A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1994.
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The town had presumably had a hall in which to hold its courts since the earlier 12th century when it was given the right to have its own justices, (fn. 1) and a common hall, later called the moot hall, was recorded in 1277. (fn. 2) The building on the north side of High Street, demolished in 1843, was of the 12th century and originally comprised a stone house, c. 40 ft. long, lengthwise to the street, with a first floor hall. (fn. 3) It had doorways in the north and south walls, the south one at least being original, which perhaps marked a screens passage separating the hall from its chambers to the north. Both doors were approached by steps, and the south one had an 'entry' encroaching on the market place by 1367. (fn. 4) The north door opened into a large court or garden where market stalls were erected. (fn. 5) The south doorway was flanked by two elaborately carved windows, one of which survived largely intact, but blocked, in 1843. It was of two orders, both with decorated capitals, the outer with colonettes, the inner with standing figures; the inner archivolt was carved with pine cones or bunches of grapes, the outer with a leaf design and a human head at the apex. The carving has been shown to be from the same workshop as the west doorway of Rochester cathedral, built c. 1160. (fn. 6)
By the later 14th century the hall was out of repair and old fashioned, and it was remodelled in 1373-4 at the instigation of the bailiff William Reyne. Reyne rebuilt the steps to the doors, the north ones in tiled stone, the south ones in marble. The south steps and the outer door were covered by a two-storey porch with an overhanging upper storey jutting out into the market place; shops or stalls with solars above them were built in the space between the south wall of the hall and the street frontage, on either side of the new porch. Reyne also restored the undercroft below the hall, enlarging the windows to make it suitable for the wool market. He refurnished the main hall with benches and triple sedilia. (fn. 7)
No major alterations seem to have been made to the hall before its demolition in 1843, although repairs were carried out at intervals in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, notably c. 1701 when the corporation borrowed £350 for the repair of the moot hall, the bridges, and part of High Street. (fn. 8) A turret, presumably the bell turret above the entrance, was recorded in 1583, and the room under the bell in 1618. (fn. 9) The hall was taxed on three hearths in 1680 and 1681, but the number was reduced to two in 1684. (fn. 10) Descriptions of the hall in 1579, 1748, and 1803 suggest that the internal arrangements changed little. On the first floor was the main hall or moot hall with, to the north, the exchequer which had been partitioned by 1748 to provide a muniment room. Above the exchequer and muniment room was the council or freemen's chamber. (fn. 11) By 1683 other public buildings, including the gaol, adjoined the hall, probably on the west on land owned by the corporation in the early 19th century. (fn. 12)
In 1764 the corporation leased to the Norwich Company of Comedians, who had been performing in the moot hall since 1725, part of the moot hall yard on which to build a theatre. (fn. 13) In 1828 the corporation leased the disused building back for a term of 50 years as a sessions house and additional gaol accommodation. (fn. 14)
The new town hall designed by John Blore and R. Brandon was opened on the same site in 1845. (fn. 15) Built at a cost of £6,000 raised mainly by public subscription, it was a three-storeyed stone building, its front divided into five bays by six Roman Doric pilasters surmounted by a cornice and a balustrade; the borough arms were carved on the raised central compartment. It contained a large assembly hall called the moot hall, a court room, a magistrate's room, committee rooms, a police station and cells, and offices for the gaoler; by 1882 there were two court rooms. (fn. 16) By 1878 the hall was inadequate and its foundations unstable; neighbouring properties were bought to extend and buttress the building, but the work was not carried out, and in 1897 the hall was demolished. (fn. 17)
In 1902 the third town hall on the site was opened by the former Liberal prime minister, Archibald Philip Primrose, earl of Rosebery. The red brick and Portland stone building was designed by Sir John Belcher in Renaissance style. (fn. 18) The tower, windows, pictures, statues, and furnishings of the hall were provided by gifts and benefactions amounting to c. £12,000. The capitals of the facade are decorated with wheat, roses, and oyster shells; in niches around the building at second floor level are set six life-size marble statues of Eudes dapifer, Thomas Audley Lord Audley, Dr. William Gilberd, Archbishop Samuel Harsnett, King Edward the Elder, and Boudicca. The 162-ft. high Victoria tower was given by James Paxman and named after the queen with her special permission; on the top is a bronze statue of St. Helen. In the upper angles of the tower are four bronze ravens symbolizing the port of Colchester and in the lower angles figures representing engineering, fishery, agriculture, and military defence. In the tower is a chiming clock with five bells and a bell of c. 1400 believed to have come from the medieval moot hall. Two law courts are on the ground floor, from which rises an elaborate staircase of coloured marble. On the first floor are the mayor's parlour, the grand jury room, and the council members' room, which can all be opened into one large room; also on the first floor is the council chamber, its ceiling painted to John Belcher's design with figures representing the months; the three stained glass windows were made by Messrs. Powell and Sons of the Whitefriars glass works. (fn. 19) Carved figures of a boy and girl of the Bluecoat school are on the side walls of the upper staircase leading to the second floor. Most of that floor is taken up by the moot hall, the principal assembly room, which has coupled Corinthian columns surmounted by a frieze, an elaborate cornice, and a barrel-vaulted coved ceiling. (fn. 20)
In 1965 the corporation bought the Cups hotel, west of the town hall, to provide additional office accommodation; in 1975 part of the Treasurer's department moved to Rebow chambers in Sir Isaac's Walk. By 1985 council departments were housed in buildings throughout the town, including the old public library in Shewell Road, East Lodge and the Gatehouse in East Hill, Northgate House in North Hill, and Lexden Grange in Lexden. (fn. 21) New council offices, Angel Court, were built in 1988 east of the town hall connected to it by a tunnel beneath West Stockwell Street. (fn. 22)
The bailiffs used private houses to imprison suspected offenders c. 1250, (fn. 23) but by 1285 they had custody of a gaol, which was delivered from 1300. (fn. 24) In 1367 it was probably below the moot hall, presumably with a door and a window on the north side of the building as prisoners were alleged to escape over an unrepaired wall into St. Runwald's churchyard. William Reyne's improvements in 1373 included placing outside the moot hall door posts to which the prisoners could be chained to beg; hitherto they had had to stand in the 'shaft' which gave access to the prison. (fn. 25) In 1618-19 the prisoners were supplied with a leaded basket to gather food, presumably by begging from passers by, which suggests a window or other opening giving on the street. (fn. 26) By 1579 there was a separate women's gaol in an upper room in the moot hall, (fn. 27) perhaps in the room over the porch.
