Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: July 14, 2017
Webpage updated: June 13, 2021




The north side of the Plymouth Guildhall.
From a postcard.

In 1869 plans were invited for the design of a new Guildhall to replace the Evelegh Guild Hall at the top of the High Street.  Twenty sets of plans were received.

Messrs Alfred Norman and James Hine, of Plymouth, won the competition for the design and twelve firms tendered for the construction contract.  This was awarded in June 1870 to the partnership of Messrs Call and Pethick in the amount of 32,475 but in the event, Mr Pethick completed the work himself at a cost of approaching 50,000.   

The foundation stone of the Guild Hall, Law Courts and Municipal Offices was laid at the angle of the Great Tower in Westwell Street on Thursday July 28th 1870 by the Mayor, Mr William Luscombe. 

The interior of the pre-war Guild Hall,
looking west not east.
From a postcard.

Constructed in the "Early Pointed" style, the two blocks were on the north and south sides of Guild Hall Square, which provided a passage between Westwell Street on the west to Catherine Street on the east.  The Guild Hall block was 292 feet in length and included the Assize Courts fronting on Westwell Street.  The Great Hall consisted of a nave 58 feet in width and 145 feet long, with aisles on either side taking the full breadth to 85 feet.  The Hall was 70 feet high and was intended to seat 2,600 people.  It was separated from the aisles by arcades of seven arches with polished grey granite pillars.  No fewer than seven doors allowed access and egress.  At the west end was a large orchestral platform, with ante-rooms behind, while at the eastern end was a gallery.

At the south west corner of this block was the Great Tower, rising to 190 feet in height.  Over the centre of the Guild Hall was a spirelet, the finial of which was 140 feet from the ground.

First to be opened was the Council Chamber and Municipal Offices.  These were formally opened by the Mayor, Mr John Kelly, in April 1872 and were occupied on April 16th 1873.  The Guild Hall block was opened on Thursday August 13th 1874 by HRH the Prince of Wales, (later to become King Edward VII).

A 'Father Willis' four-manual organ was inaugurated in the Guild Hall on Tuesday October 22nd 1878.  Doctor John Stainer, the organist at Saint Paul's Cathedral and the Albert Hall in London, performed the initial recital.

The Guild Hall and Municipal Offices managed to survive the first night of the Plymouth Blitz but were gutted by fire during the night of March 21st/22nd 1941.  Only two months before, when the City was short of cooking facilities, hundreds of Plymothians had packed the Guild Hall for a very welcome hot lunch.

The roofless Guildhall with an equally roofless Saint Andrew's Church behind.
  Western Morning News Company Limited.

The blitzed interior of the pre-War Plymouth Guildhall.

As a result of this damage, the Guild Hall was very nearly demolished.  In fact when the Minister of Works, Mr R R Stokes, visited the site on Saturday July 22nd 1950, he said that: 'the whole building should be knocked down and a fresh start made.'  He did acknowledge, however, that Plymouth 'is further forward than any other of the badly blitzed cities I have yet visited.'

Luckily, despite criticism that it was 'a betrayal of the "Plan for Plymouth" and 'a mean, paltry and pettifogging proposal compared with private development', on Monday October 1st 1951 the Council decided to rebuild the historic meeting place at an estimated cost of 95,000.  Alderman Sir Clifford Tozer, chairman of the City's Reconstruction Committee, stated that 'the outer fabric was of sufficient durability to warrant its retention and the citizens would be glad to hear that it was possible to preserve it.'

The task of restoration was given to the City Architect, Mr Hector J W Stirling.  It was he who decided to "reverse" the interior and place the entrance at the western end where the stage had been formerly.

Work started early in January 1953 and by March over 1,000 tons of debris had been cleared away, most of it dumped on The Hoe and some in Stonehouse Creek.  Interestingly, no plans of the Guild Hall existed and surveyors had to record all the dimensions of the building while this work was in progress.

The restoration work started on June 30th 1954, some six months later than planned.  The job of stabilising the lower walls and constructing the basement was carried out by Messrs F J Stanbury Ltd while the main contractor for the superstructure was Messrs A N Coles (Contractors) Ltd, both local firms.

The restored Plymouth Guildhall>
From a postcard.

Some of the decorative panels on the exterior of the Guildhall.
From a postcard.

It was re-opened amid much ceremony by Field Marshall the Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, KG, GCB, DSO, on Thursday September 24th 1959.

The interior of the present Plymouth Guildhall, looking east towards Catherine Street

A wide staircase, faced with marble, leads to the main hall.  This measures 106 feet by 57 feet and is panelled with Cuban mahogany.  The sprung, maple floor is nine feet higher than it was in the pre-War building, which has allowed a allowed of a smaller hall, the Lower Guild Hall, to be constructed beneath the main hall.  The Lower Guild Hall measures 60 feet by 40 feet.

The interior of the present Plymouth Guild Hall, pictured above, is brightly lit by three eight feet diameter chandeliers representing the old "Three Towns" (Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport).   Behind the stage is the Gobelin Tapestry, measuring 18 feet square, which has been lent by Lord Clarendon, whose ancestor received it from Napoleon III at the time of the signing of the Treaty of Paris.  It portrays Raphael's conception of the miraculous draught of fishes, which is a particularly appropriate subject.  During the three-year long Siege of Plymouth during the Civil War, starving Plymothians were saved by the appearance in Sutton Harbour of a shoal of pilchards.

At the eastern end is a three feet high platform.  Upon this, on Civic occasions, is placed a 21 feet long ceremonial table of Honduran mahogany, which is carved with the City of Plymouth Coat of Arms.  The desk and the chairs for the Lord Mayor and Aldermen were presented to the City by the Old Drakonians' Association in memory of Alderman G P Dymond, the last headmaster of their Hoe Grammar School.

On Thursday December 3rd 1959 between 12 Noon and 1pm the BBC broadcast "Worker's Playtime" from the Guild Hall.  Introduced by Mr Derek Jones were Eve Boswell, Terry Scott, Frank Cook and The Kestrels.  Admission was, of course, free so it was bound to be popular with the Plymouth audience.