Category Archives: Victorian Architecture

Temples of Sanitation – Abbey Pumping Station, Leicester

Abbey Pumping Station, Leicester Museum of Science & Technology

While Burton Corporation was building Claymills Pumping Station to rid the town of brewery and household effluent, sending the ordure and the smell to the unsuspecting village of Egginton across the county border in Derbyshire, their colleagues in Leicester were also catching up with the effects of rapidly expanding population on their town’s limited sanitation.

Sewage-disposal had been a problem for the expanding borough from the 1850s onwards. 

The civil engineer Thomas Wicksteed (1806-1871) designed a scheme for his Patent Solid Sewage Manure Company to drain the town and purify the resulting solid matter as manure. 

Though the scheme markedly improved the condition of the River Soar, the manure failed to sell and the enterprise failed. 

Indeed, pail closets continued in the poorer districts of the town and the removal of ordure by carts, canal barges and railway wagons was a continuing nuisance.

A new scheme was devised in 1885 providing two arterial sewers linking to a sewage farm on the outskirts of the borough and the Abbey Pumping Station was constructed between November 1887 and May 1891 to pump sewage 1½ miles away at Beaumont Leys, off Anstey Lane. 

The imposing Elizabethan engine-house, begun in 1889, was designed by the Leicester architect Stockdale Harrison (1846-1914).

The four pumping engines, very like the slightly earlier ones at Claymills and by the same local firm of Gimson & Company, are now the largest surviving Woolf compound steam-engines in the United Kingdom, and Abbey Pumping Station is one of the few places where four steam pumping engines can still be seen within one engine house. 

The high-pressure cylinders are 30in × 69¼in, and the low-pressure cylinders are 48in × 96in.  Each flywheel is 21 feet in diameter, and the beams are 28 feet long.

Leicester’s population grew more than threefold between 1861 and 1901 and continued to expand through the first half of the twentieth century. 

At Abbey Pumping Station settlement tanks and an electric pump were installed in 1925, and capacity was reinforced by the installation of a ram pump in 1939. 

The station continued to steam until the opening of the Wanlip Sewage Treatment Works in 1964.

The site was then converted into the Leicester Museum of Science and Technology which opened in 1974.  

The original eight Gimson Lancashire boilers had been replaced in 1925:  of these replacements only one survives, and the boiler house now contains other museum exhibits.  Two of the engines are restored to working condition, though limited boiler-capacity prevents them both being steamed simultaneously for longer than a very short time. 

There are other sewage-related experiences in the Museum. 

The site railway, first installed in 1926 and operated by a small petrol locomotive, has been adapted for passengers.  Trains are hauled by a restored steam locomotive, Leonard, from the Birmingham Tame & Rea District Drainage Board’s Minworth sewage treatment works.

A display entitled ‘Flushed with Pride’ (a title borrowed from Wallace Reyburn’s inimitable 1969 biography of the water-closet manufacturer, Thomas Crapper) includes a lavatory with see-through bowl and cistern, into which visitors can drop artificial faeces and watch them journey from the U-bend to the main sewer. 

Such rare delights are not to be missed.

Details of public openings at Abbey Pumping Station are at http://www.abbeypumpingstation.org/default.asp.

Abbey Pumping Station  is included in the itinerary of the ‘Cemeteries and Sewerage: the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness’ tour, based in Sheffield, September 17th-21st 2020.  For further details of the tour please click here.

Temples of Sanitation – Claymills Pumping Station

Claymills Pumping Station, Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire

By coincidence two of the three pumping stations we’re visiting on the grandly but accurately titled Cemeteries and Sewerage:  the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness have similar steam engines – Woolf compound pumps built by Gimson & Co of Leicester.  In other respects the two sites offer very different experiences.

Claymills Pumping Station, which stands beside the Midland main line from Derby to Birmingham, was built for Burton-on-Trent Corporation in 1885.

Burton-on-Trent had begun to install effective street sewers from 1843 but did nothing to deal with the liquid waste of its principal industry.

One of the major disadvantages of the nineteenth-century brewing process was the considerable quantity of hot, foul-smelling effluent, rich in sulphate and suspended vegetable matter, that was discharged into local streams. 

