The Public Hall in Westgate Street in the centre of Ipswich was built in 1868 and opened on 30th November 1868 as The New Music Hall with seating for 1,500 people.

The New Music Hall, had an entrance from Westgate Street and another from the Museum Parade (today it is Arcade Street) and was so placed to be away from the noise of a public thoroughfare. It was much admired for its solidity, the walls of solid brick being 3 feet 6 inches thick. It was 98ft in length, exclusive of the orchestra pit, 53ft wide and 50ft high. Its elliptical roof was ornamented with ribs and bands, each of the seven divisions being an elliptical dome from which was suspended a gaselier* with sixteen jets.

In 1875 the Public Hall was sold to Ipswich Borough Council for £4,500; the Borough renovated the building in 1903, however it was never well-used and in 1910 through to 1927 it operated as a cinema.

By 1925 the use of the hall was contracted to British Cinematograph Theatres who had also opened the Picture House Theatre in Tavern Street. After the Picture House Theatre was enlarged in 1927, the Public Hall stopped being used for regular cinematic showings and changed to being a facility with a variety of public uses, although it did still show the occasional film.

From 1928 one key use was the main meeting hall in the town for conferences. Delegates from professional bodies and trade associations met in Ipswich for two or three days, stayed in local hotels such as The Great White Horse, Crown & Anchor, Golden Lion, Queens Hotel, the Temperance Hotel in Princes Street. Conference organisers also used the Town Hall, the Ball Room at the Great White Horse and cinemas as additional meeting rooms.

In 1948 there was a disastrous fire in the building, putting it beyond repair. The site stood unused until 1961 when it was cleared and a new, large supermarket was built on the site. Fine Fare occupied a two-storey building under a barrel vaulted roof. This was a big shop for central Ipswich; it extended from Westgate Street almost to Arcade Street, comparable with the first of the new superstores which appeared later on the outskirts of town. In the 1980s the retail space was further extended at the rear under a modern flat roof.

The original trading name was Fine Fare and the Westgate Street shop opened October 1962; it was part of Associated British Foods. The supermarket group had been acquired by ABF in 1963, a company which also owns Primark, the well-known clothing chain. Fine Fare had started in 1951 in Welwyn Garden City; by 1962 they had 200 supermarkets selling, in addition to the branded goods, yellow brand: plain-wrapped, low-cost basic food stuffs. In 1986 ABF sold Fine Fare to the Dee Corporation operating as Somerfield, but ABF had already closed the Westgate Street supermarket in 1980 and converted it into a Primark store.

In the late 1970s ABF bought Elmo's (an East Anglian based supermarket group) which operated the shop on the corner of Carr Street and Upper Orwell Street, it ran as a Fine Fare for a short while but the building was sold to House of Holland, a discount hardware store. When this shop closed it became Café Rouge, relying on the pre-theatre trade from the recently reopened Regent Theatre but the café wasn't successful and closed. It has since had an interesting life as a Chinese restaurant under various names.

In the first years of the twenty-first century the need for a building in central Ipswich for the assembly of large groups was paramount but the pandemic in 2020 changed people's need to meet on this scale. The Public Hall is long gone, but there has been talk of using the basement of the former Debenhams store for assemblies. Such a use might be possible but there is also suggestion that the upper floors of the former department store might be converted into residential accommodation. We are not sure that the two uses would be happy bedfellows.

*gaselier a chandelier with gas burners rather than candles (or electric light bulbs).

[Source: John Norman]

The Public Hall, Westgate Street; the public hall is behind the lamp post, note the  film poster in the entrance.