Reprinted from Newsletter 114, dated 2005 February

Vanished civic buildings in Wells

Adrian Pearse

A talk by Tony Nott

A black-and-white drawing of a central area of a market town. An open square is surrounded by stone buildings. Behind the far row of buildings is a very large stone building with two visible towers. In the square are many people, some with donkeys carrying wares, one on horseback. Some other anmils are visible, such as a pig and a goat. Crates and barrels stand in stacks. In the foreground is a short freestanding tower with ornate carvings. It stands roughly three or four storeys tall, and is topped with what appears to be plant life, and what could be a statue blowing a thin trumpet. The tower looks to be in a somewhat poor state of repair.

Wells Market Place and the old Conduit: built 1451, demolished 1796.

Wells is replete with fine architecture, but surprisingly has lost several notable structures, as Tony Nott revealed at his talk after the Conservation Society’s AGM on November 26.

The present city clearly reveals its origins in mediaeval times, when an estimated population of 2,000 had developed in three areas: the Liberty, around St Cuthbert’s and at Southover along the route to Glastonbury (the present route, Priory Road, was then occupied by the Hospital of St John). In the twelfth century Bishop Robert of Lewes laid out burgage plots along the High Street, which joined these three areas to the Market Place.

The bishops dominated the town; growing attempts by the townspeople to secure a civic authority often resulted in strife, as witnessed by the building of a moat and walls around the Bishop’s Palace.

Bishop Nicholas Bubwith (1407–1424) in his will left money for almshouses to be constructed near St Cuthbert’s, including a hall that became the first civic building — it still exists.

Bishop Thomas Beckynton, who died in 1465, erected the Bishop’s Eye, Penniless Porch, Brown’s Gate in Sadler Street and the Chain Gate from Vicars’ Close to the Cathedral. In 1450 he had also built the “new work”, now the shops on the north side of the Market Place.

Here also was constructed the Conduit in 1451, where water was piped from an extant wellhouse in the palace grounds. This Conduit was an elaborate hexagonal building 15½ feet high, with ornamental upper stages and a lead tank in the lower part. The corporation appointed wardens to maintain it, but spent little and rarely: by 1729 its neglected state was noted and by 1796 it was beyond repair and demolished. A successor stands there now.

A drawing of a stone building. It looks to have an octagonal base, with a tall arch providing an opening on each side. In the centre is a thick column. Above, the building narrows to a smaller tower with many ornate carvings. Above again is a thin spire. The building looks to have an annex attached behind on the left side of the drawing, though it is mostly obscured.

The High Cross stood at the junction of Sadler Street and the High Street from 1542 to 1785.

Wells had nine mediaeval crosses, usually at road intersections, for processional purposes. The High Cross, at the intersection of the Market Place, Sadler Street and the High Street, was built in 1542 by Bishop William Knight to replace an earlier version. It had six pillars outside and one inside; at 35 feet high it was a large structure and a focal point of the town. By 1785 part had collapsed and the remainder was removed.

The Reformation had reduced the economic strength and domination of the bishops, and the town sought a charter, which was eventually secured in 1589. The Town Hall was then over shambles in the middle of the wider part of the High Street; this building was demolished in 1752. Other buildings were used for corporation purposes, including a canonical house on the site of the present Town Hall and the Bubwith almshouses.

Accommodation for the Quarter Sessions and Assizes was required and in 1661 a large aisled hall was built in the Market Place, supported on wooden pillars; the lower part was open. Partitions were put up for courts, but the building was cold and unsuitable. Major repairs by 1727 failed to cure structural problems, and in 1779 it was pulled down to be replaced by the present Town Hall on the site of the canonical house. The garden was incorporated into the Market Place.