Ipswich Icons: False starts are history, so sing happy birthday

Ipswich Town Hall resplendent in bright sunshine. Picture: JOHN NORMAN

Ipswich Town Hall resplendent in bright sunshine. Picture: JOHN NORMAN - Credit: Archant

Ipswich Town Hall will be 150 years old in January. John Norman looks at its story – one rarely dull.

The landmark building on the Cornhill captured in another age. Picture: WILLIAM VICK

The landmark building on the Cornhill captured in another age. Picture: WILLIAM VICK - Credit: Archant

The history of the town hall (Moot Hall) throughout the 19th century is one of a building hardly fit for purpose, of architectural competitions that led to nothing (or worse, awarding the first prize to an unsuitable design) and the refronting of a half-demolished church as a temporary measure.

The new front was on St Mildred’s, a church that hadn’t been used for religious purposes for some time but instead had been the Moot (or Town) Hall.

It was described by GR Clark as “a homely, uncouth specimen of architecture”.

The Moot Hall lasted 25 years before yet another architectural competition was held (1864), which eventually led to the present building.

Immediately east of the Palladian-fronted Moot Hall were two buildings: an old pub originally the Three Tuns Inn but more recently named The Corn Exchange Tavern, and Richard Cole’s shop.

The corporation were keen to purchase both premises but Richard Cole, a clock and watch maker with a prominent position on the corner of King Street (today Princes Street) was reluctant to sell. He held out for a premium and eventually won at arbitration, represented by Ipswich solicitor Jackaman & Son.

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Another design competition: this time arranged by the Royal Institute of British Architects, which by now had laid down a set of rules to solve some of the problems experienced in the past.

However, the results of the competition brought yet more argument into the council chamber, including a suggestion that they pay the £150 first prize money and immediately do something different!

The architects were Bellamy and Harris of Lincoln, who had some credible public buildings in their portfolio, including the acclaimed Louth Town Hall. The construction contract was signed in October, 1865, and the demolition of the old building started immediately.

In April, 1866, there was a procession from County Hall in St Helen’s Street consisting of hundreds of invited dignitaries and representatives of local organisations. They were greeted by a crowd of thousands on the Cornhill, so many that the mayor and his party had difficulty getting to the building site.

The purpose of this civic celebration was the laying of the foundation stone by the architect, Pearson Bellamy, ably assisted by Edward Gibbons, the contractor, using a silver trowel, polished oak mallet and engraved level.

The mayor, Ebenezer Goddard, supervised as they buried new coins in the mortar, together with copies of the day’s newspapers. (We are trying to locate the silver trowel). The party retired to the Assembly Rooms in Northgate Street for a banquet given by the mayor.

The building was finished in December, 1867, and opened on January 28, 1868. It was a multifunctional building housing the Quarter Sessions Court, the Magistrates Court, the Council Chamber, a room to house the town library and an array of ancillary rooms to support these functions.

The police station was on the lower ground floor, with the cells under the front steps, and the town’s fire appliance was stored in the centre of this floor. It was wheeled out into King Street every morning and the space was used for the parade of officers receiving their daily briefing.

The Court Room (now the café) is 34 by 30 feet, with the ceiling 21 feet above the floor. In the centre of the ceiling is a glass dome rising a further 12 feet. The Recorder sat on an elegant seat in the recess on the right-hand side of the room. Later in the life of the building the judge’s chair was moved to the opposite side of the room, onto the elevated platform.

When the room was used as a magistrates’ court the dock was directly opposite the entrance door, with a staircase leading down to the cells in the police station. Over 100 years a number of council functions were moved into rooms in the town hall, first being the borough surveyor, who had a room overlooking King Street.

In 1971 the new Civic Centre opened and the town hall (and Corn Exchange) was converted into an entertainment complex. Although the Corn Exchange initially succeeded in the new role, the use of the town hall for public meetings, formal dinners and other functions has died away.

What can you remember about Ipswich Town Hall? Write to the secretary of the Ipswich Society before Christmas by sending an email here.

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