History of Weymouth’s Town Hall

On June 1st 1571 Elizabeth I granted a charter, known as the Act of Union, to unite the towns of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis after much feuding had taken place concerning each of their rights over the harbour.

The quarrelling continued however and although the Mayor had overall jurisdiction, the Weymouth bailiffs rarely obeyed him as they should. Various misdemeanours appear in the records throughout the succeeding years as Weymouth was intent on governing itself independently of Melcombe.

Each town continued to use their own town hall for their official business, but the Weymouth Town Hall features prominently in the records for trying alleged crimes. Only the Mayor had the authority to hold such a court, but the Weymouth men carried out their own regardless.

In June 1582 John Brooke and Hugh Randall, Bailiffs of Weymouth at the Weymouth Hall, raised a mob against the court of Melcombe. Both were subsequently imprisoned, but Brooke managed to escape. In 1584 with rivalry continuing, it was decreed by the Exchequer that all petty customs, town duties and other profits were to be applied to the repair and rebuilding of the town halls, town houses and quays on either side but for the first year, only those of Weymouth.

Both sides met in the Melcombe Town Hall in February 1585/6 and finally managed to agree to carry out the business of the Corporation in a friendlier manner, obeying the Mayor as chief and sole governor. The peace didn’t last long and once again, it was the Weymouth side that broke the agreement. William Ledoze had stolen the keys of the Weymouth Town Hall and the Lock-up from the house of the Town Sergeant and attempted to try a prisoner after bundling him into the hall. Only the keys of the lock-up were recovered.

Later that year, the Exchequer summoned the Mayor along with others to give evidence regarding Brooke who had drawn a dagger and sworn to stab the Mayor and sergeant, had beaten the sergeant and along with William Samways, had violently resisted arrest. Ledoze had been seizing sails in the harbour as well as keeping the Weymouth Town Hall locked against the Mayor.

By 1597 however, the Town Bridge having been built, matters appear to have settled down as some of the Weymouth rebels had moved across the water to Melcombe.

Within a few years of the bridge being built the Weymouth Town Hall needed repairs and these were duly carried out. On the present building, the bell tower is said to date from the 1600s and it once contained a bell bearing the date 1633. The initials R.P. were engraved upon it and it was most likely the work of either Richard or Roger Purdue, bell founders of Somerset. The bell was reputed to have originally come from Radipole church.

As Civil War raged across the land in 1645, the area around the Town Hall witnessed the events of one winter’s night in which several hundred men were slain in the Battle of Weymouth. Close by, in what is now Chapelhay Street, Francis Sydenham, brother of the Governor, Colonel William Sydenham, was struck down and killed.

Weymouth Town Hall was completely rebuilt around 1774, but by 1818 the roof of was very much out of repair and an order was made for it to be repaired and covered with red tile.

In 1829 when George Ellis wrote his “History and Antiquities of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis”, the Old Town Hall was in use for educating two boys in the art of navigation, under the legacy left by Jonathan Taylor in his will dated 24th August 1753.

An application was made for the Town Hall bell in 1840 and it is recorded that the outcome was that Corporation would not be justified in giving it away. By 1858 the Hall was being used for parish business and the under portion were stables.

An inspection in 1889 revealed that the floor was unsafe and the roof and general state of repair was bad, but it was not until 1896 that a major restoration took place at a cost of £877. A new clock was installed, the gift of Sir Henry Edwards.

Over the years, the Old Town Hall has seen many uses and for around 50 years was the base for the Girl Guides.