8 Administration & Public Buildings

So much power was wielded by the abbots that the development of any independent town government in Glastonbury was stifled during the middle ages.  However, some administrative roles were carried out by St John’s churchwardens, elected annually by the town’s Vestry and they were consequently uniquely incorporated and granted a seal.  Part of their income came from a large number of properties.  These included cottages built in the churchyard — those along its High Street frontage probably started life as market stalls.  The facilities available in St John’s were insufficient for their work so the medieval churchwardens built a Church House opposite in the High Street.

The Church House was adjacent to the Abbey gateway leading directly to the Abbey church’s main entrance and was at the top of the Market Place.  It had one of the water conduits built into its frontage and this was still one of the main sources of water in the town until the 19th century.  The Church House was used for brewing Church Ale and for storage and as the church guilds (similar to later friendly societies) developed was sometimes known as the Guildhall.

When the town finally had its Mayor and Burgesses in 1705 they occasionally met in the Church Hall, referring to it as the Town Hall.  They contributed little to the government of the town, leaving this to the churchwardens, but the 1485 Parvise over St John’s porch continued to be used as the town’s muniment room and was fitted with locks for both the mayor and the churchwardens.

In 1798 the churchwardens put up a “necessary house” in Hanover Square, redirecting some of the water from the conduit to it.  In 1800 the half-timbered Church Hall was given a brick facade and it survived until 1865.  The conduit was then removed and the Church House rebuilt; the new Vestry Hall (as it was then called) had provision for the new fire engine where the conduit had stood.  When Mendip District was created in 1973 it inherited the Vestry Hall from the borough and sold it.

The early medieval market place extended from the Church House to the bottom of the High Street between the street and the Abbey’s north precinct wall (the other side of which were the women’s almshouses).  By 1325 the market, already in existence for at least 135 years, was held every Tuesday with rents going to the Abbey, including leases for nine butchers’ stalls.  This site was probably regarded as too valuable for this purpose and was built upon long before the dissolution of the Abbey.

The Abbot’s Court House was built in the Market Place, alongside the High Street, and underneath it was an open area for stalls with the gaol at one end.  In 1598, long after the power and wealth of  the abbots had gone, an enquiry showed that the Court House was in decay.  It was repaired by the Crown but by the middle of the 1640s it was again in ruin and was removed.  The likely site of the Court House was opposite the Tribunal where the White Hart Inn was built shortly after its destruction.  This was the major post-medieval inn and was soon to become infamous when, in 1685, its inn sign was used to hang four of Monmouth’s rebels.  It was the main inn for visitors to the Abbey ruins and the key coaching inn until it ceased trading with the arrival of the railway and the Assembly Rooms were built in its now redundant stable yard by Austin in 1864.

Parliament carried out its responsibilities more effectively during the Commonwealth than under Charles and William Strode built a new Court House, soon after the original one was destroyed.  The replacement was in front of the Red Lion Inn (formerly one of the main Abbey gateways and now restored to that use).  The new Court House arrangements must have been similar to those of the one it replaced; there were seven large windows on either side of the Court Room and underneath was an area for stalls entered through ten large arches.  At  the north end, towards the High Street, was the gaol.  The success of the market declined—reputedly because Somerton also started a Tuesday market which became more popular.  During the 18th century it was claimed that the decline was because the Market House had been built with materials from a part of the Abbey that was particularly venerated.  The Court House was used for a while as a school and then, from 1794 to 1812 as a silk factory.  Only a narrow road had been left on either side of the Market House and when it was demolished in 1814 the Wells Turnpike bought a strip to widen Magdalene Street.  The rest of the site was used by the borough as the site for a weighbridge which remained into the 20th century.

When the earlier High Street market place was built upon, the Tuesday market had moved to the present Market Place, the open area at the junction of High Street and Magdalene Street.  Here stood the gothic Great Cross and nearby another of the town’s five main water conduits.  In 1604 an octagonal covered area with renaissance details was built around the cross.  Perhaps it was then that the extraordinary figure known as Jack Stagg was put on top (this is all that survives from these works).  The need for this covered area had gone with the building of the new Market House but it survived for two hundred years more until its demolition in 1810, reputedly because the road to Meare was only then able to take wheeled traffic and the wagons couldn’t negotiate the space between the Cross and the narrow entrance to Northload Street.  The medieval conduit alongside it survived on its own for a few more years before that too was swept away.

