The battle to build Halifax Town Hall

Sir Charles Barry's winning scheme  at Crossley Street.
Sir Charles Barry's winning scheme at Crossley Street.

In December 2008 Halifax Town Hall was chosen as one of the 10 most spectacular town halls in Britain for its architecture and lavish interiors.

The judges also acknowledged its beautiful flooring, ornate plasterwork, grand paintings and stained-glass roof.

Halifax Town Hall: scheme by borogh engineer George Wilson Stephenson

Halifax Town Hall: scheme by borogh engineer George Wilson Stephenson

This Sunday, August 4, marks the 150th anniversary of this great building, opened in 1863 by the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, after years of wrangling over not just the design of the building but where it should be built.

The story began back in 1847, when plans were being made to obtain Halifax’s royal charter of incorporation as a borough. There were already proposals for a company to raise money for a town hall but these came to nothing.

So, on the foundation of the borough in 1848, the new town council urgently needed premises for meetings and offices for staff. And so it came about that the borough council first met in the old Assembly Rooms beside the Talbot Hotel in Woolshops.

The assembly rooms were quite inadequate and in 1849 the council decided to move into Kershaw Brothers’ warehouse at the junction of Union Street and Westgate, today occupied by opticians John and Randolph Bottomley. These premises became the town hall, with most of the civic departments, including the police, but not the fire brigade, which was in Westgate.

Halifax Town Hall: scheme by Sir George Gilbert Scott

Halifax Town Hall: scheme by Sir George Gilbert Scott

Adapting the premises cost £200, most of which was spent in providing prison cells in the basement. The council planned to use these premises temporarily – but it remained there until 1863.

In 1853 the Halifax Improvement Act gave the council power to erect a town hall, court house, police station and prison cells and allowed the borough to borrow £15,000 for the purpose. But 10 years elapsed before the town hall became a reality, and during those years there was much debate and controversy.

Alderman John Crossley was the champion of a town hall on the Crossley Street site which until the early 1850s was covered with dilapidated buildings, at a time when neither Crossley Street nor Princess Street existed.

Crossley was the third son of John and Martha, founders of the Dean Clough carpet empire. He was a Liberal member of the council for 20 years, twice Mayor of Halifax and one of the town’s MPs. From 1851 he carried out a privately-financed improvement scheme, centred on what was to become Crossley Street. And a town hall on this site was part of his plan.

He was supported by some influential men but others contended that the site was far too cramped for a town hall, an opinion which has been repeated many times since.

Crossley had employed architects Lockwood and Mawson, of Bradford, to design his earlier buildings and in September 1856 the firm’s design for a Halifax Town Hall went on show at the old Union Street town hall. It was to have been Italianate or Palladian in style with a large dome. The council agreed to spend up to £17,000 on the new town hall.

But there was a rival plan for a town hall at the other end of the town, at Ward’s End, on a site later occupied by the Regal Cinema and the Palace Theatre, stretching roughly to where King Edward Street is today. That site and plan were supported vociferously by Colonel Edward Akroyd, MP, and his Tory friends.

In December 1856 Akroyd’s scheme for Ward’s End was submitted to the mayor. It had been prepared by his friend, George Gilbert Scott, who had already been commissioned by Akroyd to design All Souls’ Church at Haley Hill.

Scott’s scheme was for a building in 13th-century Gothic style, with a grand staircase leading up to a great hall measuring 110 ft by 40 ft. It was to cost at least £17,000.

Meanwhile the council had instructed the borough engineer, George Wilson Stevenson, to produce a design for the Ward’s End site incorporating a public hall 76ft by 40ft and costing an estimated £12,000.

In January 1857 Crossley withdrew his scheme but throughout that year arguments over the different designs and locations raged among council members and in the the local papers.

Meanwhile John Crossley’s redevelopment scheme was going on apace. The demolition of the old White Swan Inn in Crown Street began in April 1858 and by May Princess Street and Crossley Street had been laid out. Shops had been built and opened and the Halifax Joint Stock Bank (now Princess Buildings) and the new White Swan Hotel were completed.

In May the council decided “to procure from Alderman Crossley a sketch of such land and buildings between Broad Street and Crossley Street as could be afforded for the purposes of a new town hall”.

In August the council decided by 23 votes to nine to build the hall in Crossley Street. Crossley, who owned the site, offered it to the borough at a reasonable £5,000, which was rapidly accepted.

In 1859 borough engineer Stevenson produced a design for the Crossley Street site but it was decided to seek the advice of Sir Charles Barry, architect of the Houses of Parliament and “the first architect of the age”, and Stevenson’s designs were submitted to him.

Barry said he did not like them and suggested an alternative at no increased cost. The council asked Barry to submit a design of his own. He quickly set to work and prepared sketches in an Italianate Cinquecento style.

The scheme was approved and went out to tender. The lowest came to £23,320, plus £300 for extra carving work.

The estimated cost of the whole project came to £33,300, including £8,100 for the purchase of land and £1,200 for the architect’s commission. This was nearly double the figure visualised three years earlier, yet most council members were now strongly behind the project.

The stone for the building – 24,000 tons of it – came from quarries on Swales Moor.

The foundation stone was laid by the Mayor, Alderman Daniel Ramsden, on Easter Tuesday, April 2, 1861, following a great procession from the old town hall of council members, clergy and magistrates with bands playing.

Alderman Ramsden laid the stone, striking its four corners and saying: “Thus and thus and thus and thus I lay this stone, and may God prosper the undertaking.”

As construction work continued Barry proposed alterations to the roof, which would provide additional accommodation at no extra cost, and also proposed increasing the height of the tower by 20 feet.

The spire was completed in January 1863. In March the great bell, ordered for the tower from Taylor’s, of Loughborough, and weighing 79 cwt 2 lb, was hoisted into position and the quarter bells were placed in the bell chamber in June.

A clock, bought from Moore’s of Clerkenwell, London, for £420, was in action by the end of July, 1863.

The total final cost of the town hall was reckoned at just over £50,000, compared with an estimate in 1856 of £17,000.

The original plan was to pay off the whole debt on the building by 1910 but the town hall remained a liability until 1933-’34, when a contribution of £8,798 from the income tax suspense account gave the citizens a debt-free town hall after 70 years!

The town hall was opened by the Prince of Wales on August 4, 1963. An elaborate procession moved from the old town hall in Union Street to the new one. The weather was bad, it poured with rain, yet huge crowds lined the streets.

The town clerk, Edmund Minson Wavell, read the loyal address to the Prince in the Victoria Hall and the Prince graciously responded. The town hall was declared open and the Prince appeared on a large temporary platform overlooking Crossley Street, where he was cheered by the crowds.

I hail the vision of John Crossley and the borough council the 1860s and applaud every one of the many craftsmen who worked on this wonderful building to make it what it is today.