This week l return to Thaxsted and tell you a little about the Guildhall, and will also stay in the area for a couple of weeks to tell you about the church, the windmill, the almshouses and Gustav Holst, the English composer who lived in Thaxsted.
The Guildhall, opposite Dick Turpin’s house – see last week’s article – is well worth a visit and is open to the public from Easter on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and bank holiday Mondays until the end of September. There have been many theories put forward over the years as to why the Guildhall was built, and at one time it was thought it was built by the Cutlers Guild, but there is little evidence that the building was associated with this guild, in fact, there is no evidence of such a guild in the Middle Ages and it is very unlikely that there was one. What is fact is that there was a thriving cutlery industry in Thaxted at this time. Therefore it is most likely they contributed financially to its construction, and current thinking believes the building was built by the townsfolk sometime between 1462 and 1475, and not 600 years ago as stated in many guide books and leaflets. It is not a Guildhall in the true senses of the word, but more a moote or mote hall, a civic meeting place, and the dating has been based on tree ring evidence in the building.
The building has an open-paved ground floor which was once used as a market and meeting place, and like all medieval halls the ground floor is open, but under cover, so that a regular butter market could be held with some shelter from the elements.
On the first floor there is also space for an indoor market with shuttered windows and the first floor has an open gallery, with window openings which could be screened when necessary, and the top floor was used for meetings and probably the Warden’s living quarters. We know that Thaxsted was once the centre of manufacture of cutlery, but went into decline when Sheffield became a major industrial centre. At one time over one third of the population of Thaxted, were involved in the trade in some way, but the other trades in the town would have been associated with farming and the land. When the cutlery trade began to decline, and to foster and regulate trade a formal Charter of Incorporation was granted by Philip and Mary, and Thaxted became a Borough. This allowed the appointment of a Mayor, two Bailiffs and twenty-four Burgesses to form a Court of Common Council, to manage the civic life of the town, but in 1686, the Charter was extinguished owing to the persecution of James II, and during the years that followed the Guildhall fell into disrepair. At the end of the 17th century Yardleys Charity, one of the town’s existing Charities, took over the Guildhall, carrying out a major restoration, enclosing and panelling much of the first floor and equipping it for use as a school, and Thaxted Grammar School operated in the Guildhall until 1878 and provided free education for 30 boys, adding education for 20 girls after 1830. In those days, children started school at 8 years and finished at 14, and learned reading, writing and arithmetic – samples of their excellent handwriting can be seen on are display in the Guildhall. In 1911, a further restoration took place when the wooden flooring of 1714 was removed and timbers were restored. The original ground floor arches were also replaced. The most recent restoration was carried out by Essex County Council as a contribution to European Architectural Heritage Year 1975 and thanks to the care and dedication of Thaxted’s townsfolk throughout the previous 600 years, the Guildhall continues to represent the civic life of the town, and is in active daily use where the Parish Council, the Trustees of Yardleys Charity and other bodies hold their meetings regularly. It is also used for exhibitions of local crafts and interests at frequent intervals throughout the year and the day I visited there was an exhibition of art work by local people. There is also a small eccentric museum as well as a collection of artefacts reflecting rural life in the town during the nineteenth century. As you leave the building into the right side of the building as you look up the hill you will see a small lockup, still with its original door
Interestingly there are many clubs and societies in Thaxsted including the Thaxsted Morris, founded in 1911 and is the oldest revival Morris dancing group in England. The Thaxsted Morris Men hosted a meeting at which the ‘Morris Ring’ was formed as a national organisation in 1934, and continues to host one of their meetings every year. In 2009 they celebrated the Ring’s 75th anniversary. In you are in the area 2-4th June do go along to the Thaxsted Morris Men Weekend more details can be found on http://www.thaxtedmorris.org/ringmeeting.html