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This description of Plymouth's old Guildhall was published in 1833 when there were still people around who remembered it. A contemporary woodcut depicts the exterior of the building but the following article reveals the layout of the interior in relation to its external appearance.


From the South Devon Monthly Museum

Published 1 April 1833:



"The old Guildhall, as the present generation call the edifice which was taken down in 1800, was erected in 1606, in the early past of the reign of James 1st, and then probably not on the site of a former building, but on one adopted as a vacant place in the town, and in a more central situation than Southside Street, where the preceding hall was situated.


In February 1607, it appears, in one of the books of the Corporation, that the Worshipful body had not counted the cost before they commenced the work, for by a bye-law it is stated


"That a parcel of the Guildhall had been of late new-builded for the keeping and holding of the King's Majesty's Court, and Courts of the said Borough, and that the said Town was greatly indebted for the building thereof, and were not able to clear the same without selling some part of the revenue thereof, to the great discredit of the Town and Corporation."


An assessment was therefore made on all the inhabitants of the Town, by the Mayor to raise a sum of money towards the building of the same. It might afford some amusement if we could state the expense of erecting this edifice, but as the entry of the charge is mixed with other buildings, the separate cost of the Guildhall cannot be ascertained. The entry is as follows:


"The charges of building the Guildhall and Flesh Shambles and for redeeming of Thomas Sanders and Miles Waterford's two houses by the church stile amount in all to £794 8s 0d."


The hall itself was erected on arches, under which, and around the building, the butter and poultry market was held, and in an enclosed court behind it were collected the corn-market and the vegetable market to the great annoyance of all passengers, there being on the market days scarcely a possibility of passing, and great was the clamour and dire the confusion that prevailed.


But to return to the Edifice; the hall was ascended by a flight of seventeen steps, hence arose a local bye-word, if anyone was acting illegally either by the commission of any crime, or the incurrence of debt, it was said he would soon ascend the seventeen steps; the open staircase was in a Tower which projected into the street and rendered it extremely narrow; over the landing place was a Council Chamber, (which will be presently referred to) and this was surmounted by a cupola containing a clock.


On entering the Hall, at the western end of it were erected the seats for the Mayor and other Magistrates, and various members of the Corporation, and outside the bar the remainder of the hall was left open for the inhabitants; at the eastern end of it another staircase led to the Council Chamber, a small room partly over the Hall and partly in the Tower. In this room the deliberative meetings of the 12 and 24 took place, and here too, unfortunately, were the archives of the corporate body kept in a place unfit for their preservation.
Plymouth - the old Guildhall
The old Guildhall - Plymouth

Demolished 1800


Out of the Hall, at the western end was the entrance to the debtor's prison, and beyond it another apartment where criminals were confined, or detained prior to commitment for any heinous offence. Below, and entered by the side of the steps were two dungeons, one called the Clink, whose reputation has long survived its existence, and children are still told they shall  be sent to the Clink as a place of terror. The other prison was a low room for the confinement of all offenders having free intercourse with the passers-by. Such was the "Old Guildhall" and its appendages. 


In 1800, when the old Guildhall was taken down, private interest prevailed powerfully to induce its resurrection on the same site, and in an evil  hour, a man called Eveleigh*, who had been Clerk of the Works to some architect at Bath, undertook, in so limited a space, to provide room for a Guildhall, all the purposes of a Mayoralty House, as far as kitchens and their appendages and dining rooms; prisons for debtors as well as thieves, rogues and vagabonds, a news-room, and withal a market-place. Such a preposterous plan could only be approved by ignorant men who unfortunately at this time governed the affairs of the Corporation. It met with very general reprehension and some feeble oppositionamongst the inhabitants, but nothing effectual was done to impede its progress, and thus £7000 was spent in erecting a structure, which soon was found to be inadequate for the purpose of a Mayoralty House, incapable of affording the accommodation required for the market, utterly unfit for all the purposes of a Prison, but moderately adapted to  the purposes of a Guildhall and totally inefficient as a place for a hall of Justice. So much for modern improvements!


But let us returns to our old Guildhall. We cannot advocate it as at all fitting for the town in its present altered and enlarged state, but undoubtedly at the period of its original erection, it was more commendable than the structure which the wise men of the 19th century have constructed. In the lapse of two centuries many eminent men must have made their appearance in the old Guildhall and some important events must have taken place in the building. The contest between the freeholders and the select body must have taken place at the Restoration in 1660 and again at the Revolution in 1688. There was the Prince of Orange's declaration read in December and it is recorded in the Corporation Books that Plymouth was the first town that declared for King William.


We have to lament that at its demolition in 1800, more care was  not taken of the papers and documents belonging to the corporate body, for large piles of papers were indiscriminately thrown into heaps prior to their removal to the Mayoralty house in Woolster Street, which was temporarily used as a Guildhall; a great many documents were then lost to the body although some of them still remain in the hands of individuals.


*John Eveleigh began his surveying and architectural practice in Bath in the 1780s, but went bankrupt after the failure of the Bath City Bank and moved to Plymouth.

His totally inadequate version of the Guildhall was replaced in 1873 by a far more imposing and suitable building designed by Alfred Norman and James Hine of Plymouth.To read more about this building visit



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