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County Hall


(see long history)

This “exceedingly handsome” building – as John Betjeman described it – was erected between 1678 and 1683, primarily to house the Berkshire Assizes when they were held in Abingdon. Until the nineteenth century it was generally referred to as the Town Hall or the Market Hall, and the name County Hall was adopted only gradually. In 1869 Abingdon ceased to be an assize town but the building continued to be known as the County Hall.

The builder was Christopher Kempster, possibly using a design by Christopher Wren. It replaced a market hall on the same site and is now occupied by the town museum.

The style of architecture is Baroque. The building has three storeys, including the roof space which features eleven dormer windows. On the top there is a lantern bearing a ball and weather vane; the lantern has a balustrade round it. An off-centre stair tower projects from the south face (the back) as far as the top floor, and at ground level there is a flight of stone steps to the cellars. It is also possible to access the cellars by an internal staircase leading from the vestibule and by a lift on the pavement. 

The ground floor is an open arcade which was designed to house a market.

The painted internal staircase gives access to all the floors except the cellars.

The first floor comprises a grand salon which is known as the Sessions Hall because it was originally built to function as a courtroom when needed. It now houses a permanent exhibition of items from the history of Abingdon, including a special feature on the MG car works that was located on the western side of the town.

In the attics there is a display of more town treasures and one of the cellars contains two early twentieth century gas pumping engines. The cellars also contain an educational area (the Kempster Room) and a café.

On special local and national occasions the Mayor of Abingdon and other dignitaries throw buns to the crowd in the Market Place from the roof of the building. The origin of this ceremony is unknown but it may date from the coronation of King George IV in 1821.

See Glossary for explanations of technical terms.

© AAAHS and contributors 2013


(see short history)

There has been a market hall in this area for over 700 years.  In 1327 a previous structure on the site was destroyed by rioters and had to be rebuilt.  It was referred to at the time as the ‘New Hall’ so presumably it replaced a building with a similar function. In 1566 it was succeeded by a Market Hall, and this in turn was superseded by the present structure which was completed in 1684.[1]

This building consists of four bays running east-west and two running north-south. This is unusual for such a style of design; five bays by three was more common. The limestone of which it is built is local, coming from Burford and Headington quarries; later Clipsham stone was used.[2] It has been variously known as the County Hall, the Town Hall, the Market Hall and the Sessions Court.[3]

It is not known for certain who designed the County Hall. There was at one time a belief that the architect had been Inigo Jones; this is unlikely as he died before the building was commissioned[4]. It could have been Christopher Wren but it is more likely that it was his protégé Christopher Kempster, a master mason who with his team did most of the construction work.[5] No fee to Wren is found in the records (which are incomplete) although we know that Kempster was paid over £1,000[6]. The grandeur of the style was appropriate because the building was commissioned to be used as a court for the County Assizes, but they were moved to Reading in 1869 and did not return to Abingdon.[7]

The erection of the stair tower was not started until 1678 when the rest of the structure was already under way, which may account for its rather awkward relationship with the main part of the building.[8]   It has two square-headed windows to light the staircase. There are stairs from the attic rooms to the lantern which include some fragments of seventeenth century balustrade. The rest of the staircase has rails decorated with an abstract design and strings painted with a pattern of acanthus leaves.

countyhallstaircasecolour-1 from Ruth 25may14 compressed jb25may14.jpg





The main staircase in 1956 from a watercolour by            Fred Masters.


© Courtesy of Abingdon County Hall Museum




The market area has a timber roof designed and installed by Avery Hobbs, a master carpenter.[9]. From the centre of the roof hangs a Victorian lantern supported by elaborately scrolled ironwork. On the outside, pilasters with Composite capitals reach as far as the eaves; the keystones of the arches joining the main pillars bear carved classical heads. In its detail this market hall is characteristic of its period. At various times lighting and even heating were installed in it and in 1849 there was a proposal to fill in the space between the arches to improve its use as a corn exchange, but this idea does not seem to have come to anything[10].  A wide variety of goods was sold there from time to time, including wool and raw hides although it was forbidden to lay such hides on the stone floor.[11]

The principal room of the County Hall is the first-floor Sessions Hall.  This was divided in two in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, as recorded by Celia Fiennes, but is now one room.[12] There is still a small balcony, possibly for spectators, over the entrance to the room, and there are eleven handsome windows which echo the shape of the arches around the market area beneath.

