Portsmouth’s original Town Hall was located in the heart of the old town, in the High Street. However, with the growth of the Town in importance and size, a new Town Hall was urgently required towards the end of the Nineteenth Century.
Land was acquired from the War Department, partly from demolished fortifications. Its official opening was in 1890. Prior to the second world war busses and trams ran along the road in front, and the immediate area was made up of shops, and cafes, such as the Verrechias Ice Cream Parlour.
Portsmouth’s Guildhall bears a stark resemblance to that of Bolton. This is probably down to the fact that the same architect designed both buildings: Bolton’s Town Hall looks remarkably like a proptotype for that of Portsmouth, with the same colonnaded frontage and passant Lions.
Initially known as the Town Hall, in 1926 when Portsmouth was given the status of a city it was renamed as the Guildhall. Unlike modern times, when the Guildhall is the civic showpiece and most departments are based in the civic offices opposite, a mnuch smaller council meant that most workers were based in the Guildhall.
In January 1941, during a particularly heavy air raid, an incendiary bomb found its way into a ventilation shaft and before firefighters could deal with it, the whole building was ablaze. Still on fire the next day, by the time the flames were dampened the Guildhall was a smouldering shell. Happily, The reinforced safe in the basement was found to have kept many historic and priceless items intact.
Reconstruction could not begin for many years, and the building stood empty. When it was finally rebuilt, the Guildhall was placed at the centre of a new, pedestrianised Square, with the civic offices creating an arena effect to the north and east, and Guildhall Walk and the Central Library to the south. A perfect location for big oustide events, the only dampener is probably that a City Museum was not located nearby when the opportunity existed. When being rebuilt one councillor pressed the Architect to rebuild the dome on top of the tower. The architect, thankfully, refused – the original dome does appear to have been ‘top-heavy’.
The main auditorium seats 2,200 people, and has seen all manner of acts, from Motorhead to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. It is also the venue for the annual mayormaking ceremony, as well as the University of Portsmouth’s Graduation ceremonies. The Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress both have grand parlours in the Guildhall for entertaining guests, as well as a Banqueting Room. There is a very nice restaurant on the Ground Floor, the Harlequin. In the Council Chambers the City Council meets to discuss and debate business. The walls of the Chamber are panelled with the names of previous Mayors and Lord Mayor’s of Portsmouth.
The first floor reception room – the Star Chamber – is a real hidden gem. With the theme “Heaven’s Light Our Guide”, the huge mural which covers the north wall depicts many historical scenes of Portsmouth’s past and is made of glass and mirrors. In the Crystal Constellations the 12 signs of the Zodiac can be seen.
Happily, earlier this year the Bells were restored after years of inactivity, and once again the famous Pompey Chimes can be heard all around the city centre.
As someone who has worked in an office in the Guildhall, it really is a unique building. It is definitely showing its age and in need of a serious overhaul. In addition, it would benefit from more positive management who might like to book bigger and more interesting acts, and make more use of the building and what it offers.
However, compare it to Southampton Guildhall, from inside and outside, and there really is no contest. From the grand steps, the lions, and Neptune atop the Columns, it encapsulates the spirit of Portsmouth.