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The Assize Hall


The Town Hall in about 1910.


Bridgwater's Town Hall and Municipal Buildings in the High Street were opened on the 6th of July 1865. They were built on the site of the old Assize Hall, which was rebuilt in 1720, the materials of an older undated hall being recovered and sold to fund the project. John Cannon recorded;

At this time was built a most magnificent large and capacious hall for the assizes ... it was begun and finished in six weeks and modelled on Westminster Hall... One old John Wells, a painter, was employed to depict the Arms of the Borough in Front over the entrance... and instead of their own Arms, he drew the arms of Bridgnorth in Com. Salop, which I interrupted him in and he grew in a passion, but being convinced, he was obliged to take it down and work the right.


In 1801 improvements were made to the Assize Hall and new Grand Jury Rooms were built. However in 1821 these were both completely rebuilt and a new house was built to accommodate the Assize Judges. This rebuilding was necessary as the Town Council had to move out of the old Guild Hall in Fore Street, as it was unsafe, and had started to share the Assize buildings.

Jarman described the Town Hall in 1889, below. Unfortunatley much of what he describes has hence been lost. The fine tapesteries were sold in 1965 to fund a redecoration of the council chamber. Many of the full length portraits, including those of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and Alderman Browne have dissapeared completely. Fortunatley a number of artifacts have survived and links are given to images of them.

Situated in High-street, an extensive building, a little over twenty years old, standing on the site of the old Assize Courts. No ornamentation has been lavished on the outside; but the interior contains much that is interesting. The large hall (the old Assize Court) is a really splendid room, one of the best of the kind to be found in the West of England. There is ample space for any purpose for which halls are generally used, such as concerts and public meetings; and a spacious gallery extends round three sides of it. Here are three life sized portraits, of great merit, painted by the late Mr. W. Baker, of Bridgwater. Two of these portraits, those of Queen Victoria and the late Prince Consort, were, according to brass tablets subjoined, Copied by permission of Her Most Gracious Majesty from the originals in Windsor Castle by Winterhalter, presented to the Borough of Bridgwater, in the year 1865, by John Browne, Esq., when this hall was opened. The third portrait is that of Alderman Brown himself, and underneath it are the words: This portrait of John Browne, Esq., J.P., was presented to him during his fifth mayoralty, in the year 1865, by the inhabitants of the town, and given by him to the Corporation to be placed in this hall.


The portraits of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in the main Hall. © digital image 2012 Blake Museum PR225. All rights reserved.
Pictures of the originals can be seen here and here.

The Council Chamber, now used as the Grand Jury room, is an upper story. Here are three splendid pieces of tapestry presented by Alderman John Chapman, in 1836.
[These can be seen here and a corner in context here] Mr. Chapman resided at Hamp House, on the Taunton-Road, now in the occupation of Mr. P.O.H. Reed, solicitor, and he purchased these valuable pieces of antiquity at a large sale at Enmore Castle, since razed to the ground and replaced by Enmore Park House, now occupied by Mr. Broadmead. One of these beautiful masterpieces of the loom represents Alexander the Great saluting his father Phillip before mounting the horse Bucephalus; a second represents Alexander the Great throwing his mantle over the slain body of King Darius; the third represents the Patriarch surrounded by his family.

Over the mantle piece are the Royal Arms, painted by Mr. W.H.Hawkins, formally a coach builder, of Bridgwater, for the old Assize Court.
[This can be seen here] Beneath this is a supposed portrait of Admiral Blake. There are also two interesting pictures of old Bridgwater hung on the walls: one shows an old turnpike gate and toll house on the Salmon Parade (near the Lime-Kiln), [Which can be seen here] and at the back of the picture is a memorandum extracted from the minutes of the Corporation Turnpike Trustees, dated 17th July, 1842, as follows- Mr J. Wainwright, builder, of Bridgwater, tendered to pull down the old toll-house, called Salmon Lane Gate, and to erect a new toll house at Redgate for the sum of fifty nine pounds. Another picture represents the Parret, as seen from Cannington Park in 1745. [Which can be seen here]

In the police court below is a series of shields, blazoned with armorial bearings of families connected with Bridgwater. Here is also painted up lists of Mayors, Aldermen, Recorders and so on. Under the same roof are the corporation offices, Free Library and public reading room, all being well appointed and a great credit to the town.


A wealth of further information on the Town Hall buildings and notes by Dr. Peter Cattermole can be found here.
References:
Lawrence and Lawrence, A History of Bridgwater (2005)
Squibbs, Squibb's History of Bridgwater (1982)
Jarman, History of Brisgwater (1889)
Dunning, Brisgwater: History and Guide (1992)
All Content © Bridgwater Heritage Group, unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved, do not reproduce material without permission.

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