Fittingly for a city that prides itself as a municipal power on a scale rivalling the great city-states in European history, Manchester Town Hall is the grandest, greatest and most imposing building in the region.
It was built from 1868-77 to the Gothic designs of Alfred Waterhouse whose plan, one of 136 entries, while not the most handsome and not even the winning entry initially, was the one the judges felt made the best use of light, ventilation and the awkward triangular site available.
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. He 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 386-foot high clock tower. He also included much statuary on the façade. General Agricola, the Roman who founded Manchester in AD 79, is honoured with a statue over the main doorway. Above him are Henry III (symbolising political independence, crucial to Manchester’s history) and Elizabeth I (religious freedom), and there are also statues of Thomas de la Warre, founder of what is now the Cathedral, and Humphrey Chetham who founded what is now Europe’s oldest library a mile away. Inside the ground floor entrance are busts of the scientists John Dalton, with glassware at his feet, and William Joule, cross-legged, leaning on an elbow.
Inside the building Waterhouse’s skill becomes apparent. Seven staircases lead up from the ground floor; some grand and imposing, others spiralling mysteriously at the corners of the building. On the first floor are the Lord Mayor’s rooms, the Conference Hall, which contains the original council chamber and 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.
The internal courtyard in the basement is 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.
The Town Hall was officially opened on 13 September 1877 with a grand ceremony marred only by the refusal of Queen Victoria to attend. Benjamin Disraeli, the prime minister had to notify the city cryptically that it was “out of the power of Her Majesty to be present on this interesting occasion”. The reasons, undisclosed at the time, were that the Queen was unhappy that the Manchester Corporation had commissioned a statue of the regicide Oliver Cromwell. She was also wary of being seen on the same platform as the one time fiercely radical Manchester mayor, Abel Heywood, who had once been imprisoned for distributing publications which argued for abolishing the monarchy.
Such was Manchester’s penchant for empire building, by the 1920s it considered the Town Hall too small. E. Vincent Harris was duly commissioned to build an extension on an adjacent site to the south, and it is there that the council now meets. Yet ironically when the Corporation commissioned chief surveyor Rowland Nicholas to draw up the Manchester Plan of 1945 in rebuilding the city after the Second World War, he decided the main Town Hall was now too big, and suggested it be replaced at excessive cost with a streamlined modernist replacement. Fortunately for Manchester his proposals were shelved.