26 August 2023

Birmingham Town Hall
bankrupted its architects
but reflected radical
politics in a radical city

Birmingham Town Hall … designed by Joseph Hansom and Edward Welch (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Birmingham Town Hall, at Victoria Square and Chamberlain Square, often fades from the view of visitors beside the Museum and the Council House, the Museum and Art Gallery and the clock tower, ‘Old Brum.’

But Birmingham Town Hall, dating from 1834, is Birmingham’s oldest venue and a Grade I listed building, and it looks like a classical temple in the heart of the city.

The Town Hall, now a concert hall and venue for popular events, was designed by the architects Joseph Hansom and Edward Welch. It opened in 1834, it was a rock and pop venue throughout the late 1950s, and in the 1960s. Buddy Holly, The Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath and numerous bands and solo artists played there before it closed in 1996 for a makeover and refurbishment. It reopened in 2007, and is now one of the city’s more celebrated venues.

Birmingham Town Hall was created in response to need for a venue public meetings and for the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival as the town developed with the advance of the Industrial Revolution. The festival was established in 1784 to raise funds for the General Hospital, and the need for a new home was identified after Saint Philip’s Church – later Saint Philip’s Cathedral – became too small to hold the festival.

Two sites were considered by the Birmingham Street Commissioners for building a concert hall in the city: Bennetts Hill and the more expensive Paradise Street site. The site at Paradise Street was chosen and 67 entries were submitted in the design competition.

Joseph Hansom and Edward Welch were chosen as the architects and they calculated at the time that construction would cost £8,000, the equivalent of about £800,000 today.

The architect Joseph Aloysius Hansom (1803-1882) worked principally in the Gothic Revival style. He is also known as the designer of the Hansom cab and as the founder of the architectural journal The Builder.

Hansom was born into a large Roman Catholic family in York and was baptised Josephus Aloysius Handsom(e). He was the brother of the architect Charles Francis Hansom and an uncle of Edward J Hansom. He was apprenticed to his father, Henry, as a joiner, but he had an early aptitude for draughtsmanship and construction, became apprenticed to a York architect, Matthew Philips, and then became a clerk in Philips’s office in 1823.

Hansom moved to Halifax in 1825 and that year married Hannah Glover, a sister of the architect George Glover (1812-1890), at Saint Michael le Belfrey in York. He took a post as assistant to John Oates and became friends with the brothers John and Edward Welch. Together they formed the architectural partnership of Handsom and Welch in 1828.

Handsom and Welch designed several churches in Yorkshire and Liverpool. They also worked on the Isle of Anglesey, on the renovation of Bodelwyddan Castle in Denbighshire and on King William’s College in the Isle of Man. Their designs for Birmingham Town Hall were accepted in 1831. But the contract would bankrupt them and lead to the dissolution of their partnership.

Hansom supported the views of social reformers Robert Owen and Thomas Attwood, and the Operative Builders’ Union, which was formed in 1831-1833. He registered the design of a ‘Patent Safety Cab’ or the Hansom Cab in 1834. He went on to sell the patent for £10,000, but because of the purchaser’s financial difficulties, the sum was never paid.

Hansom also founded The Builder as a new architectural journal in 1843. It was renamed Building in 1966, and it continues to this day.

Hansom worked again as an architect, designing many churches, schools and convents for the Roman Catholic Church. From 1847 to 1852, he practised in Preston, Lancashire, working briefly with AWN Pugin towards the end of Pugin’s life.

He formed a practice with his brother Charles Francis Hansom in 1854. But this partnership was dissolved in 1859 when Charles Hansom established an independent practice in Bath. Joseph Hansom formed a partnership with Pugin’s son Edward Welby Pugin, in 1862, but this ended in acrimony in 1863. Finally, in 1869, he took his son Joseph Stanislaus Hansom into partnership.

Hansom retired at the end of 1879 and died in London on 29 June 1882.

The architect Edward Welch (1806-1868) was born in Overton, Flintshire, in North Wales. He too worked with John Oates in Halifax, West Yorkshire, and formed a partnership with Hansom in 1828.

