In 1932 an illustrated programme was prepared to commemorate a historical event, the opening of the new Municipal Buildings at Park Gates East. The scheme had first been proposed ten years before and in typical Poole fashion had provoked strong opposition. At a public inquiry in 1923, the local Chambers of trade supported the idea but the Ratepayers’ Association and the National Citizens’ Union were against it. The site outside the old town was controversial and the scope of the buildings was ambitious especially in the midst of the depression. Was it too ambitious and too expensive for Poole? The town’s first application to the Ministry for a loan sanction was turned down.
In spite of this, the idea was not abandoned. In 1926, the new Borough Engineer, Mr. E.J. Goodacre was asked to draw up preliminary plans for a town hall and municipal offices on what the local newspaper described as ‘an unlovely triangular plot’. His assistant, L. Magnus Austin was responsible for much of the design. In 1930, the borough’s direct labour department dug the foundations. The following year, contractors, Messrs. Whitelock and Co. of Branksome started work on the superstructure.
There is no doubt that new accommodation was needed. Poole’s previous town hall in Market Street had been built in the 1760s and was still used as a court room although now felt to be quite inadequate. The departmental offices had been moved in 1909 to an even older property, the former Cornelia Hospital built as a mansion house by Sir Peter Thompson in 1746. Conditions were poor, offices were badly overcrowded and some departments had to be housed elsewhere. The idea of a new building, big enough to accommodate all the departments in purpose built offices, must have seemed too good to be true.
The Poole and East Dorset Herald enumerated the advantages of the new building. All municipal services would be housed under one roof (as they had never been before). The building added dignity to the borough, provided much needed facilities and gave staff healthier surroundings. The location was more central and easier to access. Surely, the paper argued, even those who had been opposed to it would be won over?
By spring 1932, the building was nearing completion on its corner plot, facing out over Commercial Road and Sandbanks Road. Built of white reconstructed stone with steel windows and a red pantile roof, the structure was impressive and well proportioned with two wings each two storeys high. The focus of the building was the three-storey main entrance on the corner with its recessed balcony under a rounded arch and pediment. Inside was a vestibule leading to the main staircase hall with wide corridors leading off to either side. The Conference Room at the back of the hall was designed for both formal and social events. The double staircase gave access to the balcony, intended for public announcements, and also to the Council Chamber, panelled in oak with oak and red leather furniture.
The facilities for the various departments promised to be to be better than ever before. The Borough Treasurer’s offices, for instance, included a ‘capacious fire and thief-proof strong room’ and the Borough Engineer’s department had a large drawing office with a north light. Mayor’s Parlour, members’ rooms and committee rooms were all provided and there was even a dust-proof room to store council robes. All the building’s internal clocks were electric and controlled from a master clock in the Mayor’s parlour. Four telephones lines and fifty two extensions were installed, operated from a switchboard (telephone number Poole 393).
Besides the practical aspects, there were local symbols in decorative details throughout the building. The Council Chamber was embellished with motifs of pine cones and needles, rhododendron, dolphins, mayoral chains and maces. Stained glass in the frieze windows showed Poole in various guises, as an old town, port and holiday centre. Other windows incorporated old glass collected by Sir Peter Thompson and formerly in the staircase window of the old municipal buildings. Carter and Co. donated two mosaics for the staircase halls, the Poole coat of arms for the first floor and on the ground floor a hexagonal panel with a coloured view of the old town, Quay and High Street.
On the outside of the building ornamentation included the repeated use of waves, scallop shells and racing yachts. Seaweed was featured on the keystone over the main entrance and the Poole coat of arms was produced in faience by Carter and Co. for the pediment. Most notable were the 24 stone panels designed by Percy A. Wise, the headmaster of Poole Art School, depicting scenes from Poole history, the activities of Harry Paye, the granting of the Elizabethan charter, the Civil War, the visit of Charles II and so on.
The opening day was set for Saturday 21st May 1932. The Earl of Shaftesbury, Lord Lieutenant of Dorset was to perform the ceremony, welcomed by the Mayor, Alderman Herbert Carter, and Council members. As the day approached, staff were busy moving equipment, documents and files into their new spacious accommodation. Everything was on track when, two days before, events were suddenly derailed by personal tragedy. Herbert Carter’s wife died on 19th May at 2.45 pm.
Suddenly, the whole plan had to be rescheduled and anxious enquiries made about the availability of various dignitaries on other dates. After what must have been a difficult readjustment, the opening was shifted to Saturday 28th May. The day was one of bright warm sunshine and a large crowd gathered. A guard of honour stood ready, made up of members of the Fire Brigade under Capt. H.W.L. Matthews, the lifeboat crew with Coxswain R. Hayes, pilots of the port, St. John’s Ambulance and scouts and guides. The Poole Municipal Military Band and the Branksome and Parkstone United Prize Band played popular tunes.
Lord Shaftesbury duly arrived and was greeted by Alderman Bacon, the Chairman of the Estates Committee. In his speech, Alderman Bacon referred to the visit of Charles II in 1665, accompanied by the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, when the company were treated to a sumptuous banquet at the house of Col. Skutt on the site of Mr. Bacon’s business premises. After the welcome, the Earl opened the building and the company went inside, appearing later on the balcony for speeches.
It was an occasion when a little civic self congratulation could be forgiven. As reported in the local paper, the Earl of Shaftesbury praised the ‘wise and progressive administration of the municipality and the zeal and enterprise of the people of Poole’. In thanking the Earl, Herbert Carter spoke about Poole 27 years before when the town hardly offered itself as a resort ‘except for lovers of tar, rope and seaweed’. The expansion since then had been great in trade and commerce and as a beauty spot. Poole had, in addition to an interesting and important past, a wonderful future. As a final triumph, the paper was able to report that ‘it has been found possible to effect many economies without impairing the artistic appearance of the structure or the quality of the materials used’. It seemed that the final cost would be less than the estimate of £60,000.
On 7th June, the first Council Meeting was held in the new building as Herbert Carter noted, ‘and I think we all felt that a new period of Poole history had commenced. We were all reconciled to the removal save only one – Alderman Harry Cole, who refused to sit in one of the new and comfortable seats provided and brought a hard, uncushioned chair from his kitchen, marching across from his house with the bit of furniture over his shoulder!’