A sewer constructed in 1866 to carry industrial effluent, domestic sewage and rainwater to sediment tanks at Claymills, near the village of Stretton, simply moved the problem further from the town:  the offensive material was separated and discharged into the River Trent.

The population of Burton-on-Trent – 9,450 in 1871 – was expected to produce about a million gallons a day, but when the town became a borough in 1878 the outfall was between five and six million gallons. 

The new council included a number of prominent brewers and in 1880 promoted an Act of Parliament to build a pumping station at Claymills to pump the effluent 2½ miles to a 300-acre sewage farm at Egginton – a vertical lift of seventy feet.

Though lime was added to the material, offensive smells remained a problem around the village of Egginton and as far away as Repton and Calke until the farm closed in the 1970s.

The paired engine houses each contain two mirror-image engines, designated A and B, C and D, with the boiler house between. 

The beams are each 26 feet 4 inches between their end centres, and weigh thirteen tons.  The flywheels are 24 feet in diameter and weigh twenty-four tons each. 

In normal circumstances two engines worked at a time, running at ten revolutions a minute.  In periods of high demand, a third engine would be engaged.

The five original Lancashire boilers were renewed in 1937, and the replacements incorporate Green’s economisers and Meldrum’s mechanical stokers.  Two boilers operated at a time, with a third on standby.

The steam engines were replaced by electric pumps in 1971, and when Burton Corporation’s sewerage system was transferred in 1974 to the Severn Trent Water Authority, the new owners enlisted the assistance of industrial-archaeology groups to take over Claymills Pumping Station as a preservation project. 

Once practical repairs and asbestos-removal work was completed, the Claymills Pumping Engines Trust took over the site in 1993. 

Steam was first raised in 1998 and ‘C’ engine ran in May 2000, followed a year later by ‘D’ engine.  ‘B’ engine returned to steam in 2017.

Claymills Pumping Station is magnificent in the way of such places – a grand complex of buildings, huge beam engines – but it has a special appeal to engineering enthusiasts because most of the steam-powered ancillary equipment is preserved and restored. 

Much of the auxiliary machinery was stripped out to create storage space, and has been gradually repatriated by the Trust. 

The 26-foot-long bed lathe had been scrapped, but the Trust identified and acquired a near equivalent machine from Bamford Mill, Derbyshire.

The blacksmith’s forge, which had been demolished after the station closed, was rebuilt by the Trust in 2005. 

Claymills has a welcoming atmosphere, and it’s always heartening to see young people involved in heritage industrial archaeology.

The photograph I wish I’d captured but missed was of a youth in full Victorian workers’ rig of flat cap, waistcoat and muffler, tapping into his smartphone.

Details of public openings at Claymills are at http://www.claymills.org.uk.

Clay Mills Pumping Station  is included in the itinerary of the ‘Cemeteries and Sewerage: the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness’ tour, based in Sheffield, September 17th-21st 2020.  For further details of the tour please click here.

Park Palace Ponies

Park Palace Ponies (the former Park Palace Cinema), Dingle, Liverpool

The Park Palace Theatre in Toxteth was built for James Kiernan, a Liverpool theatre proprietor and designed by J H Havelock-Sutton, a Liverpool architect.

The auditorium is a simple rectangle, with the balcony (now removed) around three sides.  There were two boxes (also now gone), decorated with tall oval bevelled mirrors and lit with brass gas brackets.  Corinthian pilasters with acanthus-leaf bases flank the proscenium and support a broken pediment.  The proscenium is thirty feet wide.  Backstage there were four dressing rooms but no fly-tower.

Some accounts mention a gallery, and the Royal Arms mounted above the proscenium following a visit by King Edward VII in 1903, but there is no present-day evidence of either.

The original audience capacity was 1,100 (600 in the pit and stalls, 500 in the balcony) and it opened on December 4th 1893 as a variety theatre.

Though it retained its music-hall licence, the building was used as a cinema from 1905.  For a time the Sheffield cinema impresario Jasper Redfern ran it, and the Weisker Brothers took it over and renamed it the Kinematodrome in 1910.  

In 1911, Peter Dunn acquired it and ran it as cine-variety for nearly twenty years.  During the 1920s there was a seven-piece orchestra.  The variety acts and the orchestra ceased abruptly with the introduction of sound movies on January 8th 1930.  By then the capacity had reduced to 961. 

