In his Itinerary of 1538-45, John Leland wrote of Portsmouth that "One Carpenter a riche man made of late tyme in the mydle of the high streate of the toune a toune house". As John Carpenter is known to have been mayor of Portsmouth between 1531 and 1537 it has always been assumed that Leland was referring to the original Town Hall. In fact, the area adjacent to Carpenter's House was well known to be a Shambles or Butcher's Stalls from as early as 1458, so the house may well have been a replacement for an earlier model.
Carpenter's House was probably a timber structure but little is known of it's internal or external layout but records indicate that it housed a court or Council Chamber and that rooms were occupied by the senior Sergeant at Mace. By the end of the 17C the Shambles stood in the middle of the High Street from what is now Pembroke Road to the Town House and resumed on the other side in the form of a fish market. There was very little room around the Town House to the south-east, but on the north-west side there was a broad paved footway.
By 1736 Carpenter's House had fallen into such a state of disrepair that most official business was carried out in "the Great Roome at Goddes House" (or more precisely, Government House). The Mayor and Alderman resolved to build a new hall on the same spot as the then existing building, the cost to be defrayed partly by subscription or loan. The first stone of the new structure was eventually laid by the Mayor, John Vining Esq., on 14th March 1739. The building was plainly intended as a significant improvement on its predecessor, including as it did, "additional stucco work", Vases over the pilasters of the Portico, a carpet for the table and cushions for the Councillors.
Despite the upgrading of the facilities for the Town Council, by 1795 they were already deemed to be inadequate and the Hall was partially re-built to incorporate a chamber supported by Corinthian columns at the first floor level accessed by steps with iron balustrades. At this point the Butchers' Shambles were still in place but by 1827 they had been taken down thereby removing a great obstruction to movement along the High Street. The Town Hall itself however continued to cause an impediment to traffic so in 1836 it was decided that it should be demolished and a replacement built. This proved to be more difficult than initially envisaged.
One of the problems was that the market that was associated with the Town Hall was not only an important place of trade for many citizens it was also a source of income for the Council (rents were amounting to £27 9s 1d in 1836). It was seen as necessary therefore that the new Town Hall would have to incorporate space for the market. The Council set up a committee under the chairmanship of Alderman Williams to investigate the options available. They were able to report their findings at a meeting of the Town Council at the end of March 1836 when they identified the properties at Nos. 42 and 43 High Street, the homes of Messrs. Sergeant, Woods and Astridge, as being available for purchase in the sum of £1,200. They further recommended that land to the rear of the premises owned by W. Grant and the house belonging to Mr Thorpe in Pembroke St., then occupied by John Thomas, be also purchased.
The Market-house Committee went on to recommend that the market should be accommodated on the ground floor of the building and that one room about fifty feet long and two smaller committee rooms be constructed on the first floor for the Council. They were also pleased to announce that they had received three sets of plans for the proposed building, all free of charge, from Benjamin Bramble, Thomas Ellis Owen and Augustus Livesay. Bramble was a Town Councillor and a member of the Market-house Committee, but more importantly he was a builder by trade. Owen and Livesay were both well respected architects.
The Council then voted a sum of £2,000 to cover the cost of demolishing the old Town Hall, purchasing the recommended properties and erecting a new building. Councillors Andrew Nance and Benjamin Bramble offered to secure a loan against this sum. In addition to the Council funds, subscriptions were sought from prominent members of the community of whom John Bonham Carter offered £400, F.T. Baring £100, Edward Carter (then Mayor) £120, and W. Grant £75.
Things seemed to be progressing smoothly when Alderman Burbey expressed a commonly held view that the building was not big enough to accommodate both Market and Town Hall and that the market would be excluded to the financial detriment of many living on the High Street. This was a reasonable argument given that the width of the proposed building would be only 32 feet. He went on to say that if The Dolphin (at No. 41 High Street) was included in the plan he would support it, but not otherwise. Councillor Lang discounted the fear for the market, but it emerged that the subscribers intended their funds to be put to the erection of the Town Hall and not the Market House. This was an issue that would not be resolved for another 24 years.
A further issue related to the passage of air through the building, a reasonable thought given the potential aromas that a market may give off. It was suggested that a passage right through to Penny Street would solve the problem but that would mean purchasing Bubb's store, which happened to be owned by Alderman Burbey who was amenable to the buy-out. Others thought that an entry into Pembroke Street had not been sufficently explored. Further wrangles over the financing of the project delayed any decision at this meeting.
