Colchester

Sketch of Colchester Town Hall, from a contemporary magazine.

Colchester is about 1 hour and 40 minutes by train from London (Liverpool Street Station). The Victorian interest is architectural - the Town Hall and Water Tower - and a small art museum. But the excellent Castle Museum of Roman and medieval artefacts, and similar-aged buildings and structures around the town, make Colchester a good aesthetic day out.

Approaching Colchester by train, the two dominating features on the flattish skyline are the Town Hall and the castle-like Water Tower, both impressive pieces of Victorian architecture. The Water Tower, by Clegg, dates from 1882, and is a seriously massive brick construction. The Town Hall we deal with at some length:

Town Hall

This is by the architect John Belcher, and was built in 1898-1902. An excellent Baroque building, with interesting sculpture all over. It is faced with Portland stone and brick, with a tall tower, very elaborate. The figurative sculpture is in Portland stone - most prominent are four standing figures in niches at first floor level (2 more round side of building), all connected with Colchester. First of these from the left is Eudo, steward of William the Conqueror, involved in setting up of local monastic orders - though here he is shown as a warrior with helmet, sword and shield. Then Audley, looking like a merchant. Next Gilbert - the Colchester-born man who discovered electricity - and finally Harsnett in priestly costume. Round the side are a rather manlike Boadicea (perhaps not on the front because although with the biggest reputation, she did after all burn Colchester), and Edward the Elder, a Saxon king.

Up on the tower, the summit has a crowning bronze feminine figure with cross, and just below, four hulking eagles, giving good silhouettes. Also high up, on top of the main building, is a shield and helm with lion and unicorn, all in Portland stone bar the bronze unicorn horn.

The main door spandrel figures give a chance to examine the sculpture at close hand - here are two girls with crowns, left holding ship, right with sheaf of corn - showing a nice appreciation of the feminine figure. Two vile cherubic figures hug the central shield. The working looks a bit crude, but this may simply reflect the many coats of paint over the years.

In keeping with the spirit of Baroque revival, there are many minor sculptural motifs on the front of the building. We may note the big stained glass windows, grotesque heads above the minor ground floor windows, Corn and Tudor rose symbols flanking the first floor balcony, and tiny faces at the base and top of the huge columns. There is boisterous ironwork, both on the gate, and for instance, on the balcony lamps.

Round the side of the Town Hall, as well as the two figures mentioned, the Law Courts entrance has a winged head of Justice with scales forming the keystone of an arched window above the door.

A walk continuing down this street is rewarding - next door is the former public library (1893) in red brick with much wood, elaborate relief grotesques, and two stele figures in wood. Further on, an impressive church reusing Roman brick, rather crumpled but impressively solid with funereal casket style tombs outside - presumably Quaker. Also here and on adjacent roads are isolated Tudor houses.

Colchester Castle

Colchester Castle is impressive close up, but does not form the feature on the Colchester skyline one might have expected. The reason is that the Castle, built largely of reused Roman brick, was systematically dismembered starting from the top downwards by a local entrepreneur to sell for house bricks. Fortunately, this was halted while there was still some castle left, and the benefactor responsible, in an inspired misconception of historical restoration, then capped the somewhat shortened building with Italianate roofs.

The Castle houses an excellent Roman collection, including figurative pieces and mosaics and much medieval material. In passing we should mention the minor 19th Century art there - Constable sketches, and pictures of Colchester by A K Glover and George Frederick Sargent.

The next-door Hollytrees Museum houses 18th and 19th Century works.

Directly in front of the Castle and Museum is the impressive World War 1 memorial, with crowning Victory figure, and two figures below: a woman and Gilbert-inspired knight. The sculptor was H. C. Fehr.

Also in Colchester

All within a short walk are the Norman ruins of St Botolph's Priory, with reused Roman brick, Roman walls, part of the Medieval wall and gate, and minor figurative work in wood on medieval buildings such as the two figs at the entrance to Lion Walk off High Street (opposite the Town Hall). There are various interesting churches, of which we mention only the one on the way to Colchester station, St Peter, with a good clock outside, and inside plaques, darkened continental style oils, and the Scar family plaque (1830), after an older one commemorating the Pilgrim Fathers.

Ruins of St Botolph's priory.

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Hollytrees Museum // Victorian art in Britain

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