The remarkable community success in saving and restoring the 17th century Merchant’s House, one of Marlborough’s most cherished buildings, was celebrated with a sparkling 20th anniversary birthday party at the town hall on Tuesday.
And praise for the achievement of an army of volunteers came not only from Sir John Sykes, chairman of the trustees, but also Robert Hiscox, High Sheriff of Wiltshire, the guest of honour.
More than £1,250,000 has been raised since the house was rescued in 1991 when it was bought by Marlborough town council and since then more than 200,000 volunteer hours have been devoted to the project.
“We do all love Marlborough,” Sheriff Hiscox told the 130 people present in praising their efforts at a time when raising funds to keep the arts alive is increasingly difficult.
Robert Hiscox, High Sheriff of Wiltshire, with Susan Pearson
“And I love Marlborough. The Merchant’s House is an incredible example of what people in society can do when they get together in the community. It is an inspiration of what can be achieved.”
Sir John recalled: “When four of us sat round my kitchen table in 1990 to discuss what could be done about 132 High Street, offered for sale by WHSmith, little did we know where this odyssey would lead us.”
Diana Keast cuts birthday cake
“The far-sighted decision of the town council to purchase the Merchant’s House enabled the trust to be established, the lease to be granted, the shop to be opened and, with one or two hiccups, we were on our way.”
“Initially we estimated that £250,000 would see the job through. A slight under-estimate. The trust has raised well over £1,250,000 through grants, donations and fund-raising events and an immense amount of sheer hard work by many people.”
“As a result we have been able to refurbish the majority of this outstanding building to a high standard, as well as securing its future through purchases of some of the adjacent freehold property which originally belonged to it.
“It has truly been a home-grown, self-generating community project which starting from a nil base has become the substantial organisation it is now. The project continues to challenge and enthuse everyone involved with it, as well as our many visitors.”
Bouquet for Alison Galvin-Wright
The house, rebuilt by prosperous silk merchant Thomas Bayly after the great fire of Marlborough in 1653, is now an admired tourist target and plays a major part in enhancing the cultural, musical, historic and educational life of Marlborough.
“All this has been thanks to an enormous amount of community support and more than our fair share of luck over the years,” added Sir John. “This is a celebration of a community achievement – a time when we can all pause and congratulate ourselves on having created some really worthwhile and I trust of lasting benefit for the town.”
He paid tribute to his original co-trustees, Diana Keast, Michael Gray and Vic Chinnery, the trust’s army of 120 volunteers, the Friends of the Trust and generous sponsors, in particular Brewin Dolphin, whose marketing director, Myles Palmer, was among the guests.
Myles Palmer of Brewin Dolphin
A bouquet was presented to Alison Galvin-Wright on her retirement after six years organising fund-raising events, and Sir John recognised the work of Diana Keast, who was given the honour of cutting a giant birthday cake – just one day before her own birthday – made by Sonia Buxton.
It was an event that led to the singing of Happy Birthday and a champagne toast for both her and the house’s own anniversary.
And the occasion took place in a town hall transformed with artefacts from the Merchant’s House and an historical display organised by Jeffrey Gavin-Wright. Two of supporters, Susan Pearson and David Sherratt, even appeared in 17th century costume to greet the guests.
They included Marlborough’s mayor, Councillor Alexander Kirk Wilson, together with members of the town council, which donated the redecorated town hall for the evening free of charge.