When Hansom and Welch won the competition to design Birmingham Town Hall in 1831, they were obliged to stand surety for the builders. But this led to their bankruptcy and the dissolution of the partnership in 1834.

After parting ways with Hansom, Welch returned to Liverpool, where he continued to work as an architect until 1849. He died in London on 3 August 1868.

Birmingham Town Hall … the style of Roman architecture was chosen to reflect the highly-charged radicalism of Birmingham in the 1830s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Birmingham Town Hall is the first of the monumental town halls that came to characterise the cities of Victorian England. It was the first significant work in the 19th-century revival of Roman architecture, a style chosen for its republican associations in the context of the highly charged radicalism of Birmingham in the 1830s.

The design was based on the proportions of the Temple of Castor and Pollux in the Roman Forum. ‘Perfect and aloof’ on a tall, rusticated podium, it marked an entirely new concept in English architecture.

However, Hansom and Welch had been too low in tendering, and they went bankrupt.

There were further disasters during construction. A 70-ft crane erected to install the roof trusses broke and the pulley block failed on 26 January 1833. John Heap died instantly and William Badger died a few days later from his injuries. They were buried in Saint Philip’s Churchyard, and their memorial at Saint Philip’s Cathedral is the focus each year of events marking International Workers’ Day.

With new investment and fresh capital, the Town Hall opened with success for the delayed Music Festival on 7 October 1834. The architect Charles Edge (1801-1867) was commissioned to repair the building in 1835, and he extended it in 1837 and again in 1850. Edge’s pupils included Henry Richard Yeoville Yardley Thomason (1826-1901), who also designed Birmingham Council House and Art Gallery and the Singers Hill Synagogue.

Birmingham Town Hall takes the form of a free-standing Corinthian temple, with 14 bays running north to south and eight bays east to west. It is closely modelled on the Temple of Castor and Pollux in Rome and has a tall podium in rusticated stone. The columns are topped with capitals featuring Acanthus leaves in a distinctive interlocking spiral design, above which the simplified entablature features a plain architrave and dentil cornice.

Behind the colonnade, the cella containing the Great Hall has tall windows capped with eared architraves. At the south end of the podium there is an arcade two bays deep, glazed in to form a vestibule in 1995, that marks the main entrance to the building.

The pediment also had images of Britannia, supported by mermaids, that were sculpted by William Bloye. This decorative scheme for the Town Hall was devised by William Haywood, secretary of the Birmingham Civic Society.

The building is constructed in brick made in Selly Oak and faced with Penmon Anglesey Marble presented to Birmingham by Sir Richard Bulkeley, who owned the Penmon quarries.

The Triennial Musical Festival commissioned new works for every season, and Mendelssohn’s Elijah (1846), Arthur Sullivan’s Overture di Ballo (1870) and Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius (1900) had their premieres in the hall.

Charles Dickens gave the first of his public readings of his own works in the Town Hall at Christmas 1853. He repeated this to raise money for the Birmingham and Midland Institute.

The hall was filled to capacity for a public protest meeting in November 1880 in support of the Revd Richard Enraght, Vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Bordesley, who was jailed in Warwick under the Public Worship Regulation Act for his Anglo-Catholic ritualism.

Birmingham Town Hall is also known for its concert pipe organ. It was originally installed in 1834 by William Hill & Sons with 6,000 pipes, and it was once the largest and most technologically advanced organ in the world. The hall was the home of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra from 1918 until 1991, when it moved to Symphony Hall.

Headline acts in the 1960s and 1970s included Buddy Holly, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan.

The town hall closed in 1996 for a £35 million refurbishment. The upper gallery, added in 1926-1927, was removed, restoring the interior of the hall, with a seating capacity of 1,100. It reopened for concerts on 4 October 2007, and it was officially reopened on 22 April 2008 by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall.

Today, it hosts a diverse programme that includes jazz, world, folk, rock, pop and classical concerts, organ recitals, spoken word, dance, family, educational and community performances, as well as annual general meetings, product launches, conferences, dinners, fashion shows, graduations and broadcasts.