After Peter Dunn’s death in 1934, the proprietor was Miss Sheila Dunn, presumably his daughter.

The final film show – Russ Tamblyn in The Young Guns and John Payne in Hold Back the Night – took place on March 11th 1959. 

After its demise as a cinema the Park Palace was successively used as a factory, a chemist’s shop and a store for motor-vehicle spares.  For a period from 1984 it became the Mill Street Chapel. 

Subsequently the building was largely left to deteriorate. 

It was briefly revived as a performance space in 2008, and was once used as a location for the Channel 4 soap-opera Hollyoaks, but from 2010 onwards it was advertised to let. 

It remained unused until 2017, when Keith Hackett and his daughter, Bridget Griffin, set up Park Palace Ponies, to provide a riding school aimed at local children under ten, bringing them the benefits of spending time with horses and the perception that horse-riding isn’t only for the affluent.  Hundreds of children from south-central Liverpool (defined as postcodes L8, L17 and L18) have since taken part in riding lessons at the Palace:  http://www.parkpalaceponies.com

The community benefits of this scheme are palpable, and not confined to the children and their families.  The horses graze at the local allotments, where their manure is much appreciated.

Park Palace Ponies is included in the itinerary of the ‘Unexpected Liverpool’ tour, June 1st-5th 2020.  For further details of the tour, please click here.

The Florrie

The Florence Institute for Boys, Dingle, Liverpool

When Sir Bernard Hall, a Liverpool businessman and alderman, suffered the loss of his 22-year-old daughter Florence in 1887, he commemorated her by building the Florence Institute for Boys in the inner-city riverside suburb of Dingle, “in the hope that it might prove an acceptable place of recreation and instruction for the poor and working boys of this district of the city”. 

It quickly came to be known, almost universally, as “The Florrie”.

Bernard Hall’s work as a city magistrate made him aware that a lack of recreational amusements led working-class adolescents to mischief and petty crime, and he commissioned one of the earliest purpose-built boys’ clubs in Britain, providing facilities for football, boxing, baseball, gymnastics and billiards.

The Florrie was not the first boys’ club in Liverpool.  The Gordon Working Lads’ Institute in Kirkdale preceded it.  Designed by Birkenhead-born David Walker (1840-1892), it was built in 1886 at a cost of £50,000 by another Liverpool merchant, William Cliff, as a memorial to his deceased eleven-year-old son. 

In the same period, Manchester businessmen funded the Hulme Lads’ Club (1887), the Adelphi Ragged School Lads’ Evening Club (1888), the Openshaw Lads’ Club (1888), the Sharp Street Lads Club and Ragged School (c1890) and the still surviving Salford Lads’ Club (1904).

The Florrie, designed by C Sherwood and H W Keef, is a magnificent essay in Jacobethan-style terracotta, with a concert hall, a library as well as a gymnasium.  It was completed in 1889 and the club opened the following year.  

Weekend camps at Heswall on the Wirral, a short ferry-trip across the Mersey, and summer camps in the Lake District were regularly run to give Toxteth and Dingle kids a healthy break away from the streets.

The Florrie served generations of boys and young men, some of whom achieved fame.  The Florrie is where Gerry Marsden (b 1942) learnt to play guitar and performed his first skiffle gig at the age of ten, and the club can claim to have nurtured the careers of a legion of boxers, including Dick Tiger (1929-1971), Tommy Bache (b 1938), Alan Rudkin MBE (1941-2010) and Larry Paul (1952-2017).

The 1980s were sad, bad times for the communities that make up the district of Liverpool 8, and the Florrie was a casualty of those grim days.  The funding that had kept the Florrie going ceased, so the building was sold in 1987 and its management company, The Florence Institute Incorporated Company, was dissolved the following year.

By the legal device of bona vacantia [“ownerless goods”] the premises passed to the Duchy of Lancaster, the private estate of the monarch, but neglect and vandalism eventually reduced the building to a wreck which was rendered roofless and burnt-out after a fire in 1999.

A succession of saviours took on the challenge of bringing the Florrie back – pressure groups such as the Friends of the Florrie and the Dingle Community Regeneration Trust, supported by the Liverpool Echo’s ‘Stop the Rot’ campaign.  A popular, vociferous campaign prompted the formation in 2004 of the Florence Institute Trust Ltd, chaired by the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd James Jones.

