The Medieval Market
Wiveliscombe is an ancient town that once hosted the summer palace of the Bishop of Bath. Possibly eager to keep the peasants at a safe distance, the Bishop ensured that the town market was placed away from his residence, further up the hill in what was then known as the Market Place. In 1559 a market hall was built by Bishop Bourne with the proceeds from the toll on wool (1).
Hancock (2) quotes the late eighteenth century historian Collinson as describing “seven streets and lanes making up the town, one of which, he remarks, leading from the church to the market place” and that “a two storey thatched Market House stood where the present Town Hall stands, where the corn of the district was sold, and on either side ran a row of shambles” of market stalls, meat, corn and fish vendors. Crowcombe Church House is a similar type of building.
Alexander Baring, First Lord Ashburton
The Town Hall as it we know it today was built by Alexander Baring. Baring was born in 1774, the son of Sir Francis Baring of Topsham, Exeter, who had established with his brothers the bank ‘John and Francis Baring Company’. Baring spent his early adult years in the United States negotiating land deals, including, in 1803, the sale by France to the USA of the Territory of Louisiana in order to fund its wars in Europe (3). In 1810 Baring succeeded his father after which he merged the Baring Company with the London offices of the Dutch bank Hope & Co. to found Baring Brothers & Co.
Baring entered the House of Commons as Liberal MP for Taunton in 1806, a position he held until 1826 when he became MP for Callington, Thetford and finally N. Essex. In 1834 Baring was appointed President of the Board of Trade for the Conservative government and in 1835 was created Baron Ashburton (4).
In 1842 Baring was sent to America by the Prime Minister, Robert Peel, to negotiate the Webster-Ashburton Treaty that settled the border between Canada (then a British colony) and the USA. The treaty also committed the USA and the UK to maintain a squadron of at least eighty guns on the coast of Africa for the suppression of the slave trade and to uniting in an effort to persuade other powers to close all slave markets within their territories. Nevertheless, after the abolition of slavery in the 1830s Baring had personally received £10,000 in compensation for the loss of slaves he owned on plantations in British Guiana and St Kitts (5).
The New Market and Assembly Rooms
In 1834 Baring bought at auction the Wiveliscombe and Fitzhead estate (6). Shortly afterwards, the architect Richard Carver, who had built the new St Andrews Church in Wiveliscombe, was commissioned to design a new market and assembly rooms to replace the old Market House. The foundation stone was laid by General Sir George Adams of Oakhampton Manor, Wiveliscombe on September 8th 1841. In his speech to the very large crowd attending the event, Sir George spoke of “The splendid ballroom which is about to be provided on this ancient site” and his hope that “The utmost advantages will accrue from this undertaking, particularly when we recollect the extremely dilapidated state of the building which heretofore occupied the land on which we stand. May it provide a lasting monument to the liberality of the noble owner of the manor.”
The building took the form of a two storey Italienate centre piece with single storey extensions either side. At the front of the building was a large portico. Through this and beyond a series of 14 brick arches that formed the entire frontage lay The Shambles, an extensive open market that accommodated stalls selling fish, meat and other produce. To the rear was a pig market together with stables and a coaching house. The upper floor was used as the town’s Assembly Hall which was reached by a grand oak staircase rising from the Lion Hotel’s courtyard and accessed through the archway at the top of Town Hill. The curved wall of the staircase can still be seen in one of the first floor ante-rooms.
Opening on August 3rd 1842, the Assembly Rooms became the focus for social and public life for the next 100 years with performances, concerts, balls, a cinema, reading rooms and other public events and activities. From the balcony over the portico election results would be announced and newly elected MPs would address their constituents. A mezzanine floor provided a view over the main Hall with ante-rooms at the rear providing smaller spaces.
In 1894 the 4th Lord Ashburton, in need of funds to cover poor investments in Argentina, sold the Shambles and Assembly Rooms to Thomas and John Merchant, two of his tenants running their corn and seed business from the building, for £1,100. However, the Hancock family who owned the brewery and most of the inns in the town including the Lion Hotel, had also wanted to buy the Assembly Rooms. Deprived of this opportunity they closed the access through the courtyard to the Assembly Rooms’ staircase. A replacement staircase was therefore built in 1895 on the frontage of the building in the location found today.
The Twentieth Century
In 1929 the building was bought by the Taunton Cooperative Society. In modernising the premises and creating self-contained retail units the Coop removed the portico and most of the brick arches, creating the frontage still seen today. In subsequent years the internal archways were filled in to create smaller retail units, the Town Hall floor was strengthened and false ceilings installed below the original lath and plaster.
The Town Hall continued to be used for concerts, dances, wedding receptions, public meetings and is remembered by some older residents as their childhood cinema. The local Labour party also used it for their meetings and the building was, at times, referred to as The Labour Club Hall.
It is not clear when public use of the Town Hall ended; some say the 1960s while others remember going to the cinema there in the early 70s. Either way, it has lain empty for many many years.
The whole building was listed Grade II in 1984. The seating and other fixtures and fittings were stripped out in the late 1990s when repairs to the roof were carried out although the water damage to the ceiling below was left unaddressed.
2000 and Beyond
The ongoing abandonment of the Town Hall, boarded up with a ‘To Let’ sign above, cast an impression of decay over the centre of Wiveliscombe. Local farmer and Taunton Deane District Councillor John Bone led the creation of the Wiveliscombe Town Hall Trust which was formed on 18 May 2005 with the purpose of bringing the premises back into public use for the benefit of the residents of Wiveliscombe and the surrounding area.
In 2007-08 the Architectural Heritage Fund and Somerset Rural Renaissance financed a feasibility study that identified potential uses and costs for restoring the building, estimated at £1.2m. Further funding from the Somerset Market Towns Regeneration Fund paid for project managers to advance the proposals. Negotiations for a lease of the Town Hall from the Coop started in 2008 and eventually resulted in the grant of a 125 year lease to the Trust from July 2015.
Once the lease was granted the feasibility work was refreshed and business planning progressed with the support of the Architectural Heritage Fund and the Foundation for Social Investment. There was intermittent use of the Town Hall for one-off events, public consultation exercises often conducted during the Ten Parishes Festival, and fundraising including sell-out theatre shows at Kingsmead School.
A small but significant step was the removal of the boards over the front windows in August 2019, revealing for the first time in many years the three original arched windows.
In 2021 the charity converted to a Charitable Incorporated Organisation. Funding from Somerset West and Taunton Council enabled works to begin to allow full public access. The switching on of the electricity supply was celebrated on 26 July 2023 with ‘The Big Turn On’.
With thanks to Brian Collingridge who carried out much of the historical research.
An Alternative History: The Haunted Hall
Rumour has it that the Town Hall is haunted. By whom, or what, we don’t know although some say it may be a once scorned lover. The haunting has been the subject of much debate and speculation that this could be the reason for the Hall’s long abandonment. In an investigative film, science aficionados Mr Britton and Mr Moore explore the story of The Uncooperative Ghost!
1. Farrington S, 2005, Wiveliscombe A History of a Somerset Market Town
2. Hancock F, 1911, Wifela’s Combe, A History of Wiveliscombe
3. The Baring Archive https://baringarchive.org.uk/exhibition/the-louisiana-purchase/
4. Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Baring,_1st_Baron_Ashburton
5. US Dept of State https://2001-2009.state.gov/r/pa/ho/time/dwe/14323.htm and The Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/political/view/-1640841492
6. Richard Beadon Sale Catalogue, 1834, Lot 59