Ipswich Icons: Magnificent Ipswich Town Hall is a worthy focus in our town

Ipswich Town Hall

Ipswich Town Hall - Credit: Archant

It is difficult to know where to begin when writing about Ipswich Town Hall. There are precious few snippets of information that have not already been published in the numerous books and journals that have been written about the building, writes John Norman, of The Ipswich Society.

Perhaps a look at the recent history of the present building could give us an insight into what the future holds for this town centre edifice. This truly magnificent building certainly needs a future, a 21st Century use that will serve the needs of today’s population.

It may help if I explain the function of the various rooms when the building first opened. At the top of the Cornhill Steps, and inside the front doors, is the foyer, in its time a grand vestibule entrance that served to emphasise the importance of the occasion taking place within. Minton tiles on the floor, heavy cornicing between wall and ceiling and marble columns added to the air of importance.

Directly ahead is the Magistrates Court (Room 1) which was also used for the Quarter Sessions*. The raised floor on the left as you enter the room was the public gallery; there was a similar raised floor in the recess to the right with a ‘bench’ where the magistrates sat. This gave the magistrates a commanding position overlooking the court. They could come and go through the door behind the ‘bench’ and thus arrive into court last, and leave first.

The dock was on the wall opposite the main door (where the café counter is now situated). The accused would be brought into the court from the cells in the police station below entering the court room through the door on the far left. Prosecution and defence lawyers would reside on the ‘floor’ in the middle of the room, behind the clerk to the court and the recorders. There are no windows in this room, light cascades from a 12ft diameter glass dome above the centre of the room.


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Room 2, now the retail outlet for Ipswich Crafts Society, was originally the Magistrates Room, a spacious and handsome facility for such occasional use. Other rooms on the west side of the building were for witnesses and court officials. Upstairs are two rooms, directly ahead and occupying the west side of the building is the Council Chamber. A grand room running the whole length of the building, originally with a south-facing window overlooking the King’s Head yard and the Sickle Inn, both in King Street opposite The Swan public house. This window and the two aforementioned pubs, were lost when the Corn Exchange was built immediately behind the Town Hall in 1882. The Council Chamber is strangely divided by four scagliola* columns effectively cutting 10ft off the length of the room. Today this space is used as the stage but the original purpose remains a mystery.

On the first floor, overlooking Princes Street is the library, so named because the town library was held here before being moved to the museum in the High Street in the late 1880s.

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There has always been a door at the far end of the library, originally as access to the “back stairs” but today it leads to the Mayor’s Quarters, a series of rooms on the second floor of the Corn Exchange. Note that having come out of the first floor of the Town Hall we are now on the second, or balcony floor, of the Corn Exchange and this difference of level has always made interconnection between the two buildings difficult.

On the lower ground floor (or basement) of the Town Hall, and accessed from Princes Street, was the Police Station. In 1868 a fire engine and the town hose were kept here. The appliance stood in the middle of a large central space known as the ‘Police Parade’. The town’s constables would assemble here to be briefed before going out on patrol. There were seven cells, three of which were of heavy masonry construction under the Cornhill Steps, the others cages of iron bars under the entrance foyer.

The superintendent of police occupied a small room just to the right of the Princes Street entrance, a room that became the Tourist Information Office when the police moved to Elm Street.

The tourist office itself moved to St Stephen’s Church as part of the Buttermarket redevelopment in 1992. Look out for the blue lamp that still hangs outside. Also on the lower ground floor was a kitchen, some 25ft square in which chef was expected to prepare meals for the great and the good assembled for formal dinners two floors above. At least there was a dumb waiter to lift the dishes into that mysterious dead space at the far end of the Council Chamber.

*Quarter Sessions were local courts that were held four times each year to hear cases that were beyond the jurisdiction of the magistrates, ie required judge and jury. They were replaced in 1972 by the crown court.

*Scagliola (columns - in the Council Chamber), imitation marble made from crushed gypsum.

To join the Ipswich Society, just send either £15 for family membership or £10 (individual) to the Membership Secretary, 11 Dalton Road, Ipswich, IP1 2HT with your name and address. The subscription qualifies for Gift Aid (which enhances your subscription by 25% at no cost to yourself). If you are a UK taxpayer, please write ‘Gift Aid’ on your joining letter. Send to: Chairman, John Norman, 6 Tolworth Road, Ipswich, IP4 5AU Or email Mr Norman for more details.

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