The trust ensured the upgrading of the ruined building from Grade II to Grade II*, and in 2010 secured a package of funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund (£3.7 million), the Northwest European Regional Development Fund (£1.5 million) and the Northwest Regional Development Agency (£536,000).

Meanwhile HRH the Prince of Wales had visited the site in 2007, and was surprised to discover that it belonged to his mother as Duke of Lancaster.  He promised the support of his Prince’s Regeneration Trust and persuaded the Duchy to give the building to the Florence Institute Trust.  He duly returned to open the refurbished building in January 2013.

The rebuilding was problematic, for lack of original plans:  the detailed restoration was planned around existing photographs, archaeological evidence and oral testimony.  This meant that, against the wishes of the local community, much of the specialist contracting had to go outside the city.

Since its reopening the Florrie has developed as “a multi-purpose community hub”: https://www.theflorrie.org.

In human terms, this means that it serves and supports the local community, girls as well as boys, adults as well as children, earning its keep through events and conferences and providing employment, training opportunities and learning and leisure experiences.

Once again it strives to be “an acceptable place of recreation and instruction”, as Bernard Hall intended.

The Florrie is a lunch-stop in the itinerary of the ‘Unexpected Liverpool’ tour, June 1st-5th 2020.  For further details of the tour please click here.

Slaughterhouse Gothic 2

Former Refuge Assurance Headquarters, Manchester (now Principal Hotel): porte-cochère

The magnificent former Manchester headquarters of the Refuge Assurance Company is a fitting symbol of the city’s nineteenth-century prestige and prosperity, an extravagant temple to the virtues of thrift and frugality.

The Refuge Friend in Deed Life Assurance & Sick Fund Friendly Society was founded in 1858 by James Proctor and George Robins of Dukinfield, near Stalybridge, east of Manchester. By the late nineteenth century their society based on saving for the future had expanded to the extent that it needed a prominent headquarters in Manchester city centre.

For commercial buildings the architect, Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905), favoured the use of moulded glazed or unglazed brick to create rich decorative effects at less expense than ashlar and carved stonework.  Some of his best public buildings in Manchester were built in stone – the Assize Courts (1859-64, demolished) and the Town Hall (1868-77) – though Strangeways Prison (1868) is brick with stone dressings.

Elsewhere, his attachment to terracotta, and its tin-glazed derivative, faience, gained prominence after he designed the Natural History Museum, South Kensington (1873-80) and became widely recognised by his work for the Prudential Assurance Company at their London headquarters at Holborn Bars (1895-1901) and at instantly recognisable branch offices across the nation.

These terracotta buildings were satirised as “slaughterhouse Gothic”, which is unfair, partly because most of them are in other styles than Gothic, but furthermore because, though the outside elevations were deep red, the interiors were invariably varied and colourful, and could be kept bright because they were practically washable.

Alfred Waterhouse’s original building for the Refuge Assurance Company in central Manchester, on the corner of Oxford Street and Whitworth Street, was started in 1891 and completed in 1895. 

The architect’s son, Paul Waterhouse, continued the Oxford Street elevation, including the 217-foot clock tower, in 1910-12.  Both designs are an eclectic mix of French Renaissance style with baroque features, liberally embellished with emblems such as the bee, symbolising Manchester’s industry, and the initial ‘R’ for ‘Refuge’. 

The company owned the land further along Whitworth Street, where India House (1906), Lancaster House (1905-10) and Asia House, Princess Street (1906-9) were built, leaving room on Whitworth Street for a further extension of the Refuge headquarters, designed in harmony with the existing building by Stanley Birkett (1884-1959) in 1932.

The Refuge Assurance Company left Manchester in 1987 for a purpose-built site at Fulshaw Hall, Cheshire.  The Manchester building was considered as a replacement home for the Hallé Orchestra but instead the orchestra moved directly from the Free Trade Hall to the Bridgewater Hall in 1996.

Instead, the Refuge building was converted into a 271-room hotel which also opened in 1996.  It was named the Palace after the theatre on the opposite corner of Whitworth Street.  The hotel was reconfigured, with conference facilities separated in the 1932 Excalibur Building, and rebranded the Principal in 2016.

