It’s easy to miss the modernist masterpiece of Hornsey Town Hall, completed in 1935, as you fight your way through the yummy mummies and baby buggies of Crouch End but take time to admire it. It’s been described as ‘the quintessential English modern public building of the decade’. (1) And look to the buildings to left and right and through the clutter of contemporary commercialism – this was a civic complex intended to enshrine the role of local government at the very centre of local life.
Hornsey’s first local administration had been formed as far back as 1867. The Hornsey Local Board built its offices in Southwood Lane in Highgate the following year. At that time, Hornsey was basically a collection of local villages but the coming of the railways would radically transform it. With seven local rail stations by 1887, Hornsey became a centre of middle-class villadom – the home of London’s clerks and their daily commute.
Hornsey became an Urban District Council under the 1894 Local Government Act and was raised to municipal borough status in 1903. Its bid to become a county borough (an all-purpose authority free of county council jurisdiction) was twice rejected but though the council was dominated by that local incarnation of Conservatism, the Municipal Reform Party, for most of its life, it saw itself as modern and progressive. Some of the first council housing in the country was built by Hornsey UDC and in 1903 it inaugurated its own electricity supply service, building a generating station on Tottenham Lane. A cottage hospital was opened in 1910.
By now, the borough’s centre of gravity had shifted to Crouch End and the council needed a home to reflect both this new reality and its civic pride. It purchased a wedge-shaped area of land on the Broadway in Crouch End in 1920 and 1923 and ten years later it announced a design competition to build a town hall on this awkward plot.
The Council required the normal trappings of a civic building – a council chamber, committee rooms, administrative offices and a multi-purpose hall with seating for 800 to 1000 people. But it was to cost no more than £100,000 and the Council was:
desirous that the character of the buildings shall be dignified and they rely on good proportions and a fitting architectural setting rather than elaborate decoration and detail, which is not required. Stress is laid on straightforward planning, with rooms and corridors well lighted and ventilated.
This would be a town hall, eschewing the municipal baroque or neo-classicism in vogue before the war, in a modern idiom. Notwithstanding these intentions, The Architect and Building News was sniffy about this contest: ‘In all, 218 highly trained brains have exerted themselves to the full to find the solution to the problem which should never have been set’. (2) But, in the end and as further plots on the frontage of the Broadway became available, a civic complex was created that would do the Borough proud.
The winner of the competition was Reginald Uren, a 27-year old New Zealander, and, though he went on to build a prestigious career, this would remain in many ways his masterpiece. Uren’s skill lay in separating out and distinguishing between the functional areas and setting the building back to provide as dignified an approach as the site allowed.
The public hall to the left-hand side was marked by elongated windows and a grand triple entrance. The council offices were given a smaller but impressive ceremonial entrance to the right while the ‘dignified’ aspect of the council’s activities was given full play in the impressive council chamber and mayor’s parlour on the first floor.
The interiors were described as ‘extremely simple, with the emphasis on beauty of surface’ – that beauty provided by Australian walnut and Indian laurel in the assembly hall and council chamber and polished Perrycot stone in the foyer and staircases. (3)
For those who didn’t venture inside, it was the exterior which inevitably caught the eye:
Gracious and rather slim in its lines, and faced with pinkish-grey bricks of a beautiful colour and texture, Hornsey Town Hall is the sort of building that is come upon with an exclamation of pleasure…That the building has both Dutch and Swedish flavours is true, but they are digested to the local scene.
The Times article celebrates the Royal Institute of British Architects bronze medal awarded in 1936, recognising the building as the best erected in London during the previous three years. And those Dutch and Swedish influences which it identifies refer to two of the outstanding civic buildings of the era – Dudok’s Hilversum Town Hall (completed in 1931) and Stockholm Town Hall (completed in 1923) – which provided some of Uren’s inspiration. (4) In fact, Uren employed decorative elements – notably a stone relief lintel, sculpted by Arthur Ayres, and an elaborate bronze grille at the right-hand entrance – to soften the rather stark lines of Dudok’s prototype.
Within a couple of years, the Council was also able to provide the Town Hall with a more complimentary setting. The architectural firm, Dawe and Carter, designed a new showroom and offices for the Hornsey Gas Company – a private undertaking until nationalised in 1947 – to the right of the Town Hall in a style which paid conscious tribute to Uren’s building and was similarly graced by Ayres’ sculptures.
And Uren himself was able in 1938 to adapt a former telephone exchange to the left into showrooms for Hornsey’s municipal electricity department. This too would feature an Ayres relief, representing – appropriately enough – the Spirit of Electricity.
Both buildings are now in private ownership – the former gas showrooms have become a branch of Barclays, the electricity showrooms an Italian restaurant. But, listed and preserved, the ensemble reminds us of an era in which local government took justifiable pride in its key and progressive role in the life of its community.
Wider politics were less propitious and the Town Hall would witness some of the politics of this ‘low dishonest decade’ at first hand. A meeting of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee – to support the democratic Republican forces against the threat of Franco’s Nationalists – was held in the Assembly Hall but another, apparently, was cancelled through fears of public disorder.
