Cuthbert Brodrick in Leeds 1

Leeds Town Hall

One of the remarkable features of British architecture in the early Victorian period is the optimism with which sponsors allowed talented young men in their twenties to take on huge projects that have since stood the test of time.

The best-known example is Harvey Lonsdale Elmes (1814-1847), who was awarded the commission for Liverpool’s St George’s Hall, after winning not one but two successive architectural competitions at the ages of twenty-five and twenty-seven.

The Hull-based architect Cuthbert Brodrick (1821-1905) was propelled to fame after he won the competition to design Leeds Town Hall in 1852 when he was barely thirty.

Despite some opposition within the Leeds borough council, the drivers of the Town Hall project aimed to outclass two public halls, both called St George’s Hall, in other major towns:  Bradford’s (1849-53) was simply a concert hall;  Liverpool’s building (1841-54) linked assize courts with a magnificent concert hall.  The Leeds scheme was intended to provide a public hall and courts combined with police headquarters and municipal offices and a mayoral residence – at a cost less than housing these functions in smaller separate buildings.

Indeed, Brodrick was initially kept on a tight leash by a contractual condition that he would not be paid if the cost exceeded £39,000, except in unforeseen circumstances or unless the council required additional facilities – which they almost immediately did.

Once the council was committed to the project there were repeated additions to the specification, including a huge pipe organ and an unforeseen tower.  The eventual cost of the completed Town Hall reached £122,000, and it seems to have been considered money well spent.

Cuthbert Brodrick made no apologies about aiming for quality.  There were furious arguments between him and the contractor, Samuel Atack, who went bankrupt in 1857.  Brodrick was heard on one occasion to urge “never mind if the quantity should exceed the contract”.

When Queen Victoria opened the Town Hall in 1858 she and Prince Albert were greeted on Woodhouse Moor by 26,809 Sunday School pupils with 5,301 of their teachers (controlled by signalmen brandishing boards), four companies of the 22nd Regiment of Foot and the 18th Hussars commanded by the Assistant Adjutant-General and 21,150 members of local Friendly Societies each wearing white gloves and a laurel-leaf buttonhole. 

Mr Trant, a chemist of Park Lane, went so far as to perfume the air outside his shop.

Prince Albert accompanied Brodrick to the top of the partly-completed tower and “entered freely into conversation on the subject of the building”:  “When I first saw the building, Mr Brodrick, I said to the Queen, ‘Magnificent! magnificent! beautiful proportions!’”

Leeds has never looked back.

Neither did Brodrick.  He seems only to have built big and almost entirely within Yorkshire.  He gave Leeds the Corn Exchange (1860-62) and the Leeds Institute of Science, Art & Literature (now the Civic Theatre, 1865-68).  In Scarborough he built the Grand Hotel (1863-67) which dominates the South Bay, and in Ilkley he designed the Wells Hydro (1854-56).

Yet he failed to win competitions or secure commissions for Preston Town Hall, the Queen’s Hotel, Leeds, the Liverpool Exchange, the remodelling of the National Gallery in London, the Manchester Royal Exchange, Manchester Town Hall and Bolton Town Hall. 

Nevertheless, he seems to have made enough to retire in his late forties.  He gave up architectural practice in 1869, and lived in Paris and later Jersey until his death, aged 83, in 1905.

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