History of Wells Town Hall

With its clean classical lines and neat ashlar stone facade, the Grade II listed Wells Town Hall presents a graceful, imposing aspect, and is a building to be proud of.

It is in Wells Market Place and dates from 1779. In that year, an Act of Parliament allowed Wells Corporation to appropriate the archdeacon’s seventeenth-century house and grounds in order to build a new town hall. This replaced the one within the Market and Assize Hall which was demolished on account of its poor condition. The Corporation was required to contribute 1000 guineas towards the new town hall, while the remainder of the costs were met by public subscription. The work of building was undertaken by Edmund and William Lush of Salisbury (where Edmund was Clerk of Works to the Cathedral). The front garden of the archdeacon’s house became an extension of the Market Place, giving the present Market Place its distinctive L-shape.

The new town hall contained law courts and (situated at the rear) the city gaol. Not only did it house the Assizes and Council meetings; it also had a flourishing cheese market. This was located in the ground floor, whose arches were initially open. In 1836, a colonnaded Market House was built on the eastern edge of the Market Place, the cheese market moved there, and the ground floor of the Town Hall was filled in. The city gaol was demolished shortly after 1854, when more secure premises were built. (In recent years, these cells were the home of the city’s Record Office.) The Indictment Room also dates from the mid nineteenth century.

The building was extended by the addition of the front arcading in 1861, and was further enhanced in 1905 when the east and west staircases were put in. The city’s police station was housed for a while in the front right of the building, in a new west wing built for this purpose in 1880. You can see this police station in the photograph, complete with gas light over the main entrance. (It is probable that the Assizes account for the large number of police.) From 1923 until 1937, the city’s fire station was close by, housed in the south end of what was built as the Market House (now the Post Office and ‘Ask’ restaurant).

Policemen outside Wells Police Station

Policemen outside Wells Police Station, c. 1900
Photograph © Wells & Mendip Museum

Later years have seen other improvements to Wells Town Hall, including the high-level round windows and the front balcony, which date from 1932-33. You can see these features in the photograph of the Town Hall decorated for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. There is a dais in front ready for the celebrations.

Queens Coronation

Wells Town Hall decorated for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, 1953
Photograph © Wells & Mendip Museum

A large part of the Town Hall was used until only a few years ago for courts of law. Since it was built, it has housed Assize Courts, Courts of Quarter Sessions and Courts of Petty Sessions (which became Magistrates’ Courts). The next photograph shows the Judge’s coach bringing him to Wells Assizes in 1913; the Town Hall looks dirty and shabby. As you can see, its round windows and front balcony are lacking. The last Assize Court was held here in 1970, after which a new Crown Court system was introduced. During the 1990s, however, the Crown Court came back here from Taunton for several years while rebuilding took place there.
In the late 1990s, the old Crown Court room in the east wing was removed, and the space was converted to a new council chamber and a function room (now the Parkes Room), on two floors. These were opened in 1998. The other court room, in the west wing, continued in use as a Magistrates’ Court until 2010. The closure of this court marked the end of an era.
The court room in the west wing was extensively refurbished and reopened in the summer of 2014 and is now known as the 'Old Court Room'.
The public gallery which was situated above the court room was blocked off and became an additional separate room on the first floor. It is now aptly named the 'Gallery Bar', which offers a bar and seating area for use at various functions.

Judge's carriage

Judge’s carriage attending Assizes at Wells Town Hall, 1913
Photograph © Wells & Mendip Museum

 

Earlier ‘Town Halls’

During the Middle Ages the common council house, which may loosely be described as the town hall, was situated in Chamberlain Street to the north of St Cuthbert’s church. This old council house was subsequently incorporated as part of the Bubwith Almshouses, which date from 1436. The council used the Guildhall at Bubwith Almshouses for many years.
In 1572, the town council built a new town hall above part of the fish and meat shambles in the centre of the High Street. Then in 1662-63, the Corporation helped fund the rebuilding of the Tudor Market Hall, which was in the centre of the Market Place, behind the present Conduit. They had a new town hall on the upper floor. The open ground floor, which was used for stalls on market days, was also used for the Assizes, when it was screened. This building was known as the Market and Assize Hall, and also as the Exchequer. It was demolished in 1780, and the area where it stood is now a little car park. The present Town Hall replaced it. (We are indebted to the writings of Tony Scrase, the distinguished historian of Wells, for much of the detail contained in this paragraph.)

 

 



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