The exceptional tale of Manchester Town Hall, a Victorian masterpiece that’s the finest building of its kind in Britain

In 2018, the celebrated Manchester Town Hall closed for a six-year renovation. Country Life recorded its empty interiors before work began and Steven Brindle tells its exceptional story. Photographs by Will Pryce.

By the early 19th century, Manchester had emerged as one of the first true industrial cities in the world. It had a skyline of spinning mills and tall chimneys, as well as horrendous slums, but it also had an energetic middle class, dedicated to self-improvement and making money.

Late-Georgian Manchester equipped itself with a number of public buildings and cultural institutions, mostly in the Greek Revival style, such as its first town hall on King Street, which was designed by Francis Goodwin and built between 1819 and 1834.

By the 1860s, Manchester had outgrown Goodwin’s building. The town’s corporation conceived the project for a new building in 1863 and decided to proceed in 1864. The corporation may have been full of hard-nosed businessmen, but where the new town hall was concerned, no expense was to be spared: they wanted it to be ‘equal, if not superior, to any similar building in the country’.

A two-stage competition was organised to choose an architect, with the 137 entries assessed by Prof T. L. Donaldson and the eminent church architect and Gothicist George Edmund Street. Eight entries went through to the second round and, on April 1, 1868, Alfred Waterhouse (1830–1905) was announced as the winner.

‘The quality of the building is due both to Waterhouse’s brilliance and Manchester’s determination to have (and pay for) the best’

Waterhouse had been born in Liverpool, the son of a Quaker mill owner. His brother Edwin was an accountant and a founding partner in the firm that became Price Waterhouse and another brother, Theodore, was a solicitor and co-founder of the firm now known as Field Fisher Waterhouse.

Manchester Town Hall

©Will Pryce/Country Life

Alfred established his architectural practice in Manchester in 1853 and his first great success was winning the competition for the city’s new Assize Courts on Great Ducie Street. Built between 1859 and 1864, they foreshadowed the Town Hall in some ways, with a central tower and richly decorated Gothic style. Boosted by this success, Waterhouse moved his practice to London in 1865. The railways enabled London-based architects to maintain a national reach, but the two great Manchester commissions meant that his career had a strong northern bias.

The Town Hall took nine years to complete and the quality of the building is due both to Waterhouse’s brilliance and Manchester’s determination to have (and pay for) the best. The cost of the building alone was £521,537 and the total bill, including land, furnishings and fees, about £859,000.

An irregular triangular site was found, with its main front to the west, facing what became Albert Square. The building forms a hollow triangle of four-storey wings raised over basements. Vaulted corridors within the courtyard connect the principal rooms, all of which face outwards. Running through the middle of this plan and dividing the central courtyard into several internal courtyards and lightwells is the Great Hall.

Manchester Town Hall

©Will Pryce/Country Life

To face the building, Waterhouse chose Spinkwell stone, a durable, dun-coloured sandstone from Yorkshire. He had used many coloured finishes at the Assize Courts, but did not do so here, realising that the city’s polluted atmosphere would turn it black.

The style he assumed is loosely 13th century, with motifs and ideas from England and France. The overall concept owes something to the late-medieval town halls and cloth halls of Flanders, but Waterhouse was never pedantic about his sources.

In 1877, when work was just complete, competition judge Donaldson, addressing the RIBA, referred to its architecture as ‘medieval’. Waterhouse demurred, saying: ‘The learned professor spoke… as if the Manchester Town Hall were a medieval building. On the contrary, the architecture… was essentially 19th century and was fitted to the wants of the present day.’

The controlled asymmetry of the Albert Square façade shows that Waterhouse was thinking in Ruskinian terms. Its composition around the tower has analogies to natural forms, such as trees, whereby a strong focal point lends visual coherence to a varied whole – it would not be possible to do this in a Classical design. Each façade is picturesquely composed with windows of varied form: tall, traceried windows for the grand reception rooms, smaller groups of office windows above and a varied roofline of dormers outlined against the tall roofs.

Manchester Town Hall

©Will Pryce/Country Life

There are entrances for different purposes on each side. The main entrance from Albert Square, below the 280ft tower, has a deeply moulded Gothic arch. Above it is a figure of Agricola, the Roman governor who founded a fort at Mamucium in AD9, and higher up are figures of Henry III and Elizabeth I, who gave the city its early charters.

The broad doorway leads into a square vestibule with a rib vault decorated with mosaic and gilding, an introduction to the rich polychrome decoration that pervades the interior. To one side is the long, vaulted Waiting Hall or Sculpture Hall, overlooking Albert Square. Behind this, a pair of grand staircases rises with dog-legged flights and curved landings. It was here that Waterhouse contrived effects of Wagnerian drama, with views through the arcading to the high, vaulted first-floor corridors.

There are more spiral stairs at the inner angles of the courtyards and further drama in the way they relate to the vistas down the long, vaulted corridors.

Manchester Town Hall

Will Pryce/Country Life

Five grand reception rooms, all different in size and shape, run along the west front with views of the square. The southernmost is the former Council Chamber, now a general meeting room, which was fitted out with seats for 48 aldermen and councillors, with places for the mayor and officers on a low dais and galleries for the clerks and the public. Next is the Lord Mayor’s Parlour, with portraits of Manchester worthies, then a vaulted vestibule under the clock tower, with another reception room after that.

