John Belcher’s report for his 1898 Guildhall Plan


Florence Ada Keynes said that Mayor Horace Darwin (1896/97) was heartbroken that Belcher’s design was not carried by the council and ultimately rejected in a ratepayers’ referendum. These are the quotations of the guildhall we could have had.


Pokey and unimpressive, the old Shire House in Market Square via Cambridge local historian Fonz Chamberlain



Splendid, wonderful and magnificent – John Belcher’s design for Cambridge Guildhall & municipal buildings in 1898 – via

But we got neither. It was left to Florence Ada Keynes to sort things out as Chair of the Guildhall Construction Committee in the mid-late 1930s before we got a guildhall big enough (if not grand and ornate enough on the outside) to match the statue of the town.


Florence Ada Keynes finally got this build – completed just in time for Central Government to use it for the Second World War.

“What did John Belcher’s report say?”

John Belcher’s report was tabled to the full council of Cambridge Town Council on 14 October 1897. (Direct link to text (£ requires subscription) is here). It is from the Cambridge Chronicle and Journal. It reads as follows:

“In submitting the designs for the new Guildhall, I am of opinion that the present old buildings are so inadequate and defective that it is impossible to preserve any part of them north of the large hall, moreover any attempt to remodel or incorporate that part of the old buildings in an adequate scheme would prove more expensive and less satisfactory than a new building.

“No town possesses a finer site for its Corporation buildings than Cambridge, and their importance should be emphasized in the new design. In close proximity are some of the best and most celebrated examples of Later Renaissance Architecture, and it seems only right that this character of work should be carried on, especially as it lends itself more particularly to buildings of this class.

“By careful attention to proportion and scale, a broad and dignified effect has been obtained, thus avoiding the charge of unnecessary extravagance and preserving the simplicity so characteristic of this style; and where ornament has been introduced, it has been for the special purpose of emphasizing the more important features of the building.

“In describing the plans, it may be remarked that the same feeling of quiet dignity has been followed in the internal arrangements, but increased richness of detail is desirable in the principal apartments and the Council Chamber.

“The plan and arrangement of the principal floor necessarily dominates the others. Here the Large Hall, the Council Chamber and Municipal Rooms and the Law Courts are grouped round the principal staircase. The juxtaposition of these important rooms makes it imperative that the approaches, landings and corridors should be ample. The level of the municipal room is slightly higher than that of the Hall, and the existing buildings, an arrangement which procures several advantages. The staircase is designed to go in two directions, one leading to the vestibule and rooms, and the whole is so arranged that the corridors serve for both. Also by the difference of level, an increased height is obtained for the lower hall shown on the ground floor plan. This is under the Council Chamber, and its height is still further increased by keeping the level of the new ground floor one foot only above the ground instead of at the level of the existing corridor. A few steps lead up to this corridor, which will be lighted by the large area, and by a new window at the south end, which it is suggested may be obtained by a slight alteration of the library wall.

“Space has been found on the ground floor for a large meeting room, to which access has been obtained from the entrance hall or from Guildhall Street. Such a room would add to the income of the Corporation. There are retiring rooms which can be used in connection with this room and the lower hall. In their rear is the kitchen and scullery (which has a back entrance), these are conveniently placed for the lower halls when used for supper rooms, and being under the Aldermen’s Parlour can serve that room with refreshments, or tea, or coffee, when the Large Room is used for balls. The Aldermen’s Parlour shown on the plan of the principal floor has been set back against the wall of the Large Hall and rebuilt in the present good proportions; but it has been placed on the same level as the hall, and is therefore of increased use.

“It is, moreover, entered from the centre of the Vestibule, so that guests can pass through it on their way to the Hall. The setting back of the parlour not only improves the lighting, but enables a floor to be put up over it for class-rooms of the School of Art, shown on the upper second floor. The School of Art rooms on this floor are spacious and light – the Master’s room overlooks the main rooms and the class room. The clock rooms for male and females are at the top of the staircase. The hall keeper’s living rooms are in the front.

“The allocation of the several departments need not be specially described, and their positions as shown on the plans, are subject to modification. From the space at command there is no doubt that accommodation required by the Cambridge County Council can be provided in a position satisfactory to them.

“The provision of these offices and other rooms which can be let off, together with the improved arrangement and additions to the Halls, will considerably increase the income of the Corporation.

“Along the main front, as shown on the ground floor plan, there is a piazza or colonnade which forms a convenient shelter, and can be used for carriages to set down along the whole length.

