SURFWORCESTER

 


THE GUILDHALL

HIGH STREET

WORCESTER

 

BUILT BETWEEN 1721 & 1723, IN THE QUEEN ANNE STYLE. THE ASSEMBLY ROOM IS ONE OF THE MOST BEAUTIFULLY DECORATED ITALIANATE ROOMS IN THE COUNTRY.

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THE HISTORY OF THE GUILDHALL

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In 1227 the citizens of Worcester were granted a charter by Henry III which, among other privileges, permitted the establishment of a guild of merchants to control trade within the City. Their hall, the Guildhall, rapidly became the centre for administration of the City as well as the local court of justice. Despite rebuilding and the dis- appearance of the guild of merchants, the original name has been retained, and Worcester's town hall continues to be known as the guildhall.
The building that was replaced by the present Guildhall was a timber-framed structure with a rather longer High Street frontage than now, but occupying the same site. The High Street frontage was constructed as a piazza containing a row of shops. The hall itself contained the courts of justice, one at each end, with the prison to the north; this included a notorious dungeon called "the peephole". Close by, adjoining the gaolers's house, was an alehouse from which he sold very expensive beer to such of the prisoners as could afford it. In addition to its judicial use, plays were acted in the hall and tennis played there. Perhaps for this reason, it was a rule that when any citizen became a member of the Corporation, his fees included 16s 8d "towards the glass windows"
The decision to rebuild the Guildhall was taken in March 1717, but, probably because of financial difficulties, work was not begun until 1721. The architect of the new Hall was Thomas White, a native of Worcester who served his apprenticeship by 1705, when he was admitted a Freeman of the City for having carved the statue of Queen Anne which now occupies a niche over the entrance to the Guildhall, but which originally stood on a pedestal in front of the old building. He died in 1738, by which time the City owed him £165 outstanding from the annuity of £30 granted him in 1724. (White left this money to Worcester Royal Infirmary, and it was finally paid in 1753).
Shortage of money seems to have been a problem throughout the period of the building. The cost was £3,727, of which £800 was provided by the Corporation, the remainder being raised by subscription. As much of the building as could be spared was let; even the Kitchen, scullery and cellars had tenants who were given a week's notice to quit when these were required for entertainments.
The main block of the Guildhall was completed in 1724, and has changed little since then. It is of brick, with elaborate and extensive stone dressings, nine bays wide (excluding the wings). The central three bays, framed by giant Corinthian pillars, support an elaborate war-like trophy carved (and signed) by White and incorporating the Hanoverian Royal arms. White also, as already mentioned, carved the statue of Queen Anne above the main entrance, and recut those of Charles I (holding a church) and Charles II (with orb and sceptre) on either side. The five figures on the parapet of the building representing, from left to right, Hercules (as labour), Peace, Justice (in the centre), Plenty and Chastisement (with an axe) - probably designed, if not actually carved by White. The whole of the exterior of the Guildhall has recently undergone an extensive restoration.
The two wings of the building were originally completely self-contained and were built in slightly later, the north wing in 1725 and the south wing in 1727. The south wing was used as the Judge's Lodging during the Assizes until 1835 when the county courts moved to the newly erected Shirehall and the judges to the Lodgings there.
At other times it was a popular coffee house, and for the most of the 19th century both wings contained shops. The iron gates and railings were erected in 1750, although a considerable amount of new work had to be inserted during the 1880 restoration. The building was considered well-adapted to its triple judicial, civic and social functions. The lower Hall had two Courts towards the back of the building, with two rooms, one for tea and one for cards, above these. On the top floor was the Council Chamber, later known as the Assembly Room (and in fact serving both functions). In 1764 the building was described thus: "The whole of this elegant fabric is extremely well adapted to every purpose it was intended for, having every necessary office for furnishing the splendid feasts occasionally made therein, and every accommodation for a genteel reception of the mobility and the gentry, who at public times honour it with their presence". The most genteel reception" of all was that on the morning of 8th August 1788, when King George Ill, who with Queen Charlotte and three of the princesses were attending the Three Choirs Festival, paid a visit to the Corporation at the Guildhall. He pronounced the Assembly Room "a handsome gallery" and drank a toast "Prosperity to the City and the Corporation of Worcester". The portrait of the King still hanging in the Assembly Room was presented by him to the City to commemorate this visit. A few years later, in 1791, the room was redesigned by the architect George Byfield. The carved apses at each end, together with their columns, date from this period.
A major restoration of the Guildhall took place during the 1870's under the supervision of Sir Gilbert Scott (until his death in 1878) and the City Architect, Henry Rowe. The need for extensive renovation had been noticed as early as 1866, but there was considerable discussion as to the form this work should take. In 1872 an architectural competition was advertised, plans being sought for both the entire re-building of the Guildhall, (plans submitted were in the fashionable Gothic style), and for the reconstruction and extension of the existing building. During the early months of 1873 it was decided to reconstruct rather than rebuild, but the controversy continued and it was not until 1877 that the work was begun. The Guildhall was reopened on 31st March 1880, with a banquet in the Assembly Room held by the mayor, the antiquarian John Noake.
This restoration left the Guildhall very much as we see it today, though the Sessions and Magistrates Courts are no longer held there (and the court rooms have been converted into a committee room and the Mayor's parlour respectively). The two wings of the building were converted into offices for corporation officers, entrances to them being cut at either end of the Lower Hall. The Assembly Room was once again redesigned, the coved and painted Italiante Ceiling replacing the simpler mouldings of Byfield's work. At the same time new furniture, "of the Queen Anne style", and designed by Henry Rowe was made for use throughout the building.


Below left - Election of the City Auditors at the Guildhall about 1910
Below right - The royal visit of 1932. The Prince of Wales, later EdwardVIII, outside the Guildhall