The main features of the Waterhouse buildings of 1891-95 and 1910-12 are the porte-cochère, originally open until the dome was inserted in 1996, the open-plan office space and the clock tower, its faces embellished with the Manchester bee.

The tower, for obvious reasons inaccessible to the general public, has a dizzy succession of staircases to the top of the cupola:  https://www.28dayslater.co.uk/threads/refuge-assurance-building-manchester-2011.60357.  Ascending to the top is fraught with risks:  https://www.ibtimes.co.uk/man-plunged-his-death-manchester-canal-after-photo-escapade-hotels-roof-1659284.

Within, the private directors’ staircase, decorated with Cararra marble and a bronze balustrade and embellished with stained-glass coats of arms of the cities and boroughs where the company did business, leads to the director’s boardroom.

The Stanley Birkett building respects its older neighbour, but the interior colour-palette is toned down to white, and the decorative features tend towards moderne in style.

The Refuge building featured in the climax of the 1960 Hammer film, Hell is a City, written and directed by Val Guest.  An analysis of the locations used is at https://www.reelstreets.com/films/hell-is-a-city.

Tours of the Principal Hotel are provided by Jonathan Schofield, a professional tour-guide and author who knows Manchester like the back of his hand, tells good stories well, and has a voice that cuts through the city’s traffic noise like a bandsaw:  https://www.jonathanschofieldtours.com/exclusive-the-principal-hotel.html.

Keystone Crescent

Keystone Crescent, King’s Cross, London

At the King’s Cross end of the Caledonian Road stands Keystone Crescent, the London crescent with the tightest radius and the only one in which the inner and the outer terraces have identical facades.

It was built as Caledonian Terrace in 1846, at a time when the surrounding district was first developed as middle-class housing, which rapidly went down the social scale because of the industries which grew along the River Fleet and, most of all, because of the noise and smoke of the surrounding railways.

The area has been transformed by the arrival of Eurostar, and the tiny two-storey houses with a basement and an attic have increased in value tenfold since the 1990s.  They currently come on the market at over a million pounds.

The front gardens have been given over to hard standing for cars, but otherwise the crescent’s conservation-area status maintains its attractive appearance, a few steps away from the bustle of one of north London’s traffic arteries.

Keystone Crescent boasts its own basement club [http://www.keystonecrescent.com], founded by Kristie Bishop and Coralie Sleap, who also operate Drink, Shop & Do [http://drinkshopdo.co.uk], “a quirky multi-faceted cafe, bar and shop” a few yards away down the Caledonian Road.

The spectacular regeneration of the King’s Cross railway lands has generated disruption and change [https://angelacobbinah.wordpress.com/2013/01/04/all-change-at-kings-cross], but the tiny enclave of Keystone Crescent remains intact.

Old Town Hall at risk

Old Town Hall, Sheffield, interior (circa 2014)

Photo: Chard Remains

Sheffield’s Old Town Hall, on Waingate, has stood empty and unmaintained for over twenty years.  As far back as 2007 it figured on the Victorian Society’s annual list of endangered buildings, and it’s more recently been added to SAVE Britain’s Heritage Buildings at Risk register.

I wrote about it in 2011 and again in 2015, since when there has been little to report.  Successive urban-explorer reports have simply underlined the continuing decay:  https://www.proj3ctm4yh3m.com/urbex/2015/02/01/urbex-sheffield-crown-court-south-yorkshire-september-2014-revisit-4.   

Eventually, in August this year, a planning application was posted proposing a solution to the dilemma of what to do with this huge public building with its sensitive interiors.

The new owner, Mr Efekoro Omu, is already refurbishing the long-neglected Cannon public house on Castle Street.

Mr Omu’s company, Aestrom OTH, plans to clean and restore the exterior of the Old Town Hall, and intends to strip out much of the listed interior to provide twelve serviced apartments, twelve “pod” hotel rooms in the old cells and, on the basement and lower ground-floor levels, a “souk” – “a boutique marketplace of characterful commercial spaces” of 918 square metres (equal to 3½ tennis courts).

