Maldon's Moot Hall the legend lives on
PUBLISHED: 10:07 05 November 2013 | UPDATED: 10:07 05 November 2013
For an iconic building £55 seems a good price, and that was all it cost the people of Maldon to purchase the most important building in their town's history. Granted, this was a princely sum in 1576 when the influential D'Arcy family, who had settled in Maldon after the Norman Conquest, sold off the imposing brick-built tower that had formed part of their estate.
Believed to be the oldest secular decorated brick building in the country (now Grade I listed), the tower was built to the highest possible standards by Flemish bricklayers for Sir Robert D’Arcy, Lord of the Manor of Little Maldon, as part of his family home in the 15th century. Right in the middle of the town’s High Street, Maldon’s Moot Hall was to become central to the way of life in this Essex coastal town – playing its part as the seat of local government for more than 400 years, then its prison and its police station.
But by the time Maldon resident Julie Miller saw the building for the first time 10 years ago, there was little evidence of the building’s illustrious past. ‘I walked in on a cold, wet March day and saw a lifeless space,’ she says, ‘and yet it was beautiful.’
For many years the Moot Hall had languished, not exactly unloved, but certainly unused. After the re-organisation of local government in the 1970s, it had been used only for ceremonial occasions, which were few and far between, and the building that had been so instrumental in the history of Maldon was in real danger of falling into irreversible disrepair.
‘The Moot Hall has always held a special place in the affection of Maldonians, having been at the centre of the town’s life and history for so many years,’ explains Julie. ’So five years ago, its owner, Maldon Town Council, decided to invite the townspeople to take care of it.’
This initiative led to the formation of The Friends of the Moot Hall, who now manage the building on a 25-year lease. The charity’s stated objective is, ‘to advance the education of the general public in the subject of the historical and cultural importance of the Moot Hall’, but as Julie, now a Friends trustee and Moot Hall manager, is quick to point out, it was also important to secure the hall’s financial future. ‘In these tough economic times, there is no place for sentiment,’ explains Julie. ‘It was important that the Friends of the Moot Hall found a way to secure a successful future for this precious building.’
A crucial ingredient in the success of the Moot Hall is its licence to hold Civil Ceremonies, which was granted in 2011. Each floor of the building may be hired and its roof and balcony provide settings for the all-important photographs and celebration drinks. 25 marriages and civil partnerships will have taken place by the end of 2013.
‘The revenue from the civil ceremonies, and much appreciated grant support from the Town Council, means we have been able to give part-time work to a dedicated team of tour guides and wedding stewards, it’s also given the community a space in which to be creative, to be educated and to be entertained, and also to celebrate the most important family occasions,’ explains William Geller, vice-chairman of the Friends group. ‘The Moot Hall still enjoys a place at the heart of Maldon’s civic ceremonial life, but also lives every other day of the year too.’
On Thursday, Fridays and Saturday afternoons from March to October, visitors are welcomed for guided tours of the Moot Hall, uncovering layers of the town’s social history. On the ground floor, there is the Common Room and Mayor’s Parlour, with an ancient wooden door leading to a prison cell and exercise yard. On the first floor the perfectly preserved 19th century Court Room (in use until 1950) and Jury Room has the quiet authority of local justice and was used regularly until the 1970s. On the top floor the Council Chamber (in use until 1974) and Munement Room house historic artefacts, pictures and the town charters. The rooftop has panoramic views of the town and the River Blackwater.
There is also a year-round programme of talks, entertainment and social events for the Friends and public, with a special event celebrating D’Arcy Day each September. Plans are also in place for education packs to be developed for school visits to tie-in with the new National Curriculum starting in 2014.
‘In just one month recently, more than 60 schoolchildren enjoyed the treasure trail, trying on the mayor’s robes and hearing stories of the past,’ says Julie. ‘On top of that, we conducted two weddings, welcomed visitors from Canada, the USA, Australia and Europe, held a rehearsal for the local shanty group Salt Water and Beer, as well as a craft sale, an art exhibition, local association meetings, the MP’s constituency surgery and the Friends of the Moot Hall lecture evening.
‘With all this going on on a regular basis, I think we can be assured that the Moot Hall looks forward to a terrific future as it heads towards its 600th anniversary, which I hope the people of Maldon and visitors will all be celebrating with us in 2020.’