Municipal buildings were important symbols of the pride and success of prosperous towns and their guilds of merchants, but they also served a much more practical purpose of sheltering market traders in wet weather!
Municipal buildings are official buildings belonging to a town council: 'municipal' is derived from the Latin word 'Municipium' which means important town. We care for just three municipal buildings, the most impressive being Abingdon County Hall, whose proud title recalls that Abingdon was, until Victorian times, the county town of Berkshire. The decorative building dominates Abingdon's Market Place, as, although it is compact in size it makes up for this with the grandeur of its immense 'pilaster' pillars, huge round-arched windows and dormer-windowed roof. These are hallmarks of the 'English baroque' style of architecture, the height of fashion when the hall was built between 1678 and 1682. Determined to impress, Abingdon's authorities chose building contractors who worked closely with the greatest architect of the age, Sir Christopher Wren. Other notable municipal buildings include Dunster Yarn Market and Blakeney Guildhall.
Despite its fashionable swankiness, Abingdon County Hall retained a traditional feature of earlier municipal buildings. For the arched ground-floor space beneath its first-floor courtroom (which now houses Abingdon Museum) was left open to shelter market traders' stalls in bad weather. The much more modest Dunster Yarn Market (one of a trio of monuments we care for in the little Somerset town) served the same purpose. The focus of Dunster's thriving cloth market, this pretty octagonal timber building with its multi-gabled roof was rebuilt in 1647 after damage during Civil War fighting. Even war could not be allowed to hamper trade.
Blakeney Guildhall's purpose is now far less obvious. Originally perhaps a medieval merchant's house, by early Tudor times it had become the guildhall or headquarters of the Norfolk port's company of fish merchants, who may have used its well-preserved vaulted brick 'undercroft' for storage. Much later, during the First World War, it had a more ghoulish purpose, becoming a temporary mortuary for shipwrecked sailors.
Step inside these sumptuous municipal buildings and allow your imagination to discover the secret pasts of these English market towns.