site unseen: The Council Chamber, Lowestoft Town Hall

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The Independent Online
The Victorians are famous for producing countless individuals with relentless energy and determination: Charles Dickens, William Gladstone, AWN Pugin, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Anthony Trollope... Neither Queen Victoria nor Florence Nightingale were exactly shrinking violets. However, few could match the extraordinary drive of Morton Peto, contractor, builder, engineer, landowner, "railway king" and much else besides.

In his early days, Peto helped construct several famous public structures, such as Nelson's Column, the Houses of Parliament and numerous theatres and gentlemen's clubs. He also helped finance the Great Exhibition of 1851, and was rewarded with a baronetcy by a grateful Queen Victoria. Moving out of London, Peto bought an old country house in Suffolk and promptly transformed it into a flamboyant Italianate mansion, Somerleyton Hall, which is now open to the public.

Peto was also responsible for turning Lowestoft, originally a small seaside village perched on the distant East coast, into a major fishing centre and holiday resort. The old harbour was developed, a railway station built and the grand Royal Hotel lauded it over sandy beaches. Sir Morton Peto, a man who employed an army of navvies of up to 30,000, and spent pounds 1,000 a year teaching them to read, put Lowestoft on the map.

Today, to visit Lowestoft - the most easterly town in England - is to enjoy a stimulating mix of work and play. The port is still going strong, while the beaches are thronged in the summer. The old alleys, or "scores", are full of atmosphere, redolent of the tough fishermen's way of life fully utilised by the town's most famous son, composer Benjamin Britten, in several of his operas.

Another fine Peto legacy to Lowestoft, although much harder to discover, rests inside the old town hall, which sits happily on the quiet High Street - most of the town has drifted down towards the shopping centres in London Road North. Here, in the Council Chamber is some superb stained glass (above) originally intended for Peto's Somerleyton Hall. Costing 800 guineas, the large window offers a magnificent depiction of the Field of the Cloth of Gold, when Henry VIII and Francis I of France sealed a deal more than 400 years ago: the Tudor equivalent of John Major and Jacques Chirac?

Like that of most tycoons, Peto's career had its inevitable ups and downs. On "Black Friday", 11 May 1866, his bank went under and he had to withdraw from public life. Peto left Suffolk and instead enjoyed a gentle retirement in Surrey. All in all, his life is an epic story fit for a Hollywood blockbuster. One thing is for sure: we could use a few Morton Petos today.

Town Hall, High St, Lowestoft, NR31 1HS (0502 562111)

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