. By 1891 their family was complete with the birth of three sons, Arthur in 1883, Graham on 13th May 1887 and Eric on 10th September 1890. It would be interesting to know what kind of childhood the boys had experienced. In an interview Arthur’s opinion of the young was not encouraging saying ‘children are not as well - grounded as they should be…there is too much football and tennis and that kind of thing’. When asked about the secret of success he responded, ‘character, hard work and application…work first…recreation second’.

Over the following years the family appear to have divided their time between their London home, Connaught House in Finchley, and Cheswick House in Huntingdon. After sharing a long life together Arthur and Elizabeth were able to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in 1931. Unfortunately, Elizabeth spent 40 years of her life as an invalid. She died on the 17th January 1935, at their home Springfield, in High Barnet, Hertfordshire. aged 74. The card on Arthur’s wreath read, ‘No more suffering, No more pain’. After Elizabeth’s death Arthur’s own health began to fail and he spent much of his time at the Eversfield Hotel, St. Leonards – on -Sea. It was here that he died on the 2nd May 1938, aged 83. His funeral service at All. Saint’s, Huntingdon, took place a few days later on Friday May 6th 1938. They were both laid to rest in the Priory Road Cemetery in Huntingdon, Arthur’s father’s grave.

Arthur and Elizabeth were survived by two of their sons, Arthur and Graham Dilley.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to find out very much about Arthur Jnr except that he was a Clerk in Holy Orders in the 1911 census. He was living in Deritend, Birmingham and was an assistant priest at the Mission of Good Shepherd. In Arthur Snr’s obituary, in 1938, Arthur Jnr was referred to as ‘Mr’ whereas his brother Graham was referred to as Reverend.

After first joining his father, as an auctioneer, Graham followed his elder brother in choosing a life in the church. After attending boarding school at Malvern, Worcestershire he studied theology. In fact, when he enlisted in the Navy on 28th October 1914 his occupation was recorded as theological student. After serving on board the Pembroke III and President II Graham was discharged on 4th November 1915. Graham was the Rector at Saxby, Leicestershire but by the 1939 National Register he had taken a post in Market Harborough. Graham was also listed as a temporary Chaplain in the 1941 list of Royal Navy Volunteer reserves (World War II). He died on the 9th April 1949.

The youngest of Arthur and Elizabeth’s sons was Eric. In 1911 Eric was living in Hint, Tamworth, Staffordshire at The Vicarage, and was a medical student.

However, something momentous changed the course of his life as just three years later on the 21st October 1914 Eric enlisted in Guildford, Western Australia, and his occupation was recorded as farmer. On enlistment Eric joined the 11th Regiment Light Horse. Only a few months after enlisting, on the 16th May 1915, Eric departed from the port of Alexandria, his destination Gallipoli. Eric’s service during the Great War has been well documented by Cathy Sedgewick. (2)

We re-join Eric on the 19th May 1919 when he was examined by the Members of the Permanent Medical Referee Board in London. It was recorded that he was suffering from amputation of the left arm, 6” below the shoulder which was received in an accident while not on duty. It was decided that his earning capacity was limited. Unfortunately, on the 4th April 1921, aged just 30, Eric died of consumption at the Wingfield Residential Home, Devonport. Devonport is one of the largest Naval bases in Europe, so it appears that Eric was being cared for there. Eric was laid to rest in the Priory Road cemetery, Huntingdon, and is remembered alongside his parents.

Arthur Dilley Snr was a dynamic individual, and it has been suggested that ‘no man has devoted more energy on behalf of the public good’. Alongside his work as auctioneer, estate and land agent he took an active interest in many local, and national, societies and causes. It would be an injustice to his work just to list these, so it is my intention to cover a few of his most influential interests.

As a young businessman it was important to establish his own connections throughout Huntingdon. To this end, in 1875, Arthur joined the Freemasons in Huntingdon, becoming a member of the Socrates Lodge. He also became a member of the Loyal Hinchingbrooke Lodge of Oddfellows.

Like his father before him Arthur was a passionate advocate for agriculture. He was both a member, and secretary, of the Agricultural Society for 47 years. He lived through a time of upheaval and progress in agriculture and also championed ‘the cause of those whose declining years have been overshadowed by financial clouds’ through the work of the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Society. He was also Secretary of the Wool Fair Society.

Perhaps that most momentous event in his life was the Great War. During the war Arthur was instrumental in organising War Auctions which raised £26,000 for War Charities. In addition to this he was a member of the executive committee which controlled the livestock in the county during the war.

Arthur was also a Justice of the Peace, although he resigned this post in conformity with Lord Hailsham’s letter. In 1926, despite his age, he was also appointed as the High Sheriff for Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire.

One of Arthur’s most important occupations was land and estate management. In 1893 he was one of the founding members of the Auctioneer’s and Estate Agent’s Institute and in 1908 he was elected their President. In 1929 he was also elected President of the College of Estate Management in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. In recognition of his contribution the Institute commissioned his portrait in oils, by portraitist Sir. Arthur Stockdale Cope, and in 1927 it was exhibited at the Royal Academy.

Arthur did not forget education, health or leisure pursuits in his interests. He was President of the Literary and Scientific Institute and provided a bowling green for members. In 1927 he was also the oldest member of the Huntingdon Boat Club. He was a member of Hunts Beekeeper’ Association, the National Amateur Rowing Association and a loyal supporter of Huntingdon library. He also sat on the Huntingdon Hospital Committee.

It was only fitting that Arthur’s local endeavours were recognised nationally. In 1920 he received the MBE for war services and in 1927 he received a knighthood for political and public services in Huntingdonshire. The news of Arthur’s knighthood was well received by all and resulted in him receiving ‘shoals’ of telegrams, letters and telephone calls. Leading these congratulations were messages from The Lord Lieutenant the Earl of Sandwich and Colonel Proby. He was reported as being ‘naturally proud’ of the honour and saw it as ‘some recognition’ for the part ‘the dear little county’ of Huntingdonshire played, especially during the ‘momentous period of the war’.

It was Arthur’s decision to take a ‘less vigorous share in professional activities’ and the Conservative loss in Huntingdonshire, in 1923, that spurred him to action in politics. Arthur instigated the reorganisation of the Conservative Association and was rewarded by seeing Mr. C. Kenneth Murchison triumphantly return with the largest majority ‘ever recorded for a Conservative candidate in Huntingdonshire’. Arthur provided the Conservative Association with permanent offices in Huntingdon and of course ‘through his generous assistance’ the building of the Dilley Hall, for the Conservative party, in Fletton.

For my future blogs I would like to research and write about people, buildings, roads, or events in Fletton that interest you. please get in touch with your ideas.

(1) Dance schools include the City School of Dancing, the Horace and Pauline Parker School of Dancing and the Mavis School of Dance.

(2) My sincere thanks to the following websites: Photo courtesy of Dominic

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