8: Old Town Hall

Old Town Hall

Old Town Hall

If we read T D Whitaker’s History of Craven we find that as late as 1437 the men of Silsden were termed as ‘nativi’ to Thomas Lord Clifford of Skipton Castle, by which they were, amongst other things, responsible for repairing the roof of the Moot Hall in Skipton. In Mediaeval times this was the Hall of Judgement in the town. Was it sited on the very spot where we can now enjoy the gracious lines of the Old Town Hall? This latter building was certainly known as The Toll Booth at one time. Historically, it appears that such a building served as the place in the town where goods were assessed for duties or toll, as a prison and as a meeting place and courthouse. By the mid 19th century, the   building was known as the Town Hall according to the first issue of the Ordinance Survey Map of Skipton.

Situated in Middle Row, the two storey building plus a cellar, is of five bays and Classical in design. The West façade [that to Sheep Street ] is stone built, with non-original wooden bays to the ground floor on either side of a gracious central flight of stone steps leading to the principal upper floor. At this first floor level is a central restored stone classical doorway, displaying fluted pilasters to either side capped by a frieze and pediment. This follows the general form of the original, but unfortunately the source of stone and depth of the mouldings leave a little to be desired. Flanking this doorway are two pairs of double square proportioned windows, all separated by shallow ashlar pilasters capped by splayed fluted capitals supporting a plain ashlar frieze and moulded cornice. Interestingly , earlier style kneeler stones retaining gable coping stones are evident to each end of the cornice.

The first floor timber window frames have recently been renewed with panes to the correct proportions. Note the stone surrounds to the windows and how those to each outer bay extend down to floor level, the space below the cills being filled with later masonry. Were these two openings secondary doorways at one time? If so, how was access achieved? Possibly by a projecting timber gallery linked to the central stone landing? The corners of the building are enhanced by projecting ashlar quoin stones and the roof covered with traditional stone slate discharging rainwater into lead lined gutters contained within the cornice. It is unclear what form the original ground floor masonry took.

The first floor of the East façade [fronting onto High Street] follows a similar design to that facing Sheep Street, other than that all five bays are filled with double square proportioned windows and the frieze is decorated with small roundels centred over each window and flanked by short vertical channels possibly inspired by Doric triglyphs. The ground floor sports a five bay semi-circular arched arcade with simple rectangular columns and capitals which may have been open at one time, though the recessed masonry infilling pierced by rectangular door and window openings suggest by their form that they have always been present.

When was this outstanding building erected? Readily available records do not help to answer this question. From the general form of the building I would suggest that this could have been any time between 1640 and 1740. It is more than likely that the Lord of the Honour of Skipton would have had some influence in the matter, Over this period, Henry Clifford, the 5th Earl of Cumberland, Lady Anne Clifford , the 6th Earl of Thanet and the 7th Earl of Thanet, all held the title. Henry Clifford is known to have had a great interest in architecture and likely contacts with nationally known building designers of the day. Lady Anne Clifford, his successor and cousin, carried out a great deal of building works in Skipton and records state that a prison was part of these. Presumably this would have been on the site in question. One or other of the two Earls of Thanet could have been involved and were related to the Earl of Burlington, a nationally known architect who built a house, now the Devonshire Hotel, in Newmarket Street in 1731. The architectural characteristics however of the Old Town Hall and the Devonshire Hotel do not, in my opinion, come from the same mould. Indeed I would suggest that the former predates the latter, taking into account the detailing. My conclusion therefore, is that the Old Town Hall as we now see it, was probably erected in the time of Lady Anne Clifford.

Barry Rawson, July 2014.