The best of Dorset in words and pictures

A chequered history but a secure future?

The Guildhall, with its sweeping double stairway leading on to Market Street, is one of Poole’s iconic buildings. It has recently found a new purpose, as John Newth reports.

19th century view of guildhall,poole
A 19th-century view of the Guildhall from Market Street

Most people probably remember Poole’s Guildhall during one of the sadder phases of its existence: the sixteen years from 1991 to 2007 when it was unused and unloved, closed to the public and almost derelict. It was a low time for a building which occupies such a prominent position, today poised between the old and the new quarters of Poole, and one which has played such an important part in the history of the town.

the Council Chamber of guildhall,poole
An old photograph of the Council Chamber

The 18th century was in many ways the golden age for Poole. The Newfoundland trade was at its peak and the great merchant families – the Lesters, Jolliffes and Garlands – were establishing impressive Georgian mansions in what is now Poole Old Town. It was against this background that Poole Corporation decided in 1761 to build itself a new Guildhall.

The total cost was a whopping (in those days) £2250, but £1500 of that was underwritten by the town’s two MPs, Joseph Gulston and Thomas Calcraft. The plan was to create on the first floor a council chamber of suitable grandeur for the newly prosperous town; this would also serve as a court room. The ten open arcades on the ground floor would provide space for the meat market held on Mondays and Thursdays.

 A rather charming linocut of guildhall,poole
A rather charming linocut, probably from the 1930s

For almost the next 200 years, until 1932, the Guildhall was (with a few hiccups) the meeting-place for Poole Corporation and its successor, the Town Council. The two centuries were not without their turbulent years. In the 19th century, the Newfoundland trade collapsed and the town went from riches almost to rags. In fact, the Guildhall was at one stage made over to a former town clerk by order of a court, in payment of debts he was owed. He in turn let it to a farmer for £50 a year!

Earlier in the 19th century, the building had done duty as the parish church. Between 1819 and 1821, while the old St James’s was pulled down and the present church erected, the Guildhall was consecrated as a substitute and during that time was the only Anglican church in Poole.

Another 19th-century excitement came in 1886 when a Poole man, John King, was left to fend for his sisters and mother following the untimely death of his father, a Harbour pilot. He wanted to take over his father’s boat and job but the councillor responsible for such matters, Horatio Hamilton, consistently refused. King, convinced that he was being victimised and that Hamilton was acting in his own interests, bought a revolver and bullets and, waylaying Hamilton after a Council meeting in the Guildhall, emptied the revolver into him. It is said that the bullet-holes can still be seen near the north-east corner of the building.

The guildhall,poole
The surrounding buildings may have changed, but the Guildhall itself today looks much as it did in the photograph above

Having retrieved the building from the former town clerk and his agricultural tenant, the Council continued to use it until the Municipal Buildings (now the Civic Centre) were opened in 1932. The meat market had long since yielded to butchers’ shops and was of little rental value. While they were still deliberating what to do with the Guildhall, World War 2 intervened. A bomb demolished the town’s old slipper baths (on the site of the present Salvation Army premises) and the arcaded ground floor was converted to replacement facilities to serve the tenements and other buildings of Old Poole where the washing facilities were often at best rudimentary. In 1944 the building did service as a canteen and club, especially for American troops preparing for D-Day. It was only in the 1960s, when the face of the Old Town was transformed, that the slipper baths became redundant.

After the war, what had been the council chamber was used as an art school and then, having been leased to Dorset County Council, as an adjunct to Poole College. In 1957, Dorset CC gave up its lease and once again the Guildhall languished, with no-one quite sure what to do with it.

A town as historic as Poole naturally had its own museum, but in the 1960s it was housed in unsatisfactory premises in what is now Lagland Street, where it had been since before 1900. It was a logical decision to move it to a building like the Guildhall, which was renovated at a cost of £60,000 and re-opened as the Guildhall Museum in 1972.

It might have seemed that the future of the building was secure, but in less than twenty years, the Council had another re-think and decided to bring all its museum services and material together in the new Waterfront building at the bottom on the High Street, or in adjacent buildings such as Scaplens Court. Once again the Guildhall was abandoned and in danger of becoming semi-derelict.

When the rules regarding premises for civil marriages were relaxed, it was suggested that the Guildhall could be used for that purpose. Christine Stainton, who is now Poole’s Chief Registrar, backed the idea of going even further and moving the whole of the Registration Department from its then home in an annexe to the Civic Centre. It would need sensitive conversion of the grade II* listed building and close consultation with local heritage groups as well as English Heritage, but the Council grasped the nettle and gave the go-ahead.

In fact, the whole thing took barely two years from conception to reality. Challenges like putting a lift into such an historic building were overcome, as were the special legal requirements of a register office such as a strongroom for the safe storage of records. The old council chamber, with its distinctive balconies, became the 120-seat main room for ceremonies, while a partition was installed in what had been the jury retiring room to create a small room for more intimate marriages.

To help decide on a decoration scheme for the main room, a paint analysis was done on the walls which went right back to the original 18th-century paint – apparently a shade of light blue. However, when a trial area was painted, no-one involved liked it (quite apart from questions over its suitability as a background colour for wedding photographs) and the colour scheme is now a light cream with the woodwork in a light mushroom. The effect is very elegant and it is hard to imagine the 18th-century MPs or councillors disapproving.

Down Market Street near the guildhall,poole
A much less common view, looking the other way – down Market Street

The building opened for business last summer and was officially commissioned by Princess Anne in October. The transformation has been almost universally welcomed – ‘People are so happy to see this beautiful building being used,’ says Christine Stainton – but the building has also proved remarkably suitable for the administrative and other offices of the Registration Department. Some fourteen staff work at the Guildhall and it is hard not to envy them their beautiful surroundings. Between 300 and 400 weddings a year are held there, as well as civil partnership and citizenship ceremonies, which suggests that in barely a year, its fitness for purpose has been triumphantly proved. How splendid it would be if its use could be extended to include small-scale events such as chamber music, talks and meetings. The Guildhall has had a chequered history, but perhaps at last it has a secure future.

The former Council Chamber in the guildhall,poole
The former Council Chamber lends itself exceptionally well to weddings and other ceremonies

Dorset Directory