There has been much speculation in the town about the fate of the Town Hall since it was vacated when council services were moved into the Corn Exchange, depriving it of any historic function.
A move from such a landmark public building without any apparent thought about its future, or indeed its history, was bound to provoke alarm. What’s more, Lincolnshire County Council (LCC), which says it owns it, has let it be known that it wants to be rid of the building, without any apparent guidelines about the suitability of any buyer. There have inevitably been visions of it being turned into a restaurant, bar or worse, disgorging rowdy revellers into the streets in the early hours of the morning, which would be an undignified end to the proud service this noble edifice has given to the community over the centuries.
It was built in 1821 and designed by the well-known Stamford architect Bryan Browning. He was also the architect of the House of Correction in Folkingham in 1825, as well as some good buildings in Stamford and some country rectories nearby. He is thought of as a local architect, but in his early days he had an address in Doughty Street, Bloomsbury, in central London, and Bloomsbury was home to many distinguished architects. His new town hall superseded an earlier one in the Market Place near the Market Cross, which had been the court of the Manor of Bourne, which received tolls from the market, and from the stalls or ‘shambles’ situated under the building. Browning’s new Town Hall also had a shambles for a number of years. It is otherwise not greatly changed on the exterior, though the clock tower was burnt down in the 1930s.
Browning’s design is ingenious, because he was determined to have a grand external staircase even though there was not enough space for it, so he recessed the twin flights within the front elevation, creating a remarkable composition. It is described by James Stevens Curl in his book Georgian Architecture as ‘one of the most remarkable buildings of the courthouse type...the composition is one of the most interesting of any courthouse in the British Isles’. Browning was the father of Edward Browning, who carried on the family tradition in Victorian times by designing the Bourne Chapel of Rest and a number of other fine buildings in the area, so the Brownings father and son are a very significant part of the heritage of Bourne.
The Town Hall was the centre not only for the administration of the town, but for justice in the form of the courtroom, for the best part of two hundred years. In a recent issue of the Local it was reported that the Mayor of Bourne was himself unhappy about Bourne Town Council’s recent move from the building and felt that it should still be based there, and wants to try to register it as a community asset.
But is LCC in fact legally free to sell it off? As Rex Needle recently pointed out, much of its cost was paid for by public subscription. According to J.D.Birkbeck, when it was constructed in 1821, ‘money for the project was raised from the county rate, from the produce of the materials pulled down, and from public subscription. The latter, which attracted contributions not only from Bourne, but also from neighbouring parishes like Morton, Hacconby and Market Deeping, brought in £1,362 4s 6d.’ That money that came from public subscription would therefore have been a substantial proportion of the total, because that sum was enough to pay for a large detached house in the early 19th century. Furthermore, as Rex Needle has recently pointed out, the clock tower was separately financed as a gift to the town and the clock at least still exists.
All this means that much of the money did not come from council funds. That implies a trust. Bourne Preservation Society raised this question at a recent meeting we had with representatives of both LCC and SKDC, and LCC fully understands the need to do all necessary research to determine the nature of this trust. Trust law was well developed in the early 19th century and it is quite common to see trust deeds spelling out the terms of their trust in detail. It seems almost certain that there was a Trust Deed dated around 1821 in this case and LCC have agreed to thoroughly explore their archives to look for the original deed, and we have offered our services in helping to interpret it. Even if there never was any deed, or no deed can be found, there is surely an implied charitable trust under these circumstances, because a trust is readily implied under English law where there are known contributors to a fund for a known public purpose, the beneficiaries being the people of Bourne and the surrounding area.
Obviously it would be unwise for the council to proceed with an alleged sale until all this has been sorted out. Besides, we think it is the duty of the council to look for a suitably civic minded buyer that will use the building for community purposes. It seems wrong that the building is no longer doing the job it was built to do, and it means a lot to the people of Bourne. To many it will always be the Town Hall.
The Town Hall will no doubt feature in the Bourne Preservation Society members’ meeting on June 16th at 7.30 pm at Wake House (to which all are invited as usual). Jasper Jennings will be showing us prints of Bourne and the surrounding area as it was in the late 18th and early 19th century, and it will be fascinating for us to be able to see what our town was like then.