Impressive new look for 130 year old Town Hall

FOR 130 years Great Yarmouth Town Hall has been the seat of our local government, surviving two world wars, floods and major change when a nationwide reshuffle took away some of our important powers in 1974.

Our urban borough was recompensed by being given a rural touch with the addition of some fringe villages.

We all know what the town hall looks like, of course. But throughout its long life, I wonder what percentage of our population has ever stepped into the foyer let alone beyond into the rest of the building? Very small, probably, perhaps only to pay rent or rates, lodge a complaint, attend a function, be involved in a court hearing, or sit in public galleries.

The impressive reception foyer has a wide staircase and walls lined with marble slabs into which are carved for posterity the names of hundreds of the great and the good citizens through the centuries until the present day.

With security so dominant nowadays - many internal doors need entry codes - I doubt whether any ratepayer (sorry, council tax payer) would be allowed to roam unaccompanied and certainly not to enter offices.

Perhaps public tours of the impressive new-look interior could be introduced. Indeed, the council opened the building during September’s Maritime Festival and made it clear that “It’s your town hall. Come and take a look!” How many residents accepted that invitation?

Burgeoning bureaucracy had meant overspill into Trafalgar and Greyfriars Houses, the old fire and police station, and Maltings House, a mile distant. So the council embarked upon an ambitious programme aiming not only to reduce the number of buildings from five to two – while still affording staff more elbow-room - but also to make it more convenient for the public.

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Decades ago one of the most important council departments was housed outside the town hall: the entertainments and publicity department on the corner of Regent Street and Howard Street South where postwar John Kinnersley, Terry Langton, Geoffrey Flaxman, Leslie Shepherd, Tony King and colleagues strove to maintain our position as a foremost holiday resort. Today tourism remains in its Golden Mile headquarters.

In a year, a �2.5m works programme – including the removal of asbestos - has been completed, achieving provision of state-of-the-art heating and better use of space. The daunting task has been overseen by Glen Holmes, construction services manager in the department of well-being services headed by Mrs Jane Beck.

The 1930s lofty council chamber where councillors once deliberated houses the environmental health department, the 46-strong council relocating to a slightly remodelled former magistrates courtroom. Personally, I will long remember reporting council monthly meetings in the old chamber, especially when councillors and aldermen wore their ceremonial robes.

I was less enthusiastic when these formalities were abandoned, and when the occasional meeting extended beyond midnight because one member seemed to speak on every other item.

Being the only Eastern Daily Press reporter there meant I had to leave while debates were still in progress to return to our Regent Street office in time to beat the deadline to file reports for the next morning’s newspaper, leaving Mercury colleagues to stand in during my absence.

If only mobile phones and laptop computers had been invented...

Probably the most familiar place to Yarmouthians is the spacious assembly room where the public attended concerts, recitals, receptions, productions, school speech days, exhibitions and shows (like art, caged birds and flower).

An enjoyable annual event there was the midday civic reception for the entertainers spending their summers in our theatres. The stars were usually in full attendance despite the lure of the golf course...

The assembly room, with its splendid ceiling, is now flexible for adaptation to demand. Its stage has been removed and the minstrel gallery at the rear reopened. To try to re-create some of its 19th century d�cor, experts peeled away layers of paint and forensically analysed them to reveal the original colours so they could be matched.

Perhaps the most impressive innovation is the atrium, complete with glass-sided lift, once a courtyard and flat-roofed toilets.

Apparently the council is toying with the idea of applying for a licence to conduct weddings in the town hall, perhaps spurred by public criticism of the recent move from the defunct Ferryside to the Central Library. It thinks the atrium might help to attract couples to tie the knot there and would be a good place for those precious photographs.

Now, that would certainly bring Yarmouth’s citizens into their town hall!