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Building of the Month - December 2008

Bray Town Hall and Market House, Market Square, BRAY Td., Bray, County Wicklow

MARY DAVIES describes a notable nineteenth-century public building, gifted to Bray, County Wicklow, by its future lord of the manor.

Bray Town Hall and Market House 01 - Representative View 

Figure 1: A view of Bray Town Hall and Market House with the contemporary Brabazon Monument (1881) in the foreground.  Founded solely by Lord Brabazon, who wished 'to do a benefit for the town of Bray', the project was initially the cause of considerable friction between the patron and many of the townspeople who viewed the new building as 'costly in its decorations' and 'totally unsuited to the needs of the town'

Bray Town Hall, built in the Tudor Revival style at the top of Main Street, was commissioned by the 11th Earl of Meath's son and heir, Reginald Brabazon (1841-1929), Lord Ardee, who had lived abroad, and who seems to have been anxious to show interest in the town where his father was lord of the manor and the main ground landlord.  He wrote to the Bray Town Commissioners in 1879 offering to erect a covered market house at a cost not exceeding £4,000 - Bray had not had a market house since the demolition forty years earlier of one near Bray Bridge.

The design was by (Sir) Thomas Newenham Deane (1827-99) and (Sir) Thomas Manly Deane (1851-1932) of the partnership of Thomas Newenham Deane and Son (formed 1878), leading architects of the day, with input from the young (Sir) Edward Guy Dawber (1861-1938), who later had a prominent role as an Arts and Crafts architect back in his native England: Reginald Brabazon may also have been personally involved.  The builders were Messrs. Wardrop and Son.

The construction is of locally-made red brick, with timber framing to the projecting first floor oriels and gables.  The pitched roof is tiled and the two-storey portion facing Main Street is surmounted by a tall copper-clad fleche complete with clock.  Wrought iron gates in the north porch carry the date 1881, although the building was largely built in 1882-3.  The actual building cost was £5,366: extras such as the clock added £1,000 more.

Perhaps the most impressive view of the building is from the side.  From here it is possible to imagine the original busy market area, 62 feet long by 50 feet wide, with its arcades open to the street.  In the south porch a battered mock Tudor inscription survives:

Who traffic here beware no strife ensue

In all your dealings be ye just and true

Let [justice] strictly in the scale be weighed

So shall ye call God's blessing on your trade

The market house was closed  in the mid 1940s, but the Town Hall's other major role continues.  The upper floor, reached by a stone staircase at the east side and with an open timber roof and oak chimneypieces with carved panels, was always intended to serve as Bray's Council Chamber, originally for meetings of the Town Commissioners and today for Bray Town Council - it is also regularly used for local functions.  The Brabazon family firmly stamped their mark on this chamber, which has been described as having 'a solemn, almost religious fervour'.  Thirty stained-glass panels displaying the arms of the Brabazons and their wives from Norman times onwards are incorporated in the windows.  Outside, the north front also has relief carvings of their coats of arms on the gables, while the drinking fountain (1881) is crowned by a wyvern, a mythological winged dragon from the Brabazon coat of arms.

The first meeting of the Town Commissioners in their new chamber was held in 1884.  The Town Hall had a rejuvenating effect on what was then a poor part of Bray, drawing business up Main Street and leading to the replacement of old thatched cabins by good houses.  The building underwent change in the 1970s when the arcade openings were filled in and the market space became municipal offices.  In 1991, after major refurbishment, the ground floor was converted into a high-ceilinged restaurant, and in 1997 this was taken over by McDonald's.  It could be argued that this change of use - controversial at the time - has again attracted extra business to the area and, indeed, that the fast-food company is today's inheritor of a long tradition on this site of feeding the people of Bray.  After all, when it was opened the market house was said to have 'a large and commodious coffee-stall'.

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