The Guildhall Winchester has a long history, with the original building’s construction being completed in 1873; however, the site it was built on has its own unique history.
King Alfred the Great’s widow, Aelswith, founded a nunnery and retired there after her husband’s death in 899AD. The nunnery later became St Mary’s Abbey and grew to be one of the largest nunneries in England until King Henry VIII’s demolition of nunneries in 1538. The land remained under the crowns control until Mary Tudor gifted it to the city corporation due to their assistance in staging her marriage to Phillip II of Spain.
Remains of the nunnery are located on the east side of the Guildhall with the King Charles Hall direct beside.
Guildhall’s construction- 1870’s
The idea for the construction of Guildhall came about due to the central governments increasing of local councils responsibilities meaning a larger space was required. The original brief for the building consisted of space for the police, fire brigade, courts, jails, a museum, a library, offices and meeting rooms, a public exhibition hall and kitchens and toilets. The entire build came to a total of £14,000 which, by today’s standards is extremely cheap for a build of this calibre.
The council announced an architectural competition with a closing date of the 31st of December 1870, and they received 46 applications, the winning application – Hastings architects Jeffrey and Skiller with a gothic build which had been going through a revival since the 1840’s and had been promoted as the national style.
The statues in the Broadway frontage were created to depict both Winchester’s legendary and real history, including King Arthur’s establishment of the Order of the Round Table, William the Conqueror compiling the Doomsday Book and many others. The Broadway frontage is the most ornate part of the buildings exterior being built out of stone and featuring the statues and other decorations, whereas the rest of the building was constructed out of brick with little to no exterior decoration.
Extensions to create Winchester’s premier Venue
The Guildhall then went on to have an extension built, known as the West Wing, which allowed easier access to the library as well as the newly established art school.
In 1892 a further extension was added by John Colson who built a new banquet room, later named the King Charles Room. Colson also installed new toilets and kitchens as well as adding further extensions to the large hall such as changing rooms and a backstage area.
Limestone steps at the front of the building began to rapidly deteriorate and in as little as four weeks were completely demolished and recreated using pre-cast concrete known as ‘Empire Stone’.
In 1898 the museum left Guildhall and moved to Westgate, before moving once again in 1903 to a purpose built museum.
In 1936 the library left the West Wing and was relocated to Jewry Street, the fire brigade also relocated to North Walls in 1936, whereas the police station continued to occupy part of the Guildhall until they were also relocated to North Walls in 1966.
In 1969 an electrical fire broke out in the West Wing which destroyed the interior, the roof and many council documents, including those that related directly to Guildhall.
In 1972 Guildhall and the West Wing extension were listed as Grade II and in 1974 the local government went through a reorganisation meaning that there were a larger number of council members but nowhere to hold meetings, despite the relocation of previous Guildhall inhabitants leaving many rooms vacant, they were not big enough to hold council meetings.
The Council decided to make changes in 1982 and the Guildhall was drastically altered. Areas such as the jails and police house were demolished and rebuilt as larger rooms were built in their place to accommodate council meetings but also to be used as venues that could be rented out for public events.
The 80’s brought renovation to the West Wing building in which extra floors were added to create offices after the fire a few years previously.
Following years of successful local event, the Guildhall went through further renovations in 2009 which included replacing roofs, general upkeep of the Broadway frontage and uncovering many original Victorian features that had been previously covered with plasterboard.
Since 2010, many of the more modern renovations were only able to happen due to the generous donation of Bapsybanoo Pavry who became the Marchioness of Winchester despite only visiting the city once. As a sign of the cities gratitude her portrait is displayed next to the Bapsy Hall alongside a display case full of information and antiques left by Bapsy.
The building has continued to be used partially for Council offices and public meetings as well as Winchester’s largest multi use venue attracting over 70,000 people a year in 2019.
Following immediate closure from the Covid-19 pandemic, the Guildhall has returned to its historic roots housing HM Courts and Tribunal service as a Nightingale Law Court.