In Haunt

Rochdale Town Hall is one of the country’s stand-out municipal buildings. Designed by William Henry Crossland and built between the years 1866 and 1871 in a glorious example of the Gothic Revival style, it boasts a landmark clock tower and acclaimed stained-glass windows. Having received a Grade I listing in 1951, Rochdale Town Hall has long been marked as a location of international architectural significance.  Now it is preparing to undergo a £16 million redevelopment that will see the building transformed; a process of restoration and refurbishment that will enable the building once again to tell the story of Rochdale and its people.

Rochdale Town Hall

Rochdale Town Hall still is open to visitors during the week (9am-5pm), complete with a beautiful clock tower dining room within – but it is also important to consider how the building will develop for the future visiting public. Restoration of the building has become especially important in recent years, as its much-loved historic features have inevitably been affected over time. This includes the magnificent Magna Carta mural in the Great Hall, the large carved gilded angels on the hammer beams and the beautiful Bright Hall – all examples, too, of how the building marks Rochdale’s radical past. This is, after all, is the town where the Co-operative movement was founded (See the Rochdale Pioneers website for more details) and the birthplace of British radical John Bright and various Trade Union meetings.  

In view of Rochdale’s radical political past, the Gothic style of its Town Hall is, indeed, remarkable. From the time of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 onwards, Gothic architecture had often been regarded as the embodiment in stone of liberal, Whiggish political tendencies. For example, the nineteenth-century Gothic Revival of A. C. and A. W. Pugin, Charles Barry, John Ruskin, George Gilbert Scott, William Butterfield and others had co-opted the Gothic for a far more conservative if not strictly Tory cause. This is particularly the case with the Palace of Westminster, the building that is more commonly known as the Houses of Parliament: that iconic Gothic Revivalist fixture on the London skyline that was rebuilt over several decades in the nineteenth century after the original medieval Palace had burned to the ground in October 1834. As architectural historians have pointed out, Barry and Pugin the Younger’s designs for the new Palace at Westminster firmly articulated Tory political principles, including a nostalgic view of England’s Middle Ages, the veneration of chivalry and British subjects’ devotion to the reigning monarch.  

How different these political principles seem from those embraced by Rochdale and its people – especially now as the Town Hall is about to be transformed. Following a successful round-one bid to The National Lottery Heritage Fund for £8.9m, the award-winning architecture firm Donald Insall Associates will be leading a key part of the transformation of Rochdale Town Hall. Having already worked on buildings the likes of the John Rylands Library in Manchester and the Houses of Parliament, it is anticipated that this team of specialists will show sensitivity to the original fixtures of the building, as it is often cited as one of the best examples of Gothic Revival style architecture in the country. This development will also open up the building’s history to an even larger audience by the planned completion date in 2023.  

Rochdale Town Hall Old

Again, though, the very notion of architectural improvement raises a number of interesting historical questions. Why so? From the middle of the eighteenth century onwards, the restoration of Gothic buildings had been conceptualised as a politically charged act. This relied upon the tendency metaphorically to conceptualise the British constitution itself as an ancient Gothic mansion or castle, one that, though built in earlier days, had been subjected to the processes of gradual improvement over time to accommodate the requirements of the modern present. While Tories and conservative Whigs, bent upon the maintenance of the status quo, tended to argue that the British constitution-as-Gothic-castle be only moderately altered and improved, radicals, inspired by the fall of the Bastille in Paris in July 1789, frequently called for the utter demolition of all ancient Gothic structures, architectural and otherwise, and, with them, the unfair political systems for which they stood. Throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, in fact, it was almost impossible to separate the practice of architectural preservation, alteration, improvement and deliberate ruination from broader political concerns: as both metaphor and as stylistic practice, Gothic architecture and its revival was inherently political.    

How far we seem to have come, then, in the planned restoration of Rochdale Town Hall, much of which is to be undertaken in the spirit of inclusiveness and accessibility. Redevelopments will include re-opening the old library on the first floor as the new Bright Hall, celebrating the local Bright family and also the people of Rochdale by offering an interactive, engaging space to learn more about the area. In addition, new lifts and toilets are planned for the building, as well as a complete overhaul of the car park that is currently located at the front. This, instead, will be the location of a stunning Town Hall Square (CGI image below), part of a £3million redesign which will be led by global landscape designers, Gillespies, underlining that this iconic Rochdale location is of worldwide status and opening up the space to the town’s people and its visitors.

