Boston Guildhall

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Boston Guildhall Museum

Built in the 1390s, Boston Guildhall in Boston, Lincolnshire is a testament to the wealth and influence of the Guild of St. Mary, at a time when Boston's power as a centre of trade was second only to London. This wonderfully preserved building, with a wealth of original features, has survived the centuries and is to be enjoyed as one of Boston's finest visitor attractions. A wealth of stories, secrets and experiences are told and shared throughout the building including the history of the Guild of St Mary, international trade with the Hanseatic League, Henry VIII's dissolution of the Guild, the foundation of the Corporation of Boston and the very famous trial and imprisonment of the Pilgrim Fathers. The Guildhall is also home to the town’s museum collection, bringing life to the stories told via displays and exhibitions. It is also available as a venue for civil ceremonies and private functions.[1]

Early history[edit]

Guild of St Mary the Blessed Virgin[edit]

St. Mary's Guild, who built the Guildhall, became the richest and most prominent of Boston's Guilds. Its members included many of the town’s merchants and traders at a time when the town itself was enjoying great prosperity.

Guilds like those of St. Mary's were fundamentally religious in inspiration. It was accepted that life is but a passing phase and that Man's true destiny lies in the world to come. One of the Guild's foremost purposes was therefore to provide masses for the souls of their deceased members.

The reply to the King's writ of enquiry of 1389 states that St. Mary's Guild was founded in 1260 by Andrew de Gote, Walter Tumby, Galfried de la Gotere, Robert Leland and Hugh Spayne. Its objectives included the maintaining of two priests in the parish church to say masses for the benefit of all members living and dead, to burn wax candles before the altar of the Blessed Virgin and to bear torches at the funerals of Guild members. A thousand loaves and a thousand herrings were to be distributed annually amongst the poor of the town. St. Mary's was open to anyone, male or female, who was prepared to take the strict oaths of admission and pay an initial fee of 6s 8d and an annual subscription of 1s.

St. Mary's Guild played a prominent part in the rebuilding of the parish church. Its own chapel was located in a prime position inside the south aisle of the new St. Botolph's. The interior of St. Botolph's would have looked very different from today and the Guild's chapel would have been screened off and have had biblical scenes and representations of the saints painted on its walls. Some features of the old chapel are, however, still evident including a carved piscina, a sedilia and an aumbry.

The Guild also appears to have founded a choir school which later developed into the Boston Grammar School. It is mentioned in 1329 that the school was looking for a master or tutor. The oldest of the present Grammar School buildings, though, dates from 1567.

St Mary's Guild was incorporated in 1392 by licence from the Crown and this enabled it to hold land and property in perpetuity. Dendrochronology tests during the restoration of the building, 2002–2008, suggest that the Guild's hall was built almost immediately in response to this licence.

During the medieval period most people were illiterate and relied on the clergy to interpret the word of God and tell them how to obtain salvation. Guarantees of such salvation came to be linked to bequests of money, land and property. Numerous gifts were made to St. Mary's. Thus for example, in 1393 Margaret Tilney gave a house and land on the east of the river and in 1447 Richard Benyon and others gave five dwellings, thirty-one acres of land and ten acres of pasture in Boston and Skirbeck.[2]

Influence of St. Marys Guild[edit]

The increasing popularity of the Guild not only encouraged many such gifts but grew further as a result of indulgences that it was able to secure in the 15th and early 16th Centuries from respective Popes. These ranged from 100 days remission from penance for all guild members who were present whenever mass was celebrated aloud, with music, in the chapel in St. Botolph's at Easter, Whitsun, etc. (granted in 1506). These indulgences clearly made the Guild more attractive to would-be members.

By the beginning of the 16th century St. Mary's Guild was both influential and prosperous and counted many of the town's most important citizens amongst its members. During the 1520s it even achieved a measure of national fame through the choir it supported at St. Botolph's and its connection with John Taverner. Taverner, a well-known composer, came to Boston late in his life and there is a memorial stone to him under the tower of the parish church.

By now the Guild had apparently also acquired many sacred relics and miraculous objects including the finger of St. Anne set in a hand of silver and gold, a silver and gilt case containing a part of the stone of Calvary, and even a silver and gilt case, surmounted by an image of the Virgin and Child, which contained some of the milk of Our Lady! Needless to say, such powerful relics and objects made the Guild's chapel at St. Botolph's a popular centre of pilgrimage.