“In the centre is the main entrance, and at either end there is a staircase to the public lavatories on the basement, the entrances to which are screened from general view by the archways to the colonnades.

“On the first floor a balcony is formed by the colonnade, to which the casement window of the Mayor’s reception and other rooms lead.

“On the right and left hand of the entrance hall are the gentlemen’s and ladies’ cloak rooms, entered from the Hall and opening on to the corridor leading to the grand staircase. These cloak rooms can be used in connection with the lower hall.

“It is proposed to carry out the facades in Portland stone, and to cover the roof with stone slates from Colley-Weston, in the manner of Clare and other colleges.

“The construction will be fire-proof throughout. The floors of the halls and Council Chamber will be in teak parquet, with wood floors for the committee and other rooms.

“The principal staircase, vestibules and corridors to be paved with Sicilian marble, and the secondary staircases with York stone. The walls and pilasters on the staircase, entrance hall and corridors to be in Caen stone. The decorations of the Council Chamber and principal rooms will be in plaster.

“I understand that the present furnaces are adequate for the increased requirements, but they would be supplemented if found necessary.

“The principal offices and corridors would be heated by low pressure hot water, supplemented by open fires shown on plans.

“The exhaust would be generally affected by an electric exhaust fan connected with collecting trunks along the ceiling of the corridors, which would communicate by upeast flues in the internal walls with the various rooms and offices.

“The heating and ventilation of the halls and Council Chamber would be on the plenum system, by which fresh air is forced by a fan into the building at a pressure slightly above the atmosphere, and warmed in the winter by being passed over radiators. The exhaust from the rooms would be into the collecting trunks already described.

“The rate of ventilation generally to be equal and supplying 1,000 cubic feet per head per hour, with fan power sufficient to double this rate in the summer.

“I estimate the total cost of the work, including furniture and fittings to the Council Chamber, at £38,000”

“The decorative frieze and figures on the staircase are not included in this amount, but would form objects for special gifts from time to time.”

Floor plans are above – from the Cambridgeshire Collection

1898 Guildhall interior sketch via Archiseek

The interior via

Thus ends the report. Thus follows from Mayor Horace Darwin:

“Your Committee, after careful consideration of Mr Belcher’s Scheme recommend:

  1. That designs of Mr Belcher for the front portion of The Guildhall be approved by the Council
  2. That Mr Belcher be appointed architect for the purpose of carrying out the erection of the new buildings, and that the Corporate Seal be affixed to such appointment
  3. That the Town Clerk be directed to apply to the Local Government Board for their sanction to a loan of £40,000 for the purchase of Mr Palmer’s premises, and the erection of the buildings in accordance with Mr Belcher’s plans.
  4. That it be referred to the Lease Committee to make the necessary arrangements for obtaining possession of the premises it will be necessary to remove before the new buildings can be erected.

Sir Horace Darwin Mayor Cambridge1896-97.jpg

Above – Cambridge hero and legend, Horace Darwin (Later Sir Horace Darwin)

The article then goes onto say

“The Mayor [Horace Darwin] said me moved the adoption of the first part of the report because he had taken rather an active part on the Committee in regard to the matter. The whole Committee had taken a great deal of trouble to find out who was the best architect they could get for carrying out the work. He made inquiries and saw many people, and evidence obtained from many sources convinced him that they could not do better than Mr Belcher. When he stated his evidence to the Committee he felt Flattered by the way they received it. Mr Belcher was a well-known architect; he had done many important works, one of which was the Chartered Accountants’ building in London, and he had just been appointed architect for the new Guildhall in Colchester [which did get built].”

Unlike Colchester, Cambridge did not have a competition for the design – similar as to what happened in the 1930s with the current design with Cowles-Voysey.

“Mr Belcher had taken enormous trouble over the work and he felt proud he was the man selected. he had no doubt objections would be raised on the grounds of large costs. That he thought they must face. It would mean an addition to the rates for the next thirty to fifty years, as the case might be. Then, after that the next generation would have practically the gift of a Town Hall for them. They would do them a good turn. (Laughter). If they could not afford it, they must turn the whole thing out and go on as best they could until they could afford it”

Which is ultimately what happened.

The concerns a number of councillors expressed at the meeting was the impact the cost of Belcher’s Guildhall would have on local taxation. The report from the meeting concludes that they needed more information on the finances before they were prepared to vote, so an amendment was tabled and passed to allow the matter to stand over till the next council meeting.


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