Town hall, 1902-6 by [Sir] Alfred Brumwell Thomas.
Reasons for Designation
Woolwich Town Hall is listed at Grade II* for the following principal reasons:
* Architectural interest: one of the finest of the Edwardian town halls and the work of a major architect of the period; a rich and sophisticated essay in the English Baroque, with a sequence of exceptionally good and well-preserved interiors;
* Artistic interest: outstanding relief sculpture around the entrance to the Public Hall; sculpture of Queen Victoria by FW Pomeroy; an extensive programme of stained glass on local themes by the artist Geoffrey Webb; high-quality woodwork, plasterwork and metalwork by various firms;
* Historic interest: a testament to the civic pride of an early-C20 London borough still at the height of its maritime prosperity;
* Group value: as the centrepiece to a planned civic complex which also includes the listed library, baths, magistrates' courts and polytechnic buildings as well as the earlier town hall of 1842. For this it also has communal value, as the symbolic and ceremonial heart of Woolwich, which remains the seat of the now much expanded London Borough of Greenwich.
The area to the north of Wellington Street developed in the late C19 into the town’s municipal precinct, with the modest town hall and police station of the 1840s joined around the turn of the century by the Polytechnic, library, magistrates’ court and public baths. The old town hall of 1841-2 proved inadequate, despite extensions in 1868 and 1892, to the needs of an expanding local administration, and the creation of the Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich in 1900 provided the spur to build on a much grander scale. An earlier scheme for municipal offices at Plumstead was dropped in favour of a more central site, but its architect Alfred Brumwell Thomas was retained to build a new town hall on the corner of Wellington Street and Market Street. Plans for this were approved in 1902, and work began in the summer of 1903 under the contractors JE Johnson & Son of Leicester. HH Martyn carried out the carving in wood and stone; the plasterwork is by Tanners of Liverpool and the Bromsgrove Guild, and the electroliers were supplied by JW Singer & Son of Frome. The borough's Labour council resisted the suggestion of a royal opening, and the completed town hall was formally opened in January 1906 by Will Crooks, Labour MP for Woolwich, who hoped it would inspire ‘better work on the part of those legislating for the people of Woolwich, and greater tolerance towards one another’. Apart from some internal works and a small extension of 1929-30 by the Borough Engineer John Sutcliffe, the building has been little altered. From 1965 it became the administrative headquarters of the London Borough of Greenwich, supplemented since 2011 by the new Woolwich Centre on the south side of Wellington Street.
Sir Alfred Brumwell Thomas (1868-1948) was the son of the surveyor to Rotherhithe Vestry, and studied at the Architectural Association in London. He made his name in 1898 by winning the design competition for the enormous new City Hall at Belfast. This project, which was completed in 1906 and which earned him his knighthood, ran concurrently with the building of Woolwich Town Hall, as well as that of a third, equally ambitious town hall at Stockport, Greater Manchester (1904-8). Other works include the West of England Eye Infirmary at Exeter (1902-8) and the much smaller town hall at Clacton-on-Sea in Essex (completed 1931).
Orange-red brick and Portland stone; slate roofs with lead and copper-clad domes.
The building is divided into two main parts: that to the front, facing Wellington Street, contains the civic rooms and municipal offices; and that to the rear in Market Street the public spaces. The front part is of two storeys over a basement. The front range to Wellington Street contains the entrance vestibule and various offices on the ground floor, and a suite of three large committee rooms along with the Mayor's parlour and office on the piano nobile above. The vestibule leads through to a grand double-height entrance hall of three domed bays surrounded by a gallery, which occupies most of the long rear range; there are two tiers of offices along the flank to Market Street, while on the other side a projecting block contains the first-floor council chamber with more offices beneath.
The public hall is set at right-angles to the end of this rear range, forming a separate unit with its own formal entrance to Market Street. This gives access to a deep foyer flanked by cloakrooms, with more offices above; beyond is the hall itself, a large cruciform space surrounded on three sides by a gallery. Behind is a small extension of 1929-30, known as the Town Hall Annexe (which is not of special interest).