Town Hall Proposals

The redevelopment of Rochdale Town Hall will not only emphasize the importance of physical access, but intellectual access too - a place for people to visit for free and to find out more about its multiple uses. Ever wondered, then, what a Town Hall is for?  How did people respond to it at the time it was built? Questions like this, and many more, will be answered in new features that will open up local history in new and exciting ways. Part of this also includes scraping away the literal and metaphorical darkness - as over the years the numerous paintings and murals have been darkened, requiring a specialist clean. This part of the redevelopment is expected to reveal never-before-seen details and emphasise the splendour of the space.

But why does it matter? Emerging out of the Victorian era, when civic buildings were a dramatic statement of the aspirations of an area, Rochdale Town Hall was also built to celebrate the town as a thriving place of trade and industry. 19th Century Rochdale was one of the fastest towns in the North to industrialise. This is illustrated in the design itself – the building is covered in artistry – as murals in one council chamber still display various items that drove the industrial revolution, from the sheep that signify the wool trade, to figures working at machinery. The design of the Mayors Parlour (pictured below) further emphasizes the wonders of the space. Much of the interior detail at the time was in the hands of the acclaimed decorators Heaton, Butler and Bayne, including floor tiles embossed with local coats of arms and extensive wall paintings. A point to note here, and a signature of the time, is that the decorators (like medieval stone masons before them) would sometimes leave a small element of the wall painting unfinished, with one rumour circulating that this was when their pay stopped!Mayors Parlour

In addition, Rochdale Town Hall’s stained glass is internationally acclaimed as both historically and artistically significant: the depictions of fruit and flowers part of a nineteenth-century aesthetic movement that embraced nature and its representation of growth and plenty. Yet, underlining this massive building as a maze of surprises and intrigue: other rooms, such as the now-named ‘Zodiac Bar’, offer very different designs - bucking the trend of natural law with its ornate decorations of astrology symbols. Perhaps in its stylistic hybridity we might see this as a reflection on the importance of diversity to Rochdale and its people.

Numerous elements of the building invite further attention and are loaded with stories of their own. The Grand staircase leading up to The Great Hall offers a fine display of stained-glass work, depicting many of the areas with which Rochdale traded. Inside the Great Hall itself (pictured below) there are not only glorious circular windows at either end of the room – with a representation of Queen Victoria in one and Prince Albert in the other, the couple looking longingly at each other across the vast space – but also individual panels of the British monarchy on two sides, starting with William The Conqueror. Interestingly, and in a nod to Rochdale’s radical connections, the regicide Oliver Cromwell is also amongst the line-up: very different from the Royalism articulated in the Houses of Parliament.

Great Hall Rochdale

Rochdale Town Hall has a fascinating history well worth further exploration. Crossland was tasked with the commission following his winning a competition to design the building in 1864, again a way of deciding on the appointment of the architect that had been employed during the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament in the late 1830s. It was John Bright who laid the foundation stone in 1866, and, given the enormity of the task at hand, it took, like the Palace of Westminster, until the 1870s before the building was finished.

 At the time of its completion, the building boasted a 73-metre-tall clock tower topped with a statue of St George and his Dragon on a wooden spire. It was little wonder that the building was seen as one of the most striking of its time in the whole of England, with an opening parade packed with over 30,000 people keen to see the hall (invitation to the opening pictured below). This elaborate procession is something that the Town Hall authorities will be looking to re-create when the first phase of redevelopments are completed in 2023.

Rochdale Town Hall Opening

Yet following the grand opening of the hall, it was not long before disaster struck. Not only had areas of the magnificent spire developed dry rot in the 1880s, but on the 10 April 1883, a fire broke out, destroying the spire. Echoes of the fate of other Gothic buildings, both original and revivalist, in the nineteenth century are difficult to ignore: 9 years before the devastating fire at Westminster, the main spire of Fonthill Abbey, William Beckford’s Revivalist Gothic folly in Wiltshire, fell spectacularly to the ground.  A rather bizarre tale arising out the fire at Rochdale Town Hall is that Oldham’s Fire Service arrived on the scene before Rochdale’s own, despite the fact that Rochdale Fire Service was based in the Town Hall itself! The fire also destroyed what was the Clock Tower Library - leading to the opening a year later of the building nearby that is now Touchstones (currently the town's much-loved Museum and Art Gallery) as a 'Free Public Library'. 

