26 August 2023
Birmingham Town Hall
bankrupted its architects
but reflected radical
politics in a radical city
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 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.
Chamberlain Memorial on Chamberlain Square (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)