This second post marking Open House London on 16-17 September offers a broadly chronological, whistle-stop tour of the municipal seats of government featured, in various forms – some grand, some humble – this weekend. (Open House venues are picked out in bold; the links relate to previous blog posts.)
It’s appropriate then to begin with the oldest and one of the most impressive of these, the City of London Guildhall and its present Grand Hall, begun in 1411 – the third largest surviving medieval hall in the country. Externally, it’s probably the 1788 grand entrance by George Dance the Younger in – with apologies to contemporary sensibilities – what’s been called Hindoostani Gothic that is most eye-catching. The adjacent Guildhall Library and Art Gallery are also open to view – great facilities along with others provided the City but, as the Corporation is hardly a triumph of democracy, we’ll move on.
At the other end of the scale what is now the Vestry House Museum in Walthamstow is a modest affair. It started life in the mid-18th century as a workhouse but included a room set aside for meetings of the local vestry. It was later adapted as a police station before becoming a very fine local museum in 1930. If you can’t make Open House, do visit it and Walthamstow Village at another time.
The Old Vestry Offices in Enfield, a small polygonal building built in 1829 originally housed the local beadle – responsible for local enforcement of the Poor Law – and then, until the 1930s, a police station.
This was an era of minimal – so-called night-watchman – local government when ad hoc, largely unrepresentative bodies administered basic services largely related to public safety. As towns grew and expectations – initially focused on health and, increasingly, on housing – increased, the more ambitious vestries took on enhanced roles and garnered greater prestige. One such was Shoreditch.
Shoreditch Town Hall
Shoreditch Town Hall almost matches the Guildhall in its civic pretensions – chutzpah indeed for a building, designed by the impressively named Caesar Augustus Long and opened in 1866 for a vestry. But Shoreditch Vestry took particular pride in its path-breaking municipal electricity undertaking and here its motto, and that of the later Borough, ‘More Light, More Power’ took on more than merely metaphorical meaning. You might recognise the figure of ‘Progress’ enshrined in the Town Hall tower too. After a long period of decline, the Town Hall was reopened in 2005 and is now a thriving community venue operated by the Shoreditch Town Hall Trust.
Limehouse Town Hall, opened in 1881, is a humbler building despite the Italian palazzo styling adopted by local architects Arthur and Christopher Harston. It also started life as a Vestry Hall but one intended nevertheless as ‘a structure that…shall do honour to the parish of Limehouse’. It went on to serve as offices for Stepney Metropolitan Borough Council – while its great hall hosted balls and concerts and even early ‘cinematograph’ shows. It was well known to Clement Attlee, mayor of Stepney in 1919 and later the area’s MP. It’s been run by the Limehouse Town Hall Consortium Trust as a community venue since 2004.
Ealing had a local board of health from 1863 and didn’t become an urban district until 1894 under the Local Government Act of that year. Ealing Town Hall, a grand neo-Gothic building, designed by Charles Jones and opened in 1888 replaced a smaller town hall (still standing, now a bank on The Mall) built just fourteen years earlier but now deemed too small for purpose. The newer town hall was itself extended in the 1930s and includes an impressive double-height council chamber.
Battersea Town Hall, begun in 1892 – an ‘Elizabethan Renaissance’ design by Edward Mountford – survived a disastrous fire in 2015. Fortunately, repairs and improvements have re-established what is now the Battersea Arts Centre as a wonderful local resource. Its local government heritage survives, however – a worthy memorial to the time when Battersea’s radical politics earned it the title, the ‘Municipal Mecca’. (The Latchmere Estate, a fifteen minute walk to the north and the subject of my very first post, was the first council estate in Britain to be built by direct labour in 1903.)
Richmond, a municipal borough founded in 1890 in the County of Surrey, was a more conservative body although it can boast (since its incorporation in Greater London in 1965) the first council housing built in the capital. Richmond Old Town Hall, also designed in Elizabethan Renaissance style by WJ Ancell, was opened in 1893 and now houses (since the creation of the London Borough of Richmond) a museum, gallery and local studies archives amongst other things.
Finsbury Town Hall
Finsbury Town Hall was opened in 1895, another Vestry Hall at that time, designed by C Evans Vaughan in ‘free Flemish Renaissance’ style according to Pevsner. Look out for the Art Nouveau entrance canopy and internal fittings too. It’s a beautiful building making good use of a tricky site, subsequently home to one of the most radical of London’s Metropolitan Borough Councils. Nearby, you can visit the headquarters of the Metropolitan Water Board, opened in 1920, just up the road at New River Head.
Back to Finsbury Town Hall, it’s been the home of the Urdang Academy – a school of dance and musical theatre – since 2006 and, in its words, ‘an inspiring and fitting environment in which to train’. The Town Hall is still a local registry office for weddings and, for that reason, close to my heart and that of the woman who puts the ‘dreams’ into ‘municipal’.
Croydon, created a County Borough within Surrey in 1889, didn’t amalgamate with London until 1965 but the Town Hall, built to plans by local architect Charles Henman, was opened in 1896 to provide ‘Municipal Offices, Courts, a Police Station, Library and many other public purposes’. The Croydon Town Hall and Clocktower complex retains some local government functions – the Mayor’s Parlour and committee rooms – but also offers a museum, gallery, library and cinema.
The first ‘free Classical’ phase of Redbridge Town Hall, by architect Ben Woollard, was opened in 1901 for Ilford Urban District Council. A new central library was built in the 1927 extension for the newly created Municipal Borough and further office space in the 1933 extension, contributing to the eclectic Renaissance of the overall ensemble. Since 1965 it’s served as the headquarters of the London Borough of Redbridge. The Council Chamber is one of the finest in London.
