Colchester’s New Town Hall

by Andrew Phillips

Local historian

 

Colchester Town Hall — impressive even on a grey day
Colchester Town Hall — impressive even on a grey day

Colchester’s present town hall was a long time coming. In 1844 a less-than-prosperous Colchester (old market town, population 18,000, rateable value £45,000) decided to tear down its ancient Moot Hall, probably the oldest then standing in Britain, and build a new Town Hall. Money was so short that the council could not afford even the cheapest tender. A trio of local builders offered to put it up for £6,000 – and did so at a loss. They used cheap material and its core walls were rubble. It was built over a sewer and suffered subsidence. Council responsibilities then were few and there were few staff. The building had just two law courts, an assembly room, a committee room and a police station.

In 1878 the borough purchased and demolished an ancient timbered inn which stood next to the town hall on the corner of West Stockwell Street, with a view to extending the town hall. An architect reported that the town hall was not worth extending and should be demolished. Nothing was done. Meanwhile Colchester was expanding and becoming economically buoyant. The town council took on a range of new responsibilities: a public library, a public water supply (resulting in Jumbo), sewage works, maintenance of roads and the river, a fire service, a museum, a recreation ground and Castle Park.

In 1887 Councillor Wilson Marriage urged the need to use the site beside the town hall for council offices, a public library and a new police station. A public meeting, open to all, condemned the move with such ferocity that the council felt it could not act. Not till 1897 did the council move again. Colchester was now prosperous (population 40,000, rateable value £145,000) and the town council contained many very able men. Several of these joined with Wilson Marriage in securing support for a new town hall, which all architects agreed was badly needed.

A public competition attracted national architects to come up with designs. It was won by John Belcher, whose flamboyant building we have today. Though not as large as the town halls of our great northern cities, it is still spectacular for a town the size of Colchester. At an early date it was agreed that the basic building, sufficient to meet the needs of the council, would be financed by the rates, but that all decoration and display should be met by private donation.

This was the height of Victorian prosperity and taxation levels were extremely low. Giving to good causes was expected of the wealthy. Wilson Marriage, James Paxman and Gurney Benham worked tirelessly persuading the great and the good of North Essex to make their contribution to this new building. James Paxman personally paid for the entire tower. They were so successful that the building still reflects opulence, solemnity and history. It is Colchester’s civic cathedral. This was quite deliberate and was underpinned (literally) by use of the very best material.

Colchester’s MP was Weetman Pearson, later Lord Cowdray, the largest employer of labour in the country and one of Britain’s wealthiest men. At an early date he offered to contribute the finest pipe organ for the new Moot Hall or Assembly Room. In consequence the architect, John Belcher, virtually designed the west end of the room round Pearson’s organ.

Queen Victoria by L. J. Watts
Queen Victoria by L. J. Watts

The new town hall was finally opened by the former Prime Minister, Lord Rosebery, on 15th May 1902 when, appropriately, Wilson Marriage was mayor. Before this happened, the building was opened for the public of Colchester to see it. Queues stretched down the High Street and council staff were quite overwhelmed by the interest shown. One of the most significant fixtures in the building is the fine and imposing statue of a seated Queen Victoria by L. J. Watts of Colchester, given by Alderman Horace Egerton Green.

A particularly popular feature of the Town Hall’s early years were the organ recitals given by the first Borough Organist, W. Charles Everett, which large numbers of the public attended. These and other musical events continued to be a feature of the Moot Hall throughout the inter-war period.