In 1533 the Guild produced an inventory, now on display in the Guildhall, that gives a vivid and detailed picture of its building and furnishings. The inventory included a list of the contents of the 'Chantry House', which provided accommodation for the Guild chaplains and was situated in South End near the site of the present Grammar School, of 'St Mary's House' (i.e. the Guildhall) and of the chapel and vestry of Our Lady at St. Botolph's. It shows that the Guild had many valuable objects including hangings and banners, books, fine cloths, richly embroidered vestments and items of gold, silver and gilt, as well as the sacred relics already referred to.[2]

Corporation of Boston[edit]

Despite their wealth and influence, no Boston Guilds could survive the reigns of Henry VIII and his son Edward VI. After Boston was itself incorporated in 1545 various officials of St Mary's Guild became aldermen and councillors of the new Corporation. The religious functions of St. Mary's survived, but only until the first Parliament of the stridently Protestant regime that emerged under Edward VI which effectively abolished all chantries and guilds. Edward's Act for the Dissolution of Chantries aimed to end

the superstition and errors in Christian religion (which) hath been brought into the minds and estimation of men by reason of the ignorance of their very true and perfect salvation ... by devising and phantasising vain opinions of purgatory and masses satisfactory to be done for them which be departed ....

The former Guild's property was confiscated under Edward VI and it was only after a period of some turmoil that Boston Corporation finally had the opportunity to acquire some of it, including the Guildhall, in 1555.[2]


Boston Guildhall dates back to the 1390s, when the Crown gave approval for guilds to possess assets, Boston's fantastically rich merchants almost immediately built the Guildhall, making it one of the first in the country. The Guildhall was built from a new material not readily available in the 13th century. The clay to make its red bricks was dug out locally, and even Flemish brick makers were employed when it would have been much easier and cheaper to build out of more traditional materials such as stone or timber.

The walls consist of two faces of brickwork between which is a rubble core matrix. The bonding of the brickwork is characteristic of a late medieval date. Irregular shaped bricks are laid in a fairly thick mortar and in a haphazard bond consisting largely of rows of stretchers with the occasional header used to bond the two wall surfaces together. This construction pre-dated the widespread adoption of English Bond (alternating courses of headers and stretchers) and Flemish Bond (alternating headers and stretchers in each course) in England. The courses of brickwork are bonded together with a lime-based 'common mortar' which was originally pointed back flush with the wall face. It survives on the bedding planes and is exposed in several places on the north elevation. In the kitchen a doorway between the Guildhall which would now lead to the back of Blackfriars Theatre was blocked and may tentatively be dated to the post-Reformation period (mid sixteenth century) on functional grounds. It reflects a change in the provision of access into and the use of the ground floor which may relate to the adaptation of the building after the suppression of the religious guild of St. Marys.[3] It is thought that this doorway allowed access for the beadsmen or perhaps was access between the Guildhall and the kitchens of Blackfriars prior to the kitchens being established in the Guildhall.

Once the Guildhall became the Town Hall ongoing changes were put in place which removed or masked much of the building's medieval fabric. Pishey Thompson, writing in 1856, claimed that "the interior of the building is so completely modernised that nothing of the original but the construction of the roof is visible".

This may be largely but not entirely true as, for example, there is evidence of blocked doorways on the south elevation. In recent years, however, we have learned a little more of its earlier life. When part of the modern ground floor was lifted for the installation of the new heating system, the remains of a series of low brick walls running across the building were discovered. These would have supported timber-framed partitions, which have long since been removed, and give some indication of how the ground floor in the medieval period would have been divided up. The same work provided answers as to how the first floor was originally reached and suggests that some of the downstairs rooms would have had finely decorated tiled floors.

The Corporation Records, which largely survive, date back to the incorporation of the Borough in 1545, and provide much of the available information on changes to the building since that time and to its civic use. These records contain various references during the 16th and 17th centuries to cellars under the Town Hall. These are, though, unlikely to refer to below-ground cellars, for which there is no evidence, and almost certainly to the ground floor space itself. It seems unlikely that this floor was ever used for any civic or formal function during this period, merely for the kitchens and storage, as well as the holding of prisoners.

An entry in the records for 1583 suggests that the linenfold doors at the western end of the Council Chamber began to be used as the deed cupboard at that time after the room had been repaired and after the mayor, Henry Ash, had returned the Treasury Chest from his home!

