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.
There are two separate handbooks for the two Manchester’s Heritage tours that ran in 2009 and 2019 respectively. The itineraries were entirely distinct, so the two handbooks interconnect. The 80-page 2009 edition is longer, but the 60-page 2019 version, which includes a section on Rochdale, has more depth and text: the older version is reduced in price to £10.00, while the later one is £15.00.