The town’s history as a Borough had started with the granting of its Charter by Queen Anne in 1705 but it took few administrative powers until well into the 19th century.  In 1814 the mayor and burgesses, having contributed hardly anything to the town in the century since their creation, decided to replace the demolished Market House with a Town Hall.  The then mayor, John Down, owning part of the Abbey grounds, sold the Borough the site and authorised the erection of the Town Hall.  This more modest building was built at the side of Magdalene Street, almost alongside the site of the Market House.  It had a council chamber above and a covered market below, entered through five open arches.  Seventy years later the need for this space had gone and the ground floor was re-arranged in 1886 to create a museum for the newly formed Glastonbury Antiquarian Society.

Civic pride must have been the motivation for the building of another Market Cross, “gothick” this time, designed by Benjamin Ferrey in 1846.  It later had another water pump and trough built nearby and all was enclosed by railings.

There may not have been a need for a covered area for stalls but the sale of livestock still flourished.  This was carried out in the part of Magdalene Street to the south of the Market House site.  The Abbey precinct wall was still intact from the Town Hall to Chaingate, and rings were fixed in it to tether animals.  As traffic increased an alternative site was found in the newly created George Street, built crossing the George Inn’s close from Northload Street to Norbins Road.  The Borough Cattle Market was opened in 1901 and opposite it was a new fire station to replace the small facility under the Vestry Hall.  The decline in the business of the cattle market led to its sale by Mendip District Council in the late 20th century and the use of its site for housing.

In the 1970s the borough created a car park out of the gardens north of the High Street, between the George Inn and St John’s church.  This then housed the Tuesday market, which enjoyed a revival after its centuries of decline.  At the beginning of this century it moved back to the Market Place and Magdalene Street.

After the dissolution of the Abbey the administration of many of the town's services became the responsibility of the Churchwardens of St John’s.  This included providing for the poor of the town, hence the preservation of St Mary’s Hospital (the Mens’ Alms Houses and the Chapel, now called St Margaret’s, in Magdalene Streetat one time ‘Spital Street) and St Patrick’s Chapel and the Womens’ Alms Houses (rebuilt in the nineteenth century and demolished since the war) behind the main Abbey gateway.  The remaining Chapel outside the precinct, St James’s in Bove Town, became a cottage.

In 1864 the Assembly Rooms were built to house the expanding Literary Institution and County Balls were held there from 1867 to 1874.  Being in a central position in the county, it was hoped that the town would become the social centre of Somerset.  It already had the headquarters of the County Police in Somerset House from 1856 and their barracks in Benedict Street, but with the later improvements in transport the geographic advantage was lost.  A cholera scare kept county society from the Assembly Rooms after 1874.

The mayor and burgesses had a mainly nominal role until the Borough was reformed in 1835.  The Churchwardens and Overseers of the United Parishes of St John and St Benedict continued with much of the administration of the town.  In 1865 the Wardens demolished the “Guildhall called Churchhouse” and its by then redundant conduit in order to build the present Vestry Hall.  This included an open ground floor to house the town fire engine.  With the development of larger engines a purpose built Fire Station was erected with stables and a house in 1901 in the new George Streetrecently demolished and rebuilt.

Education in the nineteenth century was provided via dame schools and a small National School. This was rebuilt behind St John’s Church to G G Scott’s design in 1867, found to be still too small and followed by another National School opposite St Benedict’s Church in 1876.  St Dunstan's Comprehensive School was built in the Wells Road in 1958.

The two mediaeval “hospitals”, by then Alms Houses, were joined by the Austin Alms Houses in 1887.  In 1898 the St Saviour's Hospital for infectious diseases was built in the Old Street Road jointly with Street Urban District Council and the Victoria Nursing Home in Fishers Hill.  The Health Centre at the top of the High Street was given a Civic Trust award in 1978 and demonstrates the way in which a large complex can enhance a critical site if the local scale and materials are blended with imagination.




All images and text © Glastonbury Antiquarian Society 2022

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