Karen Averby, Town Halls (Amberley Publishing, 2023)

Town halls in towns and cities throughout the country are the physical embodiment of local democracy, and urban expressions of local civic pride. They reflect the character and urban pride of the town or city in which they were built, and despite variations in ages and forms, it is their function as symbolic civic and public buildings housing all municipal functions that unites them.

The opening sentences of Karen Averby’s new book express precisely and well the importance of our town halls. Within Britain’s highly centralised system of government, councils may not always have the power or financial resources to do all that we or they might want (or they may sometimes do things we don’t want) but historically local government has contributed immeasurably to the health and happiness of our towns and communities. Town halls are the place where this work gets done. Poplar’s Labour council couldn’t afford a ‘palace of the people’ in 1938 but it hoped its New Town Hall, opened that year, would be ‘a worthy workshop for the worker’s welfare’.

As Averby reminds us, the origins of the town hall lie in the medieval growth of towns, freer of royal or aristocratic influence, and a mercantile class with the wealth and status to demand at least limited self-government. As the book illustrates. early town halls come in all shapes and sizes – Corfe Castle Old Town Hall, dating to the sixteenth century, is often claimed to be the smallest – and often combined administrative and commercial functions.

The Old Town Hall, Corfe Castle, dating to the 17th century

And consequently, the terminology is varied and confusing. In Scotland and parts of northern England, the building that contained the town council, such as it was in earlier times, and courts was usually named the ‘tolbooth’. ‘Market halls’ often combined premises for the sale of local goods on an open ground floor with administrative offices above. ‘Guildhalls’, most often linked with those medieval corporations of tradesmen and artisans, were occasionally just civic buildings.

As Britain industrialised in the eighteenth century, the elites of growing towns assumed greater powers (typically prioritising policing and sanitation) through private acts of parliament. Full scale and more rapid urbanisation in the nineteenth century belatedly compelled more comprehensive national legislation.

The official opening of Ossett Town Hall, June 1908 © Karen Averby

The 1835 Municipal Corporations established a uniform system of rate-payer elected municipal boroughs and allowed new towns to apply for incorporated status (62 had done so by 1882). Then, establishing the recognisably modern system of local government that persisted until 1974, the 1888 Local Government Act created county councils and county borough councils; towns of over 50,000 population could apply for county borough – in effect, unitary – status. The 1894 Local Government Act established urban and rural district councils as well as allowing women property holders to vote and stand for election for the first time.

Thus began what was arguably the heyday of local government when confident towns and cities assumed significant reforming powers – in housing, health, education and leisure services but also in a range of municipal enterprise such as transport and energy. (It was the nationalising Labour government of 1945-51 that would see these powers diminish.)

Leeds Town Hall, designed by Cuthbert Brodrick, 1853-58, in Classical/Baroque style © Karen Averby

And as Averby charts, this was reflected in some of the great showpiece town halls of the day, most strikingly in so-called ‘provincial’ cities which then, far from being left behind, were in the vanguard of the country’s economic and social progress. Classical forms dominated earlier in the nineteenth century; Gothic in the latter part, reflecting its greater flexibility as well as contemporary taste.

Sometimes whole civic complexes formed as the city fathers (as they still generally were) built to meet not only the council’s statutory duties but a goal of cultural improvement in the museums and galleries that multiplied.

The impressive town halls of Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds are all duly noted but it’s a real strength of Averby’s book that it ranges widely and apparently effortlessly (though it reflects considerable research and knowledge) across ‘lesser’ examples that, of course, were anything but to their local communities.

For a detailed architectural history, you may look elsewhere (and Averby provides a useful list of further reading at the end of the book) though the broad evolution and trends are well recorded – from that Classical and Gothic heyday to twentieth century Modernism and, more rarely, Brutalism (we’re looking at you, Hove).  

Poster, Leeds Town Hall © Karen Averby

But, to me, another quality of the book is that it isn’t narrowly architectural but always shows a keen awareness of the buildings’ wider role and functions – in Averby’s words ‘from the practical to the pleasurable’ . Her chapter ‘Town Halls and Society’ reminds us of their place as venues of celebration and protest and (perhaps most significantly for many less engaged citizens) entertainment – from classical concerts to tea dances to wrestling.

Town Halls is a brisk and affordable, 64-page run-through this rich history combining a thoughtful text with a beautifully curated and diverse selection of illustration – a good introduction to an important topic.

For further publication and purchase details, please visit the Amberley Publishing website