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Tuesday 13 April 2021

Maritime Media Volunteer, Ben Lanham delves into the history of The Guildhall and its many predecessors.

Here's what Ben discovered.

As Hull’s Guildhall is currently in the spotlight for the ongoing renovation of its iconic Time Ball, which once dropped at 1pm every day to let the city’s many sailors synchronise their clocks, I thought I’d take a look at the history of the Guildhall itself – not just the current building, but its many predecessors throughout Hull’s long and storied existence.

The Guildhall that exists today was far from the first Guildhall to stand in Hull, and the people who met and worked within them –aldermen, mayors, the Corporation, and then the Council – relocated, rebuilt, and renovated their headquarters a number of times through history.

The first building that served a similar role to the Guildhall, although it did not then go by that name, gets its earliest mention in the historical record in 1333 – only a few decades after Kingston upon Hull was formally established by Edward I’s Royal Charter in 1299 (having previously been the port of Wyke owned by nearby Meaux Abbey, which primarily exported wool to the Low Countries and the merchants of the Hanseatic League). Incidentally, King Edward’s Charter survives to this day, kept in the archives of the current Guildhall!

Referred to as the Hall of Pleas, and also in later medieval records as the Motehall (meaning meeting hall), this original building was situated in what is now Market Place, near Holy Trinity Church (now the Minster) which would still have been a fairly new addition to the town’s skyline at the time, having been started in 1285 and undergone a lengthy construction process. References also exist to the Common Hall, believed to be the same building, and describe its purpose as being a place for the aldermen of the town to meet and discuss their business.

In 1440, when Hull received its charter of incorporation, there would have been thirteen of these aldermen, twelve of them presiding over the six wards of Humber, Austin, Trinity, Whitefriar, St. Mary, and North Wards, and the thirteenth serving as mayor. It is around this time, in the mid-15th century, when the building started to be referred to as the Guildhall.

Hollar’s map of Hull, 1640. The medieval guildhall can be seen to the right of the Minster and up a little

This medieval building served its purpose for a number of centuries – it can be seen on Wenceslas Hollar’s famous 1640 map of Hull, complete with the prison tower which stood next to it and the shops which occupied its ground floor for most of its life.

But while the building itself survived, albeit with several renovations, until the 19th century, the people and institutions who had made it their home sought alternative arrangements; something new and prestigious. Using a generous donation made to them by former mayor Thomas Ferries upon his death, in 1632 the corporation of Hull decided to commission the construction of a brand new Guildhall, just north of the old one.

Bigger and better than the old, it was to be two storeys of brick above a ground floor arcade, with battlements atop its roof and carved stone decoration across its walls. It was planned to be completed by 1634, but it seems the corporation had overestimated their financial strength, and consequently delays stretched the construction out for at least another two years, if not more – this new Guildhall is notably absent from Hollar’s 1640 map.

Both buildings went through many changes from then on – the steep roof of the medieval Guildhall was whitened in 1657 so that seamen could use it as a landmark, and the newer building was given a council chamber in 1754 to better suit the purposes of the Hull Corporation.

In 1801, it was decided that the Guildhall was to be replaced yet again, and the 17th century building was abandoned and demolished. Initially, the corporation had to resort to renting the mayor’s house as their meeting place while they planned the construction of a new Guildhall.

This took a lot longer than expected – by 1822 there was still no plan decided on and the corporation eventually just bought the mayor’s house outright! It was another 40 years until the first stone of the new Town Hall- designed by architect Cuthbert Brodrick, who also designed Leeds Town Hall - was finally set down, and the two-storey building with central clocktower was erected on Lowgate.

It may look somewhat similar in shape to the current Guildhall, although its elaborate Renaissance-styled façade reflected the fashions of the day, and, of course, it had no time ball. The eagle-eyed among you may recognise the cupola from the top of the clock tower – when Brodrick’s Town Hall was gradually replaced in the early 20th century, the cupola was saved and placed in Pearson Park, where it still stands to this day.

The Old Town Hall by F.S Smith

From 1903 to 1916, the long process of replacing the old Victorian Town Hall began; a competition was held, and a design by Sir Edwin Cooper emerged victorious. A far bigger project than previous ones, the new Guildhall would not replace the Lowgate frontage of Brodrick’s hall, but extended a significant distance down Alfred Gelder Street with massive sculptures standing on pedestals atop each end.

The Lowgate frontage retains the shape of the older building, with its large central clocktower, but replaces its archways with an imposing neoclassical pediment that seems to point upwards to the clock, and, above it, the time ball. That time ball was the final part of the project to be completed, with installation beginning in 1914 but proceeding into 1918 – it was possibly 1920-21 before it became operational, making it one of the newest time balls in the country, and the only one to be located on a municipal building. It’s also the highest – or, at least, its replica is at the moment, but once the original time ball is restored it will take pride of place on the Guildhall’s tower once more!

The Guildhall undergoing its current restoration project