In 1608 a house of correction was made out of some chambers in the moot hall, (fn. 28) apparently in the building west of the original hall. In 1624 or 1625 it appears to have been moved to other, possibly new, buildings on the same or an adjoining site. (fn. 29) Its equipment included a treadmill, housed in a separate building in 1628-9. (fn. 30) The house of correction may have been the bridewell recorded in 1681 which, in 1703, was equipped with a handmill for grinding malt. (fn. 31) The bridewell was turned into a gaol in 1730 when an earlier gaol, presumably in adjoining buildings, was converted into houses. (fn. 32) In 1748 the gaol was below the moot hall and adjoining buildings. (fn. 33) In 1801 it was filthy and offensive and without an outside exercise yard. There was one room for debtors and three other rooms each 7 ft. high; two on the ground floor were 16 ft. by 11 ft. and 15 ft. square respectively, one on the first floor was 15 ft. by 9 ft. All were lighted and ventilated by small grated windows. Two strongrooms, each 16 ft. by 11 ft., were probably below the moot hall cellar. (fn. 34) A separate debtors' prison was built in the north-west corner of the moot hall yard in 1809; the timber and brick building had a single day room on the ground floor with three cells above, and appears to have had windows in the west wall. (fn. 35) In 1822 all categories of prisoners were held in the gaol; those found guilty of capital offences were sent, after sentence, to the county gaol. (fn. 36)
In 1834 the cells in the old town gaol still held seven prisoners, and there were three cells in the debtors' prison. There was no room for a treadwheel and sentences of hard labour were served in the county gaol in Chelmsford. (fn. 37) By 1839 the hall of the disused theatre in the north-east corner of the moot hall yard, which had been used as extra prison accommodation since c. 1828, was being used as the men's exercise yard, and the gallery had been converted into six women's cells which in 1840 were made into a separate women's prison. Men were still held in the old gaol, but some of the oldest cells were not normally used. Poor drains made the whole prison 'disgustingly offensive', the cells were small and airless, and there was no open air exercise yard. (fn. 38) In 1843 the demolition of four of the seven cells in the men's prison to make way for the new town hall and the temporary use of the debtors' building to house the prison governor during the rebuilding caused serious overcrowding. (fn. 39) Cells built in the basement of the new town hall seem not to have been used for several years, and in 1849 the gaol was still 'a wretched place of confinement' totally unsuitable as a prison. Improvements had been made by 1862 when there were 2 day rooms, 2 exercise yards, and 16 cells, some presumably in the basement of the town hall. (fn. 40) The borough council could not afford to meet all the requirements of the 1865 Prison Act, and by 1868 the gaol was used only for remand prisoners and juveniles, all other prisoners being sent to the county gaol. (fn. 41) The gaol apparently closed in 1878 and was demolished, with the town hall, in 1896 and 1897. (fn. 42)
The hall, at the west end of High Street, was built as a corn exchange in 1845 to designs by Raphael Brandon. It has a front of five narrow bays, the three recessed middle ones being divided by two Ionic columns supporting a shallow portico. Each of the central bays contains an arched doorway; the two outer bays originally contained niches holding life-size figures symbolizing ancient and modern agriculture, but the niches were replaced by windows, perhaps when the building was converted into a school in 1885. In 1991 the statues stood at the entrance to St. Mary's multi-storey car park on Balkerne Hill. A statue of Britannia above the centre of the portico was made of such soft stone that it quickly eroded and was removed. The building closed as a corn exchange in 1884 and reopened in 1885 as the Albert School of Art and Science, which became the responsibility of the borough council in 1894. The hall was used for educational purposes until 1912 (fn. 43) and as a Food Control office during the First World War. After years of disuse, major alterations were made in 1926; a stage, foyer, and gallery were built and the building was used as an assembly hall, art gallery, and theatre until 1972. By 1974 it was being used as a stationery store by Cullingford and Co. (fn. 44) In 1980 the council sold it to property developers (fn. 45) and in 1991 the restored building housed the Co-operative Bank and the General Accident Assurances Corporation.
The PUBLIC HALL, later ST. GEORGE'S HALL, behind no. 156 High Street was not, despite its name, a municipal building. The red brick hall with apsidal ends was built in 1851 primarily for the use of the Mechanics Institution. (fn. 46) After the Institution's closure in 1860 it was used as a library and reading room, lecture room, and theatre until the owners, the Colchester New Public Hall Co. Ltd., went into liquidation in 1897. The hall then changed hands several times and had a number of uses: as a magistrates' court and cells, a clothing factory, and a club for the troops in the First World War. In 1920 it was bought by Henry Elwes, renamed St. George's Hall, and became a young men's club and then a centre for the unemployed. The neighbouring Repertory Theatre used the hall as a workshop from 1937 to 1967. Cullingford and Co. bought the premises in 1948 and rented the basement out separately. From c. 1960 they used half the hall as a stockroom and took over the whole of the ground floor in 1967. (fn. 47)