Set in the heart of the historic old seaport, Harwich’s Guildhall is a Grade I listed building. Originally the site of an inn named ‘The Bear’ it was purchased by the council in 1673. Its present design dates from 1769 and it remains the meeting place and administrative home for Harwich Town Council.
The wealth of history and heritage that it contains, along with its remarkable architecture, make the Guildhall in Harwich a fascinating place to visit.
The Council Chamber
The Council Chamber is on the 2nd floor of the Guildhall. It remains the meeting place for Harwich Town Council. The staircase leading to it is lined with the portraits of former mayors along with the present High Steward of Harwich. The chamber is a spacious, oak panelled room and its walls bear large portraits of significant local figures from previous centuries. Its windows include a stained glass depiction of the town crest. On the wall immediately behind the mayor’s chair hangs a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, signed by Her Majesty in the chamber during a visit in 2004 to mark the 400 year anniversary of the Royal Charter of 1604. The chamber also houses the council’s regalia showcase containing the 17th century mace and the mayor’s chain of office.
The Mayor’s Parlour
The parlour remains the personal domain of the mayor of the day and it houses gifts to the town along with many other items of great local significance. Amongst its treasures are the town’s imperial brass yard, a letter from the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, following a visit in 2000 and a portrait of Charles II painted in the year 1682. It is the robing room for the Mayor and High Steward on civic occasions.
The Carvings Room
A unique feature of the Guildhall is the Carvings Room, once used to hold prisoners waiting to be tried or sentenced. Etched into the bare, wooden walls of the room are elaborate carvings of ships, gallows and symbols to ward off evil spirits all of which date from the late 18th century. One carving is of a ship flying the Stars and Stripes dating from the time of the American War of Independence and another is of a hot air balloon dated at the time of the Montgolfier brothers.
Each May, after the council elects Harwich’s new mayor, the ancient ceremony of Kitchel Throwing takes place. Kitchels are small spiced cakes baked locally and the new mayor throws them out of the window of the council chamber to be caught by the crowds waiting below. The ceremony is unique to Harwich and has been a local tradition for centuries.
Visiting the Guildhall
The Guildhall is accessible for disabled visitors, and has a fully functioning stair lift and disabled toilet, with baby changing facilities. There is no entrance fee but to ensure that the Guildhall is open when you plan to visit please telephone The Clerk to the Council on 01255 507211 between 9.30am – 1pm Monday, Wednesday or Friday.
At present, Harwich Town Council are unable to carry out fully conducted tours of the Guildhall, unless by prior arrangement. Apologies for any inconvenience caused.
Hiring the Guildhall
The Council Chamber is available to hire for meetings or private functions. Please contact The Clerk to the Council on 01255 507211 for further information.