Local Heritage

The bells ring out again

You may have noticed that for the past year or so Hungerford Town Hall clock has not been chiming, donging or ringing on the hour as it should.  This was due to a problem with the telecoms mast which sits inside the tower and the clock mechanism.  After several visits and modifications by engineers on behalf of Vodafone and also the clock engineers, the clock is now fully operational again.  So we can all enjoy the dulcet bells once again.

A town generally has a town hall; a town hall has a public clock; a public clock has bells. These are pretty general truths and Hungerford is no exception. What is unique about Hungerford is that its Town Hall is one of the very few ones in the country not owned by the council, being instead the property of the Town & Manor. (For why this, there is no better place to go than the excellent series of articles on the Hungerford Virtual Museum site.)

The current Town Hall in Hungerford’s fourth, the previous ones having been medieval (14th century and probably earlier), Elizabethan (1573) and Georgian (1786). The constant renewal and replacement of public buildings is a common trend, due to a combination of changing needs, dilapidation and municipal growth, as well as often (though not in Hungerford’s case) because of fire.

One of the reasons the Georgian Town Hall was deemed no longer suitable was probably due to the damage caused to the building’s structure when a new clock tower was added in the 1860s. Three designs for a new Town Hall and Corn Exchange were provided in a public exhibition in 1870: the plan which ‘came in for the greatest share of approval’ was from local architect James Money (a blue plaque in whose honour has recently been put up in Newbury). A budget of £2,700 was agreed, though the eventual cost was closer to £4,000. (According to an online calculator I’ve just visited this might equate to about £185,000 in today’s prices, which makes it seem like rather a good deal.) The building took just over a year to build and hosted its first meeting in October 1871.

The first reference to the Town Hall clock was in the 1570s and from the 1650s records exist of the fees paid to those who were responsible for winding and maintaining it. In 1659, on the eve of the Restoration, this was 1s 6d a year. By 1689, when William of Orange was in Hungerford discussing the terms of what was to be known as the Glorious Revolution, this has risen to 10s (for a new clock which had been installed two years before and which was presumably more demanding), a fee which had quadrupled by the 1760s. As mentioned above, another new clock was installed in the 1860s.

The question of bells chiming through the night, particularly in built up areas, has always been contentious. In response to public complaints, a local clockmaker developed a device which would silence the chimes for seven hours out of each 24: however, unless this was regularly adjusted and checked the silent hours were not always at night. In 1946, The Newbury Weekly News reported that “many years ago there was a controversy in Hungerford over the striking of the hours during the night of the Town Hall clock. It was said to disturb the slumbers of fishermen staying at the Three Swans opposite…” Quite why only fishermen should have been disturbed, or why their complaints were taken more seriously than anyone else’s, the article doesn’t specify. On another occasion, a witness giving evidence in the Hungerford County Court on the stroke of noon was drowned out and proceedings had to be suspended while the chimes slowly rang. “The longest twelve I have ever known,” the judge said as the final reverberation died away, a remark which the newspaper correspondent obediently reported as having “raised a smile” in court.

An automatic winding mechanism replaced the manual system in 1999 at the same time as mobile phone transmitters were placed in the tower. In 2009 the timepiece was brought right up to date when an electric motor was installed.

(Much of the above information has been taken from the excellent articles in the Hungerford Virtual Museum which has two sections on The Town Halls and The Town Clocks. The above photographs, showing the Georgian Town Hall in 1829 and the current one in 1929, are likewise taken from this site, as is the main photograph from 1870s showing the old Town Hall (minus its clock) in front of the newly constructed one. Many other fascinating photographs and articles can be found on this site.)

The Town Hall is maintained by the Town & Manor as part of the charity. This makes it one of a very select group of town halls that are not owned or maintained by local government.  The Town & Manor aims to keep the building in tip top condition (it is due a series of repair works in the upcoming year) and is also available for the community to use at very affordable rates.

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