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The Guildhall – High Street

Page updated 14th July 2014

Apart from the Cathedral, Exeter’s Guildhall has witnessed more historic events than any other building in the city. It is the civic centre of Exeter, and historically, the secular counterbalance to the ecclesiastical power emanating from the Cathedral.

It has functioned as a prison, a court house, a police station, a place for civic functions and celebrations, a city archive store, a woollen market hall, and as the meeting place for the City Chamber and Council. On an upper balcony in the main hall, there is on display the City’s silver. A Long Sword and Cap of Maintenance that were said to have been presented to Exeter by Henry VII, after Perkin Warbeck tried to usurp the throne in 1497. Exeter defiantly defended itself against the impostor, and proudly displays the sword. A sword that belonged to Admiral Nelson and the silver control handle from Exeter’s first electric tram in 1905, are also housed in the display cases.

The ancient office of Recorder of Exeter presided at the Guildhall from 1352 at a then cost of £3 per year. The Guildhall also contains the Mayor’s Parlour, where Mayors, ancient and modern, have entertained guests of the city. It is known there was a Guild in Exeter by 1000 AD, and the site of the Guildhall may have been in use as a hall from then. Parts of the Guildhall can be traced back to 1160, although in common with many ancient buildings, it has undergone 'makeovers' through the ages, creating a patchwork of styles and additions. John Hooker’s history noted:

1330—that this year the Guildhall of the city of Exeter was builded—Hooker

He was probably referring to a major reconstruction of the existing structure. The roof timbers and walls are thought to date from 1466. Dendrochronology or tree-ring dating of the timbers give a range between 1463 and 1498.

1466—Memorandum this year order was taken for new building of the Guildhall which was then very ruinous and in great decay and forthwith all things necessary for the same was provided and the house builded.—Hooker

The Frontage

Richard Crossing wrote in 1591 "The front of the Guildhall pulled down & begun to be built." Then Richard Izacke noted in 1592 "The fore part of the Guildhall was new built. Our citizens paid their wages for this service in Parliament at 4s per diem." Even the Elizabethan citizens had to cough up for the City Council's building schemes! This work resulted in the distinct stone pillars and arched entrance that has become the hallmark of the building. And through its entrance have passed many, to be lauded and some to be condemned, in the long history of the City.

The Portico

It is thought that before the portico was constructed, the Guildhall contained a chapel and council room, with a modest covered way over the street, of stone posts and a pitched, lead roof. The present structure has four granite columns dating from 1593, which, along with the columns at each end of the front wall, cost £19 19s –the granite came from Blackingstone quarry on Dartmoor. Forty loads of Beerstone were purchased for the corbels and upper structure, while oak from the then city owned Duryard woods, to the north, was also used. The total cost of the rebuilding was £791 6s 7d which was met by the City with contributions from the guilds. The front was once richly coloured and traces of blue, cream, red and gold have been found on the stonework. The High Street was the venue for the weekly market before it was moved to the Higher and Lower Markets in the 1830s.

The front of the Guildhall was the focal point for the market–there is still a hook in the ceiling that was used to hang the scales for weighing meat, wool, corn and other goods. There was originally a second storey over the portico, which had a central stone Royal Coat of Arms by mason Arnold Hamlyn who lived in Guinea Street. It cost, along with the carving of the capitals on the façade, 6s 8d. The top storey was removed in 1709 and replaced with a balcony with a stone balustrade and two flagpoles.

The huge, oak carved door to the interior dates from 1593 and was made by Nicholas Baggett. The walls are constructed of Heavitree stone from Exminster, although they are plastered over. The walls and windows on each side date from about 1460, while the main window at the end of the hall is Victorian. The main hall was regularly used for Courts of Quarter Sessions and Courts of the Assizes. where cases ranging from disturbing the peace to murder were held. The oak panelling around the main hall probably dates from 1594 when the portico was added. In the centre of one side is a niche containing a bust of Queen Victoria to commemorate her Golden Jubilee in 1887. The Mayor’s chair is surmounted with the City arms and the inscription ‘Chr Bale: Mayor 1697’.

The roof timbers consist of moulded arch-braces that rest on stone corbels carved into the heads of rampant beasts, and dates from 1467–1469. Over the portico is the former Council Chamber, and from 1903, the Mayor's Parlour–it is now used for smaller receptions and civic occasions.

