After the cathedral, the Guildhall of Worcester is architecturally the most important building in the city. It is described by Pevsner as ‘a splendid town hall, as splendid as any of the C 18 in England, but it is just a little barbaric in its splendour’. It was built between 1721 and 1723 in red brick with stone dressings and much carving. It has been attributed to the Worcester mason Thomas White, who at one time was thought to have worked for Wren, but this has now been shown to have been impossible although White certainly produced the sculpture for the building.
One of the events in the Three Choirs Festival was a Festival Ball and when it was held at Worcester, the Guildhall provided a fine setting for the event. But by the 1860s it was beginning to show its age and civic pride must have been badly dented when, after the 1866 ball, the Festival Stewards felt that the building was unsafe and the ball should be held elsewhere. The City Council immediately instructed its own architect, Henry Rowe, to select ‘some experienced Architect’ and together report on the stability of the Guildhall.
The Council were, it seems, always reluctant to rely on Rowe’s expertise alone and Rowe selected as his partner George Bidlake of Wolverhampton. In May 1867 Rowe and Bidlake presented a detailed report to the Council but nothing happened. In fact horrified by the costs involved, the Council dithered for ten years between repair, demolition and a complete new building. Finally, on 4 April 1876, it decided to pull down the old Guildhall and build a new one. The citizens of Worcester rebelled and ‘assembled in Common Hall’ on 26 April. They memorialized the Council to reconsider the decision and Lechmere undertook to get Scott officially involved in the Guildhall affair. He had, it seems, already discussed the problem with Scott, and on the same day he wrote to him.
It is strange that Sir George Gilbert Scott was willing to become caught up in this petty wrangle but Lechmere’s friendship was important to him, particularly as he was chairman of the restoration committee of Tewkesbury Abbey. The value of this friendship was proved when he became a stalwart supporter of Scott in the face of Morris’s attack over Tewkesbury. But Scott also had a genuine affection for Worcester Guildhall and three days after receiving Lechmere’s letter he sent back a long and detailed report, which even Scott could hardly have achieved in that time if he had not already examined the building and its history in some considerable detail. The report was a powerful plea for the preservation of the old Guildhall based on a number of factors including the prestige attached to the building as the work of ‘a native architect who had been a protégé, and in some degree pupil, of Sir Christopher Wren’. Although this is incorrect, he is certainly right in saying that it is a genuine specimen of the Wren style, ‘which is at the present moment honoured and cultivated by a large class of our best Architects under the name of the Style of Queen Anne’. His comment that ‘our best Architects; were working in the Queen Anne style is perhaps an acknowledgment of the role of many of the Spring Garden alumni in the development of that style. Scott was never a Gothic fanatic and in his old age he was quite ready to express sympathy with other styles, as his regrets over the Jacobean stalls at Worcester Cathedral show. Scott states that there is ‘no case whatever for Rebuilding’, as it could be ‘readily put into a state of substantial and durable repair’ at moderate expense. By using the wings and with small additions to the rear, its municipal requirements could be adequately accommodated. He endorses Rowe’s estimate for repairs and additions and says that this would be the most economical method of meeting their requirements and would save the Council ‘from the reproach that must attach to them for unnecessarily destroying an ancient building possessing great architectural merit’.
The Council was not convinced by Scott’s well argued plea and on 2 May 1876 it decided on a complete reconstruction. However Lechmere persuaded the Council of the Society of Antiquaries to pass a resolution regretting the decision to pull down the old Guildhall. He also obtained a memorial ‘signed by upwards of 4000 persons, asking the Council to reconsider their Resolution to build a new Guildhall’ and led a deputation of inhabitants and ratepayers at a Council meeting on 6 June 1876. Even so, it was only after considerable discussion that it was agreed to proceed with Rowe and Scott’s proposals for repairing and enlarging the Guildhall. Plans were eventually drawn up and work started in July 1877 with intended completion on 1 April 1879, but with Scott’s death in the following March, Rowe became the sole architect. It cost over £14,000, the contractor was Thomas Dixon and heating was supplied by Haden.
On 31 March 1880, fourteen years after it first became apparent that something had to be done to the Guildhall, the building was finally reopened with a banquet given by the Mayor. Scott’s eminence at the time gave Lechmere a useful weapon in his battle to save the Guildhall but the design of the interiors suggests that it was Rowe who made the major architectural contribution to the work.
Pevsner, N., Worcestershire, Buildings of England (Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1968), p. 323.
Colvin, H., A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840 (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1995), pp. 1043-4.
Worcester Cathedral Pamphlets in Worcester Library, W080.942448.
Noake, J., A Report on the Restoration of Worcester Guildhall, 1881, pp. 3-4, 13-15, 18, 31, Worcestershire Record Office, 496.5 BA9360/C6/Box2/3.
Scott, G. G., ‘Guildhall, Worcester, Report’, pp. 2-6, Worcestershire Record Office, reference number 496.5 BA9360/C6/Box 3/5.