The Maison Dieu was founded over 800 years ago as a place for poor pilgrims to stay the night. It later became a victualling yard, making ship’s biscuit and beer for the Royal Navy. Since the late 1830s it’s been Dover’s Town Hall.

Medieval Pilgrim Hospital

The Maison Dieu (House of God) was founded by Hubert de Burgh in circa 1203. Poor pilgrims were given free bed and board for the night on their way to the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. Looked after by Augustinian monks (known as Whitefriars) they slept in a large infirmary hall, probably on straw mattresses.

A typical pilgrim meal was a bowl of vegetable stew (called pottage) with bread, washed down with weak beer.

The original infirmary no longer survives, but fragments of carved stone pillars re-used in later building work may be tantalising evidence of it. They were discovered by archaeologists beneath the floor of the Maison Dieu in 2021.

Hubert de Burgh

Hubert de Burgh was an important man. He was Justiciar (roughly equivalent to Prime Minister today) as well as Earl of Kent, Constable of Dover Castle and Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports.

As King John’s right-hand man, he successfully defended Dover Castle in a siege by the French in 1216 (depicted in a magnificent stained-glass window in the Stone Hall) and defeated them at sea in the Battle of Sandwich the following year.

The Stone Hall

The magnificent Stone Hall was built in about 1300. It was designed to impress with a lofty ceiling and windows. Monarchs used it as a meeting place and the royal household were lodged here when the King was at Dover Castle.

Wounded soldiers and pensioners

Wounded and destitute soldiers were also accommodated at the Maison Dieu, and permanent pensioner residents (called corrodians) also lived here towards the end of the medieval period. We know some of their names and are hoping to find out more about them.

The end of the pilgrim hospital

When King Henry VIII made England a Protestant country at the Reformation, monasteries, pilgrimage and the veneration of saints were banned. The shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral was destroyed and the role of Maison Dieu as a pilgrim hospital came to a sudden end.

The Victualling Yard

The Maison Dieu soon began a new chapter of its history, as a victualling yard, supplying ships’ biscuit, salt beef and pork, and beer to the Royal Navy. It continued in this role for nearly 300 years, from before the time of the Spanish Armada until after the Battle of Trafalgar. It was the smallest of Henry VIII’s five Royal Navy victualling yards in England, the others being in London, Deptford, Portsmouth and Plymouth.

The yard had its own mill, bakehouse, slaughterhouse and cooperage, where barrels were made to store the provisions. These buildings can be seen in a detailed plan drawn up by Thomas Tunbridge and John Chapman in 1673, which put the cost of repairing the yard at £251.

The whole operation was overseen by the Agent Victualler, who from 1665 lived in a fine brick house next door. Today this is called Maison Dieu House and is the home of Dover Town Council.

Victorian improvements to the Stone Hall

In the 1850s improvements were made to the Stone Hall by architect Ambrose Poynter. This included a new entrance, raising the floor nearly 3 metres to accommodate gaol cells beneath and the addition of stained-glass windows.

By the late 1850s Poynter’s eyesight was fading and William Burges was appointed to complete the work. This included a fine new decorative roof, a new gallery at the west end, medieval style carvings of grotesque animals and coats of arms of the Lord Wardens of the Cinque Ports carved in stone.

His improvements came in at well above the agreed budget and there were heated discussions before the council eventually paid up!

The stained-glass windows

The plain windows of the Stone Hall were replaced with colourful stained-glass between 1860 and 1873. Ambrose Poynter’s son, Edward, designed them at the tender age of 19, based on scenes from Dover history. He went on to become a famous artist and President of the Royal Academy.

They include the relief of Dover Castle from the French in 1216, the granting of the charter of the Maison Dieu by Henry III in 1227 and Henry VIII on board ship at Dover on his way to meet the French King Francis I at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520.

The Council Chamber

A prestigious new council chamber was added to the building in the 1860s. William Burges doesn’t seem to have been involved, although it’s in a similar neo-Gothic style.

Flashman’s, a local furniture maker won the contract for the desks and oak chairs. The Mayor’s Chair is a particularly fine example.

The stained-glass windows, depicting kings and noblemen were designed by H Walter Lonsdale (William Burges’ chief designer) between 1884 and 1892.

The rare sun burner in the middle of the ceiling provided gas illumination to the chamber with a vent to the roof allowing fumes to escape.

Paintings on display include St Martin, Patron Saint of Dover dividing his cloak to give to a beggar.

It’s likely the portraits of Queen Anne, Charles II and George I came from the council’s original medieval meeting hall in the Market Square, part of which was revealed by archaeologists in the summer of 2021.

The Cinque Ports banner dates from 1632, the last of many made from at least the 13th century. It was carried annually at the Yarmouth Herring Fair. The fair lasted forty days from 29 September to 11 November (when vast quantities of herring were caught off Yarmouth) and was one of the most important international trading fairs in the medieval world.

