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Guildhall: City of London. History Guide Companion by Graham Greenglass and Stephen Dinsdale. Guest review by LH Member Mark Ackerman.  

ghThe authors, both LH members and City of London guides, have produced a detailed and comprehensive book on the central area of the City of London and its seat of governance, Guildhall, oddly never ‘the Guildhall’ when used in this context. The introduction says the work’s aim is to provide ‘a history, a guide and a companion’ and it ticks all those boxes admirably.

It is full of fascinating facts and stories and I’m ashamed to say, as a Londoner born and bred, I was ignorant of many of them, so it also serves as an educational tool for the likes of me.

The oldest part of the building we still see today, the Great Hall of the Guildhall itself, was begun by master mason John Croxtone in 1411 and largely completed by 1430. It was probably the third such building on the site, a central area first used in Saxon times as a ‘folkmoot’ where citizens gathered.

Croxtone designed his hall in the English Perpendicular Gothic style and it is the oldest non-ecclesiastical building in the City of London. It owed its cathedral-like appearance to Croxtone’s own master, Henry Yevele, with whom he had worked previously on the rebuilding of Westminster Hall. A pitched timber roof topped off the stone fabric but the building was not finally completed until 1499 with the addition of turrets. It also contained the Mayor’s Court and Court of Aldermen but it was felt necessary, even before final completion, to include two cells to restrain unruly apprentices.

049 Guildhall 15C

15C Guildhall. Artist’s impression.

This was a huge and costly construction project for the early fifteenth century with the guilds putting up the money. However, just as today the City is (and is likely to remain) the international centre for many financial dealings, so its earlier counterpart wanted to demonstrate to its continental rivals that it too was a major commercial capital.

051 Ogilby & Morgan1677

Post-fire Ogilby and Morgan map of the area, 1677.

The Great Fire of 1666 spared the stone fabric of Guildhall but, as Pepys wrote, ‘the horrid, malicious, bloody flame’ destroyed the roof. A ‘temporary’ flat wooden roof replaced it for the next two hundred years until Sir Horace Jones, Surveyor to the City, began renovation work in 1860. As the favoured style of his day was Gothic revivalism, Jones could get to work on a building which had been overlaid with Baroque and neo-classical elements by Wren and others after the Great Fire and, as the authors have it, he set about ‘re-Gothicising’ the edifice.

005 Porch, Chapel & Blackwell Hall 1820

Porch, chapel and Blackwell Hall, 1820. 

Today, only the old museum and library buildings remain from Jones’s renovation work and Guildhall Yard would have to wait until after the Second World War for the next major rebuild when Giles Gilbert Scott, of the famous architectural dynasty, began the task he had hoped to start before the war when he had advised on renovations to the area. Now the job was a major rebuild including that of the Great Hall itself, badly damaged in a 1940 air raid. It was repaired by October 1954 and welcomed the new Lord Mayor for his banquet the following month.

Sir Giles’s son Richard continued his father’s work in the ’60s and, as the book states, ‘led the way for a contemporary Guildhall Yard and proposed five new construction projects which externally dominate the Guildhall we see today.’ These were an enlarged yard, a new West Wing office complex, a new library and art gallery and the restoration of the crypts below the hall.

The book offers an excellent résumé of the monuments and statuary both outside and within the Great Hall. Of the latter, many are dedicated to obvious heroes such as Nelson, Wellington and Churchill and it is perhaps no surprise to see Pitt the Younger there, our youngest Prime Minster at the age of only 24. Mercury, representing commerce, stands over him but perhaps the Winged Messenger, who also oversaw good fortune, could have kept better watch during Pitt’s lifetime as the alcoholic gambler racked up debts of £40,000 by the time he died. The government eventually paid these off but it is difficult to see that ever happening now as the amount is the equivalent of £3.5 million today.

Another memorial commemorates former Lord Mayor William Beckford, who twice held the post and was MP for the City of London. The son of a Jamaican plantation and slave owner he himself became one of the wealthiest men in the country through these activities. In fact, it was said of him that ‘to see a slave he could not bear….unless it was his own’ and, given the current anti-Colston campaign, one wonders if the activists will next turn their attention to Beckford. Being less prominent, he may be spared.

The banners of the Great Twelve City Guilds hang below the roof of the Great Hall with the Mercers taking pre-eminence as they had provided the most Lord Mayors when the ranking system was decided upon in 1515 after many disagreements, some of which even resulted in fighting and the deaths of guild members. The Merchant Taylors and Skinners were among the most disputatious, fighting over sixth and seventh place, which probably led to the phrase ‘at sixes and sevens’.

The Great Hall was also used for ‘show’ trials such as that of Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Day Queen, who was unwillingly manoeuvred into place by her devious father-in-law, the Duke of Northumberland. She and her husband were executed for high treason in 1554 with the devious duke, who also coerced her into marrying his son in the first place, soon suffering the same fate.

guildhall

Guildhall today. Pic: M Paterson.

The book covers the Lord Mayor’s office in detail and relates how little the true story of Richard Whittington, who held the office four times, has in common with his panto counterpart. But as the fable has it, he did indeed marry an Alice, Alice Fitzwarin, and in reality performed many charitable works including the provision of a large public lavatory, flushed by the Thames. His seventeenth century successor, however, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, would live on in infamy. He it was who, when arriving in Pudding Lane to see the start of the conflagration in 1666, said it was not serious and ‘a maid might piss it out’. He also refused to demolish neighbouring buildings to create a firebreak in case he became personally liable. Pepys described seeing him later that night ‘like a man spent, with a hankercher about his neck’ and bemoaning the fact that he had been up all night although he apparently went back to bed after first being called out. He was an object of public vilification ever after, even while continuing to sit as an MP.

Everything you might wish to know about Guildhall and its environs is here, including chapters on the City parish church, St Lawrence Jewry; the Roman Amphitheatre below the art gallery; the City of London Police Museum and public events held in Guildhall Yard such as the Cart Marking Ceremony every July and the Pearly Kings and Queens Harvest Parade in September.

The book has now inspired me to revisit the whole precinct under its expert guidance. It also makes a thoughtful gift for any LH member and for friends and family, and all in good time for the festive season.


GUILDHALL: CITY OF LONDON, A History Guide Companion
Authors: Graham Greenglass and Stephen Dinsdale
Publisher: Pen and Sword
Price: £16.99ISBN: 9781526715418

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