The Stuart Guildhall

Trevor Fawcett

Edward Eyre, High Street, Bath c.1776 (Victoria Art Gallery, Bath)

Considering that it was the centre of Bath's administrative and judicial life for 150 years, as well as a common venue for Corporation celebrations, balls, plays, and other events, the Stuart Guildhall is oddly little known. Bath History vol. 2 gives the beginning and end of the story with Elizabeth Holland's account of the Guildhall's relocation in 1625 to its island site in the Market Place, and - on the front cover - Edward Eyre's view of the building on the eve of its demolition. But various puzzles remain.

The Guildhall proper stood over the open Market House, but whether it was erected directly on the foundations of the Tudor structure is uncertain. This point does affect John Wood's claim that the original design came from Inigo Jones, since one of Wood's arguments was the precise 2:1 ratio of the ground plan. (In favour of Jones he also argued that the end elevation was a perfect square, that the design and Ionic detailing followed ancient Roman precedent, and that Jones's mother was a Bathonian related to the Trymmes.) Even if the design did ultimately stem from Jones or a follower, it was erected by stonemasons more familiar with local vernacular and in time it underwent various alterations.

The first substantial change came with the insertion of a large round-headed window in the north front, probably involving the loss of an Ionic half-column from the middle of the upper storey. A likely date is early 1658 when much civic refurbishment took place on the occasion of Lord Protector Richard Cromwell's visit. But while a Council meeting in December agreed to have move light added to the Counsell house, there is no obvious record in the Chamberlain's Accounts except a bill for glazing in 1658. According to the Bath Advertiser (22 November 1755) the overlarge new window not only spoiled the elevation but weakened the structure, so that the building had to be reinforced by diagonal buttresses at each corner, displacing the original double columns.

The later story is clearer. The building of a smart new Pump Room (1706) and Assembly Room (1708-9) must have made the Guildhall seem old-fashioned. In 1710 it was resolved to have it wainscotted and the casement windows changed to fashionable sashed form, though no action was taken until 1718, when Robert Gay gave 100 for the purpose and was rewarded with the city freedom and a seat in Parliament.

A more fundamental modification followed in 1724-5 when the internal stair from the Market House into the south side of the Guildhall chamber was removed, enlarging the latter by a fifth. The whole south end was rebuilt, with a new staircase and extra rooms, apparently under the direction of William Killigrew, who had recently been responsible for the Bluecoat School, St. John's Chapel, and the new ballroom at Harrison's. Richard Jones, soon to become Ralph Allen's clerk of works, worked on this extension, which however his brief autobiography (Bath Reference Library MS) attributes to one College, a Sidmouth architect at that time in Bath. This time there was no benefactor and a further 200 had to be borrowed from the city's chief creditor, Walter Estcourt, to finish the job. In 1727 the vaulting of the Market House was at last completed and four years later the ground floor parlour became an office for the Town Clerk. Head of Minerva (Roman Baths Museum)

Meanwhile the Council chamber had been half transformed into a municipal art gallery. Thomas Quilly's royal and city arms (painted in 1632 but often touched up since) had long been part of the decor, but in 1728 the series of Council portraits commissioned by Marshall Wade from Van Diest was put on show, with Wade's own portrait added in 1731. More pictures were hung later: the Prince and Princess of Wales, a further set of Van Diest portraits, and eventually Nash, Camden, and Pitt. The bronze head of Minerva dug up in 1727 was also on display.

Various mid-18th-century visitors mention the stone-built Guildhall, its neat Council Room, and the figures of King Edgar and the mythical King Coel peeping out from niches above the fishmonger's stalls. Besides official business, civic entertainments continued to be held there - like the balls and suppers given by Thomas Potter, the new Recorder, in 1758, and by local MPs Pitt, Ligonier and Seabright in 1761 and 1763. But physically the Guildhall was now in poor shape. In 1747 it had to be supported on cast-iron props. In 1758 the roof needed repair. In 1760 the structure was described as ruinous and Ralph Allen offered 500 towards a replacement. By 1766 it seemed on the verge of collapse for it leans already considerably (Samuel Derrick, Letters), and soon afterwards the roof and walls had to be cramped to prevent further spreading.

The protracted wheeling-and-dealing that led to the erection of a magnificent successor has been described by Walter Ison in Georgian Buildings of Bath. The moment Thomas Baldwin's new Guildhall became habitable and before the workmen were even out, the Council fled its former home and sold off the materials for 161 on Easter Monday, 1777. Thomas Malton produced an aquatint later that year showing the Market Place cleared and the traffic-encumbering Stuart Guildhall gone for good.

First published in History of Bath Research Group Newsletter no. 17 (January 1992).