Friday, 10 June 2016

Two historic centres of social
and political life in Tamworth

Sir Robert Peel’s statue outside the Town Hall on Market Street in Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

I was writing yesterday after Thomas Guy’s gift to Tamworth of Guy’s Almshouses in Lower Gungate, and his angry response to the people of Tamworth when they decided not to re-elect him.

In his pique, Guy transferred all his energy and commitment to the welfare of his mother’s home town, and devoted his energy to founding Guy’s Hospital in London.

But Thomas Guy’s other great gift to the town where he was schooled is the Town Hall that still stands in the middle of Market Street in the heart of Tamworth.

The Town Hall was built in 1700-1701 on the site of the previous hall, parts of which had vaults under the Butter Market and some timbers are incorporated in the present building. The building cost £1,000 and this was paid for by Thomas Guy.

The archives in Guy’s Hospital provide no details about the contracts and specifications. But local historians believe it is likely that Guy employed his maternal relations, members of the Vaughton family to carry out and supervise the whole programme. Although no architect has been identified, the details and general design are similar to the stables of Calke Abbey, near Ticknall, Derbyshire, which was built in 1727 by the Burton on Trent architect, builder and surveyor William Gilks, who died in 1727.

When finished, Guy’s Town Hall comprised a rather austere double cube room approached on the eastern side by a flight of steps. It was not unknown for rival factions to pitch their opponents from the steps at election time.

The original building was a single room supported by 18 Tuscan style pillars. A decorative exterior staircase on the east side gave access to the first floor room which also served as a platform for public announcements and events. In 1771, the exterior steps were demolished and two rooms were added to the rear on the east side, including the Town Clerk’s office.

Thomas Guy paid to build the Town Hall in Market Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The Mayor’s Parlour was added in the early 19th century, and two larger rooms provided in 1811 were funded in part by another MP for Tamworth, the first Sir Robert Peel.

The area beneath the hall served as the Butter Market and later housed the first fire engine in Tamworth. The turret in the centre of the roof was another later addition to the building. The domed cupola with ornate iron weathervane once housed a lantern and also contained a bell to summon the firemen. The lowered side of the turret shows that it may once have been used as a pigeon loft.

The clock on the front of the Town Hall was presented to the town by the then owner of Tamworth Castle, John Robins, in 1812.

From 1700 to 1900, the hall was the centre of the civic government of the town, but also served as an amenity centre. For many years, Tamworth had no assembly rooms or theatre, and so the hall was also used for social and political gathering and for plays and performances.

A bronze statue In front of the Town Hall celebrates the life of Sir Robert Peel, who delivered his famous “Tamworth Manifesto” from the Town Hall.

The pillars and masonry of the Town Hall were restored in 1968. The Town Hall is now owned by Tamworth Borough Council and is used occasionally for events and civic functions. Each year, the Town Hall is open to the Public for the second weekend in September to take part in English Heritage Open Days event.

The Assembly Rooms on Corporation Street … once the centre of social and political life in Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

A short walking distance away, in Corporation Street, the Tamworth Assembly Rooms were built in 1887-1889 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee of 1887.

The building cost £5,500, which was in part raised by public subscription. It was opened by Philip Muntz, who was the first MP for the new Tamworth Division of Warwickshire.

The building was designed in in the Italianate style, and the pediment bears the borough’s original coat-of-arms, which shows a fleur-de-lys supported by two buxom mermaids. However, when the council decided in 1936 to spend the £136 needed to register this coat of arms for Tamworth, it was discovered that similar insignia had been used 1568 by Boston in Lincolnshire.

In 1965, the Mayor of Tamworth, Trevor Willcocks, and the council asked the College of Heralds to design a new coat-of-arms for the town. The new arms depict the bear of Warwickshire and the lion of Staffordshire fighting over the arms, symbolising when the boundary of the two shires that ran through the middle of the town along Church Street.

The other symbols on the coat of arms represent the Marmion family who lived at Tamworth Castle from the reign of William the Conqueror, a cross representing the Kingdom of Mercia and King Offa, who made Tamworth his capital, and a fleur-de-lys from the old arms of Tamworth.

The Assembly Rooms have served as a theatre and as a venue for political orators, elegant Edwardian parties, receptions and balls, and the Suffragettes protested on the steps during political meetings.

In 1924, ‘the Duke of York and future King George VI was entertained here with a formal lunch when he came to Tamworth to open the War Memorial at the hospital. Two years later, during the General Strike in 1926, a soup kitchen was set up at the Assembly Rooms, and the Jarrow Marchers stopped here for food and rest on their way to Westminster 80 years ago in 1936.

In 1960s, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones played here, and other legends who played here include the Hollies, the Swinging Blue Jeans, the Bachelors, Alvin Stardust, Joe Brown, the Searchers, the Barron Knights, Georgie Fame, Alan Price, Brian Poole and the Tremolos, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, as well as Vince Hill, Val Donican, Elkie Brooks, Dominic Kirwin, the Drifters and Chaz ’n’ Dave.

The Assembly Rooms have been has been used for polling and vote counting as well as debates, and continues to used for concert, plays and shows. They were refurbished in 2002, and today they continue to havea central role in the cultural, social and political life of Tamworth.

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