It was not only the fire that attracted criticism at the time, however. As was often the case with expensive buildings, much public debate had arisen over whether the Town Hall was a justifiable expense or careless extravagance, over whether it was a celebratory space for Rochdale or a grotesque diversion of funds. Similar debates, of course, had raged earlier over the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament, not least in the infamous ‘Battle of the Styles’, that extended cultural exchange over whether the Palace was to be rebuilt in the Elizabethan or Gothic styles.

 Remarkably, traces of this argument at Rochdale can be seen in the design of the building itself. On the ground floor, in what was the Mayor’s Dining Room (now called ‘Committee Room 3’), the ornate ceiling contains a small statue in each corner, each representing one of figures involved in the debate. Whilst one character clutches a model of the Town Hall protectively (see image below), the others represent councillors at the time who criticised such a decision. The building thus displays the very controversies that brought it into being. In this room there is also a large painting of John Bright’s brother, Jacob.

GL Ashworth Corbel

The Town Hall’s tower was eventually rebuilt – the resulting clock tower is still standing today - in a design that many people may recognise as similar to Manchester Town Hall. This is perhaps no wonder considering it was designed by the same architect, Alfred Waterhouse. Constructed between the years of 1885 and 1887, the dramatic stone structure stands at 58m and houses five bells, recently named as The Bells of Co-operation with the individual titles of Little Ben, Our Gracie, Recedham (how Rochdale was recorded in the Domesday Book), Bobbin Bell and The Bamford Bell. These titles arose as the result of a naming competition opened to the public following the BBC Radio 4 Christmas Eve broadcast of the Rochdale Town Hall chimes to replace those of Big Ben, with the results announced in early 2019 on Radio Manchester.

There are numerous other details that showcase Rochdale Town Hall as a place packed with stories that are worth treasuring, maintaining and remembering. Inside, visitors regularly marvel over the scale, structure and details of design - with the angels in The Great Hall (pictured below) often attracting attention.  On the outside, there are various gargoyles and stone crockets, as well as four gilded lions with shields, the design and embellishment of the building thus including the Rochdale Council coats of arms and also the hundred of Salford. The dark stone that gives the building its impressively Gothic facade was largely taken from millstone grit quarries in nearby Todmorden and Blackstone Edge. It is perhaps no wonder that local guide Colin Meredith considers and stops by the Town Hall on his regular, historically-informative Rochdale Ghost Walks.

Another notable point is that since 2008, Peregrine falcons have been nesting on the clock tower of the Town Hall. In turn, a nesting area was built and the birds can be viewed via Rochdale Borough Council's online webcam. This highlights the rich diversity both of the building and the surrounding area, with Rochdale's Revealing the Roch project also recognised for its efforts to renaturalise the River Roch, which runs through the town centre (and ran beneath it for more than a century until it was recently uncovered!).

Town Hall Angel

Another notable point that it is not just the Fire Service that the Town Hall has housed in its many years of dynamic usage. The local court, which previously convened in the adjacent Flying Horse Hotel, moved here, as did The Police Service, with the cells underneath the building that, though no longer functional, are still there today. The restoration of Rochdale Town Hall will therefore not only help preserve a building, but years of fascinating history and crucial heritage too.

The redevelopment (a further CGI of planned Town Hall Square space pictured below) is part of the wider £400m regeneration of Rochdale town centre, which has included the award-winning river re-opening scheme, the new transport Interchange and town centre Metrolink stop and the Rochdale Riverside retail and leisure development, set to open in 2020.

CGI

By Emily Oldfield, with thanks to Dale Townshend (Professor of Gothic Literature at Manchester Metropolitan University and also the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies).

Images provided with thanks to Rochdale Borough Council and Rochdale Town Hall (website here)

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  1. Jaybee
    An interesting potted history. Looking forward to the restoration work preserving this fabulous monument for generations to come.

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