The two central windows on the front of the Sessions Hall were originally doors with balustrades in front of them to enable proclamations to be made and dignitaries to acknowledge the crowds below. During an overhaul in 1852-3 the balustrades were removed and the doors rebuilt as windows to match those on either side.[13]

ch1 from gillian 11apr14.jpg


The central upper doors in 1806 from an etching by           W W Waite.

© Courtesy of Abingdon County Hall Museum.                


In the middle of the twentieth century the barrel-vaulted cellars housed a café called The Mousehole.[14]  It opened in 1958 and was a particularly popular meeting-place for the young residents of the town because of its fashionable music.[15]  However it was prone to flooding and was closed in 1970 as it had become dangerous and dirty.[16] Today, in the refurbished building, the cellars provide space for the Kempster Room, an educational area, and the Throwing Buns café, which is named after the bun-throwing ceremony described in the short article on this building.   

The cellars also house two gas engines which date from the early twentieth century and are no longer in use. They were used to pump water from the well in The Square to increase both the amount of water available to supply the town and the mains water pressure. A danger with this system was that a sudden loss of mains pressure – caused, perhaps, by a burst water main – would result in catastrophic damage to the engine and pump. To prevent this, the water was first sent through a vertical pipe fixed to the outer wall of the building and reaching above the parapet. It was then turned downwards via a U-bend to connect to the mains.  If the pressure in the mains fell, this system - being full of water - provided the necessary back pressure.[17] 

This system was abhorred by many people who felt that the pipes disfigured the building. Among the protesters were architects from the Royal Institute of British Architects who wrote to the town clerk in 1926 to communicate their indignation.[18]  An article in the magazine Country Life expressed the same outrage, calling the pipes ‘an unpardonable piece of effrontery and impropriety’.[19] The system was finally dismantled and the pipes removed during renovation in the 1950s.

al0493_022_01%20(2) from gillian 11apr14.jpg


The external water pipes on the side of the stair tower can be seen behind the bollard on the curb.

Photograph probably taken at the start of the 1950s renovations.


AL0493/022/01 Abingdon Town Hall, Oxon.                      © Reproduced by permission of English Heritage.



After the building ceased to accommodate courts it was put to various uses.  These included productions of Shakespeare’s plays and a series of popular entertainments, from ‘Penny Readings for the People’ to concerts and lectures. Political meetings, which sometimes became rowdy, had been held in the eighteenth century and continued in the nineteenth.[20]

Master-Kempster's-Diary-3 frto gillian 11apr14.jpg




One of the Penny Reading posters.

© Courtesy of Abingdon County Hall Museum








D1351a_HRHVictoria_DiamondJubilee for County Hall from Gillian 8july14  comp & ed jb1sept14.jpg


The arcade of the County Hall as the backdrop for celebrations of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897

© Courtesy of Abingdon County Hall Museum                                                                                              

In 1926 the County Hall was included in a list published under Section 12 of the Ancient Monuments Act 1913 as a monument the preservation of which was of national importance.[21]

During the Second World War the basement was designated a public air raid shelter.

Having been informally in the care of the Ministry of Works, the building was officially subject to a Deed of Guardianship by the Ministry in 1952, although it was still owned by the borough council.[22] This led to a relationship between the two bodies that was not always happy. In the 1960s the local newspaper recorded an example of the mutual antagonism when officials from the ministry and the council engaged in a bitter dispute over the condition of the building and the use to which some of the rooms should be put.[23]

In 1984 The Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission (now English Heritage) was formed to take over some of the functions of the Ministry. It continued to administer the Deed and still keeps a weather eye on the building.[24] 

The building has housed a museum since the 1920s.[25] On the inside walls of the Sessions Hall there are several items on display, of which the most notable is perhaps a mirror with a decorative carved wooden frame in the style of Grinling Gibbons.  At the opposite end of the room hangs the coat-of-arms of Charles II, during whose reign the County Hall was built.  On the north wall there are three pieces of heraldic stained glass, representing the arms of Abingdon Abbey, Abingdon School and the Earls of Abingdon.  For many years these and several other similar pieces were set individually into the middle of the long windows. However, with the need to stabilise these windows and to add double glazing they were taken out, and all except the three on the wall were put into store.