Beyond is the Banqueting Room, the most spatially complex of these interiors, with twin oriel windows at the far end. A high toplit vestibule at the top of the twin main staircases leads to the Great Hall, the 100ft by 50ft climax of the interior. It is lit by seven tall traceried windows along each side, below which are the 12 famous murals of scenes from northern history by Ford Madox Brown. They were begun in 1879 and completed in 1893 at a cost of £4,500.

Manchester Town Hall

©Will Pryce/Country Life

Brown’s Pre-Raphaelite background led him to reject the Classical, idealised style of most contemporary European public art and the murals have a highly individual quality – the figures were based on real sitters and most of the panels have passages of comedy and near-caricature. Brown presents history as something accidental and unheroic, made by real people, not idealised stereotypes. The panelled ceiling has polychrome decoration by Heaton, Butler & Bayne, with the coats of arms of cities and nations that Manchester traded with. A great organ occupies the dais at the far end.

The town hall was built using the Dennet system of fireproof construction, in which wrought-iron beams carry concrete vaults. In the main public rooms, the structure is hidden by ceilings, but, in the offices, the rhythm of beams and vaults is part of the design. The long corridors were given structural rib and groin vaults, with those on the west front in two colours of stone and those along other corridors with painted patterns.

The fittings and decoration throughout are of superlative quality, especially the joinery and the metal light fittings. Waterhouse controlled all the detail: he designed the furniture for the public rooms, the alphabet used in the etched glass, the fire irons and a dinner service for the building.

Manchester Town Hall

©Will Pryce/Country Life

The great clock on the central tower, made by Gillet & Bland, was set going on New Year’s Day, 1879, and the inscription on three of the four faces reads: ‘Teach us to number our days.’ The 24 bells, cast by Taylors of Loughborough, hang in the tower and the big hour-bell, named Great Abel after Abel Heywood, the mayor at the time, weighs more than eight tons. Waterhouse’s involvement extended to choosing the bells’ inscriptions, opting for lines from In Memoriam by Tennyson: ‘Ring out the false, ring in the true.’

Some 50,000 Mancunians took part in a grand procession to celebrate the building’s opening in 1877 and the streets were decor-ated with flags and banners. An impressive 69 trade unions were represented, from the bakers and tailors to the chimneysweeps and tin-makers, the latter being accompanied by a mounted knight in full armour.

‘There was a moment when the demolition of the Town Hall and its replacement with an Art Deco building was considered, but the madness thankfully passed’

Manchester Town Hall is Waterhouse’s finest achievement, although he designed many other major works during his long and distinguished career, including London’s Natural History Museum. It was probably a factor in his securing the biggest country-house commission of the Victorian age: the remodelling of Eaton Hall in Cheshire for the Duke of Westminster in about 1870–82, which was tragically demolished in the 1960s.

He won further major commissions in Manchester, including the Victoria University (1883–1902) and the spectacular red-terracotta Refuge Assurance building (1891–1912), both completed by his son Paul.

Manchester Town Hall

©Will Pryce/Country Life

The Town Hall sufficed for two generations before Manchester needed extra accommodation. Two major buildings were added to its south front in the 1930s by the architect Emmanuel Vincent Harris (1876–1971). First, Harris designed Manchester’s magnificent circular Central Library, in Roman Classical style, which was built between 1930 and 1934. Harris also designed the Town Hall’s extension, on an irregularly shaped site between the library and the Waterhouse building, between 1934 and 1938.

The extension has sheer stone façades with simple Arts-and-Crafts Classical detailing and steeply pitched roofs, which make an effective stylistic transition between the two buildings. The Town Hall, extension, and library between them form a magnificent civic centre; the two latter buildings have recently been refurbished.

Manchester was heavily bombed during the Second World War and Waterhouse’s Assize Courts was one of the casualties. In the late 1940s, incredible as it now seems, there was a moment when the demolition of the Town Hall and its replacement with an Art Deco building was considered, but the madness thankfully passed and the Town Hall has returned to its rightful place as the centre of the city’s civic life.

The great building has received royalty, heads of state and guests of all kinds and is Manchester’s favourite wedding venue. It forms the magnificent backdrop for events in Albert Square, including concerts, Christmas markets and the conclusion of triumphant football processions. It has frequently been used as a film and television location, often as an effective stand-in for the Palace of Westminster.

The Town Hall has been voted Mancunians’ favourite building, but it is showing its age and a recent survey of the building revealed 20,000 items to be addressed. In January 2018, it closed for a six-year renovation, with a budget of up to £328.3 million.

Manchester Town Hall

©Will Pryce/Country Life

In 1896, The Builder said: ‘In after years it will probably be accounted one of the most excellent works which the nineteenth century has bequeathed to its successors.’ In 1969, Nikolaus Pevsner quoted the remark and observed: ‘We of the later twentieth century have no hesitation in subscribing to this statement.’ Manchester, indeed, has the finest town hall in Britain.

It is cheering to see how proud the city is of it and how wholehearted is its commitment to maintaining it, despite the cost and complexity involved. We can all look forward to the Town Hall’s planned reopening in 2024 with keen anticipation.