A step behind the facade of the Portsmouth Guildhall

Concierge Damian Prewitt at Portsmouth Guildhall. ''Picture: Sarah Standing (142554-6265)
Concierge Damian Prewitt at Portsmouth Guildhall. ''Picture: Sarah Standing (142554-6265)
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It’s an iconic building that anyone who’s ever visited Portsmouth will remember, but there’s much more to the city’s Guildhall than meets the eye. Stuart Anderson takes a look behind the scenes.

It’s one of our most famous buildings, but who actually knows the full story of the Portsmouth Guildhall?

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If anyone does, it might be Damian Prewitt, of Southsea, a concierge at the landmark.

Part of the 28-year-old’s job is giving tours around the building, which has sat at the centre of the city’s civic life since it was opened in 1890.

‘It’s an amazing building that a lot of people don’t know about,’ Mr Prewitt said.

‘I enjoy bringing new knowledge to people about the building and surprising them with things they didn’t know.’

4/9/2014 (SA) agenda''The News follows Damian Prewitt (28) from concierge on a behind the scenes tour of Portsmouth Guildhall.''Pictured is: (l-r) Phil Freeman (66) trustee of Pop Music Experience with Nigel Grundy (66), curator of Pop Music Experience inside Access All Areas based at Portsmouth Guildhall, in the new recording studio they are currently building.''Picture: Sarah Standing (142554-6219) PPP-140409-214326001

4/9/2014 (SA) agenda''The News follows Damian Prewitt (28) from concierge on a behind the scenes tour of Portsmouth Guildhall.''Pictured is: (l-r) Phil Freeman (66) trustee of Pop Music Experience with Nigel Grundy (66), curator of Pop Music Experience inside Access All Areas based at Portsmouth Guildhall, in the new recording studio they are currently building.''Picture: Sarah Standing (142554-6219) PPP-140409-214326001

The tour ventures through the guildhall’s solid brass doors to the top of the steps, which are in themselves a centre of public activity.

Mr Prewitt said he remembered one day seeing a group of students running up and down the steps.

He said: ‘They told me that if you run up the steps 65 times, you’ve actually run Kilimanjaro from base to tip, and that’s what they were doing.

‘There’s all sorts of things that happen on these steps.’

The doors have traditionally been kept shut, but Mr Prewitt said they were now open during the day in keeping with the new spirit of the building.

He said: ‘We want to turn it back into a centre of culture and get a lot more people back in.’

Portsmouth City Council set up the Portsmouth Cultural Trust to take over the building in 2010, heralding a new era of public engagement.

Along the traditional council meetings, inquests and official engagements in the Lord Mayor’s parlour, it is now home to a thriving cafe, a language school, and a free-to-use business lounge.

Another prime example of the Guildhall’s open-door policy is Access All Areas, a museum celebrating the history of rock ‘n’ roll music and popular culture in Portsmouth.

Since opening last year it has expanded to include a permanent exhibition the rock opera Tommy, a small cinema, and is soon to get its own recording studio.

Nigel Grundy, 66, of Southsea, who volunteers in the museum, said: ‘We have a view from the windows of the museum out over the war memorials next to the Guildhall.

‘That’s when we realised, that all this music that’s happened over the years wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for those who served.

‘I thought that contrast was poignant.

‘Music has been so important to the Guildhall and to Portsmouth over the years, and this is an ideal place to showcase it.’

The Guildhall’s best-known room is the main auditorium, which hosts everything from weddings with more than 1,000 guests, to graduations, comedy gigs and wrestling matches.

But even that has a few secrets, including what stands hidden behind the blue facade at the back of the stage.

Mr Prewitt said: ‘Inside there there’s a huge concert organ with 1,660 pipes ranging from a 16th of an inch to 16in across.

‘It’s not been played in a long time.’

He said visiting auditorium was a highlight of the tours.

‘There’s always huge excitement on people’s faces when they get to go on to the stage.’

Mr Prewitt said he had started working at the guildhall five years ago as a doorman, before becoming an overnight security guard with two colleagues, working 14-hour shifts.

‘That’s when we got the knowledge and a love of the building,’ he said.

The role was eventually made redundant by the introduction of security alarms, and Mr Prewitt was given the chance to become a concierge.

Guildhall tours run every Tuesday at 11am and Thursday at 3pm and are free.

Call 0844 847 2362 for more information and to arrange a place.

History on the wall

IT’S a little-known, but fascinating chronicle of Portsmouth’s history.

An entire wall of the guildhall’s council chamber features wooden panels listing every mayor and lord mayor for the past five centuries, as well as snippets on the major events that happened in their time of office.

The first, from 1531, reads: ‘A riche man who made in the mydle of the Highe Streate of the Town, a towne-house’.

A few other notes from the wall:

- First Fleet sailed for Botany Bay commanded by Capt Arthur Phillip R.N., first governor and founder of Australia - 1787

- Butchers’ shambles behind town hall removed - 1827

- Southsea Common levelled by convict labour - 1831

- Landport and Southsea tramway to Clarence Pier built - 1866

- Golden Jubilee visit by Her Majesty The Queen to Gunwharf Quays - 2002

- Opening of Mary Rose Museum and unveiling of Charles Dickens Statue - 2013

Great memories

Portsmouth Guildhall has always been a touchstone for Betty Beck, of Copnor.

The 77-year-old, pictured, was born in Portsmouth but was evacuated from the city when she was a child after the outbreak of the Second World War.

Her memories of the Guildhall stretch back to her youngest days and she recalls visiting the building when the war was over.

She said: ‘We were evacuated to Northamptonshire during the war but my mother used to talk about the Guildhall and how beautiful it was.

‘There used to be a legend that if ever a virgin passed by the lion statues they would roar.

‘Well this was a city full of sailors and they never roared!’

The building was hit by incendiary bombs on January 10, 1941, and gutted.

It sat as an empty shell until it was reopened in 1959, and Mrs Beck remembers visiting on the day of its rededication by the Queen.

She said: ‘When we came back after the war there were bomb sites everywhere.

‘We used to climb up the steps and you could look into the shell of the Guildhall.

‘There used to be trees and bushes growing in it.

‘Then later on when we moved back to Portsmouth they started rebuilding.

‘On the day the Queen opened it they opened it to the general public in the evening.

‘I came down with my brother and we thought it was absolutely marvellous, everything was new and lit up.’