A town hall at the centre of old Shoreditch

This text is an edited and adapted version of a report written by Chris Miele for English Heritage, and appears in its complete form in the ‘History of Hackney Vol 4’ available to read at Hackney Archives.

The Municipal Reform Act of 1835 was the impetus for the first wave of town hall buildings in the provinces. At a stroke it created 178 municipal corporations endowed with new duties and powers. Unlike old-style town government, most council’s chose to build new offices rather than share premises. They were also able to fund building out of local rates, or even by issuing stock. This system of funding answered what one historian called ‘the widespread desire for a symbolic centre’.

Initially the Shoreditch vestry met in the nearby Nonconformist Chapel in Old Street. Most of the £30,000 spent on the new town hall had been raised by borrowing from an assurance society at 5% repayable over thirty years. By 1868 close to £100,000 had been raised this way. The willingness with which Shoreditch borrowed was unusual among metropolitan vestries, and made possible the substantial capital works in the 1860s and 1870s.The Shoreditch district surveyor, Caesar A. Long was instructed to obtain a suitable site. The district was heavily developed already and land was expensive. He entered in negotiations with several different landowners, and it took almost a year to strike a deal for the Fuller’s Hospital site. Long bought it at auction in August 1864 for £4,850. There was also compensation to the Hospital for the removal of the almshouses fronting the Old Street site. (Almshouses are charitable housing, they are often for the poor of the area, people with certain forms of previous employment, or their widows, and are generally maintained by a charity or the trustees of a bequest, Shoreditch was famous for them at the time.)

The total spent on the site alone was £7,500, a considerable sum. The roughly £30,000 which Shoreditch vestry spent on their new building was far greater than what any other London vestry paid until the end of the century. The Shoreditch project was remarkable. Its scale and ambition made it comparable to the municipal offices and halls being built outside London. The vestrymen clearly wanted something to symbolize the London variety of modern municipal government. Portland stone was specified, and the style was to be ‘modern…for the purpose of a public edifice’.

But the outstanding feature of the new building would be the massive public hall, capable of seating up to eight hundred people and taking up the entire width of the first floor. The construction was too substantial to fund out of rates, so the Public Works Loan Committee was approached for £22,000, Long’s initial estimate. Eventually a mortgage was secured and Long’s designs were done in December 1864. The finances were in place by June of the following year, when Long presented his contract drawings and, bill’s of quantities, and specifications. The builder John Perry of Stratford, commenced at the end of August. Sir John Thwaite, Chairman of The Metropolitan Board of Works, laid the foundation stone on 29th March 1866 and the finishing touches were being put to the great halls decorations in summer 1867.

The Town Hall had the look of a proud Renaissance palazzo, high and broad but occupying only half of the site frontage available. The architect had wisely decided to run the long axis of the building to the south, thus freeing up the Weston portion of the site to let to help offset the cost. The Metropolitan Board of Works paid £1,550 for a lease, and put a new Fire Brigade station there. The original Vestry Hall survives in its entirety and is an outstanding example of its type.

The Town Hall extension, 1898-1902

A report was prepared in July 1898 to consider alterations to Long’s vestry hall. A limited competition was held for the new building, and the four designs submitted were shown in the public hall in March 1899. In June 1899 W. C. Hunt was declared the winner and as was usually the case with competition winners, asked to revise his design. The difficulty of the job was the requirements to keep the old Vestry Hall in use during the construction of the extension, which was to be built on the site of the old Metropolitan Fire Brigade building. This entailed dividing the contract into two phases, with the ‘cut-through’ being made only after the new construction was well advanced. Inevitably there was wrangling over the design of the clock tower, its sculpture, described simply as a ‘statue of Progress’, and the sculptural group intended for the tympana of the pediment.

Construction began in March 1901, and proceeded quickly and without too many problems. As the new building was nearing completion, there was an approving notice published in The Builder for 1901. The author commented on one of the most remarkable features of the project, the decision to incorporate the old Vestry Hall into the new project. This was taken because the old Hall was seen ‘from a political and social standpoint..(as) historically interesting’. The importance of the Vestry Hall as a symbol of progressive local government was apparent to a vestry which was in the 1890s one of the most advanced and experimental in London.

On the 15th August 1904 a fire started in the roof of the old hall, completely destroying it and the surface decorations below. The structure remained, including the galleries. Fortunately the Council Chamber was not harmed, no life was lost and every official document was saved.

Famous events at the Hall, and recent history

One of the most gruesome events at Shoreditch Town Hall was the Inquest into the last of the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings, Mary Jane Kelly, found murdered in a lodging house. The inquest opened on 12th November 1888 and was presided over by the Shoreditch Coroner. The squalid details of the killing, the shocking mutilation of her body by the murderer and the pathetic picture that emerged of Mary Kelly’s margined life and the mystery of the identity of the killer became one of the first truly modern media sensations.

In the second half of the Twentieth century Shoreditch Town Hall was one of the East Ends premier boxing venues along with York Hall in Bethnal Green.The tragic death of Trinidadian heavyweight champion Ulric Regis following a bout with Joe Bugner at Shoreditch led to a total ban on fights in Hackney. Joe Bugner alienated the majority of British boxing fans by his defensive boxing style and also by winning the British, Empire and European titles from the national favorite, Henry Cooper in a controversial victory in 1971. There were no judges and the referee, Harry Gibbs, scored the fight. Bugner won by a 1/4 point. This result prompted the well-respected boxing commentator Harry Carpenter to state, “I find that [the result] amazing!”

The Hall fell in disuse as many of the local Town Halls were closed down and sold off and it was on English Heritage’s Buildings at Risk Register for a number of years. Semi-derelict it was used to hold the Whirly-Y-Gig parties before the Shoreditch Town Hall Trust began moves to save the building.

In 2002 the Shoreditch Town Hall Trust, an independent charity, leased the Town Hall from the London Borough of Hackney. Re-opening in 2004 following a £2.3m programme of refurbishment, the renovations include a complete re-roofing and re-wiring of the building, a new heating system for the main public rooms and provision of disabled access to the ground floor and basement. In addition, the imposing entrance hall and original Council Chamber and Mayor’s Parlour, dating from 1865, have been fully restored to their former glory. The Trust has recently managed and completed the first stage of a major restoration programme and is leading the regeneration of Shoreditch Town Hall for community, commercial and conference uses.

Please see: www.shoreditchtownhall.org.uk

This text is an edited and adapted version of a report written by Chris Miele for English Heritage, and appears in its complete form in the ‘History of Hackney Vol […]