Long and chequered history of Preston's Guild Halls

Preston Guild Hall faces an uncertain future, but it is not the first building to bear the Guild Hall name in the city and endure a rollercoaster history of highs and lows, as local historian Keith Johnson reveals

Friday, 12th July 2019, 2:03 pm
Updated Friday, 12th July 2019, 3:03 pm
Inside the rntrance to the Town Hall and Guild Hall circa 1939

Our town halls, moot halls and guild halls have been interwoven from as long ago as the 17th century. Around 1680 Dr Kuerden had this to say on his visit to the town,‘In the middle of the borough is placed an ample ancient and yet well beautified guild or town hall, to which is annexed at the end thereof, a council chamber for the capital burgesses or jurors at their court days, to retire for consultations or to retire from public view.’

Kuerden going on to explain the premises were used for the courts of chancery and common pleas for the county, along with the election of burgesses and parliamentary candidates. Besides that it was the place where the Guild mayor and all officials connected to the event would gather every 20 years to celebrate the Guild Merchant.

In 1760 the Preston Corporation decided to create a purpose built Guild Hall adjoining the existing Town Hall and the new landmark was ready for all the pomp and pageantry of the Guild of 1762. Unfortunately, a large portion of the Town and Guild Hall fell into a heap of ruin in early June, 1780. A ball had been held the previous evening, and the ladies and gentlemen in attendance had only departed a few hours before the catastrophe unfolded.

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Preston Guild Hall which opened in 1782

Little time was lost in building another one on the same site incorporating some of the old structure and it was open in time for the Preston Guild of September 1782. Contemporary accounts reveal it hosted a splendid Guild with a masquerade ball, attended by 300 genteel folk, one of the highlights. The work had been entrusted to Messrs Bailey and Emett who signed a contract for no more than £615 equivalent to £105,000 in today’s money.

The new Town Hall was described thus by historian Peter Whittle 40 years later, ‘This handsome building stands in the centre of the borough near the Market Place, and fronts on to Fishergate, built of brick, it contains a news room, a council chamber, together with a court room. A Cupola was added in 1814 built of freestone with mouldings of Norman style and surmounted with a clock with four dials. Over the entrance to this Town Hall the arms of the town are carved along with the initials P.P. meaning Prince of Peace.’

While one might think all things were set fair for the Guild Hall it appears things were gradually changing for the worse as time moved on and Preston was in the grip of the industrial revolution.

Indeed, a reporter from ‘The Builder’ magazine, who toured the town in 1861, had this to say after journeying up Fishergate, ‘At last the Town Hall narrows the road, just where Cheapside leaves Fishergate at a right angle, and the Market Place opens out in view. The Town Hall is neither modern nor ancient: but is a dingy worn out mansion. The entrance faces an alley three or four feet wide, by the side of the Legs Of Man inn, down which is a dirty perspective. The rear of the Town Hall is open to the Market Place, and is ragged, tasteless, smoky and dirty. Shop shutters are leaning against the ruined walls, as are temporary wooden urinals: placards and posters are stuck upon every available space.’

Preston Town Hall of 1867 which housed the Guild Hall

By March 1862 the council had resolved to improve matters and a gang of workmen were busily engaged in pulling down the Town and Guild Hall buildings. Soon they would make way for a structure said to be more in accordance with the wealth and importance of the borough, even though the ‘cotton famine’ was in full swing and poverty was rife among the working classes.

That year’s Preston Guild Merchant had to be ceremoniously opened in the hall of Preston Grammar School, as the Guild Hall site was a pile of rubble. As part of the 1862 Guild the foundation stone of the new structure was laid by Guild Mayor Robert Townley Parker. The new building was opened in early October 1867 amid much pomp and ceremony by the Duke of Cambridge. Built with stone from the Longridge quarries, it was lofty and stately in appearance. Altogether it cost over £69,000 to build equivalent to £7.5m these days.

It was a building which would stand at the heart of the town for decades not only for Guild celebrations, but for numerous civic and social occasions. The Preston Guilds of 1882, 1902, 1922 were all proclaimed from the steps of this Town Hall in true tradition. There was a change in emphasis in the decade that followed with erection of new Municipal Buildings on Lancaster Road opened in September 1933 with a purpose built Council Chamber and a Mayor’s Parlour for dealing with Town Hall matters.

The £130,000 structure, built of Portland Stone, was described as well balanced and elegant. Nonetheless, the Guild Hall remained an essential place for civic ceremonies and events galore. Unfortunately, the Preston Guild of 1942 had to be cancelled with town and country heavily involved in the Second World War. Talk was that once hostilities were over the Guild Hall would play host to a Preston Guild in 1952.

Mayor laying the foundation stone of the north-east corner of the new Town Hall on September 13, 1862

Sadly, those hopes would be dashed in mid March 1947 when the residents of Preston awoke from their slumbers to news that their stately Gothic design hall on Fishergate had been reduced to a smouldering ruin. Fire had raged for three hours from 3am and had swept through the entire building. The old Guild Hall had been completely gutted and the cherished clock tower had crashed 180 feet into Fishergate.

The day after the fire workmen began demolishing the remains of the clock tower and the building was patched up to allow the ground floor to be used in a limited way. Initially, the clamour was for the building to be rebuilt on the site and restored to its former glory.

Fortunately, the Public Hall on Lune Street was available to use for numerous events during the Preston Guild of 1952 including the historical Guild Court attended by the civic dignitaries. Perhaps, what was missed most of all was the clock in the Guild Hall tower it had quite a history before it went up in flames. The Westminster chimes of this beloved clock could be heard from afar with residents of Croston, Bamber Bridge, Catforth, Kirkham and Barton among those who responded to an enquiry in 1937 about the far reaching sound when the wind direction was favourably.

Whenever the clock had periods of inactivity it caught public attention such as in 1903 when a painter working in the tower had left a can of paint on the mechanism, or in 1932 when many cotton workers were on strike and it stopped working also, although it was a faulty control rod not sympathy for the strikers that caused it and a year later when a blizzard swept through town, the clock face on the east side was stopped by the weight of snow on the hands.

As time dragged on interest in the old Guild Hall building began to cool and eventually the town council decided to knock it down and lease the prime site to the highest bidder. In 1962 the demolition gangs moved in and the final destruction of the cherished building was completed.

But there was great excitement when plans were unveiled for the building of a new Guild Hall, enabling future generations to enjoy a legacy of the Preston Guild of 1972. The opportunity to build close to the city centre came due to the recent demolition of the old Ribble Bus Station on Tithebarn Street along with the ancient passageway known as Wards End which linked Lancaster Road to the bus station.

Unfortunately, bad weather and strikes delayed the opening until November 1972, too late for the pomp and pageantry of Preston Guild. Once more the Public Hall becoming the focal point for the Guild celebrations. Happily, the Guild Hall played a significant role in the Guild of 1992 with the Guild Court opening there, and many celebrations and customs enacted within during a Guild which enjoyed many of the traditional, cherished and spectacular events.

Twenty years on, in 2012, the Guild Hall hosted many of the customary events associated with the ancient Guild Merchant and the venue was praised for its suitability as Guild Mayor Carl Crompton welcomed dignitaries from around the world to the Mayoral Ball.