In the early 1970s the Abingdon Area Archaeological and Historical Society worked closely with the curator, helping to mount exhibitions and holding its meetings in the basement.

Following the renovation of 2011-12 the permanent exhibition of items from the history of Abingdon has included a special feature about the MG Car Company’s factory which was located on the western side of the town.

 Because of their historic interest the gas engines are kept on display in their original position in the cellars, despite suggestions that they should be moved to the attics.[26]

The items on display in the attics include the skeleton of an ichthyosaur (found locally), a map of the area created over four hundred years ago, old toys and a venerable dolls’ house.  For many years the attics were used for storage. In the nineteenth century they housed official documents.[27]

The County Hall has always needed a great deal of maintenance. Major renovations were carried out in the mid-nineteenth century and also in the 1950s, when the restored building was opened by the Queen.[28]  The most recent repairs and refurbishment were finished in 2012 and the building was officially reopened by the Duke of Gloucester in March 2013.

Abingdon is proud of the County Hall, and no wonder; it dominates and adorns the Market Place in which it stands. Nikolaus Pevsner said of it in 1966 ‘Of the free-standing town halls of England with open ground floors, this is the grandest’.[29]

See Glossary for explanations of technical terms.

© AAAHS and contributors 2014


[1] R Gilyard-Beer, The County Hall, Abingdon, Berkshire (London, 1956), pp. 1-2.

[2] Tyack, Bradley and  Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Berkshire (London, 2010), pp. 103-4.

[3] Report in the North Berkshire Herald, 22 October 1926.

[4] Gilyard-Beer, The County Hall, pp. 5 and 11.

[5] Peter Gale, Pride of Place: The Story of Abingdon’s County Hall (Oxford, 2006), pp. 20-1.

[6] Gale, Pride of Place p. 37.

[7] Gilyard-Beer, The County Hall, p. 3.

[8] Tyack, Bradley and  Pevsner, The Buildings of England, p. 103.

[9] Gale, Pride of Place p. 37.

[10] Abingdon Town Council Archives, Abingdon Corporation Minutes, vol. 6 (27 March 1849).

[11] Gale, Pride of Place, p. 42.

[12] Celia Fiennes, Through England on a Side Saddle in the Time of William and Mary (London, 1888).

[13] Gale, Pride of Place, p. 26.

[14] Abingdon Borough Council Minutes 1958-9, p. 32.

[15] Personal communication from Sheila Bennett.

[16] National Monuments Record Centre, WS 3000 S 605026/2A part 3.

[17] William Humber, A comprehensive treatise on the water supply of cities and towns (London, 1876) , pp. 267-8.

[18] Berkshire Record Office, D/EP7/128, Letter from C R Peers, A W Clapham and E Guy Dawber (President of the Royal Institute of British Architects), 27 November 1926.

[19], Berkshire Record Office, D/EP7/128, Country Life. 21 September 1929.

[20] Gale, Pride of Place, pp. 43-6.

[21] W J H Liversidge (ed.), ‘Selections from the Municipal Records of the Borough of Abingdon 1898-1931’, unpublished typescript (1986), Abingdon Library, Local Studies Collection, ref: 942.57, p. 86.

[22] English Heritage, AM 42/19, Deed of Guardianship, 30 January 1952.

[23] National Monuments Record Centre, 60506/2A part 3, undated cutting from the North Berkshire Herald, approximately 1964-5

[24] National Heritage Act 1983.

[25] Gale, Pride of Place, p. 63.

[26] National Monuments Record Centre, 60506/2, E Nicholson, letter dated 28 March 1958 and R Gilyard-Beer, Inspector of Monuments, memo dated 1 April 1958.

[27] Bromley Challoner (ed.), Selections from the Records of the Borough of Abingdon, (Abingdon 1898), p.287.

[28] National Monuments Record Centre, 60506/2A part 3.  The National Archives, WORK/14/1850  and WORK/14/2492.

[29] Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England:Berkshire (London, 1966), p. 56.

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Additional Details

Public access: 
Generally open
Family/Person connections: 

Christopher Kempster, architect

Listing reference: 
Grade: I List Entry Number: 1199601
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