Richmond Town Hall
The Town Hall is, and always has been, the focal point of much of Richmond’s civic and social life. Many events are regularly held here, both ceremonial and informal, from important civic functions to concerts, meetings, lectures, and social occasions. Prominent among the many present-day activities are the coffee mornings held every week which throughout the year raise huge sums for a wide variety of charities.
Social occasions are what the Town Hall was built for by Richmond Corporation in 1756 at the then considerable cost of £600. Georgian Richmond was an important and fashionable centre with an Autumn ‘season’ coinciding with the annual muster of the North York Militia.
An important horse race meeting was held each September, and a company of travelling actors put on fashionable plays at the Georgian Theatre Royal at the same time. Local well-to-do families came into the town from their surrounding landed estates for these activities, and the Town Hall was built as an elegant, chandelier-lit venue for the assemblies, balls and card parties which took place in the evenings. The double curving stone staircase leading up the main first-floor function room was originally open to the elements, but it was soon enclosed to make a more comfortable approach.
The Assembly Room was sometimes called the Common Hall, because it belonged to the town, and it was the meeting place of the Common Council. This 24-strong body, with 12 Aldermen, constituted the Corporation of Georgian Richmond under the 1684 charter of Charles II. Richmond has been granted many charters by various monarchs since the town was founded in 1071.
At the far end of the Assembly Room hangs the coat of arms of George II painted in 1732 by John Baker. Surrounding the royal arms are shields of the thirteen trade guilds which regulated Richmond’s commercial life. At the top are the arms of the Company of Mercers, Grocers and Haberdashers, a surviving guild with an unbroken history, and records going back to Tudor times. Another guild, the Company of Fellmongers (Skinners and Glovers), was refounded in 1981.
Also on the wall are mounted the staves of office of the constables responsible for the three old administrative areas of the town - Bailey, Frenchgate and Bargate wards. Below is a glass panel showing an ancient secret cupboard discovered hidden in the wall. The Town Hall stands on the site of a much earlier guildhall belonging to the religious fraternity of St. John the Baptist, which had assumed an important role in the life of medieval Richmond, taking responsibility for organising civic functions.
Attached to the Assembly Room is an old court-room which has very fine early-Georgian oak furnishings. Here Quarter Sessions and County Courts were held, as well as the Court of Record where the mayor of the year sat as chief magistrate with his immediate mayoral predecessor and the Town Clerk. This court-room was used until a new Magistrates’ Courthouse was opened in I’Anson Road in the 1960s. When that closed, its royal coat of arms was brought to hang above the 'bench' here.
On the wall to the left is a board listing those recently recognised as 'Investors in Richmond', and to the right a board bears the names of the Company of Fellmongers' past wardens and masters.
Behind the court is the Mayor’s Parlour, a private room used by each year’s mayor for entertaining and for small meetings. Over the fireplace hangs a picture of the breathtaking view from the Castle down into the valley of the River Swale looking towards the Green Bridge and Billy Banks Wood. It was painted for Lord Robert Baden-Powell on his marriage in 1912. He had become very fond of that view, which was visible from the window of the office he occupied in the barracks, which then stood in the Castle Yard. He had founded the Boy Scout Movement shortly before coming to Richmond, where he was based 1908-10. After he died in 1941, Lady Baden-Powell presented the picture to Richmond, along with other mementos of his time here. A plaque commemorating Lord Robert Baden-Powell can be seen in Richmond Castle.
Local government reorganisation in 1974 resulted in Richmond losing its borough status and the Corporation being succeeded by Richmond Town Council. Richmond was, however, able to retain the titles and ceremonial robes of both its first citizen, now called the Town Mayor of Richmond, and the Town Clerk, as well as the impressive civic entourage of two serjeants-at-mace plus two halberdiers. The Town Mayor still carries out many ceremonial and social duties each year despite having less jurisdiction than in the past.
Richmond Town Council still holds its meetings in the Council Chamber, refurnished by Waring & Gillow in 1956. Then, as there had been since the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, there were 12 councillors and 4 aldermen, the latter occupying the centre four larger seats. Above the mayor’s seat hangs an original portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, one of the town’s greatest treasures, painted about the year 1590 on a wooden panel made up of three boards.
A portrait of Alderman Thomas Thompson shows him as the first mayor to wear the beautiful chain of office paid for by a public subscription raised in 1872. It is still worn by Town Mayors today. Made by a Richmond goldsmith, W.S. Robinson, it bears in addition to the main badge depicting the Borough arms, smaller badges of the town’s medieval guilds. A kinsman of Alderman Thompson was Francis ‘Matabele’ Thompson who, with Cecil Rhodes, added Matabeleland to the British Empire.
Also to be seen in the Council Chamber are lists of past mayors and other Richmond officials, and photographs of many past mayors are displayed in the Assembly Room. On display in various space of the Town Hall are a selection of the town's collection of paintings, several showing past scenes of Richmond. These pictures are re-arranged from time to time to protect them from too much light.
Several military units have the Freedom of Richmond, a privilege which allows them to march through the town with bayonets fixed, colours aloft and drums beating. These include the 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment (The Green Howards), the Royal Corps of Signals, the RAF Regiment, the ship’s company of HMS Richmond, and the Military Police.
Among ancient customs maintained by the town are the Boundary Riding, held every seven years, when the bounds are ‘beaten’, and the annual First Fruits Ceremony when the first local farmer to complete his harvest presents a sample of wheat to the mayor for approval. The Town Clock in Trinity Tower rings the Apprentice Bell each morning and the Curfew Bell each evening, the Pancake Bell is rung on Shrove Tuesday, and the Passing Bell is tolled to mark the funeral of a prominent resident.
Three historic maces are used on ceremonial occasions. A small silver mace, probably dating back to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, is carried by the mayor; the two serjeants-at-mace carry the others, which are of silver-gilt. The larger was presented to Richmond in 1714 by the town’s Members of Parliament, there being two M.P.s from the time of Queen Elizabeth I’s charter of 1577 until 1867. The smaller was given to commemorate the Restoration to the English throne of Charles II in 1660.
The town’s outstanding collection of historic civic plate is displayed in the Regimental Museum of the Green Howards in the former Trinity Chapel just opposite the Town Hall. More information on the history of Richmond can be found displayed in the Richmondshire Museum in Ryders’ Wynd. A third museum is attached to the famous Georgian Theatre Royal, the oldest working theatre in its original  form.
© Jane Hatcher 2010
“The ‘mother’ of all the Richmonds throughout the world