THE COUNCIL House and Assembly Rooms are some of the most recognisable buildings in Chichester city centre.
The Council House refers to a series of connected buildings dating from at least 1731, the Assembly Rooms being just one of those buildings, but is still the name that is most commonly used for the complex. Currently housing the city council offices, as well as being used by many different community organisations, these buildings have a fascinating history.
James Spershott, a Chichester carpenter born in 1710, described the first council chamber as being the first floor of an old timber framed Market House, very similar to the Market Hall from Titchfield, which can be seen at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum.
Although meeting minutes from 1685 onwards survive, little is known about this first council. The building was situated on North Street, near the building known as the Buttermarket, or Market House (now Bills). However, this building was described as ‘low’ and was not seen as fit for purpose. In 1728, the decision was made to build a new Market House.
After multiple designs were drawn up and submitted, the council eventually built the current complex in North Street, which was completed in 1731 and designed by Roger Morris. The largest contributor to the funds was the 2nd Duke of Richmond.
In 1723, while digging a cellar during construction of the buildings, a large Purbeck marble stone was found with a Latin inscription. This was later confirmed to be a dedication stone, usually found in the walls of a Roman temple. It is thought that a temple dedicated to Neptune and Minerva may have been on this site in the Roman period. This can now be seen in the outside wall of the Assembly Rooms.
It is the offices above this arcaded façade that have been used by the city council since their construction; it is known as the Council Chamber. This room has, among its magnificent architectural pieces, a painting of William Cawley, famed in Chichester for building the Cawley Almshouses in Broyle Road, as well as his involvement in the Civil War, leading to his signing of the death warrant of Charles I in 1649.
There are also two stones whose inscriptions describe how the land was bought and who was responsible for funding the erection of the building. These stones were expensed solely by the Duke of Richmond, ‘that the remembrance of the benefaction may stand recorded for all posterity’.
Due to the popularity at the time with ‘assemblies’, where people could organise public occasions such as dancing, it was decided by the Chichester Corporation in 1781 to erect what is now known as the Assembly Room behind the Council Chamber, using designs by James Wyatt. The Ante Room was then added to connect the two buildings.
The Council House and buildings have had a number of very notable guests. In 1789, the then Prime Minister, William Pitt, came to the Assembly Room while visiting the Duke of Richmond; in 1810 Joseph Lancaster gave a lecture on his educational beliefs which is said to have inspired the foundation of the Lancastrian School; and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II visited in both 1956 and 1986.
With thanks to Barry Fletcher, whose publication ‘Chichester Council House’ was a key source for this article.
By Portia Tremlett, museum assistant at the Novium Museum