The Guildhall, Newport, Isle of Wight
New research on John Nash’s civic building.
The Guildhall in Newport is a little-known civic building designed by John Nash, an eminent architect of the Georgian period. Under-utilised for many years, it is now a priority building for the town’s High Street Heritage Action Zone. Architectural Investigators researched the history and development of the building to inform proposals for its future. This research has been drawn together in a report, which is available from the Historic England website.
The history of the site
Newport originated in the late 12th century when Richard de Redvers, Lord of Carisbrook Castle, founded the town at the head of the river Medina. It was initially governed by bailiffs elected by the burgesses.
There has been a succession of civic buildings, all on the same site near the Cornmarket (later St Thomas’s Square). The earliest was the audit house erected in 1405-6, which included a court room above two shops. In 1608 the town was incorporated as a borough, with a mayor, eleven aldermen and twelve chief burgesses. About 30 years later, the audit house was rebuilt in Portland stone with an open, colonnaded ground floor for market use; the building was completed in 1639.
In 1813 the borough decided to replace the 17th-century audit house with a new mixed-use building for the market, the town hall and the courts. The reasons for the rebuilding are not entirely clear but probably included the desire to have a civic building which adequately reflected Newport’s status as the island’s social and commercial centre. Several adjoining sites were acquired and the architect John Nash (1752-1835) was commissioned to prepare designs. Nash had a long-standing connection with the Isle of Wight, where he had built himself a marine villa called East Cowes Castle in the late 1790s.
For the Guildhall project, Nash waived his fees and was elected a free burgess in recognition.
His designs for the building and some of the administrative documents relating to its construction survive in the Isle of Wight Record Office.
Construction of the Guildhall
In early 1814 the contractors Richard Read Tayler and Richard Hall Moorey were appointed, with the local architect and builder William Mortimer acting as works supervisor. The foundation stone was laid on 20 March 1814 and the building was completed in March 1816. It was named the Guildhall, probably to reflect its grander appearance, compared with its more modest predecessors. To commemorate its completion, a portrait of Sir Leonard Worsley Holmes, MP for Newport and the Recorder of the Borough of Newport, was funded by public subscription and presented to the Corporation. The painting still hangs in the building today.
As completed in 1816, the Guildhall consisted of a market hall on the ground floor with open colonnades to the west and south. Inside, twelve hollow cast-iron columns supported the floor above. Two enclosed staircases, one reserved for the magistrates, led to the first floor. Here there were two main spaces: a smaller Council Chamber and Grand Jury Room to the west and a larger Town Hall and Court Room to the east. These rooms could be thrown into one by opening a folding partition which ran between two scagliola (marble effect) columns. Other first-floor rooms included the town clerk’s office and a room for the jury. As the main first-floor rooms were double height, there was only a partial second floor to the north with two small rooms.
The main courts that used the building were the Quarter Sessions, the Petty Sessions and the Borough Court. When in use as a court, the Town Hall and Court Room were set out with removable fittings: the bench and a ‘gallery’ (probably a raised bench) behind it for magistrates and burgesses, the grand jury box and the petty jury box, as well as boxes for a witness, a prisoner and the court crier. Such moveable furnishings were common in the early 19th century, particularly in multi-purpose buildings like the Guildhall, although fixed court room furnishings were being used more in specialist court buildings.
From the 1840s there were a number of alterations and two extensions. In 1843 a bracket clock was installed facing the High Street and probably at the same time a small cupola was added to the south-west corner. This provided a precedent for the addition of a grander clock tower on this corner in 1887-8. Designed by the local architect Robert Braxton Perres (1843-1915), it commemorated Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Partitions were gradually inserted in the market hall, which by the end of the century housed the town’s fire station, and its arcades were enclosed with windows and doors. In 1909, part of the ground floor towards the High Street was converted to public lavatories. By 1930, the ground floor also housed the town’s ambulance station.
In over 150 years of civic use, the Guildhall played host to many notable occasions, including welcoming the Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi on 7 April 1864. A ‘déjeuner’ with speeches by local dignitaries was held at the Guildhall and the waiting crowds in the High Street cheered when Garibaldi appeared on the balcony.
In the 1960s the Guildhall was radically remodelled to provide more convenient and modern accommodation for the administration of justice, housing the island’s Crown, Magistrates’ and County Courts. In preparation for the building’s new use a major programme of extension and alterations, to plans by the County Architect, Frederick Harry Booth (1910-2002), was undertaken in 1967-8. Major changes included the insertion of a court room on the ground floor, for which eight of Nash’s cast-iron columns were removed in favour of a steel frame to support the floor above.
Four detention cells were inserted on the ground floor, as well as a spiral staircase to bring defendants to the court rooms in the two main rooms on the first floor.
The scagliola columns were restored by Mr A. Philips of Messrs Bellman, Ivey, Carter & Co. of London, the great-great-grandson of the original craftsman who made them for Nash. A sympathetically designed extension to the east provided retiring rooms for magistrates, justices and juries, an interview room and further offices. The extended and altered Guildhall was opened on 21 September 1968 by the Rt. Hon. The Lord Denning, the Master of the Rolls.
However, the building’s life as a courthouse only lasted to 1994, when purpose-built law courts opened nearby. In 1995-6 the Guildhall was altered to house the Museum of Island History. Most of the court fittings, except the detention cells, were removed and new exhibition spaces were created on the ground floor. Further exhibition rooms on the first floor were planned as part of a second phase but this was never implemented due to concerns over floor loads. Instead, the two main rooms have been used for museum and archive storage.
Looking to the future
Having served a wide variety of civic, legal and public functions over the last 200 years, the Guildhall is once again the subject of discussions about possible future uses, as it is currently under-used and in poor condition. In November 2022 it was added to Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register, which will enable targeted support and funding.
The new research has already informed the revision of the Guildhall’s list entry to clarify its special architectural and historic interest. In future, the research report will be an invaluable tool to guide any forthcoming proposals for the building’s restoration and conversion to a new use.
About the author
- Name and role
- Title and organisation
- Architectural Investigator at Historic England
- Johanna joined Historic England in 2017. She has been working on several Heritage Action Zones and High Streets Heritage Action Zones and is the co-author of the book ‘Weston-super-Mare: The Town and its Seaside Heritage’, which was published by Historic England in 2019.
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