Dating a difficult building in Dorchester
Jo Draper finally manages to decipher the complex history of one of Dorchester’s most impressive edifices – and of Dorchester’s first takeaway
Published in September ’13
I have been working on the history of Dorchester for well over forty years, and there are still puzzles (even with fairly recent buildings) that annoy me. The plain, severely classical Lloyds Bank building on the corner of High West Street and Cornhill was one of these puzzles. A precise date for the building has always been difficult and, like other people, I have rather vaguely called it ‘earlier Victorian’ in an insecure way.
I have been reading the Dorset County Chronicle, the newspaper published in Dorchester, from its start in 1821. This is a slow job – as a fellow researcher said, even on microfilm, old newspapers give off a noxious gas which makes one read everything, including advertisements. Progress is slow, but I have got up to 1851. In 1832 the newspaper was described as ‘being conducted on conservative principles, and in unison with those of the Church of England, enjoying a very numerous and highly respected circulation, which is constantly increasing’ (James Savage). The conservatism and respectability can make the paper hard going.
I do believe I shouted, though, when I found the paper (in July 1835) as usual boasting about Dorchester, but with some detail: ‘The many improvements which are constantly made in this town [Dorchester] are rapidly raising it to a situation of pre-eminence amongst towns in the West. The new handsome building erected for the bank of Messrs Williams & Co. will, when completed, form a noble addition to the appearance of the town. The frontage is now fully open to the street, and displays great architectural beauty in the design and great superiority in the execution. When finished, this splendid edifice will be one of the most prominent features of the town.’
It was so good finally to have an exact date for the bank, whose façade was complete by the summer of 1835. This means that it is not even early Victorian; Victoria came to the throne in 1837, so William IV was King when the bank was built.
There had been purpose-built banks in London from the 1750s, mostly looking like smart town houses and smaller than this Dorchester bank. From 1800, bank buildings were larger, designed to impress potential customers. The ground floor of these buildings was the banking hall, and the lower part of Williams’s bank had three large windows on the ground floor lighting the banking hall. This must have been the first purpose-built bank in Dorchester. The newspaper was always keen to mention locals, and because no architect is mentioned he was probably not local. Specialised bank architects existed by the 1820s, so perhaps Williams used one such here.
The bank even features in Cooke’s Dorsetshire (1836): ‘The handsome new building erected for the bank of Messrs Williams & Co. displays great architectural beauty in its design, and great superiority in the execution, and forms one of the most prominent features of the town’. Cooke is simply copying what was said in the Dorset County Chronicle, but it does emphasise how prominent the building was.
Even this fine building became too small for the bank. The Dorset County Chronicle reported in 13 November 1902 that the Wilts & Dorset and Williams & Co. banks had amalgamated and would have only one office. However, there was to be ‘an extension of Messrs R & R Williams’ old offices in High West Street’ to give ‘handsome and imposing frontages to High West Street and Cornhill’. The Wilts & Dorset were to close their branch in High East Street.
The bank was expanding round the corner, taking over the premises of Howe’s, bakers, pastry-chefs and cook. Stephen Biggs had established the firm in 1837, when he advertised that he was making ‘alterations for the superior accommodation of the Public in providing a convenient SOUP and REFRESHMENT ROOM’. He also advertised ‘Dinners, Desserts, Ball and Rout Suppers, furnished with elegance and variety’. This may be Dorchester’s earliest cafe and takeaway, but Biggs’s and subsequently Howe’s were very up-market. Long before the new bank could be begun, new premises for Mr Howe had to be built alongside. These survive in Cornhill, right next door to the bank. The newspaper liked it: ‘an imposing stone front and a commodious and ornate shop’ designed by the local architect Mr J Feacey. Howe’s closed one day on the corner and re-opened the very next day next door.
The new parts of the bank were designed by a London architect, and inevitably the Chronicle found it ‘handsome and imposing’ when it was finished in November 1902: ‘The building is of Portland Stone, and continues the quiet impressive architecture of Messrs Williams’ old office.’ The main part of the building is indeed a copy of the earlier bank, but the entrances are much more Edwardian, ‘some special emphasis being given to the bank entrances by a bold treatment of granite columns and door jambs…. Internally the ground floor is entirely devoted to the bank’s business … the Banking room is handsomely finished with oak doors, panelled dado and columns, and is furnished with mahogany counter and desks.…’ The new banking hall, which incorporated Williams’s 1835 hall, was fifty feet long. Amazingly, most of the columns and the decorated ceiling still survive in what is still an impressively large room. The mahogany has gone.
In 1902 there were two managers’ rooms, one for the district manager and one for the manager of this bank. These offices can still be traced in the ceiling decoration, and one survives as an office. The strong rooms were in the basement and ‘are approached from a lobby which communicates with the banking room by a hydraulic lift’.
Wilts & Dorset were taken over by Lloyds in April 1914, and Lloyds removed the big inscription running round the bank above the ground-floor windows. However, the elaborate carving over the main entrance survives with ‘W&D’. It is surprising that the banking hall built in 1835 for Williams’s Bank still survives as half of the current hall. It has performed the same function for nearly 180 years.