It has always been my intention to have this blog go beyond politics, the constitution, and current affairs to also focus on exploring these pieces of rock, these collection of islands known as the United Kingdom – the places, the people, the history, the culture, and everything else which make this country what it is and has shaped my view of it. This has already been done with articles about the holidays for the patron saints of the UK, the Titanic and Belfast, the Pilots of the Caribbean, British accents, April Fool’s Day, the NFL in Britain, symbols of the UK, Britain at the Olympics, among other topics.
So for this post, I’ll be looking at one of Britain’s great cities – Manchester, and with a focus on one of its most noted features, its Town Hall.
Located in North West England, Manchester has a storied history beginning with the ancient Celtic tribes who settled there, followed by the Romans, who built a fort named Mancunium, which in turn became the basis for city’s current name. As early as the 14th Century when it gained a town charter, Manchester became a center for the manufacturing and trade of linen; from here, the city grew rapidly as trade expanded with new and better ways of transportation. The Industrial Revolution brought about major technological advances which vastly increased linen production and Manchester became the world’s first industrialized city, encompassing parts of both the counties of Lancashire and Cheshire; it also earned the nicknames “Cottonopolis” and “Warehouse City” for being the Mecca of cotton processing and linen manufacturing during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Heavy industry in general went on a steep decline following World War II and the city along with it through the 1980’s and it was the victim of a substantial Provisional IRA attack in 1996, which heavily damaged parts of the city center. Since then however, Manchester has undergone an extensive regeneration to become a hub for business and financial services, media, advanced manufacturing, and tourism, as well as competing with Birmingham for the title of the UK’s second city.
As would befit a city seeking such a status, it has a beautiful town hall located at its center. Completed in 1877 and designed by Alfred Waterhouse, the Manchester Town Hall is a study in Victorian Gothic revival architecture and its purpose was to show that Manchester had arrived to be a city of wealth and importance – almost on par with London – during its heyday as the world’s cotton and linen powerhouse, having been elevated to city status in 1853. Even today, it takes on an elegant appearance which is pleasing to the eye and makes a lasting impression that there is indeed, much more to the UK than just the capital city.
The exterior of this historic building is highlighted by the clock tower which rises 280 feet from the ground atop the main entrance, which faces Albert Square and a monument to Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert. It is the sixth-tallest building in Manchester and his topped by a spiky golden globe, which symbolizes Manchester’s empire made in cotton. Within it are contained a bevy of bells, including Great Abel – the city’s answer to Big Ben and named for Abel Heywood, the Mayor of Manchester who had championed the hall – which weighs eight tons and strikes on the hour. From the top are extraordinary views of the city and the surrounding area.
On the inside are lavishly decorated corridors, hallways, staircases, and rooms filled with stone and other materials from throughout the United Kingdom which are filled with symbolism relating to Manchester, its trade and commerce, its people, and its civic organizations. Of note are two special areas which aside from the clock tower are a must-see for any visit to the building: the Sculpture Hall and the Great Hall.
The Sculpture Hall is named so because it contains the statues and busts of people who made contributions to Manchester, including anti-Corn Law campaigners Richard Cobden and John Bright, music conductors Charles Halle and Sir John Barbirolli, and scientists John Dalton and James Joule. Located on the ground floor, it is also home to a café which invites visitors to “indulge in a menu inspired by the North West” and is convenient for anybody with an appetite worked up by touring other areas of the building, and indeed, the city itself.
From the ground floor, there are a set of elegant spiral stairs which lead up to a landing known as the Bees Area, which has a floor patterned with bees and cotton and a glazed skylight on which the names of the mayors, lord mayors, and chairs of the city council are inscribed. This then leads the Great Hall, which measures 100 feet tall by 50 feet wide and features an organ along with the famous Manchester Murals by Ford Madox Brown which depicts scenes from throughout the city’s history. Above them are large arched windows permitting natural light to flow into the large space and along the ceiling are a series of panels with the coat of arms of countries and towns which had traded with Manchester.
This room bears a close resemblance to Westminster Hall, and indeed, the whole Town Hall gives an appearance reminiscent of the interiors and exteriors of the Palace of Westminster, which is why the building has been used as a filming location for television and film, including Sherlock Holmes and The Iron Lady. It is also used for various private engagements, such as wedding ceremonies, conferences, and other events, and there are several other well-appointed rooms that are used for these purposes, including the Lord Mayor's Parlour, Conference Hall, Banqueting Room, Reception Room, Small Ante Room, and three conference rooms. In fact, the city council now mostly meets in the Town Hall Extension across Lloyd Street, which was built in the 1930’s.
Tours of the Town Hall are available via external tour companies such as New Manchester Walks, which offers guided tours through the building, including specific ones for extensive viewing of the murals and going up to the top of the clock tower. Unfortunately, tours for the clock tower have been suspended for at least this year due to repairs, but the other areas are still available, both in a general tour of the building and one focused on the Madox Murals. As the building is booked for private functions, it is advisable to check New Manchester Walks for date and time availability, as well as to email them to notify them of your attendance on a certain day and to obtain the latest information and prices.
The Town Hall is only one feature to see in Manchester, but it offers a foundation for experiencing one of the great cities of the United Kingdom, and anybody who visits it will be in for a treat they will not forget.