The north side of Birmingham Town Hall and the Chamberlain Memorial on Chamberlain Square (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (90) 26 August 2023

The Frank Halfpenny Hall on George Lane, Lichfield … it has been a Primitive Methodist chapel, a Salvation Army hall and a Pentecostalist church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and tomorrow is the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XII, 27 August 2023).

In recent weeks, I have been reflecting on the churches in Tamworth. Throughout this week and last week, I have been reflecting each morning in these ways:

1, Looking at a church in Lichfield;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Cruck House on Stowe Street has been used in the past by Quakers, Spiritualists and Brethren (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A miscellany of churches in Lichfield:

Throughout last week and this week, I have been looking at some of the better-known churches in Lichfield, including Lichfield Cathedral (13 August), Saint Chad’s (14 August), Saint Mary’s (15 August), Saint Michael’s (16 August), Christ Church (17 August), the chapels in Saint John’s Hospital (18 August) and Dr Milley’s Hospital (19 August), the Methodist Church (20 August), Wade Street Church (21 August), Holy Cross Church (22 August), the former Franciscan Friary (23 August), Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Farewell (24 August), and Saint John’s Church, Wall (25 August).

This morning, I am looking at some churches, chapels and former places of worship that are sometimes overlooked, including the former Primitive Methodist Church in the Frank Halfpenny Hall, the Christadelphian Assembly, and the Cruck House, Stowe Street, which has been used by Quakers, the Brethren and Spiritualists.

The Frank Halfpenny Hall on George Lane, is now a pre-school play centre. But in the past it has been a Primitive Methodist chapel, a Salvation Army hall and a Pentecostalist church.

A Primitive Methodist missionary preached at Greenhill on Whit Monday 1820. Possibly as a consequence, a blacksmith’s outhouse in Saint Chad’s Parish was registered for worship in November that year. It was replaced by a schoolroom in Saint Mary’s Parish that was registered for worship in 1831.

The Darlaston and Birmingham Primitive Methodist circuits provided two missionaries for the Lichfield area in 1836.

A Primitive Methodist chapel, with a capacity for 130 people, opened in George Lane on 2 January 1848. The attendance there on Census Sunday 1851 was 23 in the afternoon and 57 in the evening. Although no morning service was held that day, it was said that normal Sunday morning attendance was 60, with 51 Sunday school children.

The Primitive Methodists chapel closed in 1934 and the building reopened the following year as a Salvation Army hall.

The former chapel was bought by Frank Halfpenny (1897-1966), a lifelong Methodist and city councillor who was Sheriff of Lichfield (1938-1939) and the first Labour Mayor of Lichfield (1965-1966). In 1958 he gave it to the Lichfield and Tamworth Constituency Labour Party in 1958, and it was named the Frank Halfpenny Hall.

A Pentecostalist church was formed in Lichfield in 1961 and met in the Frank Halfpenny Hall in George Lane until 1969, when the Emmanuel Pentecostal church in Nether Stowe was opened. Its name was later changed to the Emmanuel Christian Centre. It is now known as the Life Church.

The hall was used as Labour headquarters in Lichfield in the two general elections in 1974: James d’Avigdor Goldsmid held the Lichfield and Tamworth seat for the Conservatives in May, but he lost it to Bruce Grocott of Labour in October by a margin of 331 votes.

The Frank Halfpenny Hall was sold to the Swinfen Broun Charitable Trust in 1984, and was later let to a pre-school playgroup.

Cruck House, a restored Grade II* timber-framed mediaeval cottage at 71 Stowe Street, has been used in the past for worship by Quakers, Spiritualists and Brethren.

Stowe Street is a continuation of Lombard Street, and close to south side of Stowe Pool. Cruck House is an impressive sight on Stowe Street in the midst of modern residential and commercial buildings. Yet, despite first impressions, it is a surprisingly small building.

This jointed cruck and part-box-framed house is a rare building dating back to the late 14th or early 15th century It fell into disrepair before it was rescued from demolition in 1971. It was discovered during the redevelopment of Stowe Street and was restored to its original state.

A group of Brethren formed the Lichfield Christian Centre in 1986. They met first in rooms in Bore Street and later in Cruck House. When a Spiritualist church was formed in Lichfield in 1986, its members at first met in the Friary School and later in Cruck House in Stowe Street.

