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The Old Town Hall, Basingstoke

The Willis Museum has a substantial number of documents, mostly drawings, which tell the story of the design of what is now the Willis Museum as it evolved during the years 1828-30. Many of the drawings were feint and indistinct, but with the help of modern technology a representative sample has been successfully copied to give a fascinating insight into the evolution of the design.

The early 19th century marked a period in architectural design known as the Greek Revival, and in keeping with the fashion of the time the Bolton Arch was designed in the Greek style. It is noteworthy that the sculpted coat of arms on the Bolton Gate (subsequently removed) was the work of Richard James Wyatt, another member of the famous family. He was the sculptor who was commissioned in 1841 to add an equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington to the archway now sited at Hyde Park Corner in London. When complete – it took five years – there was criticism that its immense size was out of scale with the Decimus Burton designed arch, and when the arch was relocated to its present position from Green Park the sculpture was not re-erected. It later found a home at Aldershot where it is still to be seen.

It is more than likely that Lewis Wyatt became known to the Borough Council through his work at Hackwood House. His uncle, Samuel Wyatt, had been retained as the estate’s architect until his death in 1813. Lewis took over the commission, and in 1819 – 20, was responsible for building the Bolton Arch at Crabtree. This then formed the very important northern gateway to Hackwood Park on the road from London.

The drawings of the new Town Hall that have survived show that the design went through a number of changes prior to the letting of the building contract in June 1830. The earliest drawings, dated 1828, show two versions of a prestigious building which we have called the ‘Grand Design’. The first scheme, which is illustrated only with floor plans drawn rather sketchily in pencil, has an almost wholly open ground floor area. This ground floor is occupied by various market spaces, including a “Corn Market”, and even an early covered car park in the form of an area shown for “Carts”. Up above, linked by staircases back and front, there is a full range of facilities including “Town Hall”, “Council Chamber”, “Magistrates Bench” and “Magistrates’ Meeting Room”, as well as an office for the “Town Clerk”.

Later drawings of 1828 show a changed scheme for the “Grand Design”, with a significant change in the amount of open market space at ground floor level. Only about half the ground floor area is now shown to be “Corn Market” with the remaining space occupied by various office and facilities. Upstairs most of the space is occupied by large spaces identified as “Town Hall”, “Magistrates Room” and “Council Room”. It is clear that local government administration is being given more space at the expense of the market traders. A grand addition in this scheme is a “porte cochere” – or drive through carriage porch – on the south side. Perhaps because of an appointment related to his work at Hackwood, Lewis Wyatt incorporated Greek detailing into the elevations of this amended scheme. This is obvious in the design of the columns defining the open Corn Market and carriage porch area and, particularly, in the design of the clock tower. One of the plans from this period is particularly interesting in that it shows, in outline, the location of the earlier Town Hall a little to the south-west.

These first designs were clearly abandoned as being too ambitious, and in 1829 a further revised scheme was produced. This is clearly recognisable as having a plan close to that which we see today, although it still, of course, incorporated an open Corn Market area on the south side. The porte cochere had been removed, and the grand central staircase was moved to its present location on the Church Street side of the building. It is also clear that the Greek influence was waning, and this is particularly obvious in a redesign of the clock tower.

The design seems to have been finalised by 1830, and drawings from this year show only very minor adjustments. Among the changes are the addition of an access balcony to the clock tower and the provision of a hipped roof. It is presumed that earlier schemes had assumed a flat leaded roof, because no roof slopes appear above the pararet. One of the drawings that has been copied from 1830 is a particularly fine coloured sectional working drawing.

While construction was underway the architect's office continued to produce details of the fittings. The detail of the weather vane on the clock tower was clearly based on the one on the earlier Town Hall, because there are drawings of both in the Willis’ collection. The earlier one is clearly identified and contains a hand written note with the instruction “This sketch is for Mr Wyatt”. There is also a detail of the railings which surrounded the open Corn Market.

Tenders for the new building were sought in 1830.Three were submitted and these ranged in price from £4396 to £4807. The contract was awarded to Messrs Howard and Nixon of Stangate, London, who submitted the lowest of the prices. The architect was paid the grand sum of £296 for his work, and this fee clearly included the costs of a number of site visits made by himself and his clerk to oversee construction. His bill was finally paid on 1st August 1834.

That, of course, was by no means the end of the story of the new Town Hall, or the end of the involvement of the Wyatt family. As we have seen it was originally built with an open ground floor which served as a Corn Market. By 1864 the need for a purpose built Corn Market had clearly been established, and a design was commissioned from Stephen Salter and Matthew Wyatt, Architects, of London, for the building in Wote Street which we now know as the Haymarket Theatre. It is assumed that this Wyatt was related to Lewis but the necessary research to verify this has not yet been carried out.

It seems clear from the documents that not only were Salter and Wyatt commissioned to design a new Corn Market, but that they were also asked to carry out alterations to the Town Hall at about the same time. These alterations were essentially the enclosing of the open section of the ground floor. With a brand new Corn Market in the offing the ground floor could become part of the administrative offices. The documents do not include any plans of these changes to the Town Hall, but there is a detailed specification for building works prepared by Salter and Wyatt which could relate to the works and to drawings which have not survived.

Both the new Corn Market and the redesigned Town Hall are illustrated in this fine watercolour. It may well have been produced in the offices of Salter and Wyatt to illustrate the double commission. Perhaps it was presented to the Corporation at an opening ceremony for one, or both , of the buildings. It clearly illustrates Lewis Wyatt’s final version of the clock tower. This, of course, was removed in 1887 when it was replaced by Colonel John May’s rather more extravagant, and perhaps out of scale, version. This in turn was demolished as an allegedly unsafe structure in 1961. One of the clock faces is on display in the Museum.

In 1832, with the new Town Hall nearing completion, it was time to consider the future of its predecessor. The Corporation entrusted Auctioneers Glover & Paice with the job of disposing of it at an auction held on the premises on the 15 May 1832. Interestingly the northern wall of the old building was not included in the disposal, and the reason for this is not clear. It must have been extremely close to the new building if one of the early plans is to be believed, and this may have been one of the reasons it was left in place for the time being. The sale realised the grand total of £139/11/0 which, after the various costs of the disposal, was reduced to a net profit of £129/17/9. This was almost half the fee paid to Lewis Wyatt for his architectural services the following year. Details of the auction and the prices realised are displayed and it will be seen that at £46 the lead from the roof was by far the most valuable single lot.