Dartmouth Buildings Now Gone - The Old Guildhall
We do our best to protect buildings that are old in Britain. If you own a house or building today which has ‘listed’ status, you know what a headache that can be.
You need special consent before making any changes, alterations or improvements to the building. If you are unlucky enough to own one which is Grade 1 listed, then you have potentially serious headaches because you can’t even put up a picture without an officer coming round to make sure it is the RIGHT SORT of picture and whether the hooks you are using are authentic of the period and whether your hammer has the correct look for the work being undertaken….
Not so in the 19th Century. ESPECIALLY not so in Dartmouth in the 19th Century as the story of the destruction of two buildings will illustrate.
The Old Guildhall, in Lower Street, wasn’t only the centre of the town’s administrative borough, nor was it simply a 400 year-old structure showing the best example of Tudor craftsmanship you could hope for. No. It was also the old family home of the town’s most famous son: John Hawley.
The man who was thirteen times mayor of the town, on numerous occasions its MP, who had coordinated the defence of the town against Breton Knights at the Battle of Blackpool Sands and had built both the town’s castle and St Saviours Church.
If Dartmouth had been in America the whole town would, by 1864, have been renamed ‘John Hawley’s Dartmouth’ and people would have been selling tickets for a tour of the interesting places around the town he had visited and done important things in.
But in 1864 the town, gleefully it seemed, knocked the building down and built a road there instead. 384 years earlier the building had been acquired by the town from the Newman family to be used as a Guildhall.
If you suggested knocking down a four-century old building now to build a road, people would be scandalised. They would organise petitions and opposition marches.
However in this case there were some mitigating circumstances. By the 1800s, however, it was not only in need of repair but was becoming a liability.
The Guildhall’s bottom layer which faced out onto Lower Street was used as a watch house and jail. It was subject to an inspection, which was duly carried out by a Dr Lewis in 1853. The building was directly over a common sewer and the stench was such that he had to ‘leave the room retching’. It was said that even though the council chamber was on the second floor, the smell on hot days could make the atmosphere ‘intolerable’.
Dr Lewis concluded that the entire building was ‘unsuitable for use’ and recommended a new one be built elsewhere.
Not a ringing endorsement, it has to be said.
A competition was held to solve the town’s dual sewerage and road problems – and William Bell proposed knocking down a whole swathe of buildings - including the Guildhall and the former home of the other famous son of Dartmouth, Thomas Newcomen.
In their place he would lead the road down to have a gentle incline from South Town to join Lower Street.
The scheme was started in 1864 and completed in 1867. In deference to the fact they had destroyed his old house, the town leaders named the road Newcomen Road. Remnants of his house and of others from the road were said to have been incorporated into the house of Thomas Lidstone on Ridge Hill.
A replacement Guildhall was a harder problem to solve: first the council moved into the ‘Assembly Rooms’ which was supposed to be a short term move. They were still there in 1875 when the council tried to raise funds for a new home by public donation – which, perhaps unsurprisingly, fell flat on its face.
By now the search was becoming desperate as the Assembly rooms were so fragile the mayor asked angry town’s people not to stamp their feet at a meeting in 1877 because he feared it would bring the building down.
Another temporary measure was taken when the council moved into the new Baptist hall in Victoria Road.
They then moved AGAIN in 1901 to the ‘Subscription Rooms’ again on Victoria Road. A competition was held to design and build a new set of buildings for the council – but objections to the extra expenditure were raised, so they stayed where they were – and still are to this day.
So not only did the town destroy its only physical links to two of its most famous sons, it also left the council homeless and unsatisfied with its numerous ‘temporary’ homes. One of which has been ‘temporary’ for 110 years.
First Published August 2011 By The Dart