From the 11th to the mid-18th century, control of this fair was at first solely and then partly the responsibility of the Cinque Ports, despite their location over 100 miles away! It was one of their privileges for providing fighting ships for the King. Cinque Portsmen were also allowed to land and sell their catch without charge.

This caused resentment with the people of Yarmouth. Disputes and violence were common, most notably in 1297 when fighting broke out at sea as they accompanied King Edward I to Flanders. 171 Yarmouth men were killed by the Cinque Portsmen and 37 ships lost.

The Courtroom and Prison cells

This is where the Maison Dieu’s medieval chapel once stood. The top of the 13th century arch is the oldest part of the Maison Dieu now surviving above ground.

The remains of the chapel were converted into a magistrate’s court in 1834 and continued in that use until 1978.

When the courtroom was built, the floor was raised 3 metres so prison cells could be included below.

Prisoners were brought straight into the dock by stairs from the cells below. The hatchway still survives under the carpet. This arrangement here and elsewhere gave rise to the expression Send him (or her) down! when prisoners who were found guilty were sent back down to the cells to begin their sentence.

Sentences could be severe in Victorian times. In 1843 William Harris was sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia for stealing two silver forks and a pair of shoes from the Ship Hotel. Children were imprisoned too and given hard labour.

The 1868 prison included a treadwheel where prisoners sentenced to hard labour turned a giant wheel with their feet for hours on end. A strenuous and monotonous occupation!

Terry Sutton (MBE) a former journalist with the Dover Express covered many trials here. He first attended as a ‘cub’ reporter in 1949 at the age of 20. Like many fellow hacks he carved his name into the press bench! The names of female reporters who trail-blazed a path in journalism from the 1960s to 1980s are carved here too.

Terry covered many exciting trials, such as diamond smuggling and some very sad ones, including the inquests into the 193 people, who died in the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry disaster in 1987. Due to the large number of people attending, this inquest was held in the adjacent Connaught Hall and attracted international coverage.

Terry was filmed on 8 September 2021, especially for Heritage Open Days by Mike McFarnell who produces a popular annual film about life in Dover.

Mayor’s Parlour

This impressive room is where the Mayor of Dover held meetings and changed into ceremonial robes for civic functions. It was designed by William Burges in the neo-Gothic style and was completed in 1883, two years after he died.

Conservators from Hirst Conservation and Hare and Humphreys have revealed Burges’ original decorative scheme beneath more recent paint layers.

The designs include an impressive painted ceiling with stencilled birds and flowers. Animal designs around the walls include wyverns (two-legged dragons), a hawk or parrot and colourful butterflies.

There are also several empty painted niches, which may have included representations of The Virtues, encouraging the Mayor to uphold the highest standards in office. The four classic civic virtues were justice, wisdom courage and temperance.

William Burges also designed the civic furniture for the room, including a magnificent circular mahogany table and 16 chairs with carved lion heads on the arms.

Embedded in the table is a jagged piece of World War 2 shrapnel, part of a cross-Channel shell that exploded just outside in Ladywell and blew in the windows.

Connaught Hall

The Connaught Hall (named after the Duke and Duchess of Connaught) was built as an assembly room and opened in 1883.

This impressive space has been used for a wide range of events, from dances and concerts to election counts, beer festivals and wrestling bouts. The first event in the hall was a Grand Banquet.

In 1899, Guglielmo Marconi’s wireless (radio) technology was successfully demonstrated in front of a packed audience, with the first Cross-Channel radio message transmitted to France via a tall mast erected on the Maison Dieu’s medieval tower.

More recently it’s been the venue for the first Dover Pride and a Goth music video. In the past, it’s said to have seated over 1000 people, with 500 more on the balconies, a number which modern fire regulations no longer allow.

The room was designed by William Burges who by the late 1870s had risen to be an eminent architect.

His most famous buildings are Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch which he restored and redesigned in the medieval neo-Gothic style for the second Marquis of Bute.

The original Connaught Hall decorative scheme was a riot of colour and gilding, including brightly coloured flowers and birds dotted among the foliage.

Sadly, Burges died two years before the hall opened. His scheme was completed by his business partner Richard Pullan.

Burges’ decorative scheme was painted over in 1967. Conservators from Hirst Conservation and Hare and Humphreys have recently revealed it beneath the modern paint layers, in little patches all over the ceiling and walls.

At the front of the hall (now hidden by the organ, which was installed in 1902) was a large, gothic arch and small balcony, from which the Mayor of Dover addressed the audience.

The two rare sun burners in the ceiling were an early form of air conditioning, helping circulate fresh air by the means of convection.

The stained-glass windows were designed by Walter Lonsdale, Burges’ chief designer. They commemorate Constables of Dover Castle.