The Quaker George Fox first visited Lichfield in 1651. In recent years the Cruck House was also used for Sunday meetings for worship by the Society of Friends (Quakers), until they moved to the Martin Heath Hall in Christchurch Lane.

Cruck House is now a day care centre and is used by a variety of community groups, including Friends 2 Friends (F2F), which supports adults with learning difficulties.

Cruck House has often been open to the public as part of the Lichfield Heritage Weekend. Dave Moore, who has interviewed me about my Lichfield links, has given an interesting talk to Friends 2 Friends, explaining how Cruck House was built.

The small, redbrick Christadelphian Hall is on Station Road. The Christadelphians are one of the less well-known groups in Lichfield. Their small, redbrick ‘ecclesia’ or church blends in with the neighbouring redbrick houses and goes almost unnoticed by many despite its proximity to the centre of Lichfield.

The story of the Christadelphian presence in Lichfield dates back more than a century and a half to 1870, when the recently appointed headmistress of Saint Chad’s School on Beacon Street was forced to resign because of her Christadelphian beliefs. A few years later, Thomas Sykes, who had formed a small Christadelphian community at Bourton on the Water in Gloucestershire, moved to Lichfield in 1874.

By 1885, eight Christadelphians were meeting in each other’s houses, and in 1890 a meeting room was opened above Thomas Sykes’s shop in Tamworth Street.

In 1902, the Vicar of Saint Mary’s, Canon CN Bolton, denounced the Christadelphians as heretical. At a subsequent public meeting, the Christadelphians of Lichfield defended their beliefs. Their numbers increased, and from 1903 meetings were held in Saint James’s Hall in Bore Street. After Saint James’s Hall was converted into a cinema in 1912, the group of over 40 Christadelphians in Lichfield built their own hall in Station Road. It opened in 1914 and was extended in 1959. The Christadelphians still meet there on Sundays to this day.

There are over 300 Christadelphian ecclesias in Britain and Ireland, and there are about 50,000 Christadelphians around the world. They resist calling their buildings churches, they are not part of Churches Together in Lichfield or other ecumenical groups.

The Christadelphians are a millenarian religious group who are Unitarian in their systems of beliefs. The movement developed in England and in the US in the 19th century in response to the ideas and teachings of John Thomas (1805-1871), a surgeon from London who coined the name Christadelphian from the Greek for ‘Brethren in Christ.’

Christadelphians differ from mainstream Christianity in a number of doctrinal areas. They reject the Trinity and deny the immortality of the soul, believing these to be corruptions of original Christian teaching. Many of them are pacifists, and they generally avoid taking part in politics, the police and the army.

Christadelphian congregations traditionally use the name ‘ecclesia,’ from the New Testament Greek ekklesia (ἐκκλησία), meaning assembly or church, and they resist using the word ‘church’ because of its association with mainstream Christianity. To this day, the Christadelphian building on Station Road in Lichfield is known as the Christadelphian Hall or ecclesia.

The small, redbrick Christadelphian Hall on Station Road, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 23: 1-12 (NRSVA):

23 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father – the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.’

Cruck House on Stowe Street, Lichfield, is a rare building dating back to the late 14th or early 15th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Modern-Day Slavery Reflection – The Clewer Initiative.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday.

For more resources: www.theclewerinitiative.org

The USPG Prayer Diary today (26 August 2023) invites us to pray in these words:

Lord, we pray for all organisations and people who fight against the marginalisation of the poor and underprivileged.

The Collect:

O God, you declare your almighty power
most chiefly in showing mercy and pity:
mercifully grant to us such a measure of your grace,
that we, running the way of your commandments,
may receive your gracious promises,
and be made partakers of your heavenly treasure;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Lord of all mercy,
we your faithful people have celebrated that one true sacrifice
which takes away our sins and brings pardon and peace:
by our communion
keep us firm on the foundation of the gospel
and preserve us from all sin;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Saint Chad’s School, Beacon Street, where the headmistress was forced to resign in 1870 because of her Christadelphian beliefs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org