The style is an extravagant English Baroque, inspired by the work of Wren and Gibbs and, more immediately, by John Belcher’s Colchester Town Hall of 1898. On the principal elevations there is much elaborate relief ornament in Portland stone: putti, amorini (winged cherubs’ heads), scrollwork, foliage and the like. Windows (mostly six-over-six-pane sashes) are set within stone architraves with a mixture of triangular and segmental open pediments, triple keystones, ornamented jambs, carved cills, pendants, aprons etc. The Order used throughout much of the building is a modified Ionic based on the work of the C16 Venetian architect Vincenzo Scamozzi, with unfluted columns and capitals bearing pendants and angled scrolls.
The main front to Wellington Street is a complex, restless composition - qualities accentuated by the downhill slope of Wellington Street, which is marked by the repeated stepping-down of the area balustrade. The facade is divided horizontally into a basement (comprising the lower two storeys) and a tall piano nobile (containing the committee rooms) - the latter articulated by means of a full Scamozzian Order. The six principal bays are arranged 1-3-1: three broad, tripartite middle bays form a projecting centrepiece, with two narrower bays set back slightly on each side . The flanking bays have rusticated stone quoins and oeil-de-boeuf attic windows. The centrepiece has a rusticated basement in its outer sections and in the central bay, with small pedimented niches breaking through the rustication; the central bay curves forward in the centre to frame the main entrance, a rusticated arch containing wrought-iron gates with gilded wreaths. This is enclosed within a projecting porch, its small Ionic columns and architrave supporting a segmental pediment which contains the borough arms amid scrollwork and seated putti. On the piano nobile above, tall detached columns – paired at the ends and between the bays – support open segmental pediments; the middle pediment is set forward and enclosed within a larger, triangular pediment that spans the full width of the bay. The tall committee-room windows are set between the columns in a 'Venetian' arrangement, broad and round-headed in the centre of each bay and narrow and square-headed in the outer sections. Above is a balustrade and, over the central bay, a lead-covered dome crowned by a ring of volutes supporting a flaming cresset.
Projecting from the left-hand return to Market Street is the 130-foot clock tower. The lower stage is stone-faced, with a huge and elaborately-carved corbel (palm fronds, putti and an armorial cartouche) supporting the mayor’s balcony, whose canopy is an open-pedimented Ionic aedicule. The tall middle stage is of plain brick, relieved towards the top by four windows in stone architraves. The superstructure is entirely of stone. The square clock stage, its four clock faces enclosed by open pediments on pilasters and angel corbels, develops into a.cruciform stage, with projecting segmental-headed aedicules, and then another, lower open stage with triangular pediments and outsize triple keystones. In the topmost stage, eight volutes support a finial of shields and angel heads surmounted by a cresset.
The long office range to Market Street is very much plainer. It is of twelve bays, the third, sixth and ninth being of double width and marked on the ground floor by Venetian windows with stone Doric columns, pilasters and entablatures. Apart from these, the use of stone is restricted to triple keystones above each of the windows and plain cills beneath.
At the end of this range is the entrance to the public hall, forming a secondary front of seven bays arranged 1-1-3-1-1. The composition here is simpler than that of the Wellington Street front. Plain recessed outer sections flank two projecting bays, rusticated below and with channelled quoins above; the quoins also read as pilasters supporting the broad triangular pediment that spans the three-bay centrepiece. The latter is set back rather than forward, so the upper part of the pediment – which contains an oeil-de-boeuf in an elaborate scrollwork surround – overhangs deeply. The rusticated ground floor has three arched openings with Doric jamb columns and big scrolled and swagged keystones. The spandrels are richly carved with military trophies – crossed swords, spears, firearms and banners – in high relief, each surmounted by a mask.
The Wellington Street entrance leads to a narrow vestibule with a frieze of fruits, flowers and drapery. A short flight of stairs here give access to the entrance hall, a grand double-height space comprising three domed bays, with deep side-arches over the circulation gallery that runs round all four sides; a fourth, low-ceilinged bay beneath the committee rooms serves as a lobby. Light comes from oculi in the domes and from big stained-glass lunettes in the side arches, supplemented by six elaborate bronze electroliers with Art Nouveau ornament. The ceiling is of coffered plasterwork with a rich modillion cornice, and the floor of black and white marble laid diamond-wise. Ionic columns, two to each bay, support the balustraded gallery and form screens to the circulation corridor beneath it. The monumental main stair is at the northern end, with a big Venetian window above; there are secondary stairs beneath the galleries on either side.
