As part of our #TopOfOurTown Campaign, we are looking into some of the history that has shaped the Top of Town in Basingstoke, starting with Market Place.
Market Place has hosted a market since at least the 13th century, although a reference in the Domesday book makes it likely one was held even earlier! In 1214 King John decreed a market should be held on Wednesday and one has been ever since, although you can also visit one on a Saturday now as well!
Originally the Town Hall was on the west side of Market Place, at the junction between Winchester and Church Street. The original building was badly damaged in a fire in 1664 and although the building was rebuilt on the same site, it proved to be badly positioned once horse, cart and coach travel increased. Fast forward to 1829 and it was decided that Market Place would be enlarged, and a new Town Hall would be built on the north side.
The ground floor of the new Town Hall was open to the front with pillars, which you can still see today. This area was used by people selling cheese, milk or meat and the market. The space was enclosed after 1864.
In 1887, for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, the then mayor John May replaced the clock tower with a much larger one. It was, however, described by many as a monstrosity and was eventually taken down in 1961 after safety concerns!
The Willis Museum opened in the old Town Hall in 1984, before this it was housed in the old Mechanics Institute building in New Road. It was founded and re-named after local clockmaker, George W. Willis. Nowadays the museum takes visitors through Basingstoke’s history, from the Iron Age to a 1960s living room. The Sainsbury Gallery plays hosts to a rolling programme of exhibitions from nationally important galleries and some of the finest artists in the region.
Situated outside the Museum is a statue of novelist Jane Austin. The life-size bronze figure was created as part of a series of events marking the 200th anniversary of the writer’s passing. It is considered to be the first of Austin in the world. The location was chosen as it is thought to be the same square Austin would have visited to shop or to dance in the assembly rooms nearby.
Market place has played host to a number of events over the years including Basingstoke’s Together own Day of the Dead, The Event Box, and Be Active. At Christmas the Willis Museum was lit up with a festive projection and recently during the lockdown was lite up blue to say thank you to the NHS.