The History of Aldeburgh’s Moot Hall
Published: Monday 26th Aug 2019
Written by: Suffolk Secrets Team
The Moot Hall in Aldeburgh, which houses Aldeburgh Museum, is a superb timber-framed building, erected by the Burgesses of Aldeburgh at a time of great prosperity as a manifestation of civic pride. Today it is still treasured by the people of Aldeburgh as the centre of their community and a symbol of their heritage.
Despite its exposed position on the brink of the North Sea, the Moot Hall in Aldeburgh is one of the best preserved Tudor public buildings in Britain. Although no document exists that chronicles its beginning, experts have estimated a date of around 1550 as, during this time, Aldeburgh had emerged from being an insignificant fishing village into a prosperous ship-building and trading town.
The term ‘Moot Hall’ was used only from the nineteenth century as part of the Victorian mock-Tudor restoration. The building was always referred to in earlier documents as the ‘Town Hall’. The word ‘Moot’ derives from the Saxon word for ‘a meeting’.
Aldeburgh was granted Borough status during the reign of Edward VI and a few years later gained its first seal, bearing a three-masted ship.
In the 16th century an open-sided polygonal market cross stood across to the North of the Moot Hall, and there was also a large market hall nearby. Fresh food and other everyday commodities would have been sold from these stalls by peripatetic traders: vegetables and fruit, bread, meat and fish.
Although no one knows exactly what was sold from the Town Hall shops, records number several shoemakers and tailors working in the town, together with barbers, coopers, grocers, beer-brewers a shipwright and a ‘hockemaker’ (the maker of those all-important hooks for suspending vessels over the fire).
The original layout of the ground floor included dividing walls between six shops – each shop would have been self-contained and entered by its own door. Large arched windows which contained no glass but were closed by inside shutters at night provided necessary light. The carvings above the windows and doors on the western side are exceptionally well-preserved given their exposed situation and are entirely genuine.
Customers were not expected to enter the shops and the window openings served as hatches, with goods displayed on counters or trestles set up either inside or outside the windows (or both). Awnings or even a more permanent construction might have projected above the windows to protect the buying public from rain or direct sunlight.
The inside of the shop usually served as a workshop or possibly a storage area. Only the central shop on the western side retains a complete façade, with its door and both window arches intact, but the others can be reconstructed. The present ground-floor entrance door was initially a shop window; the original outside stair would presumably have been open-sided to allow access to the shop immediately below.
On the other hand, little has changed from the original layout of the first floor. The size has been increased by the removal of the partition that originally divided it from a smaller chamber to the South. The upper hall was reached by an external staircase much the same as today, although the stair itself, along with much of the roof structure, was replaced in an extensive 19th century renovation. There is no evidence to show there was a doorway connecting the two chambers but this would have been unusual and would have limited the use of the smaller chamber. One possibility is that there may have been an interior spiral stair and narrow chimney for heating the upper room only.
Public buildings were not usually heated in the sixteenth century and the smaller chamber may have been designed as living accommodation for an official such as a bailiff or gaoler. The present fireplace was installed only in 1924, imported from a crumbling Tudor manor house and thought to be part original and part reconstruction.
The Moot Hall was designed to reflect the wealth and success of the community and would therefore have been the most expensive and ostentatious building in the parish after the Church. It was roofed with tile from the outset and its timber frame may well have been filled with brick rather than wattle-and-daub – although its present brickwork is Victorian. The area now occupied by the Town Clerk’s office and internal stair (a much later insertion) was entirely enclosed by masonry rather than timber framing. The modern walls are not original but reconstructed with a haphazard mix of stone, flint and brick and contain no evidence of original features such as doors and windows. A doorway into the prison area is conjectural but seems likely. The alcove, said to be provided for the easement of malefactors condemned to the stocks, is a touch of Victorian whimsy and fails to reflect Tudor brutality.
The sundial on the South gable was put in place in 1650. Today there is a replica bearing the original Latin inscription: ‘Horas non numero nisi serenas’, which means: ‘I only count the sunny hours’.
By 1855 the Moot Hall had fallen into serious disrepair. The Council took the brave decision to return it to its former glory and a major programme of restoration was undertaken. Both gables were renewed as were the east-facing windows and the brickwork between the studs. Two new features were incorporated into the building at this time; elaborately carved barge boards were added to the North gable and the original stubby chimneys were ‘enhanced’ by the addition of two tall replicas of kitchen chimneys from Hampton Court Palace. No doubt the Burgesses of 1550 would have loved them.
A terrific museum to visit, as the building itself is as interesting as its collections.