A visit to the Tottenham Green Conservation Area gives you an opportunity view a whole slew of historically significant buildings. With my municipal hat on, I’ll draw your attention to Tottenham Town Hall (HQ of Tottenham Urban District Council from 1904 to 1965) and the other examples of local government endeavour and service adjacent – the public baths next door (now just the façade remaining but, as the Bernie Grants Art Centre supported by Haringey Council, still serving a progressive purpose), the fire station (now an enterprise centre), and technical college (built by Middlesex County Council). Passing the new Marcus Garvie Library, you’ll come across Tottenham’s former public library built in 1896 just up the road. It’s as fine an ensemble of civic purpose and social betterment as you could find in the country.
And without doubt, Woolwich Town Hall, an elaborate Baroque design by Alfred Brumwell Thomas, is one of the most impressive town halls in the capital. Queen Victoria presides over the main stairway of the building’s staggeringly impressive central lobby but the building was opened, following Labour’s capture of the Metropolitan Borough Council in 1903 by local MP and dockers’ leader Will Crooks. That take-over by one of the largest and most active Labour organisations in the country (don’t neglect the Royal Arsenal Cooperative Society here) heralded a proud era of reform to raise the health and living standards of the local working class.
Bethnal Green Town Hall, Edwardian Baroque, was opened in 1910 to designs by Percy Robinson and W Alban Jones. Sculptures by Henry Poole adorn the exterior. The growth of local government responsibilities in the interwar period compelled the opening of a large extension to the rear, designed by ECP Monson – restrained neo-classical outside, sumptuous and modern inside – in 1939. (Monson was also a significant architect of the era’s council housing such as the briefly notorious Lenin Estate built in the 1920s when the Council was briefly under joint Labour-Communist control.)
Moving to the immediate pre-war period, the Middlesex Guildhall in Westminster – originally housing, amongst other things, the offices of Middlesex County Council – was an unusual building for its time, designed by Scottish architect James Gibson in free Gothic style. It was sympathetically adapted in 2009 to serve as the headquarters of the UK Supreme Court.
Islington Town Hall (c) Alan Ford and made available through Wikimedia Commons
Islington Town Hall, opened in 1925, takes us into the heyday of local government as councils assumed ever greater powers and purpose. It was designed by ECP Monson again. Its neo-classical style has been described as old-fashioned for its time but it’s finely executed.
Kingston Town Hall, built ten years later for the then Municipal Borough of Kingston-on Thames and designed by Maurice Webb, displays another of the more traditional forms still favoured in the era – redbrick, neo-Georgian. The Magistrates Courts, incorporated into the building, are now the offices of the Borough’s History Centre.
Hackney Town Hall, designed by Henry Lanchester and Thomas Lodge, is also formally neo-classical but its lines and styling are sleeker, more modern and, internally it’s a masterpiece of Art Deco. When formally opened in 1937 by Lord Snell, Labour Leader of the House of the Lords, he described it as a building:
devoted to the business of living one with another to the benefit of all…It represented something more than mere stone and wood put together; it embodied the ideal of social living…a symbol of their idealism and a focal point for the services of their great borough, and he hoped they would find in it an atmosphere of quiet dignity, purity of administration and of love for the purpose to which it was devoted.
That’s an ideal of local governance that we would do well to remember and revive in these straitened times.
Opened one year earlier, Romford Town Hall (now serving the London Borough of Havering) is a less elaborate building, designed by Herbert R Collins and Antoine Englebert O Geens in an architectural competition stressing the need for strict economy. But it’s an important representative of the International Moderne style increasingly in vogue at this time. Though its steel-framed construction is hidden here by brickwork and stone, rather than the white cement often favoured, this was a consciously forward-looking, more democratic architecture shedding the detritus of the past.
The former Dagenham Town Hall (now the Coventry University London Campus) was designed by E Berry Webber in 1937 for what was then Dagenham Urban District Council, undergoing massive growth as a result of the LCC’s nearby Becontree Estate. It’s a modernist design of steel-framed construction – a quintessential civic building of the era. The full height, marbled ceremonial stairway in the building’s main hall is on of the most impressive in the capital.
The consummation of this ambitious era of municipal construction is found in Walthamstow Town Hall (now belonging to the Borough of Waltham Forest) and the adjacent Assembly Hall – a magnificent civic complex fronted by sweeping lawns and a grand central pool and fountain. Both the Town Hall, not open this year, and Assembly Hall were designed by Phillip Hepworth in a stripped down classical style with Art Deco touches owing something to Scandinavian contemporaries. The front of the Hall, famed for its acoustics and a favourite recording venue, is inscribed with the words of local son William Morris (which also provide the Borough motto), “Fellowship is Life; Lack of Fellowship is Death’.
Finally, we can bring the story up to date by referring to some 21st century examples of new civic architecture. City Hall, the home of the Mayor of London and Greater London Assembly, was opened in 2002 – a high-tech building created by Norman Foster and Partners. Not everybody likes its appearance but the building is notable for reflecting current imperatives of sustainable design.
The new Brent Civic Centre, opened in 2013 near Wembley Stadium lets us end on a positive note. The building unites Brent’s civic, public and administrative functions under a single roof – in the words of its designers Hopkins Architects, ‘a new hub and heart for the community where residents can meet, shop and eat’. The latter, of course, is another reflection of changed times and priorities and an ethos in which public service is at best complemented by commercial imperatives and, at worst, subordinated to them.
I haven’t seen it but it looks, to be fair, a rather stunning building and, since it houses a community hall and library as well as a civic chamber and offices for the 2000 employees who keep the borough’s services going, let’s celebrate it as a worthy update to the civic heritage this post records.