The Friends of the Old Town Hall, an energetic group of volunteers who have been monitoring the building since 2014, applaud the arrival of someone actually prepared to take on the building but are highly critical of the proposed alterations to the interior:  http://sheffieldoldtownhall.co.uk/our-response-to-the-planning-application.

Mr Omu’s scheme threatens to obliterate the three most impressive courtroom spaces and compromise the Waiting Hall area, making the interior as a whole unreadable as a former courthouse.

There’s no doubt that any historic building has to earn its own keep.  In this case, the current scheme prioritises commercial necessity above historic integrity.

Some parts the Old Town Hall complex, especially the 1955 extension, lend themselves to radical alteration because their historic value is inconsiderable.

The earlier interiors, dating back to the nineteenth century with some later alterations, need more tactful treatment.

Sheffield can boast of a number of practical, attractive, sensitive refurbished historic buildings within a couple of minutes’ walk of the Old Town Hall, such as the Old Post Office in Fitzalan Square and the former bank that is now the Curzon Cinema on George Street.

The Planning Committee of Sheffield City Council meets on November 19th to decide whether to approve this application concerning a major public building in an area of the city that’s subject to radical redevelopment.

Let’s hope that the Committee gives Mr Omu every encouragement to think again in more depth about how to revive the Old Town Hall, which deserves a better fate than to become a historic shell.

Cinderella House

Grainsby Hall, Lincolnshire (1968)

A chance feature in Lincolnshire Life in 1968 led me on my Lincolnshire Road Car Company staff bus-pass to another remote country house not far from Cadeby Hall – the Italianate fantasy of Grainsby Hall, which clearly bemused Henry Thorold in his Lincolnshire Houses book and was dismissed by Pevsner as “crazy”.

I didn’t think the place at all crazy;  in fact, I rather liked it.

It was wilfully asymmetrical, with a tower over the entrance portico and lots of stark plate glass windows which, in 1968, were largely intact.

When I revisited by car a couple of years later, the windows – and, I think, the door – had gone and I was free to take pictures of the shattered and clearly dangerous interior, which included a grand octagonal drawing room and a massive galleried staircase hall.

This Italianate confectionery dated from 1860 and was built around an earlier, eighteenth-century house.

The Haigh family has owned the Grainsby estate since it came to William Haigh of Norland, Halifax, by marriage in 1827.  In the nineteenth century the family owned the Garden Street Mill in Halifax.

The Hall must have been a splendid place but it was occupied by the military during World War II and fell into disrepair.

For a time it was used as a grain store, until it became dangerous.

It quickly became beyond saving, even between the dates of my two visits, and it was duly demolished in February 1973.

The c1820 stable block remains and is listed Grade II.

Big fuss about a little thing

Jubiläumsbrunnen fountain, Wuppertal, Germany

In the German city of Wuppertal, birthplace of aspirin, the town hall, the splendid Rathaus, was opened in 1900 by Kaiser Wilhelm II on the same day as the celebrated Schwebebahn.

In front of it stands the jolly Jubiläumsbrunnen fountain, sculpted by the Düsseldorf sculptor Leo Müsch (1846-1911) to celebrate the silver jubilee of the Elberfelder Verschönerungsverein [the Elberfeld beautification club].

Müsch’s design, 11.5 metres high, carved in red sandstone, is a glorious riot of sea gods and monsters, tritons and mermaids, topped by the figure of Neptune.

Quite what this maritime composition has to do with a landlocked industrial valley in the heart of North Rhine-Westphalia escapes me.

According to the English translation of the Wikipedia article, the inauguration in 1901 caused a stir because “the figures were too much male distinctive”.   

The “form of the anatomically correctly modelled pubic region” caused great offence, and an unknown person or persons took a hammer and chisel to the sculpture.

The community was divided, and strong positions were taken.

The local writer Walter Bloem (1868-1951) wrote a four-act drama The Jubilee Fountain which provoked his pastor to ask him to leave the church.

The City Council eventually resolved to restore Neptune’s masculinity, after a vehement debate about acanthus leaves.

Nevertheless, as the English translation remarks, “the scars are still visible today”.

I didn’t notice anything outstanding when I photographed the fountain. 

When I looked closer at my photograph I recalled the lady who, when annoyed by a flasher in a Marks & Spencer elevator, remarked “Is that it, then?”

