To highlight our ever-popular Town Hall tours (11am, every Tuesday, 2.30pm Sundays plus some evenings…meeting at the Midland Hotel…details as of summer 2014), here’s an alphabetical taster…
…is for Alfred Waterhouse
Alfred Waterhouse won the commission to design Manchester Town Hall, which was built between 1868 and 1877. He beat off over 130 competitors including Thomas Worthington (responsible for the Albert Memorial outside the building), and Edward Salomons (the Reform Club on King Street), not just on account of his masterful submission, but through the expert use he made of the site, with its awkward triangular shape, and his ideas regarding light and ventilation.
The Corporation had given no preference for the building’s architectural style, but to emphasise Manchester’s newly found wealth from textiles Waterhouse chose as his model the 13th century Gothic cloth halls of Flanders, from where weavers had aided the local textile economy in the 14th century.
Waterhouse built in brick faced with stone from the West Yorkshire Spinkwell quarries for the exterior, ashlar for the interior, and placed above the main entrance a 286-foot high clock tower. Inside, Waterhouse’s skill becomes apparent. Seven staircases lead up from the ground floor; some grand and imposing, others spiraling mysteriously at the corners of the building. On the first floor are the Lord Mayor’s rooms, the Conference Hall (the original council chamber), which contains a huge Gothic chimney-piece, oak screen and wrought-iron galleries where the press and public sat, and the Great Hall, the building’s tour de force, which John Ruskin called “the most truly magnificent Gothic apartment in Europe”. In the panels of the Great Hall’s hammerbeam roof are gilded costs of arms of the nations with which Manchester traded, and on the walls are Ford Madox Brown’s 12 murals which illustrate episodes in Manchester’s history.
Below the Great Hall is the atmospheric, ancient-looking courtyard (often used as a Victorian setting in TV dramas), while throughout the profusion of cloister-like corridors, spiral staircases, bridges and stairwells creates a wonderful sense of drama.
Manchester Town Hall is Alfred Waterhouse’s masterpiece. his other great works include Strangeways prison, Manchester university and the Natural History Museum.
…is for Bee
The humble bumble bee is the official Manchester animal. Other cities and countries sport lions and elephants; Manchester the bee. The city is a hive of industry where everyone is as busy as bees. Consequently the meeting area outside the Town Hall’s Great Hall is known as The Bees, the floor decorated with scores of the insect amid the mosaics under the glazed panels of the Mayors and Lord Mayors.
…is for Coat of Arms, Council Crest and Cotton
The bees on the globe relate to the bee being the chosen Manchester animal in this hive of industry (see “B is for Bee” above). The ship in full sail records Manchester as a commercial city, trading with the world, linked with the free trade movement of the time. But it was also a mark of wishful thinking on behalf of the city leaders who dreamed of linking Manchester with the sea via a canal – what opened in 1894 as the Manchester Ship Canal.
The antelope and lion are the coat of arms of Henry IV, early 15th century Duke of Lancaster, the first local figure to become king of England. On the lion’s head is a castle, demonstrating Manchester’s origins at Castlefield. The shield is that of the Grelley family, lords of the manor of Manchester in mediaeval times. The three stripes are not a reference to the three local rivers, the Medlock, Irk and Irwell as some sources suggest, for there were four local rivers, the other being the Tib. The three stripes are the Grelleys’ affirmation of the Holy Trinity.
The Latin motto on the Manchester coat of arms is derived from Chapter 37, Sentence 16 of the Book of Ecclesiasticus, one of the Biblical apocrypha, and translated from the Latin means “with diligence and hard work”, although some wags suggest the more partisan and less traditional alternative: “the council is Labour”. The entire phrase reads: “Let reason go before every action and let counsel go before every action”, an appropriate pun.
But C is also for cotton. The whole building is a tribute to the king of shrubs that transformed Manchester’s industry in the 18th century. It was the money from cotton that made Manchester wealthy enough to build a Town hall this grand. consequently the facade of the building resembles the cloth halls of north-western Europe; there is a golden cotton boll, rather than a cross, on top of the church-like spire (the architect, Alfred Waterhouse, mockingly saying “Manchester is worshipping cotton, industry, money, not God”); there are cotton plant decorations inside in the stonework, and on the walls and ceilings; and there are stories of how Manchester became a great cotton-producing centre on the Murals in the Great Hall (see M is for Murals, below).
…is for John Dalton
Enter the Town Hall through the main entrance and the first noticeable sight is the two huge statues flanking the hall. They are of scientists: James Prescott Joule and John Dalton. Joule gave his name to the universal unit of heat and energy following his sterling work in the 19th century, but Dalton is the more formidable figure.
In a house on George Street, five minutes’ walk from the Town Hall (bombed in the Second World War), Dalton conducted experiments with gases at the turn of the 18th century that changed the world. His atomic theory, published in 1803, suggested the now tacit notion that matter is composed of atoms. The leading British scientists in London had to rethink their views in light of Dalton’s theory. A hundred years later, in Manchester, Ernest Rutherford split the atom, which led to the modern world of atomic power, nuclear bombs and the overhanging threat of Armageddon. This explains why Manchester became Britain’s first nuclear free zone in 1980.
Less controversial was Dalton’s work on colour-blindness, which he suffered from. He published one of the first scientific papers on the affliction; the word for colour-blindness in many European languages includes Dalton’s name. But in English, ironically, we just say colour-blindness.
Dalton’s third great scientific contribution was even more important for Manchester. He kept daily weather records in the city for 57 years and apparently was the first person to explain to locals that it rains here a lot.
…is for Edward III
On the Princess Street side of the Town Hall only one statue can be found, that of Edward III, 14th century king of England. Even though Edward probably never came to Manchester, his influence here was considerable. He and his wife, Philippa of Hainault, invited into the North-West weavers from the lowlands where she had been raised. With their skills they gave a significant boost to the local textile economy. Five hundred years later, when the Town Hall was built, Manchester was the world centre for the manufacture and distribution of cotton goods, the new Town Hall itself designed to look like a Flemish cloth hall.There are other mementos to Edward III in the building. The gorgeously painted ceiling of the entrance hall is decorated with the crest and motto of the Order of the Garter – Dieu et Mon Droit…Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense – the foremost order of chivalry in the United Kingdom, found on all government and official buildings. Edward III founded the Order in 1348. He was dancing with his cousin, Joan of Kent, at a ball in Eltham Palace, when her garter slipped. His friends laughed, but the King picked up the fallen garter and placed it on his own leg, turning to his friends with the admonishment Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense – shame on he who thinks evil of it.
Out of this light-hearted moment, the King created a chivalrous Order, to teach his knights a lesson in chivalry. It is still of the highest status, its members now including John Major and Margaret Thatcher. One of the first hand-picked knights was Henry the Good, whose statue can be seen on the outside of the building and at the back of the reception area opposite the entrance hall.
…is for Fleur-de-lys
…is for Great Abel
…is for Abel Heywood
…is for Independence
The politicians and merchants who built Manchester Town Hall in the 1860s and 1870s were Liberals politically, keen to take pride in their support for Parliamentary democracy, hence the statue of Henry who presided over the first Parliament. In religion, their views were anti-Catholic, staunchly Protestant and noncomformist, hence their homage to Elizabeth.
…is for John Bright
…is for Ken Strath
Ken Strath is no longer a councillor, but he can be found for all time in Ken Loach’s 1993 film, Raining Stones, set in a windswept north Manchester council estate, playing “Councillor Strath” alongside such luminaries as Bruce Jones (Les Battersby in Coronation Street) and Ricky Tomlinson. Beats being Lord Chair.