The Town Hall 1555-1887

town hall
Was this building, pictured in 1860, converted into the Guildhall we know today

WITHOUT doubt the most imposing building in the town is the Victorian Guildhall, designed by George Vialls and built in 1887-88.

However, the blue plaque on the building states incorrectly that the building stands on the site of an earlier Elizabethan (16th century) town hall.

The Elizabethan theory has been seen as fact for a very long time and various historians have ascribed to this fallacy. The exception being the founder and first curator of the museum, V.W. Wingrave, who identified the site as being adjacent to Gosling Bridge in Coombe Street.

Wingrave, however, did not provide any evidence, therefore Wanklyn and Fowles, among others, rejected his claim.

In 2002, while researching my book ‘Elizabethan Lyme Regis’, I found the evidence to support Wingrave’s assertion. The mayor’s accounts for 1515 clearly record that the Elizabethan town hall was “in the Millhill or pit by the mill” it being close to Pawlmers Mill at Millgreen and Gosling Bridge.

In 1612 the building was in need of repair and, once again, the mayor’s accounts record “a sum of £30 (estimated at £4,000 today) for the improvement and repair of the town hall in the Millhill, the store house being taken in”.

Gosling Bridge was on the town’s main thoroughfare, historically known as the ‘Kings Highway’. It was the main way in and out of the town and therefore an appropriate site for the town’s legislative and judicial building.

So when did a town hall exist on the site of the present Guildhall? The Siege of Lyme (1644) during the Civil War saw Gaiche’s Fort, a defensive earthen structure built close to the town hall. Millgreen came under heavy fire from a Royalist battery situated on the hilly slope above Gosling Bridge.

Records show that many of the wooden and thatched buildings in the town were burnt (fire arrows) or damaged (cannon balls) during the siege. It is probable that the town hall was one of the buildings so damaged and hence the need to replace it.

The accounts for 1647-63 indicate a sum equivalent to £2,000 being spent on repairs and alterations to the town hall. It included building a new gallery and stairs, itemised was ‘clensing and fitting ye Town Armes.’

The work refers to a building close to Gun Cliff, the records make no mention building a new town hall.

The Guildhall as we know it today

We need to consider the strong possibility that it was a conversion of an existing building. The photograph above circa 1860 depicts a shabby building more akin to a warehouse (which it may well have been) than a town hall. It matches a description of that period which describes it as ‘a dingy cottage worth about £10 a year and dignified by the name of town hall.’

The Elizabethan, and the later building, are recorded in the archives as being the Town Hall, both Roberts and Wanklyn use the same terminology.

The grand building we have today needed a name to match its appearance and so, in true Victorian manner, they designated it as a Guildhall.

The blue plaque also makes a misleading reference to Sir George Somers; it needs to refer to the Western Rebellion and the Duke of Monmouth’s Proclamation (1685) made outside the 17th century town hall.

Peter Lacey
Author and historian

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