Step back in time

Nestled in the heart of Devonport, our Guildhall and Column are historic gems which emerged unscathed after the heavy war-time bombing of Plymouth. Their history begins in 1822 and 1824, when they were each constructed by architect John Foulston. Simply scroll below to explore our rich and fascinating history…

All images courtesy of Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery.

John Foulston

…built our Town Hall in 1822. The renowned Regency architect designed a cluster of four buildings together in the area: the Guildhall, Column and Oddfellow’s Hall still stand today whilst his Mount Zion Calvinist Chapel is now lost.

The area of Devonport was then called Plymouth Dock, but the presence of the Royal Navy brought prosperity to the area. More jobs and more growth led to this area eventually outnumbering the population of Plymouth itself. Following the Guildhall being built, many saw this as a key moment to petition for the area to be renamed….

The Royal Connection

The petition was taken to King George IV, who granted permission for the area to be called Devonport in 1824. Success! This official recognition of the town was commemorated with the construction of Devonport Column. Completed in 1827, the Column was a symbol of pride and a place from which to see the surrounding land from every angle.

Did you know?  Foulston’s original designs for the Column incorporated a statue of King George IV which was scrapped during construction due to lack of funds.

Cornerstone of the Community

Devonport Guildhall was a hub for the local politics of this growing borough. The Main Hall was then a courtroom, with removable fixtures to host events – including everything from balls and banquets to horticultural exhibitions! Below the hall was a police station and cells where prisoners awaited their fate. The area’s mortuary was also based in the building; the tiles which covered its walls are still protected today for their historical significance.

The Three Towns

Despite being Devonport’s central hub during the 19th century, the Guildhall’s fortunes were soon to change. In 1914, the three towns across the area (Plymouth, Stonehouse, Devonport) were amalgamated into the city of Plymouth. Gradually, as new city council buildings developed across Plymouth, Devonport Guildhall’s town hall role became redundant. Still utilised for the city, the building had a variety of uses in the 20th century, including as a gas-mask collection point during the Second World War. Meanwhile, Devonport Column served as a post for fire-watch duties during the Blitz – one policeman at the top and another at the bottom to relay messages.

Survival

Both Devonport Guildhall and Column survived the Blitz. Plymouth’s war-torn landscape gave those surviving buildings a certain significance, as an enduring symbol of both the city’s heritage and resilience. Post-war, Devonport Guildhall fell into neglect whilst public access to the Column had been limited since the 1950s. Guildhall restorations were attempted – notably in 1986 when it reopened as a Citizen’s Advice Bureau, Library, a playgroup, cafe and sports hall – but failed to survive due to the sheer size of the building. Then, another twist of fate…

Revival

In 2009 the Real Ideas Organisation (RIO) was awarded a £1.75 million Community Assets Grant, with which they embarked on the careful and painstaking restoration of Devonport Guildhall to it’s former glory. Working closely with Plymouth City Council and the former Devonport Regeneration Community Partnership, RIO renovated Devonport Guildhall with the local community in mind.

Now, a thriving hub of activity, the Main Hall still hosts events, but the police station is now the RIO office and in the cells artwork can be found instead of prisoners! The tiled mortuary is home to Column Bakehouse, Plymouth’s first and only social enterprise artisan bakery. Using Heritage Lottery Fund investment, RIO was also able to restore Devonport Column and return it to public use. Officially opened in 2013, it is one of the very few commemorative columns in the country that can still be visited.