I’ve recently been to two concerts in two town halls – Leeds (to see Dylan Moran, who would have been much funnier if the acoustics had allowed me to catch more than a passing word) and Huddersfield (for Dvorak and Porgy and Bess by the Huddersfield Philharmonic Orchestra and the Huddersfield Choral Society, which was a Huddersfield treat).
Both town halls are, of course, magnificent, as civic buildings in industrial northern cities generally are, reflecting the values and great wealth of the Victorian merchants and manufacturers who made the modern world but who didn’t think that the whole point of their spectacular success was to shift wealth from ordinary people to the very, very rich. Capitalism has changed; it’s become very grubby, no longer even trying to justify itself with reference to the general good – a task the rich (now almost always merchants rather then manufacturers) leave to well-endowed think-tanks and useful idiots in the right-wing press.
At Leeds Town Hall, we found seats high up on the balcony, which is the best place from which to admire the glories of the elaborately plastered and painted ceiling. The ceilings of more modern performance spaces, such as the Leeds arena, consist of unadorned lumps of concrete. Cheap building costs and sky-high ticket prices clearly form a very effective business plan, although they don’t do much for the soul.
The great northern town halls were built as a reaction to the terrible mess of early-19th century capitalism, when people were dying in droves (excuse me, what exactly is a drove?) from cholera, typhus and other avoidable diseases. Life expectancy in the early 19th century was collapsing by the day and the industrial masters, typically non-conformists who had Worked Their Way Up, realised that this couldn’t go on, just as you might like to think that modern masters and mistresses might realise that food banks can’t go on, although they probably will.
The town halls had a moral purpose; to elevate the masses by giving them a something to look up to (that’s why they paid so much attention to clock towers, although municipal penis rivalry might also have had something to do with it). Their architecture was supposed to echo the styles of, say, Flanders, Carthage, Florence or Venice - but not London, which the northern textile barons rather looked down upon. They saw themselves as modern merchant-princes in the era of great city-states, so that the point of extravagant civic buildings, like Manchester’s Free Trade Hall or Liverpool’s St George’s Hall, was to show-off ; to establish that they were world champions (which actually they were at the time) in showing everybody else how to live.
The civic elite running northern cities and towns in the mid-19th century did a great deal of practical work like building hospitals, sewers and schools, but I think, partly out of vanity but also out of high-mindedness, they liked building town halls better.
I now plan to look at Halifax town hall, which, I learned during my research for this blog, was designed by Sir Charles Barry after he had had a trial run designing the Palace of Westminster.