The History of Swanage Town Hall

Before the Town Hall

The Town Hall was built on the site of a number of cottages known as ‘The Drong’. They were owned by the Church Charity and had been used as an almshouse. The cottages were next to a row of shops known as King Alfred Place.

Building the Town Hall

The Town Hall was built by George Burt in 1882-3, whose bust can be seen in front of the fire place in the Town Hall chambers. Burt was the son of a local quarryman, later leaving for London to work in the contracting firm of his uncle John Mowlem. He eventually became a partner and used his wealth and influence to ‘improve’ his home town.

The Town Hall was part of Burt’s plan to introduce a sense of civic pride to Swanage.
It was built to be let to the Swanage Local Board of Health which had been established in 1873 to improve the public health of the town, following an outbreak of small pox.
Unlike the old boroughs of Wareham, Dorchester and Poole, this was Swanage’s first form of civil local government. In the 1840s Swanage essentially remained a quarrying, fishing and agricultural village and Burt knew that improvements had to be made if it was to become a prominent resort or ‘watering place’.

The plans for the Town Hall were approved in July 1882.  Upstairs, the Council chamber remains in use today and the neighbouring magistrate’s room is a smaller meeting room or Committee room. In the basement was a storage area for the town’s fire engine. A bell was located on the wall of the Town Hall to be rung to call the fire brigade to action and Town Hall Lane was known by many  locals as Fire Bell Lane. In a way the building was part of a Victorian civic centre with the Council Chamber used as a Magistrate’s Court and the police station being across the yard in what has until recently been called the Coach House.

A Victorian public building

The Town Hall was completed in 1883 at a cost of £4,500 and was originally known as King Alfred Hall. It was not only used for Council meetings but also for meetings of local organisations, including the Pier Company and Cottage Hospital Committee. Lectures were also held on subjects, which, in 1895, included bee keeping and artificial lighting. There were also property auctions and public dances. On Boxing Day 1887 George Burt’s brother Frank recorded in his diary that he attended a dance at the Town Hall attended by ‘23 Ladies & 21 Gentlemen’. He states that ‘every one enjoyed it’ and that it didn’t break up until 3.15 the following morning. The following year he records spending an hour in the gallery during a similar event.

London by the Sea

George Burt is famous for bringing features of Old London to Swanage. These can be seen at Purbeck House Hotel, Durlston Country Park and the Town Hall. Features at the Town Hall include:

Frontage of the Mercers’ Hall

The centre of the Town Hall façade was designed by Edward Jerman, a pupil of Sir Christopher Wren who also designed the second Royal Exchange. It was originally constructed for the Mercers’ Hall on Cheapside in 1670. The Mercers’ Company was one of the richest of the London guilds and remains in existence today. It is finely carved and over the main doorway can be seen the Virgin Mary with a cherub on each side which was the emblem of the Mercers’ Company. Unfortunately other statues did not make the journey to Swanage, some being incorporated in the new Mercers’ Hall which was sadly destroyed by enemy action in May 1941.

One critic in the 1930s condemned the way in which the Mercers’ frontage had been re-set in two wings which were ‘positively dreadful’ and concluded that ‘if ever a book comes to be written on ‘How to murder Architecture’, the Swanage Town Hall should find a place therein’.

Town Hall Clock

The Town Hall clock is much older than the building itself. The working carries the inscription Thwaites and Reed, Clerkenwell, London, 1826. This firm of clockmakers remains in business and was until 2002 responsible for maintaining the clock at the Houses of Parliament, in the Big Ben clock tower. It possibly came from the church of St Mary Somerset, Upper Thames Street which, apart from the tower, was demolished in 1872. The clock has been wound by members of the Fordham family since 1933.

Other likely ‘old London’ features:

Iron columns in basement from Billingsgate Market removed in 1874;
Lamp standards outside main entrance, manufactured at Coalbrookdale, Shropshire;
Two sculptured heads on north and east sides of building;
‘Fear God Honour the King’ pediment in Council Chamber.


The Burt family sold most of their property in Swanage in two sales in 1919 and 1921. The Town Hall was sold to the Urban District Council, together with the former police station at the rear. In the 1920s improvements were made to the building with the installation of electric lighting and a central heating system. In 1936 James Day donated the existing furniture to the then Urban District Council. There can’t be many public buildings containing furniture given in recognition of King Edward VIII during his short reign, prior to his abdication.

During the second world war the Town Hall narrowly avoided demolition by enemy bombs which destroyed a neighbouring cottage. It was the venue of meetings of the ARP and WRVS and housed the air raid siren. After the war the cottages at the rear were converted to offices for the Council’s Finance Department and in the 1960s the cottages next door were also acquired and partly re-built. Following local government re-organisation in the early 1970s the finance department offices were sold and the Town Hall again became the main focus of the new Town Council’s administration. In 1977 it was filmed as part of the BBC’s production of Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge.
The Town Hall continued to be used for a wide range of meetings, although it ceased to be used as a magistrate’s court in the years after re-organisation. A moveable witness box was used for decades. The Town Hall also remained at the centre of local election night drama with the counts for Town Council elections taking place in the Chamber until 2006.

In the early 1990s a scheme was implemented to improve the rear yard, re-setting it with cobbles, and at the front of the building new floodlighting was installed. Inside the Council chamber, the boards recording past Town Mayors were introduced in 1995.