The Furniture in Shrewsbury Drapers` Hall

Shrewsbury Drapers` Hall

In 1576 it was decided to improve on the old hall and build a new hall on the same site at the heart of the commercial centre of Shrewsbury. The first guildhall of the Shrewsbury Drapers’ Company was built in St Mary’s Place, at a cost of £9/15s/6d. The new Drapers’ Hall would make a statement and it would be in the most fashionable style available at the time, constructed of timber with features in the so-called ‘Shrewsbury school’ of carpentry. From this new ‘headquarters’ the Drapers’ Company would be able to continue its domination of the town and the Guild would become yet more attractive to prominent men. As the Drapers aimed to recruit their members from town and country, from burgesses, yeomen and from the ranks of the gentry.

‘Although brick was fashionable elsewhere and good quality local stone was available from Grinshill, the Drapers chose to build their new hall in the traditional manner by using timber. Timber was still the most used building technique in Shropshire, stone being reserved for important public buildings and brick normally being used only for chimneys. The use of timber also allowed the decorative detailing which epitomised the Guild`s importance. Timber carving as an expression of importance, was much desired by “men of means” in the town, whether Drapers or not, and this gave rise to a comparatively short-lived but dramatic “Shrewsbury school of carpentry” whose hallmarks have passed into architectural history. They include the use of vine trails on barge-boards, cable-moulded pilasters usually terminating on carved heads, finials, sunken quatrefoils and S braces. Jettying and mouldings as found in other areas were also incorporated.

The motifs, or carvings, depicted in the timber-work of Drapers’ Hall are of medieval origin and were used in a ‘pure’ form by the skilled craftsmen who made up this distinctive later school of carpentry. Their work is concentrated in Shrewsbury and in a few country houses and many of the craftsmen were Welsh or of Welsh extraction. The prototype for the style was, probably, Pitchford Hall which was completed in 1551 by John Sandford whose family were carpenters. Sandford`s son Randyll worked on Drapers’ Hall, which was master minded by Roger Smith, a Welshman from Llandisilio. Shortly after completion of the timber frame of the Hall in April 1577, the Company leased the building to Andrew Lewis, he had become free of the Drapers in 1573, and later in 1607, he became a bailiff of Shrewsbury.

The Furniture in Drapers Hall

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Hall was sparsely furnished with oak tables and benches suitable for its purpose as a place for Drapers to meet socially or for business connected with their trade. Some of the early furniture survives, although one of the long tables from that period has been lost. The accounts and inventories in the Shrewsbury Drapers’ Company`s archives tell us the names of the makers, the costs and the date of most of the individual pieces of furniture in the Hall.

The Long Table

The surviving 17ft-long table is one of two that were made for the Drapers, with their matching benches, by Francis Bowyer in 1632 and 1635 at a cost of £2/15s/0d and £3/0s/0d respectively; the extra five shillings represents inflation at about three per cent per annum.

A frieze of carved nulling decorates the long side of the table open to view and is repeated on the benches. The other side is plain. With fixed benching on the other side and at one end of the table, but the matching stool for the head of the table has been lost.

The Dais Table

The 9ft-long dais table is of a type known as a ‘withdrawing table’. It has leaves that can be pulled out to extend its length to 17ft. It was ordered ‘to stand in less room soe as the Master, wardens and the assistants… with all who have bene wardens can more conveniently goe in and out to sitt about it in an orderly manner’. It is decorated with small, pear-shaped, turned mouldings and a flat turned panel on the frieze. Richard Ellis made it in 1662 for the sum of £3/10s/0d.

The Hatchment

In order to further enhance its status, the Company’s coat of arms was allowed by Richard Lee, Portcullis Herald, in 1585. This is the coat of arms displayed in the entrance courtyard of the Hall and depicted on a painted hatchment dated 1625 hanging over the fireplace. As if to emphasise the Company’s national importance it is the same coat of arms as that of the mighty London Drapers

The Master`s Chair

The Master`s Chair is also dated 1662 and was probably also made by Ellis and in a similar style. It has a richly moulded back panel and a carved crest, but still has its seat at its original height of twenty-three inches and is consequently far from comfortable. Traces of black paint on the folds on the back of the chair are no longer visible but suggest that originally the chair had painted decoration in the style of contemporary chairs from Cheshire. Apart from this, the furniture is surprisingly free of regional characteristics. The chair, together with nine bedsteads for the almshouses, cost £3/14s/0d.

The Fireplace

The fine fireplace of Grinshill stone was fitted in 1658 at a cost of 15s/0d. This work was followed by the re-arrangement and extension of the wainscots so that the room was completely panelled, the latter work being done by Richard Ellis, who added some ornamentation at the buttery end, matching that on the master’s chair and the dais table.

Painting of Edward IV

The representation of Edward IV, who granted the Company its charter in 1462, was painted in 1660 by Thomas Francis, a herald painter, who later painted the chancel ceiling in Bromfield and a wall painting at Stokesay.  The painting has been restored several times, notably in 1695 and 1721, when it was `…beautified at ye Company`s charge’. Richard Ellis made the frame, which was intended to show (in the words of the minute book) `What he (King Edward) hath donne for this Companye’. The legend shows the following tribute: (NB. f = s)

‘This yeare fourth Edward York’s farre fam’d renowne

Circled his Temples, with great Albion’s Crowne;

When over reading the memorial

Of Salop’s Drapers’ ancient Hofpitale,

Founded in honour of the facred Deighty

He own’d and ftiled them the bleft Society;

And with his Parliament’s fage approbation

Designed them his Charter for a Corporation

Which to confirme Himfelf was pleafed to be

The Royal Founder of their companie,

Granting immunities of large extent,

    Which ftand his bounties, gratefull monument.

Thomas Francis was also paid for painting escutcheons on twenty-five buckets (probably leather buckets for fire-fighting) and for staining some of the newer panelling to match the older panelling.

The Deed Chest

The most interesting piece of furniture is the deed-chest, designed to hold the Company`s deeds, muniments and records. It was made by Francis Bowyer in 1637 for a total cost of £4/7s/8d, of which £1/6s/8d went to Thomas Gratie for the locks and hinges. The central column on the front can be removed to reveal three key holes; the keys were held by the master and the two wardens. Behind the plank-construction doors are three sets of boxed drawers so that the chest acted as a secure filing cabinet. There is also a shallow box-top, suitable for storing plans or large documents. The chest is decorated in the typical Laudian (High Anglican) style that was to be banished by the Puritans in the 1640s. The style was influenced by Flemish pattern-books and other furniture of the period. The carpentry of the drawers is cruder than that of the chest because they were originally part of an earlier deed-chest.                          

            Acknowledgements to Shrewsbury Drapers Hall Preservation Trust, Madge Moran, Richard Raven, Nigel Sturt, James Lawson for full listing see Wool War & Wealth.