The committee rooms are accessed from the southern gallery, via doors in elaborate hardwood surrounds with open pediments, amorini and palm fronds. The rooms were originally separated by folding asbestos partitions set within colonnaded screens, allowing the space to be divided into larger or smaller units as required. The screens and their associated panelling were removed in the 1960s, and the present partitions date from this period. Short corridors with domed ceilings and wall niches lead off the gallery to the mayor’s reception room and private office. Many of the other offices retain their original hardwood doors and doorcases, as well as cornices, skirtings and fireplaces.
The council chamber, reached by twin pedimented doors from the gallery, is a square domed space, with tiered seating and a public gallery in a horseshoe surrounding a central dais. The dome has an oculus surrounded by palm wreaths, while the pendentives contain oval ventilation grilles with enriched floral surrounds. Further palm wreaths crown the side-arches, three of which enclose large Venetian windows. The lower walls and gallery-front are panelled in oak to match the benches, which have carved ends and frontals. The dais has a curved frontal adorned with oval panels, palm-fronds and pilasters; the elaborately carved and scrolled mayoral seat stands within a broken-pedimented aedicule enclosing an armorial cartouche and a shell niche.
The marble-floored foyer to the public hall is of two broad bays divided by a screen of paired Ionic columns. The entrance bay has a richly-moulded plaster ceiling, while the inner bay has a glazed transverse barrel vault on scroll brackets; in the tympana are cartouches with amorini, scallop shells and foliage. Part-glazed hardwood doors in eared surrounds open left and right into the cloakrooms, and straight ahead into the hall. This is a large space on a Greek cross plan with a central dome 50 feet across, surrounded by four deep arched bays enclosing the galleries and stage. An elaborate bronze electrolier hangs from the apex of the dome, which contains a ring of circular openings (now blocked) towards the base. In the pendentives are oval ventilation grilles in highly ornate plaster surrounds (scrollwork, palm fronds, flowers and putti). There are further ornamented grilles in the side arches. Stairs in the outer angles give access to the galleries, which are supported on scroll-brackets enriched with palm fronds, and lit by big Venetian windows. Under the right-hand gallery is a square opening leading to the Annex. Behind the stage there was formerly an organ, now removed.
The building contains several windows designed by the artist Geoffrey Webb to a scheme devised by the local antiquarian WT Vincent, depicting scenes and persons associated with the history of the town. Each is accompanied by an explanatory text. They include:
* Entrance hall, over the stairs: ‘Here, in the month of October, 1637, the master shipwright Phineas Pett…conducteth Charles I on board H.M.S. Sovereign of the Seas, before her final departure from Woolwich…her building cost the King the affection of many of his subjects, who rebelled against the levy of the ship-money.’
* Middle committee room: ‘Here, at Eltham Palace in Epiphany-tide of 1364, King Edward entertained with great splendour three noble Kings: John of France, David Bruce of Scotland and Waldemar of Denmark.’ (The window was originally to have depicted the interior of the Arsenal shell foundry, or the emigration of dismissed workers to Canada in 1869, but these proposals were dropped.)
* Mayor’s reception room: Sir Martin Bowes (d.1566), Lord Mayor of London in 1545, founder of the Goldsmiths’ Almshouses in Woolwich.
* Council chamber: King Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth I and the Borough arms.
* Public hall: Henry Maudslay (1771-1831), engineer; Colonel Richard Lovelace (1618-58), Cavalier poet; General Charles Gordon (1833-85), soldier and philanthropist.
SCULPTURE AND MONUMENTS
Notable items include:
* Entrance vestibule: two pedimented marble plaques, one commemorating the laying of the foundation stone in May 1903, the other a WWI memorial.
* Entrance hall, niches flanking the principal stair: WWII memorial bronze plaques with swan-neck pediments.
* Entrance hall, above the principal stair (originally in the centre of the hall): over life-size Carrara marble statue of Queen Victoria by FW Pomeroy, erected by public subscription in December 1906; it is based on Pomeroy’s earlier bronze sculpture at Chester.
* Entrance hall, between the doorways to the council chamber: two bronze plaques by Gilbert Bayes, commemorating the Borough Councillor and sometime mayor of Woolwich, William Barefoot (1872-1941).