Northern Soul goes behind the scenes of Manchester’s iconic Town Hall ahead of its closure
If you’ve never experienced Manchester Town Hall beyond seeing it as a fancy backdrop to a boozy visit to the Christmas markets then it’s well worth a proper visit – but you will need to be quick about it.
Manchester City Council announced recently that the building will close at the end of 2017 for an extensive refurbishment process that’s expected to take up to seven years. Exquisitely designed by Alfred Waterhouse (also responsible for London’s Natural History Museum) not long after Manchester was first granted official city status, the Town Hall originally opened in 1877, so it’s now reached the grand old age of 140. By way of comparison, its neighbour, Manchester’s Central Library, is a mere 83-years-old, and that required a four year-long overhaul. It’s perhaps more useful to draw parallels with the much-discussed renovation work currently planned for the Palace of Westminster, which dates back to 1870.
Northern Soul was lucky enough to have a peek behind the scenes of the building to see what it has to offer and exactly what needs to be done. We were shown around by Helen Freeborough, a Green Badge city tour guide who works closely with the Town Hall, accompanied by Manchester City Council press officer Oliver Wright.
What’s so great about the Town Hall – namely, that it’s a big old Neo-gothic Victorian building – is also precisely the problem. It wasn’t built in, let alone for, the 21st Century. As Freeborough explains: “It’s Grade I listed, so we obviously have a duty of care to keep it safe, keep it water-tight, keep it in good repair. But there are so many things now that are not right with the building. Over the years, we’ve sort of patched it up and we’re now at an absolutely critical point where it’s kind of make or break. I think if we don’t do it now, it will get so bad it will be beyond repair.
“Well, nothing’s completely beyond repair. The building’s not going to fall down, it’s not structurally unsound, but we do need to address all of this. There have been surveyors in over the last 18 months or so looking at the building and they’ve said that there’s 54,000 individual things that need looking at. It is a huge challenge. They’re regarding the Palace of Westminster as the number one heritage project to be tackled across Europe and this is now being regarded as the number two.”
The budget for the project is in the region of £330 million which will be raised by a long-term loan rather than by drawing on council tax funds. At present, a project manager for the refurbishment is being sought and conversations have commenced with potential architects and structural engineers. Meanwhile, staff based in the Town Hall are being relocated elsewhere, mostly to the adjoining Town Hall Extension, a relative whipper-snapper which only dates to 1938. The main building is currently being closed off from the top down, with nothing beyond the fourth of the seven floors now accessible.
As we descend into the basement, it becomes evident that one of the many issues that need to be addressed is the heating system. Modern thermostat technology didn’t really kick in until the 1880s, a decade after the Town Hall opened. Instead, as Freeborough says, “the heating has two settings, basically – on and off”. Some lower parts of the building are toasty warm, but no-one is in place to feel the benefit. In other areas, where it’s most needed, it can get distinctly chilly.
There’s also the matter of the cabling. Over the years, wave after wave of wiring has been installed piecemeal into a building which comes from a whole other era. Down in the basement, it hangs in thick tangled vines across the ceiling. A present-day electrician would have a field day, but only after chortling long and hard at how outdated it all is. Freeborough sighs: “These are the bowels of the building, but bowels or not, they shouldn’t really be in this state.” Screwed to one wall is a busy box of vintage electronics which turns out to be a long-since disused telephone switchboard exchange. Freeborough says: “An engineer came in at the weekend who went ‘ooh, that’s priceless’.”
Tucked away out of sight from the street outside is the Town Hall’s beautiful inner courtyard, most likely the one area that no one outside of staff ever gets to see. Historically, it used to house a police station, a coroner’s court, and a rudimentary fire service complete with stables. There were tiny overnight police cells leading off it and, later, an underground air raid shelter.
Today, it’s used as a police parking area and, occasionally, as a filming location. No wonder, really. Here the original golden Portland stone has become dark and dirty, and the space does evoke another era. Sure enough, in recent years it’s appeared in Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Victor Frankenstein (2015). Wright gestures up to the balconies on higher floors, and says: “One day I was on one of the balconies and when I looked down, there was a hanging taking place. It was for a film, and they had full gallows set up. An actress was having her make-up done while she had her head in the noose.”
Also up above is a decidedly non-Victorian air vent sticking out of a top-floor window. “I mean, how ugly,” says Freeborough. “That links all the way down to the air raid shelter under here so that would have been there from the Second World War. They’ve just taken out a window to put that through. It’s stuff like that we really need to address.”
There’s also the matter of an extremely unlovely catering block bolted slap-bang above the middle of the courtyard, which must surely have had Alfred Waterhouse spinning in his grave. “It was put up in the late fifties before the building was listed,” Freeborough explains. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to that, but everyone you talk to who feels passionate about the building says, ‘god, wouldn’t it be great if we could relocate the kitchen somewhere else?’. Because it’s an absolute monstrosity.”
As yet, no decision has been made on matters such as whether this courtyard should be scrubbed clean or, to some degree, left as it is as a nod to the city’s industrial past. But the sheer scale of the entire undertaking is obvious.
