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The Guildhall complex can be found in Guildhall Yard, just off of Gresham Street. It consists of the Great Hall and all the surrounding buildings including the art gallery and library. Parts of it date back as far as 1411 and it is thought that there has been a civic hall on the site since the 13th. century. There is also a record from a property survey of St. Paul’s done in 1128 that mentions a Guildhall.
It is the only stone building not belonging to the church to have survived the Great Fire of 1666, although much damage was inflicted. Restoration work was carried out in 1670 and more recently in 1866. Sadly, major damage was suffered during the World War II blitz. More contemporary structures were added in 1954 and during the 1990's.
All of the Corporation’s administration work is carried out here, providing local government for the Square Mile and promoting business in the City. It is in fact, despite it’s great age, a 21st century town hall.
Standing in Guildhall Yard with the church of St. Lawrence Jewry behind you you have the Guildhall Porch and the Great Hall in front of you. To the right is the Guildhall Art Gallery and to the left, the Guildhall Library, bookshop, offices and committee rooms. The strange looking pod on the left (known as the pepper pot) is where the aldermen hold meetings.
During excavation work on the new site for the art gallery in 1987 the lost remains of the Roman Amphitheatre were found. It was always known that it existed, but no-one was certain where it was. The building plans had to be changed to accommodate the archaeological importance of this find, and the investigation that followed. You can see a slate circle set into the tiles of Guildhall Yard marking it’s position. Part of it is on display in the Guildhall Art Gallery (see below).
The Great Hall was first rebuilt in 1411, changing it from “an old and little cottage” to “a fair and goodly house”, according to the ancient writings of Fabyan. The porch was added between 1425-30. The exterior of the porch was renovated by George Dance in 1789 in ‘Moghul’ style (Moghul was a Muslim dynasty until 1857). It is a very attractive piece of architecture. The restoration of the war damaged hall was completed in 1954 by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, recreating the original. The stained glass windows and some other fittings are postwar. There are two crypts beneath the hall dating from the 1400’s that escaped both the great fire and the blitz. It has had five roofs in it’s history, the latest (1953) being covered with Collyweston stone tiles. This roof is how the architect thinks the original would have looked.
The Great Hall is not a dusty old unused relic, but still serves as a fully operational town hall. All of the City’s civic meetings are held here. Many official dinners and ceremonies are still held here and the Great Hall has played host not only to the City’s own Lord Mayors but to many countries’ political leaders as well as royalty.
After the Great Fire of 1666 the City Corporation had to appoint judges to assess and deal with the great number of property claims that were lodged. As there were no cameras in the 17th. century portraits of the judges were commissioned. This was the start of the Guildhall’s art collection.
In 1822 the chapel was replaced with a courthouse and in 1886 this was made into the first purpose made art gallery. This gallery suffered two air raid attacks. The one on 29th. December 1940 also took the roof off the Guildhall itself. The other, on 10th. May 1941 totally wrecked the building. Many of the treasures had been transferred to the countryside for storage at the start of the war but many paintings and heavier objects remained and were lost forever to the bombs. A makeshift building was erected within the shell of the old, to enable the gallery to function, but many of the items had to remain in storage.
In 1987 demolition work began to replace this temporary structure with a modern replacement. As mentioned above, this work was interrupted by the discovery of the Roman Amphitheatre, and the development redesigned to incorporate part of the ancient ruin into the basement as a display, while archaeologists surveyed the site. The architect, Sir Richard Gilbert Scott, finally saw his building opened by the Queen in November 1999. A staircase leads down to an exposed section of the Amphitheatre left exactly as it was found.plus lighting and sound effects.
The largest painting I have ever seen hangs between the floors of the gallery. “The Defeat of The Floating Batteries at Gibraltar by John Singleton Copley, measures 5.4 metres by 7.5 metres and weighs in at 1.5 tons. It was commissioned by the Corporation in 1783 and took eight years to paint. It was stored for over 50 years after the war because there was no wall big enough to display it. After years of restoring it to it’s original glory it now hangs in it’s original frame.
Money left by Richard (Dick) Whittington and William Bury was used to build the first library here in 1423-5. The books were all theological manuscripts and were chained to the bookcases. This was the first public library financed by a local authority. It lasted until 1549, when the Duke of Somerset decided to seize all the books for his new private palace (Somerset House). That was the end of the library for almost 300 years!
In 1828 the Corporation opened the second Guildhall Library. It now houses the finest collection of items relating to London. Books, manuscripts, prints and maps of antiquity. Many items were lost in the blitz but the collection is still unequalled anywhere. Records held there assist genealogists, with parish registers, shipping registers, business registers and many old papers and periodicals.
The Clock Museum is owned by the Clockmakers’ Company. The company’s charter of 1631 was to “regulate the craft of clock and watch making within the City of London and ten miles beyond”.
The collection was started around 1814 and opened to the public in 1872 in the Guildhall Library Clock Room. This was refurbished in 1988 and opened as the Clockmakers’ Company Museum in 2002.
The North Wing was originally designed in the 1930’s by Giles Gilbert Scott. He designed it in the same style as his power station on Bankside, which now houses the Tate Modern art gallery. It was constructed in the 1950’s and renovations began early in the the 21st. century.
TP Bennett was the architect and the design involved the enlargement of the North Wing and the remodelling and lowering of the adjacent piazza, to allow level access into the building. The two previous entrances have been replaced by a single glass faced entrance.
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