Mr Ashworth’s pet project

Rochdale Town Hall: corbel portrait of William Henry Crossland (1823-1909)
Rochdale Town Hall: corbel portrait of George Leach Ashworth (1823-1873)

When I planned my 2019 Manchester’s Heritage tour I knew I couldn’t include Manchester’s magnificent Town Hall because it’s closed for a five-year refurbishment.

However, there’s more to “Manchester” than Manchester, and a tram-ride away from St Peter’s Square terminates close to  Rochdale Town Hall, smaller, but hardly less magnificent than Manchester Town Hall, with a host of entertaining stories attached to it.

No sooner had the new borough of Rochdale elected its first Corporation in 1856 than a sub-committee began work to provide a suitable town hall.

The committee chairman, George Leach Ashworth (1823-1873), was originally unenthusiastic about the project.

When the Church Commissioners eventually agreed a price for land alongside the River Roch, Ashworth tried unsuccessfully to limit the budget to £15,000, on the grounds that it was “…only requisite that we should have a handsome frontage.”

An architectural competition, stipulating a budget limit of £20,000, was won by the Leeds architect William Henry Crossland (1823-1909), a pupil of the great Gothic Revival architect, George Gilbert Scott.

Despite the budget-limit, Crossland’s initial estimate of £26,510 was repeatedly augmented at the Corporation’s request.  The Great Hall was increased in area to 90ft × 56ft, and the 240ft tower was embellished with an octagonal lantern decorated with carved trumpeting angels and surmounted by a spire supporting a solid wood statue of St George and the Dragon by Earp of London.

Several ancient buildings were demolished and the River Roch culverted to provide the impressive seventy-foot-wide esplanade.

Crossland provided grand public rooms, the Mayor’s suite, administrative offices and, initially, the public library, and the west wing was given to the fire and police departments, together with a court room and ancillary cells and a residence for the Chief Constable.

The building is faced with millstone grit from Blackstone Edge, generously dignified by sculpture.  The fire department, for example, was identified with the phoenix, the salamander, the owl (symbolising watchfulness) and the dog (indicating alarm-raising).  For reasons that are unrecorded, a buttress on the porte-cochère is ornamented with a winged pig.

The interior was no less extravagant.  The entrance hall, designed as a wool-merchants’ exchange though never used as such, has a heraldic Minton tiled floor.  The windows of the vast staircase are filled with lancet windows showing the arms of the counties, towns and ports with which Rochdale traded, together with the technological marvels of the day – the steamship, the railway and the telegraph.

The Great Hall is lit by windows depicting every English monarch from William the Conqueror to William IV, together with Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector;  Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are portrayed in the rose windows at each end.  On the eastern wall is Henry Holiday’s fresco of the signing of Magna Carta, and the hammer beams support carved angels, from which originally hung chandeliers.

The magistrates’ retiring room has depictions of nine English figures associated with lawmaking and the English constitution.  The Mayor’s Parlour is decorated with the Garden of the Hesperides, the four seasons, the months of the year and a group of musicians.  The committee room frieze shows animals associated, in one way or another, with primitive clothing, and the walls of the arched council chamber are decorated with a ground of bursting cotton pods and teasels, and panels showing weaving, spinning, textile-printing, the plants used in textile manufacture and the inventions of Kay, Cartwright, Hargreaves and Crompton.

In No 3 Committee Room the corbels show the supporters of the Town Hall scheme, deftly described by Colin Cunningham, in Victorian and Edwardian Town Halls (Routledge & Kegan Paul 1981):  “…the architect wearily toying with a pair of dividers and the mayor clutching his new town hall”.

By the time the Town Hall was completed in 1871, the final cost was £154,755 9s 11d, and the Mayor, G L Ashworth, remarked that “we cannot have beauty without paying for it.”

Dry rot in the spire was being treated when the tower burnt down in 1883.  One local legend declares that the fire was deliberately started by the workmen, who feared for their own safety as they took apart the rotten structure.  Another legend has it that the Rochdale fire brigade, which was stationed at the back of the building, was beaten to the blaze by the Oldham brigade.

The more modest but still impressive 191ft-high replacement was designed by Alfred Waterhouse, the architect of Manchester Town Hall, and completed in 1887.