That concern did not halt a large rally by Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists in January 1937. On that occasion, the police remained outside and left the maintenance of ‘order’ to Fascist stewards – with predictable results. Later that year, the left was represented once more when the Unity Theatre Group presented ‘Waiting for Lefty’ and ‘On Guard for Spain’ with a collection held for the Republican cause. (5)
For many, Hornsey Town Hall is better remembered as being the venue for some of the first performances of Ray Davies (then a student at the Hornsey College of Art, later of the Kinks) and the very first performance, in 1971, of Queen.
Later politics didn’t match the turbulence of the thirties and it’s possible that some local citizens have remained unaware of the Hornsey événements of 1968. The anarchist Stuart Christie lived in nearby Fairfield Gardens. Fired up by the French uprising and an evening in the Queen’s pub, he and some comrades: (6)
raced to Hornsey Town Hall to announce the birth of a new society. ‘Paris Today, Hornsey Tomorrow!’ was the slogan we scrawled across the full width of the building’s imposing façade. There was no doubt about it. We would make sure that the good burghers of Hornsey would know the Revolution had begun. But our triumphalism was short-lived. By 10am the next day the forces of reaction in the form of Haringey Borough Council had stepped in and their cleaning department had almost obliterated our handiwork – almost, but not quite. The ghostly outline of that night’s work remained for many years; it certainly outlasted our hoped-for revolution.
And thereby hangs another, less revolutionary tale, though one almost as disturbing to some of Hornsey’s ‘good burghers’.
In 1965, Hornsey Borough Council was abolished – swallowed up within a new Greater London alongside Tottenham and Wood Green as part of the new London Borough of Haringey. The centre of gravity moved left politically and, administratively, to the east – to the Wood Green Civic Centre which became the headquarters of the new local authority.
The Town Hall remained home to a few of Haringey’s technical services for some years but the Assembly Hall was closed in 1987 – the Council being unable or unwilling to maintain it – and by 2004 the building as a whole was essentially redundant. But Haringey’s proposal to dispose of the building aroused a storm of protest.
To opponents, organised by Crouch End for the People, this was a ‘defining and critical moment…the centrepiece of our “village” could be sold off by the council’. The group set up its own Hornsey Town Hall Trust to promote community use of the building. Having rejected the Trust’s alternative business plan, the Council set up its own Community Partnership Board – distrusted by Crouch End activists as an unrepresentative tool of the Council’s political interests. An independent body, the Hornsey Town Hall Creative Trust, was set up in 2007.
You can read more of this on the Hornsey Town Hall Creative Trust’s own website or read an academic account which describes the protest as a form of ‘anti-municipalist communitarianism’ – apparently the citizens of Tottenham were far more deferential in accepting the Borough’s political leadership’s plans for the similarly redundant Tottenham Town Hall. Perhaps the simpler analysis is just that you don’t mess with the middle class. (7)
In 2008 planning permission and Listed Building Consent was obtained for a scheme to bring the Town Hall back into use with public halls, community rooms, theatre space, cafes and landscaping but the funding depended partly on an adjacent building development.
In 2011, these proposals were superseded by a plan by the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts to transform the Town Hall into – in their words – ‘an arts, culture and education hub for Haringey, wider London and the UK’ but these plans also were withdrawn by early 2015. In the meantime, the Town Hall has enjoyed a half-life as a location for a number of dramas, most notably The Hour (where it stood in the BBC’s Lime Grove studios) and Whitechapel.
Currently, a three-man arts collective has a one-year lease on the building, renting space to a range of creative enterprises and providing a programme of arts events whilst shoring up the basic fabric of the building. Consultation continues regarding future uses and a possible partial residential redevelopment which will maintain public areas for community use.
I don’t have a dog in the fight and, as a municipal dreamer, I can’t help but regret the loss of the Town Hall complex’s original functions and, more intangibly, the dignity and presence attached to them. If you do visit Crouch End, admire the architecture and recall the civic pride it spoke to.
You’ll find some images of the interior in this post to my Tumblr account.
(1) Twentieth Century Society, Civic Plunge Revisited, 24 March 2012. The Council guidelines which follow are quoted from the same source.
(2) The Architect and Building News, 20 October 1933 quoted in Twentieth Century Society, Civic Plunge Revisited
(3) This description and the following quotation comes from ‘Hornsey Town Hall’, The Times, 12 May 1936
(4) I’ve posted some images on my Tumblr site for comparison
(5) The Spanish Medical Aid Committee is reported in Angela Jackson, British Women and the Spanish Civil War (2003); Mosley’s meeting in Martin Pugh, Hurrah For The Blackshirts!: Fascists and Fascism in Britain Between the Wars (2013). The photograph is taken from Action, the BUF newspaper, 30 January 1937; the black shirt is worn in defiance of the 1936 Public Order Act. The Unity Theatre listing is in the Daily Worker, 2 October 1937
(6) Stuart Christie, Edward Heath Made Me Angry: The Christie File : Part 3, 1967-1975 (2004)
(7) Bryan Fanning and Denis Dillon, Lessons for the Big Society: Planning, Regeneration and the Politics of Community Participation (2012). More information on various proposals can be found in Richard Waite, ‘Bennetts win cash backing for Hornsey town hall overhaul‘, Architects’ Journal, May 31 2012.
The fullest treatment of the architecture and history of Hornsey Town Hall is provided by Bridget Cherry, Civic Pride in Hornsey. The Town Hall and its Surrounding Buildings published by the Hornsey Historical Society (2006). This provides the context for my own treatment of the topic.