The 18th century witnessed great changes to the fabric of the building. The Corporation Records refer to a new chimney stack being installed in 1717, which is likely to have been one in the Banqueting Hall, and to another in 1747, which might have been the other one in the same room or the one in the Council Chamber. The present main staircase to the first floor, which is to the east of the medieval stair structure, was erected in 1731. Sash windows were installed in 1722 including "next to the Aldermen's seat on the south side of convenient bigness on the place of the old decay'd windows there" and on the north side of the building in 1730. Also, in 1722 boilers and dressers and other convenient items for the kitchen were installed and the kitchen paved.

The Council Chamber was greatly altered in the mid-18th century and was formalised by the inclusion of four matching doorways with eight-panel doors, one of which was false and included merely for the sake of symmetry. Other 18th-century changes include the lengthening of the spits in the kitchen chimney so that they could be turned on the outside wall, the making of two new closets in the Jury Chamber under the Music Loft and the removal of the outside shutters and their being placed inside.

In more recent years the external iron gates with the Borough's coat of arms were put up in 1914 and replaced a single large wooden door which had long sealed off a discarded right of way, known as Bedesman's Lane.[2]

Civic functions[edit]

During the time of the Guild[edit]

Despite the religious significance the sin of gluttony would be very evident as the guildsmen feasted to bursting point on cooked meats of all varieties – boar, swan and peacock among them.

To celebrate the Corpus Christi feast in 1515 The Guild of St Mary, not to be outdone by the other Boston guilds, spent £20 on the meal – around £10,000 in today's value. The dining table in the banqueting hall at the Guildhall would have been full of food, ale and wine. On the menu was swan, turkey, bustard, pheasant pie, stews, pig, quail and sweet treats such as jellies and sugared fruits. Water was too dangerous to drink for fear of bacterial and so ale and wine was quaffed in quantity. Great attention to presentation would be paid with feathers being reapplied to cooked fowl to make it look alive and animals being served whole, head still intact, with steam or smoke issuing from the nostrils.

These feast days, dedicated to the saints, were events of debauched excess. But it was okay, as the wealthy guildsmen had done the Christian thing and cleared their consciences by supplying bread and potted meats for the paupers' much less lavish day of special prayers and piety at St Botolph's Church. The feasts would be reminiscent of the last supper, with the guild master taking the place of Jesus and a cup of wine being passed around, representative of Holy Communion.

Christmas Eve was the feast day of St John, held to commemorate his blessing of wine, and a main attraction was the meal of wild boar. The Whitsuntide feast held by the Guild of St Mary in the 1390s included such delicacies as lark pie and fallow deer.[1]

16th and 17th centuries[edit]

The Guildhall, after 1545, soon established as the centre of civic life in Boston and remained so until relatively recent times. In fact, every mayor of the town was elected in the building from Nicholas Robinson (or Robertson), who resigned as warden of St. Mary's Guild to take up the post in 1545, through to William Weightman in 1887.

There are references from the 1660s to show that the Guildhall was used for May Day dinners and, on one occasion at least, for the mayor elect to entertain.[2]

Turtle soup and swan were on the menu for the May Day civic dinner in 1723. The Guildhall did not have its own kitchens until Tudor times, so food would be brought in ready cooked, possibly from the kitchens of the next door friary. It was hot, hard work in the kitchens – considered too arduous for women or children – where one of the worst jobs was hand turning the roasting spit, or "broche". Meals were meat based – roasted, boiled, fried and stewed – and diners certainly did not get their five a day. In Georgian times vegetables only appeared on the plate as a garnish.[1]

One particularly interesting mayor during this period was Atherton Hough, who was elected in 1628 and was also a church warden. It was he who, in this very Puritan town, damaged the statue of St. Botolph, which still stands on a pinnacle on the parish church tower, because he believed it looked like the pope![2]

18th century through to modern day[edit]

At the beginning of the 18th century the Guildhall was the centre of the civic, administrative and social life of the Borough. Gradually however, this changed as it ceased to be the only notable public building in Boston. As early as 1732 social gatherings were also held in the hall over the Butter Cross in the Market Place and in 1822 the town's new Assembly Rooms were built. Moreover, in 1840 the Quarter Sessions for Kirton and New Holland were moved to the new Sessions House and the court room moved out of the Guildhall. The sessions for Kirton and Skirbeck, together with those for Boston (since the 16th century), had been held in the building since 1660. Much of the administrative work of the Borough was transferred to the Corporation Buildings in the Market Place after these were opened in the 1770s and, after 1887, mayoral elections took place in the Assembly Rooms. In 1904 the Corporation moved most of its activities to the new purpose built Municipal Buildings in West Street.

