High Street (west): The Tolsey
Timber-framed and set on octagonal stone columns, the Tolsey is typical of a broad range of market houses, town halls, and moot- or guildhalls found in most small market towns. Tree-ring dating of its roof timbers has shown that it was built in or soon after 1525, though a similar building may well have stood here earlier.
Its primary function was as a market house – the name ‘Tolsey’, found particularly in the Cotswolds and Wiltshire, suggests a place where market tolls were collected, and the building overlooks the town’s main medieval market area on High Street, allowing officials in the upper chamber to oversee the proceedings. Its location allowed it to face down Sheep Street as well as High Street, though in fact the building turns its back to Sheep Street: presumably by 1525 the market area there had become less significant. As with most such structures the open space beneath provided a covered area for stalls, particularly those selling products which required shelter – butter or cheese, which would deteriorate in the sun, or richer materials like silk, which needed protection from rain. A bell (added or replaced in 1651) sounded the market hours. As was commonly the case, the ground floor was later enclosed (here in the 1780s), and in 1797 housed the town’s new fire engine; it was partly reopened in the 20th century. Other alterations at various dates included insertion of fireplaces and oriel windows.
Like similar structures elsewhere the Tolsey had other uses. Town meetings may have been held in the upper chamber, and the back part housed the town lock-up, with the stocks, pillory, and ‘couckinge stowle’ standing outside in the 1580s. A reading room (lit by a gas chandelier) was opened here in the 1860s, and a town museum in 1960.
(Photo by Mike Hesketh-Roberts, English Heritage)