The Abbey of St. Mary built this outstanding two storey edifice between 1480 and 1510 as a counting house where the Abbot, also Lord of the Manor, collected taxes, dues and rents. It was deliberately placed in a prominent position in front of the Parish Church as a reminder to the town’s residents of the Abbot’s power, control and influence. At the time of building the Porch, it was actually taller than the body of the Church, much to the annoyance of the wool merchants. Originally it was a free-standing building. We are lucky that it was not pulled down when the abbey was demolished in 1539, as it was by then attached to the church as a porch rather than solely as a tax office.
Following the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539 by King Henry V111, it may have been used as a public house. It was certainly used as a school and as a courthouse and a meeting place for the Church Vestry. The raised bench on the first floor was where the Petty Sessions Courts were held and also the Quarter Sessions, with a judge and jury because there was a lot of smallpox in Gloucester.
In 1671 the Bishop of Gloucester approved its use as a Town Hall. The Church remains responsible for its maintenance, but it has never been consecrated. The royal coat of arms dated 1603 over the entrance door adds to this impression.
Extensive records (Vestry Books) are kept in the County Archives detailing the work of the Vestry and the court cases which were held between 1586 and 1850 in this building. During Heritage Open Days each year some of the records are put on display.
The Vestry Court and the Civil Court moved to the Victorian Police Station on the corner of Castle Street and Park Street, which is now occupied by Wilmots the Solicitors. Since then various groups and societies have used the building. Currently the choir, Sunday School and visiting choirs and musicians make good use of the space.
It is a Grade 1 listed building – one of the largest of its kind in the UK, and has been repaired on several occasions, notably in 1831 (when several adjoining buildings were demolished in the Market Place); in 1910 and most recently in 2011-13 at a cost of some £1.5 million.
John Tiffney and Deirdre Waddell