The Guildhall at Much Wenlock

Much Wenlock
England (OS Ref: SO623997)


The Guildhall owes its existance to Henry VIII's decision to close down the monasteries. This act radically changed society as, since Anglo-Saxons times, the church had provided most social services. With the dissolution of the Priory, law and order became the direct responsibility of the Burgesses, and it was deemed necessary to build a Court House as a priority.

Henry VIII after Hans Holbein the Younger.
Henry VIII after Hans Holbein the Younger.

Richard Dawley, one of a family of carpenters, was entrusted with the work. The three-bayed free standing courtroom was erected in 1540. Access was by means of a stairway at the southern end and the ground floor, later used as a corn market, appears to have been open on all sides. Richard Dawley was paid £13 6s 8d for building the Court House (nails cost a shilling, the clock £1). Edward Brower was paid 13s 4d for roofing the belfry with lead and “wine given to various men as a reward” cost 4s 9d.


In 1577 the Vicar noted in the Parish Register “upon the 23rd and 24th day of this monthe of September was reared the house over the prison house”. This was the present Council Chamber built partly over the medieval stone prison at the northern end, and extended to abut the previously free standing Court House. 1616 saw the building of an “inner room” in the Court House. In 1624 it was decided to undertake a major refurbishment of the building, it was probably during this time that the two tall windows on the west side were inserted. A privy was also added to the Inner Room. Extensive alterations were carried out in 1719-20. A new cupola was built, new casements made by a local blacksmith, a new chimney built on a stone base, the roofs repaired and a new pillory provided. The interior of the Council Chamber was transformed in 1848 - “it was panelled and furnished with carved oak of the most elaborate and costly workmanship principally at the expense of William Penny Brookes Esq.” In 1868 the Borough Council decided to erect a retiring room and a water closet for the use of magistrates at the southern end over the passage to the churchyard, further alterations took place at the southern end during 1891-92. A major restoration of the Courtroom was found to be necessary by 1970, the brick casing was removed, the east wall timber framing renewed and a new central heating system installed.

For over four centuries this building was the administrative and judicial centre of the seventy or so square miles of the Borough of Wenlock. Justices of the Peace dealt with minor crimes in Petty Sessions, while the Recorder “one learned in the law” presided over the Quarter Sessions where more serious crimes were tried. The last Quarter Sessions was held in 1951; the Magistrates’ Courts continued until 1985.


Court Room: Four types of court were held regularly: Petty Sessions and Quarter Sessions, a Bailiff’s Court and the Court Leet or Manorial Court. Bailiffs were elected from and by the burgesses and their names are listed here. In 1835 the role of Bailiff was abolished and replaced by that of Mayor.


The Quarter Sessions were held under a Recorder, and within the first year, two felons had been sentenced to be hanged upon Wenlock Edge.


The Coat of Arms that looks down on the Court Room is that of Queen Elizabeth the First, and bears the date of 1589. The Latin inscription beneath can be read as “This place abhors iniquity, loves peace, punishes wrongdoings, upholds the law, honours upright men”.


Small (petty) offences could be punished by a period in the stocks. The last offender to be sentenced was Thomas Lloyd in 1852. The standard weights and measures on display near the stocks were purchased in 1853 at a cost of £87 3s 6d.

Council Chamber: In the Parish Register of 1577 the following entry appears “Upon the 23rd and 24th day of this month of September was reared the house over the prison house”. The timbers had been cut, fitted and numbered beforehand, so that when the time came for ‘rearing’, all that had to be done was to fit and secure the timbers. Afterwards the open panels were filled with wattle and daub, and the windows put in place.


The Town Council meet every month in this Chamber. On the beam which faces the Mayor’s Chair, there is a Latin inscription which can be translated as “Give right judgement and exercise pity”.

Corn Market: The open space on the ground floor was the Corn Market until the Corn Exchange was built in the High Street in 1852. At the north end is the old ‘prison house’.