Despite its diminishing public role, the Guildhall continued to play an important part in the life of the town. In 1889 the newly elected Holland County Council met in the building for the first time. Also, the Guildhall continued to serve as a social centre as it had done throughout its long history. The Corporation Records provide plenty of evidence for this, from May Day dinners in the 18th century, to functions to celebrate major events such as the marriages of Queen Victoria (1840)and the Prince of Wales (1863) and the opening of the last section of the East Lincolnshire Railway to Boston (1848) in the 19th century, to dinners and balls given by the Corporation and the town's M.P.s until well into the 20th century.

The Municipal Corporations Act, 1835, resulted in the Guildhall being put in the charge of a charitable trust associated with the Grammar School. The trust was able to charge fees for the use of the building and this probably contributed to the moving of many civic and social functions elsewhere. The trust, however, appears to have rather neglected the maintenance of the building as it was said to be in a poor state of repair by the early years of the 20th century, although modest repair works were carried out in 1912. During the 1920s the building was purchased from the trust by Frank Harrison, a local businessman, alderman and magistrate, and conveyed back to the Corporation.

In 1935 the Boston Preservation Trust was formed with the immediate object of saving Fydell House, which was threatened with demolition by property developers. The objects prescribed in the Trust's deeds of incorporation were, though, also designed to provide the wider future prospect of preserving generally the architectural and natural amenities of Boston and its surroundings. This has helped to develop an interest within the town of the historical and architectural importance of the Guildhall.

During the 20th century the Guildhall found a new life as both a communal and British Restaurant and a home for the town's museum.[2]

National Kitchen and British Restaurant[edit]

Towards the end of the First World War the Corporation, aided by Government funding, established a National Kitchen in the Guildhall. During 1918 and 1919 free meals were provided for the needy and supplies of milk were given in many cases to expectant and nursing mothers. Evidently the Guildhall was considered a suitable venue for eating in as in 1918 a Lieutenant-Colonel Borrell even requested that it be used also for messing his troops. His request, though, was curtly rejected by the Council and he was told that "there were several other large buildings in the town that might be available".

During the Second World War the Guildhall was used as a British Restaurant, managed by Miss Nora Carter, offered nourishing three course lunchtime fare and regularly attracted between 200 and 400 people in a session. On one occasion it even apparently fed 1,000 soldiers who suddenly descended on it. The meals were prepared in the kitchen, with the dining rooms on the upper floor.

The idea for the restaurant was first proposed in 1941 with the intention that it would also cook meals for schools and other establishments in the Borough such as rest homes. These ideas were approved in 1942 and, after the appropriate equipment had been purchased, staff appointed and the restaurant was in operation before the end of the year.

Women from the Women's Voluntary Service were used to provide assistance in preparing tables and serving meals. The prices charged initially were: Soup 2d; Meat and vegetables – 7d; Sweet – 2d; Tea or coffee – 1d. These prices, however, were gradually increased in the years that followed.

The Guildhall restaurant continued after the war was over, but, in January 1949, there was a crisis when an outbreak of food poisoning occurred at Carlton Road School after a meal had been supplied from it. The fish cakes were found to be carrying the agent involved. The Medical Officer of Health submitted a report and recommended improving arrangements in the Guildhall kitchen. These recommendations were adopted but the supply of meals to schools was not resumed. The restaurant was finally closed in May 1949. It had been running at a considerable financial loss and the daily average of people eating in it had fallen to 147. Even so, it had served the people of Boston well for several years in a difficult period of this country's history and it was remembered with affection for many years by members of the local populace.[2]

Pilgrim Fathers[edit]

In the autumn of 1607 a group of men, women and children met a boat on the edge of The Wash at Scotia Creek, Fishtoft, near Boston. They had walked 60 miles from Scrooby, near Gainsborough, to meet a sea captain to travel across the North Sea to Holland where they hoped to live in religious freedom away from the authority of the English Church. Once on board officers seized the group, informed by the sea captain who had betrayed them, and they stood accused of leaving the country without the King's permission. They were taken onto open boats whilst their possessions were ransacked.

