The original town hall was built in the 1600s in the Diamond area of the City and was destroyed during the Siege in 1689. The former Londonderry Corporation made the decision to re-locate to the reclaimed land now known as Shipquay Place. The site was chosen to be next to the River Foyle and adjacent to the Harbour Commissioner’s office built in 1882. The land was owned by The Honourable The Irish Society who donated it to the Corporation to build the new Town Hall. It was at this stage that the Corporation made the symbolic decision to change the name to the ‘Guildhall’ signifying the connection with the City of London.
The London Corporation issued a design competition for the building with rules published in ‘The Irish Builder’ on 1 June 1886. The specification for the building included:
- Council chamber and committee rooms
- Main hall and gallery to seat 1,800 people
- Mayor’s parlour
- Town Clerk’s office, staff offices and related facilities
- Police Court and cells
The winning architect was John Guy Ferguson (1829-1901), who had previously designed many other local buildings including, for example, the Tillie and Henderson shirt factory, the original Apprentice Boys’ Hall, the City of Derry Boating Club on the quayside (now a restaurant), St Augustine’s Church, the addition of the Chancel to St Columb’s Cathedral as well as the Cathedral School. The original design was described as very ‘church like’ possibly reflecting his previous role as Diocesan Architect for the Church of Ireland.
The contract for construction was awarded to Colhoun Brothers and the foundation stone of the new Guildhall was laid on 23rd August 1887 by Sir John Whittaker Ellis, Governor of The Honourable The Irish Society. As reported in the Londonderry Sentinel at the time, the Governor said at the ceremony “I congratulate my fellow-citizens of Derry on this great undertaking. I am sure that when it arises from the ground it will do honour to your city and will be a credit to the judgement and skill of the Corporation of Derry in the selection they have made and will be a monument for all time to come
”. Construction took approximately three years and the Guildhall opened in July 1890.
On the morning of Easter Sunday 1908 a devastating fire swept through the Guildhall, leaving only the clock tower and the side of the building facing the river intact. The Londonderry Sentinel at the time reported “The fire will also be long remembered for the fact that the new fire engine – purchased six months ago by the Corporation at a cost of £1,000 – failed at the outset at all events, to realise popular expectations.
The cause of the fire was a mystery with a great deal of speculation as to a number of potential causes. One being that sparks from a boat starting its boilers at the adjacent quayside lighted on the roof and had gone into the air vents setting the felt on fire. The organ was destroyed but the statue of Queen Victoria was saved as well as a number of busts and paintings that had been removed for safety during the fire to the City Hotel across the street. The Sentinel reported - “the sight of salvage workers in faultless broad-cloths and shinning tall hats was an unusual one. But the occasion – the burning of a city hall – was also unusual. There was a great deal of laughter as the bust of Sir Whittaker Ellis was borne to safety; the sight was so comical of a life-sized head and shoulders in white marble being “chaired” through the streets
Rebuilding the Guildhall
Despite the setback, optimism was in the air. Derry’s shipping industry was thriving, shirts made by the women of the city were worn around the world and what is now the world’s oldest independent department store, Austin’s, had just opened in the Diamond. The Guildhall would be reborn, even better than before and, once more, The Honourable The Irish Society would bear the cost, this time a significantly more expensive £26,000.
The original architect John Guy Ferguson had since died and the task of designing the new building was given to the architect, Matthew Alexander Robinson, recently elected city surveyor, engineer and architect. Robinson had designed Austin’s in the Diamond and would later design Craigavon Bridge. The design was considered more ‘lively
’ and ‘flamboyant
’ than Ferguson’s, in a Neo-Gothic style with Tudor overtones. He added more ornate pieces and carved extensions to the front and with larger windows to direct more light into the Main Hall.
The Council Chamber was moved from the first floor to the ground floor and the Police Court moved out of the building. Robinson kept the Clock Tower and married it in using the same Dungiven sandstone. The furniture for the 1912 Council Chamber and the organ case were also designed by Robinson. The building was built by Lavery & Sons of Belfast and Londonderry and opened in 1912.
The Guildhall’s new colourful stained glass windows
, some portraying city life over the centuries, would become its most popular feature. They were a gift from The Honourable The Irish Society and the London Companies, with windows representing the carpenters, turners, painters, ironmongers, glaziers and many others. Additional windows were added in 1913, 1925 and 1989.
In 1972 most of the stained glass windows were damaged and much of the interior of the Guildhall was destroyed by two bombs. The statue of Queen Victoria in the hallway was damaged by the blasts and she lost both her hands which have never been replaced. It would take a five-year restoration programme before the building could re-open at a cost of approximately £1.25 million. Much of this cost was for the specialised crafts involved in restoring stone and woodwork and in replacing stained glass windows based on the original watercolour drawings. The 1912 organ required work totalling £68,000. In 1976 the Guildhall was given Listed Building status and is now a Grade A listed structure.
The building was re-opened in May 1977 with access on a limited basis. At the official opening Mayor Alderman James Hegarty said “It is most gratifying to see it restored to its original state. It is also my hope that the re-opening of the Guildhall will see the beginning of the restoration of our city centre.
” It was not until 1984 that the Guildhall was fully opened to the public on a daily basis. Over the years, the Guildhall has been used for many events, dances, concerts, Feis and important political visits such as that by US President Bill Clinton in 1995. From 2000 to 2005 the Guildhall was the seat of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry headed by Lord Saville, which published its findings in June 2010 from the Guildhall.
The Saville report on the events of Bloody Sunday
is delivered to the Guildhall in Derry in the early hours of of 15 June 2010,
12 years after the inquiry began
Photograph: Niall Carson/PA
The Next Chapter
The building has now entered its latest chapter and the first major restoration in nearly 40 years. This time not because of fire or bomb damage, but to carry out essential external and internal restoration as well as works to make the building the key arrival and orientation hub for visitors to the City – further enhancing its role as the focal point and heart of City life. Click here
for more information on the restoration.
For further information on any of the special features of the Guildhall click on the links below: