Guild of Freemen Of Berwick-upon-Tweed



The centre of any Burgh was the market, where goods were sold and transactions made. This central spot was marked by a Market Cross. In Berwick early evidence suggests that there were at least two separate market crosses close to the present location of the Town Hall. The Tron or weighbeam was erected at the same location. In time a structure was added which became known as the Berefret. The Berefret was one of the places where the Laws of Berwick were drawn up between 1248 and 1294. A prison was purchased during the reign of Alexander 11 and in 1250 a burgess, Simon Maunsel, bequeathed the site of the present Town Hall to the Guild. It can be assumed that there has been a Tollbooth or Town Hall on this site from that time. By the fourteenth century it was in use as a Court, prison and Met or office for weights and measures. There had been at least four buildings on the present site before the present building was erected between 1750 and 1754.

A bell was used to summon the burgesses to Guild Meetings from very early times, certainly predating 1249. This bell was also used to summon the alarm along with other bells housed in various Watch Towers. After the Union of Crowns there was no further need for the Watch Bells and in 1609 George Home, later the Earl of Dunbar, presented the Guild with a peal of bells to be hung in the Tollbooth. These bells were recast when the new Town Hall was built. Each bell has its own name and was rung individually on its own occasion. A set of chimes was added in 1894 to allow hymns to be played without swinging the bells. At this time two of the bells were broken. One was recast and the other replaced.  By the 1990s both bells and their hangings were in urgent need of refurbishing. Three bells were replaced by bells from the original foundry, two because they were broken and the replacement bell from 1894. All the bells were rehung to allow them to be fully pealed once again. The unbroken bell which had been replaced was retained as a curfew bell.  Berwick is one of only two town halls in England to have a full peal of bells and has the most northerly peal of bells in England. A grant was obtained from the Millennium Fund to complete this work by the end of 1998, allowing the bells to be pealed once again in time for the Millennium.

The Town gaol was on the second or upper floor with two large boarded rooms, one for debtors and one for criminals. The stringent property laws introduced in the middle of the eighteenth century made many crimes involving theft a capital offence. In practice many of these cases were remitted to imprisonment or transportation. Those awaiting transportation were held in gaol until transport was available. The new goal was incorporated in the Town Hall to cope with the increased number of prisoners. However the conditions and security were very poor and a purpose built jail was erected at Wallace Green in the middle of the nineteenth century. This new jail became part of the Borough Offices.

The Town Hall remained part of the Freemen's Estate after the 1835 Reform Acts. By the 1926 Act the administration passed to the Berwick-upon-Tweed Corporation (Freemen) Trust. The Town Hall required to be stabilised in 1955-56. Extensive repairs and refurbishing were carried out in the 1980s.

The Freemen and Borough have equal rights in the use of the building.  The ground floor contains the Butter Market which is let out as a coffee shop and boutique. The first floor contains the Guild Hall, anteroom, Council Room, kitchen and Mayor's Parlour. The second floor, which is the old Town Goal, is now a museum created by J.Weatherburn, a Freeman and Town Hall keeper, and James Allan, his successor as Town Hall keeper. One of the cells houses the records and property of the Freemen since 1835. The records prior to 1835 are kept in the Borough archives. The bells are rung from this floor. There are various floors above this level which are not normally open to the public, except under guidance.

Berwick Town Hall is unique in that it is the major Civic Building in the Borough and both maintenance and running costs are provided entirely from the Freemen's Estate without any cost to the Council Tax payer.