A second meeting in mid-May agreed the purchase of the Pembroke Street properties and arrived at an overall cost of £3855. Subscriptions raised the first £1000 and a further £450 could be raised by re-using the materials from the old Town Hall leaving the Council to raise £2405 against potential earnings from the rents on 26 shops or stalls in the Market.
Another two weeks passed before the Council finally made a decision about the design of the building. In the meantime Thomas Ellis Owen had withdrawn his plans (possibly because he was already heavily committed with ongoing projects at Queens Terrace, Camber Docks, a workhouse and two churches). The two remaining proposals were put before the members of the Council who decided the winner by ballot. The outcome was that Mr Bramble's design received 20 votes and Mr. Livesay's 16. Mr Bramble's design was therefore selected, but Mr. Livesay was not prepared to accept this, saying in a letter to the Hampshire Telegraph "I wish not to insinuate that the Town Council were influenced by any but honourable motives, but, being aware of the difficulty of forming a correct opinion of architectural designs......I say decidedly the one chosen was not the best". He went on to suggest that the plans be put before independent qualified arbiters, but nothing came of this.
Livesay's indignation is understandable for not only was Bramble a member of the Market-house Committee but because he was a builder by trade with no architectural training. It is not known to what extent the public appreciated the finer points of architecural design but when the author started to build the model of the Market House and Guildhall for the 1860 Project, it became all too apparent that the design was flawed. Details are to be found on the relevant page of the report on the 1860 (Old Portsmouth) Project.
Having decided on the plans the Council turned their attention to the contractors and appointed Messrs. Voller, Wells and Chalkley to demolish the old building and construct the new, which was to have a suitably grand facade to both the High Street and Pembroke Street entrances. The work commenced in August 1836 and the building was open for business on June 28th 1838 (Queen Victoria's Coronation Day).
Although the Market House and Guildhall was fully functional for several years it struggled almost from the outset to accommodate the growing number of officials who administered the committees and organisations that were responsible for such services as Education and Sanitation. By 1860 the issue of size was raised again but this time the Council intended to remove the Market and take over the whole building. This they achieved in 1861 and although this resolved one issue it did nothing to address another.
The Council Chamber was found to be unsuitably located at the front of the building where it was difficult to hear proceedings because of the noise generated by the traffic below. Reports also suggest that the stench from the street permeated the Chamber which became almost unusable. It was suggested that some of the grand, ceiling high windows should be bricked up but this was countered with the novel idea of applying double glazing to the windows [Hampshire Telegraph, March 10th 1860]. It is not known if either alternative was adopted but it was already plain that the building would have to be replaced and by 1879 the Municipal Corporation once again agreed to the construction of another, modern, Town Hall.
A suitable site for the new Town Hall was found at Landport, at what had formerly been the residence of Sir Thomas Ridge, but was at that time the official residence of the Commander of Artillery. The design for the building was under the control of a sub-committee of the Council, the members of which greatly admired the architecture of the modern Town Halls in the North of England, particularly those of Leeds and Bolton. The latter had been designed by Mr William Hill who was appointed the Architect for Portsmouth. He copied many of the features from Bolton but made so many improvements that it was larger by some 412,000 cubic feet. The lowest tender for the construction, which was carried out by Messrs. Armitage and Hodgson of Leeds, was £98,245. The old Town Hall in High Street subsequently became the Town Museum, a role it provided until it was destroyed in WW2.
The Guildhall was opened by Their Royal Highnesses The Prince (later King Edward VII) and Princess of Wales on August 9th 1890 and that would have been the final part of the evolution of Portsmouth Guildhall were it not for World War II. On the night of Friday, January 10th, 1941 three waves of incendiary bombs hit the Guildhall followed closely by a high explosive device. The building was gutted and took some weeks to cool down sufficiently to allow Corporation staff in to assess the damage. In practice there was little to evaluate as apart from the outer walls there was nothing left, though some smaller artefacts had survived in the muniment room.
The re-building of the Guildhall had to wait for over 14 years and even then it wasn't until 1959 that Queen Elizabeth II officially opened the new building. Although the building has remained largely unaltered since then its context has changed dramatically as the new glass and steel Civic Centre arose before it, effectively blocking any panoramic views of the last in a lengthy line of historic buildings. The next chapter awaits.
"Extracts From the Portsmouth Records" by Robert East
"The Portsmouth That Has Passed" by William Gates
The Hampshire Telegraph
"The Smitten City" published by the Evening News, Portsmouth