William Burges and Andrew Poynter played leading roles in the Victorian refurbishment of Dover’s historic Maison Dieu founded in 1203.
William Burges was one of the most imaginative designers of the 19th century, regarded by many as an eccentric with his passion for Gothic architecture and a taste for rich effects. At the age of 17 he was articled to architect Edward Blore and later set up in practice himself.
Burges built St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral in Cork, churches in Yorkshire and undertook major restoration schemes, including Waltham Abbey and Worcester College Chapel, Oxford. His rebuilding of Cardiff Castle and the picturesque restoration of Castell Coch for the Marquis of Bute caused a sensation. Magnificent Knightshayes Court in Devon is one of only three major houses that he built.
Burges also built Tower House for himself in Kensington, designing all the elaborate decoration and furniture. It was there that he died.
Burges also made a significant contribution to Dover’s heritage which can be seen in Dover Town Hall today.
Dover Town Council bought the ancient Maison Dieu in 1834. In 1859, 25 years after purchasing the buildings, the Council appointed Ambrose Poynter, a leading architect, to prepare designs for the restoration of the Stone Hall. Although Ambrose Poynter’s designs were used, by the time this work was actually started his eyesight was fading and he asked William Burges, an established architect, to oversee the work. Burges then prepared 40 working drawings from Poynter’s designs. Burges’s creative input is illustrated by the grotesque animals around the doorways and the coats of arms for the many shields of former Lords Warden on the stone lintel around the walls. The total cost of the works was about £6,000, considerably more than the £3,500 originally agreed. Burges was paid £69 for his work and Poynter £15! Some of the architects’ original drawings survive in Dover Museum.
Most of the restoration was carried out in 1860/61 and can be seen today. This included a fine, new, wooden decorative roof in stained deal (as now); restoring, rebuilding and refacing internally the north wall of the hall; a new gallery at the west end with a circular staircase (the gallery is still there but with a different staircase); medieval style carvings of grotesque animals over doorways; coats of arms of Lords Warden carved in stone; display of the Cinque Ports’ arms on the end wall; reforming of the original windows with new stonework tracery.
Following the closure of the prison in 1877, it stood empty until the Town Council once again approached William Burges to provide designs and quotations for the building of a new assembly room, (or, as we would call it, a function hall) and other facilities. By this time Burges was a very eminent architect having carried out most notably work at Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch, near Cardiff, for the Marquis of Bute. He has been described as ‘the most brilliant architect designer of his generation’ and ‘a strange genius turning the Middle ages into magic’. Dover Town Hall is one of his least known commissions and was one of his last as, after a brief 18 years of architectural practice, he died in 1881 aged 53.
Burges submitted preliminary plans for a police station, lock up and superintendent’s office, offices for a surveyor’s department and inspectors of nuisances, a strong room, hall keeper’s accommodation, mayor’s parlour, Grand Jury room, Petty Jury room, a witnesses room and an assembly hall. He was asked to begin the working drawings and on 28 March 1881 he wrote to the Town Clerk to say that the drawings were sufficiently advanced for a rough estimate, but more work was needed if a more exact estimate was required. Just after this he caught a chill at Cardiff whilst inspecting works and died on 20 April.
Later the same month Burges’s partner and brother-in-law, R.P. Pullan, wrote to Dover saying that the drawings and estimates were in an advanced state and both he and John Chapple, Burges’ office manager, were to finish the work at Dover and Cardiff Castle. The original estimate was £17,115 or about £1.7million in today’s money. The Council once again decided to borrow the money for the project. Construction by Herbert Stiff, a local builder, began in 1881.
Opinion in Dover was divided on the need for the hall and the expenditure. One petition said ‘we think that a place of amusement for the rich should not be provided at the expense of the poor’. Even when it was nearly completed one Councillor Peake suggested that an inscription for the building should read, ‘this building was erected in spite of the opposition of all the ratepayers in the town’. Despite this, the project was completed in1883 in the style described as ‘geometrical decorated’, constructed in Kentish rag stone and flint with stone dressings to windows and doors. The new building’s total length on the Ladywell side is 162ft with a width of 63 feet. It included a lofty 93ft high clock tower. The clock, known locally as the ‘frying pan’, caused criticism since it was not mounted flat onto the tower as Burges intended but protruded. Nevertheless, everyone felt the project to be a great success.
The new main hall was said to be capable of seating 1000 plus an extra 500 in the balconies, a density no longer acceptable to the Fire Brigade!
Debate now turned to the decoration of the new hall for which there was little left in the budget, but more money was found. Burges’s style, implemented by Pullan, was very decorative making the interior of the new building a riot of colour and gilding. The walls and particularly the ceiling were covered in brightly coloured floral designs in blue, red and gold with birds dotted amongst the foliage. At the back of the hall (now hidden behind the organ, donated by Dr. Astley a former mayor, and installed later in 1902) was alarge decorated gothic arch and balcony with a sculpted image of St. Martin of Tours, Dover’s patron saint; each of the iron pillars supporting the galleries was also individually decorated. The stained glass windows were designed by Walter Lonsdale, Burges’s chief designer, and celebrate various Constables of Dover Castle. The medieval arches adjoining the Stone Hall were retained and can still be seen. Two large gas sunburners in the ceiling provided ventilation for the escape of gases caused by the gas lighting in the hall and also for brilliant illumination, (another survives in the Council Chamber) replaced in the 1890s by ornate electroliers (chandeliers lit by electric bulbs). The Kentish Gazette described the decoration as ‘the most beautiful that Mr. Burges has done’, whilst the Dover Express called it ‘a trifle gaudy, more in character with a theatre than a municipal building’. In contrast the The Builder magazine said ‘the effect is entirely medieval’.
The hall was redecorated about every 15 years and at least until 1924 the original designs were still being revarnished and gilded. Photographs of the early 1940s show some of the original decoration still in place, but by then Burges’s style was very out of fashion and gilding was expensive. By the early 1950s the designs were finally painted over or removed, although subsequent research has shown the schemes have survived in part beneath layers of paint or wallpaper. It is hoped that at least a selection of these will one day be restored for all to see.
The new building was formally opened in 1883 by a son of Queen Victoria, the Duke of Connaught and the Duchess, when the large assembly room was named the Connaught Hall.
Part of the 1881/83 works, the Mayor’s Parlour was built to act as a prestigious meeting room for the mayor where important guests would also be entertained. It was a spectacularly ornate room in high Burges style with custom made furniture of the highest quality.
In the centre is a remarkable, circular, original table in American walnut, costing £75 6s, once surrounded by its accompanying 18 circular chairs with carved leopards heads on each arm in walnut and upholstered in red Levant Morocco leather each costing £7 each. There was also a Mayor’s chair costing £9 19s. This furniture was made by Cobay Brothers of Hythe. The table, although damaged by shrapnel in the Second World War is still in place, but the chairs await restoration. An expensive ‘Turkey’ carpet (a wool carpet made in one piece with a velvety pile and in a rich glowing colour) was provided for £29. Niches in the wall held ‘figures’ of the Virtues but it is not clear if these were statuettes or paintings and nothing has survived except the niches, now covered up.
A description of the room in 1883 said, ‘the ceiling of this room is very beautifully decorated, having in the middle verging towards the central chandelier an elaborate octagonal ornament, the sides are a sort of ribbed ornamentation with a predominance of blue in the colouring, and the four corners are finished with sunken gilded panels. The walls are also ornamented with floral designs’.