“One of the biggest challenges is going to be the windows,” Freeborough says. “We’ll have to take out 950 of them.” That’s to say, entire windows, rather than small sections thereof. “Most of the lead frames will need to be remade because they’re bowing. They have a shelf life of, say, 80 years, and they’ve lasted for 140. They’re now at the very end of their lifespan. You can treat glass, clean it up and try to reuse the glass where we can. There are towers around the building where, over the last couple of months, we’ve had to remove some of the windows because they were just about to literally fall out. So, these are serious issues. And that’s just the windows. Then there’s the electrics, the roof, the waterproofing…”
Another problem will be the restoration of the stonework. “Again, we will need some sort of master craftsman to work on this, but one of the things the council would really like to do is to try to get some apprentice programmes going. Actually, the legacy will be that we would train up some really great craftsmen.”
Heading upwards, we reach one of the most celebrated parts of the Town Hall, namely the Great Hall. It’s a remarkable, lavish space which contains the series of 12 Manchester Murals by Ford Madox Brown, depicting scenes from the history of the city. They’ll need to be restored too, which won’t be easy, as most of them were painted directly onto the walls. “They’re priceless,” Freeborough says. “If you could take them away, they’d be worth millions, but you can’t. And to think that Madox Brown himself was paid £300 a picture.”
On another floor, an array of cabinets contain masses of silverware and antiques. Among the treasures here is a ceremonial glass sword which was used in the Procession of Trades to mark the opening of the Town Hall in 1877, and a grand dinner service which was employed as part of a civic feast for the same occasion. Another stunningly ornate silver service was used by the Queen when she came for lunch as part of her diamond jubilee celebrations in 2012. As it is, though, the display cabinets aren’t fit for purpose. They’re certainly not air-tight, and the contents are at risk of being tarnished.
“These bits and bobs are just a tiny fraction of the gifts to the city. With the refurb, we want to look at how we can display them. It’s such a shame. There’s tons of stuff in storage, too.”
Moving around the building isn’t that simple. “Even as a guide, I get lost,” Freeborough confesses. Despite outward appearances, the building isn’t symmetrical; it’s triangular, with an arrangement of three staircases. In fact, even the staircase handrails have secrets. “If you put your hand under them, you’ll feel a pipe. That’s a gas pipe. There’s no gas in it, but when the building opened, there was. There was this challenge of how to get the gas round the building and of course the hand rails are on every staircase.”
For now, the building is fully accessible, but in a rather round-about way, and only via some unappealing retro-fitted lifts. Wheelchair access is another major issue that the refurbishment will address.
Around the Town Hall, the windows, while beautifully designed and decorated, are showing their age. Some are suffering badly from the phenomenon of efflorescence. Freeborough points out one particularly nasty example. “That happened over one single weekend of rainfall. It’s not just like a leak. It’s actually causing the stonework to crumble.”
Sadly, one area we can’t visit is the Lord Mayor’s in-house apartment because written permission needs to be granted to do so. Reportedly, it’s stunning. It’s not actually inhabited, though. Freeborough says: “A Lord Mayor around 20-odd years ago, who I think had a family, said, ‘I don’t want to live here’. I think that probably set a bit of a precedent. Also, there are enormous insurance and cost implications of someone living in this building.” Again, there’s a question of exactly how the apartment will be used after the refurbishment.
Instead, we venture outside the main entrance and down a tight spiral staircase to the underground chamber which contains the controls for the building’s portcullis. If you weren’t aware that it had one, you’re not alone, but then, you’d have to get up early to lay eyes on it.
“Have you ever walked past the Town Hall at night?” Freeborough asks. “Next time you do, look, because if there’s not a function on, from about 9 o’clock, the portcullis comes up on all the three main entrances. They come down again at about 5 in the morning.”
The portcullis’s original hand-cranking mechanism is still in place, but in practice these days it’s driven by an electric motor. There’s even a series of moats which lead out from here, and encircle the building. As part of the refurbishment process, the surrounding Albert Square and its impressive set of statues will also be cleaned up and tweaked. This seems a good moment to ask why it’s called Albert Square at all, when his wife Victoria would surely have been wearing the trousers. The square is also dominated by a large monument to Prince Albert.
“When Albert died [in December 1861], that statue was paid for by public subscription. The Victorian generation was hugely in love with Albert and, in fact, he was a big supporter of Manchester. In 1857, there was a big art treasures exhibition here in Manchester [near what’s now Old Trafford Cricket Ground] and Albert loaned lots of the Royal art collection to the city for it. He said, ‘I’ll support this’ and he actually came to open it.”
Victoria came too, but on a separate visit. A few years later, when Manchester Town Hall was completed, the Queen was invited to attend the opening, but she refused. To be fair, by then she was in the midst of mourning her late husband. But there’s also a sense that the Town Hall was a powerful symbol of Manchester’s new-found civic might.
“It was really sticking two fingers up at London, this building,” Freeborough remarks. Demonstrably, then, for all the patching-up that it’s experienced down the decades, Manchester Town Hall could do with a thorough reboot. It’ll be strange to see it close its doors, and its projected reopening date of 2023 seems an awfully long way off. Hopefully, though, a judicious stitch in time will help restore this magnificent monument to its former glory and make it fit for future generations of visitors.
For information on a new series of dates of the official tour of Manchester Town Hall, click here.
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