These open boats brought the Pilgrim Fathers into Boston and they were brought before the magistrates in the Guildhall, which was not only used as a place of assembly for public business but also for the Quarter Sessions for the Borough. The members of the group were led by William Brewster but an account from William Bradford, a member of the group who went on to serve as the Governor of Plymouth Colony almost every year between 1621 and 1656, states the Separatists were treated tolerably well in the town in which there were many Puritan sympathisers including some among its leading citizens.

The Pilgrim Fathers were eventually discharged and they were returned to their homes in Nottinghamshire and North Lincolnshire. They later succeeded in reaching Holland the following year by another route and later sailed from Plymouth in the Mayflower for the New World in 1620.[2][4]

Sir Joseph Banks[edit]

Sir Joseph Banks, recorder of Boston in 1813, is feted for sailing with Captain Cook aboard the Endeavour on the first great voyage to discover Australia. Sir Joseph Banks portrait hangs in Boston Guildhall Museum, in the room where he would have performed his official duties to the town as Town Clerk. Painted in 1814 by Thomas Phillips RA, it was commissioned by the Corporation of Boston, as a tribute to one whose "judicious and active exertions improved and enriched this borough and neighbourhood". It cost the Corporation 100 guineas – a substantial sum in modern terms.

Boston Guildhall Museum[edit]

In 1924, fourteen paintings were bequeathed to the Corporation, together with a collection of Egyptian antiquities. The following year, two locally made display cases were purchased and, in 1926, a museum was opened in the Municipal Buildings in West Street. The museum was transferred to the Guildhall in 1929, in which year the Corporation's Museum and Arts Committee recommended the purchase of six new showcases. One of the prominent members of this committee was George Hackford, an accomplished local photographer, water-colourist and collector, who had a passion for the history of Boston. Hackford was the Parish Clerk and a commercial photographer and donated many items of his work and collection to the museum.

In its early years, the museum relied heavily on voluntary assistance and donations and functioned without an appropriate collections policy, now known as Acquisitions and Disposal Policy, as museums have today. It continued to suffer from insufficient professional support for many years. From the mid – 1950s until local government reorganisation in 1974, Bridget Robinson served as Borough Librarian and Museum Curator but was allocated only half a day a week at the Guildhall, which was otherwise left in the charge of a caretaker. The situation improved significantly in more recent years with a full-time curator and other full and part-time staff being appointed in 1986.

Since 1995 there has been a policy to focus only acquiring items that are relevant to the locality in some way. Much of the collection was on permanent display in the Guildhall until it was closed in 2001 when much needed restoration of the Guildhall, which is a Grade I listed building took place. After extensive consultations about possible and future use, a funding package was put in place which was supported by the European Regional Development Fund, Heritage Lottery Fund and the East Midlands Development Agency.

The whole roof was taken off and the south side restored with the best surviving medieval tiles. The remainder of the building was sympathetically restored and a new under floor heating system and a lift were installed. The present visitor attraction, which tells the story of the building and its place in Boston's history, was then put in place enabling the now named Boston Guildhall to finally reopen in 2008. It received the RICS Regional awards for Building Conservation Project of the Year also winning the title of Lincolnshire Museum of the Year in its first year of opening.

Today, a selection of the objects and works of art are on display in the Guildhall at any one time, with the remainder of the collections being stored and accessible by arrangement. The collection includes paintings by W.B. Thomas and S.G. Enderby, a portrait of Sir Joseph Banks during his time as Boston Town Clerk, a copy of Foxe's Book of Martyrs and artefacts from various archaeological excavations.[2]

Text panels touch screen interactives, a film and audio in the Banqueting Hall and Kitchen enhance the visitors experience and the objects and art work on display. Trails, colouring pages, brass rubbing, sand pit boxes with archaeological finds and a dressing up box are also available for visitors to explore.

The museum is free to visit and open Wednesday to Saturday, 10:30am – 3:30pm, last admission 3pm. The building is also available for private hire and the Banqueting Hall is licensed for civil ceremonies.


  1. ^ a b c Boston Guildhall
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Almond, John; Lambourne, David (2011). Boston St Mary's Guildhall, A History. Boston Borough Council. 
  3. ^ Giles, Kate (2001). Boston Guildhall: Archaeological Investigation of the North Elevation (PDF). University of York. 
  4. ^ text panels at Boston Guildhall

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 52°58′33″N 0°01′23″W / 52.9759°N 0.0231°W / 52.9759; -0.0231