St John's Hall wing owners in talks to safeguard future
A 200-YEAR-OLD organisation hounded by in-fighting over recent years says it has finally laid its demons to rest.
The Royal Geological Society of Cornwall (RGSC) has had a bumpy few years culminating in its Penzance base at St John's Hall being shut over public safety fears.
Now the group has decided to continue negotiations with Cornwall Council over the future of the hall, while safeguarding the building and the society's presence in the town.
"The RGSC has been in the news a number of times for various reasons," said secretary and former president Roger Holmes. "We have put the bad times behind us now and are looking forward to serving the membership and the community as our founders intended 200 years ago."
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The society's home at the Alverton Road building has been boarded up for a number of years and many of the group's unique collections moved elsewhere.
The police were called in at one point as separate society factions squabbled over the ownership of the collection.
The building itself has also been a cause for concern.
Mr Holmes said the RGSC, which recently elected Cornwall councillor Neil Plummer as its president, had been struggling to pay for the upkeep of the west wing. Concrete plaster work, woodwork and flooring is all said to be in need of serious attention.
A rough estimate put the works at around £1.2 million but Mr Holmes added that with any listed building, there were always other issues lurking below the surface.
The contentious sale of the society's library of specimens, ripping apart a valuable scientific and historic collection, has ironically helped the group to hold out and stay put at St John's Hall for so long.
"Our main source of money came from the sale of the library but that is a non-replaceable source. The money has been running down to keep the building more or less legal."
Some of the specimens were sold to collectors from America but the vast majority went to the British Geological Survey in Nottingham.
But there are hopes that the East Midlands venue will allow some of the collection to be returned and put on permanent display in the county.
Cornwall Council has plans to develop St John's Hall further and move staff from nearby St Clare to the historic granite building.
As part of the negotiations over the sale of the west wing, the RGSC have been told they will have use of any of the proposed three public spaces for meetings. Two of the group's prized assets – a geological map of the British Isles made in the early 19th century and an Atlantic grey whale bone dug up in St Austell – will stay at the hall.
Despite the positive noises and plans to move forward, there is still a small level of dissent.
"There is a little group of people based in Penzance that are worried we are turning our back on the town and forgetting our roots," said Mr Holmes, adding that the society was instead trying to be more inclusive of its growing membership across the county.
While talks with the RGSC have been ongoing, Cornwall Council refused to comment when contacted by The Cornishman for an update on the plans for St John's Hall.