Over the cells, at the rear, there was built the city water tank, a large, lead container that was filled by the water engine, constructed in 1694, just below Head Weir. Elm log pipes, 18 inches in diameter, transported the water to the tank, from where water-bearers would fill their buckets in Waterbeer Street, to supply those rich enough to pay for the service. When Celia Fiennes visited Exeter, a few years after the tank was completed, she wrote that it could contain 600 hogshead (31,500 gallons) of water. The tank was removed in 1838, to the relief of the prisoners below who had to suffer from drips and dampness, when the water supply for Exeter was moved to Pynes after the cholera outbreak of 1832. A jury room, and later, a muniments or records room replaced the tank. The room is now used as a Committee Room and for weddings. The oak panelling was taken from Polsloe Priory and is seventeenth century. The police station moved from the Guildhall to Waterbeer Street, at the rear of the Building, in 1888.

The twentieth century

Three portraits of past Mayors hang in the Committee Room at the rear of the Guildhall, while a portrait, painted by Samuel Cooper, of Princess Henrietta Anne, (1644 to 1670) who was born in Exeter, hangs in the main hall. A portrait of General Monk KG who was instrumental in restoring the monarchy in 1660, and founding the Coldstream Guards, also hangs on a side wall.
Admiral Nelson, was given the freedom of the city in the Guildhall in 1801, before dining at the Royal Clarence. The officers and men of HMS Exeter, marched with fixed bayonets down the High Street to the Guildhall, where Captain Bell was presented with a silver bottle, in the shape of the Guildhall, for their action against the German pocket battleship, Graf Spee in 1939. The cameras of Pathe News filmed the event, which was held on a platform outside the Guildhall. They were described as "citizens of Exeter, afloat" by the Mayor.

The court

Judge Jeffreys, presided over the ‘Bloody Assizes’ at the Guildhall, after the defeat of the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion of 1685. Within the walls of the main hall, criminals were sentenced to transportation, prison and the gallows. A cellar beneath the mace sergeants office, at the front of the building dates from the 14th-century. It was used as a prison and referred to as the 'pytt of the Guyldhall.' The City’s stocks, pillory and armour were all stored there. The rear of the Guildhall contains four, ground floor female cells, that replaced in 1838, two cells from 1558. The cells were last used in 1887, although prisoners on remand were still incarcerated in them until more recent times–they are now a store.

The last to be sentenced to hang for murder, at the Guildhall, was 20 year old Brian Gordon Churchill, who on the afternoon of Thursday 30 October 1952, was sentenced by Judge Mr Justice Devlin to the ultimate penalty. He had been found guilty of stabbing to death 17 year old Jean Agnes Burnett on the top floor of a bus, in the High Street. His sentence was reprieved by the Home Secretary on the 17 November. The last time the building served as a court was in 1971.

In earlier times, the City stocks were placed beneath the central arch of the entrance — handy for hecklers. James Cossins’ described the scene in 1830:

Occasionally a member of the feminine sex had to undergo the same degrading position, much to the amusement and jests of a gazing crowd, the salutations were numerous, such a Molly, Betty, &c., "She arn’t there for taking too much tea," "Look at her boxey ancles," or, "What a beautiful lark heel she has, any body can see she belongs to the aristocracy, being decorated with a garter.

The Guildhall survived the bombing of the Second War–one Exonian wrote at the time to her son in the RAF:

"The Guildhall has been bricked up, It is like going through a tunnel on the pavement under the arches."

The sandbags and bricks have long been removed and we are left with the oldest civic building in the country. Many locals have never been inside the Guildhall, which is a shame, as so much of Exeter's history revolves around this ancient centre of civic pride. The Guildhall has been listed Grade I since 1953, and is a scheduled ancient monument.

Source - Including, Two Thousand Years in Exeter by W G Hoskins, extract from letter supplied by James Bell, Exeter City Guide 1951, Exeter Architecture by Hugh Meller, Chronicles of Exeter by Todd Gray for the extracts from Hooker. Richard Izacke, James Cossins Reminiscences of Exeter Fifty Years Since.

The Guildhall in earlier times.

A carriage calls at the Guildhall.

The Guildhall at night.

Beautifully lit at night.

Set up as a court room.

Set up ready for a trial, before 1971.

The last Assize Court in 1971.

The last Assizes in 1971.

The main hall looking towards the gallery.

The gallery in the main hall.

The interior looking towards the rear.

The Judges bench at the rear of the main hall.

The Judge's chair.

The Royal Coat of Arms over the judges seat.

The barrell vaulted roof.

The barrell vaulted roof in the main hall.

The Sword of Maintenance.

The precious sword of Maintenance.

Window of a cell.

Window out of one of the cells.

Building the brick protection in 1940.

Building the brick blast wall in 1940.

The High Street from the arches.

The High Street from the Guildhall entrance.


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