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Birmingham Town Hall
– The First Truly Civic Building



Report of the lecture given by Anthony Peers
on October 26th 2016


“The pride of Birmingham and an ornament to England” – Preston Chronicle, October 1834


Anthony Peers is a freelance building historian with an impressive background including having worked on the “SAVE Britain’s Heritage” campaign, with the English Heritage Listing Division, worked in Mumbai India, setting up and running an innovative project to repair George Gilbert Scott's university buildings and finally as Rodney Melville & Partners' historian.

He is incredibly passionate and knowledgeable about Birmingham Town Hall, so much so that in 2012 he published a book on its history, which is where today’s lecture leads us to.


In 1999, Birmingham’s Town Hall had been closed for 5 years, the Lottery Heritage Plan had refused to award them with any funding to get it back up and running; they did however give them advice on what to do next.  That’s when Anthony was brought in to produce a Conservation Plan and he worked tirelessly through the archives trying to find information which could save this monumental building.

A Conservation Plan was submitted and planning was granted.  They also received 13.5m towards the costs of the repair.  Anthony was then employed by Birmingham Town Hall as “Project Historian” during the restoration period.

Context: Birmingham in the 1830’s

The town hall was built between 1832 and 1834 through money raised by the public.  Built on a hill but not near to a river, everything had to be brought in and out of the town by horse and cart.  Birmingham is famous for its small items including buttons, needles, fish hooks and pistols.

Canals were eventually built which rapidly transformed the city, increased its population and saw factories flourish.

Why was it built?

The Town Hall was built to house political meetings and these meetings were held on a regular basis.  Birmingham Music Festival also needed a new venue.  The best concert halls were apparently of a certain size so Birmingham needed to conform to this!  It was designed to hold 12,000 people.

Design & construction

It took a year to work out where the town hall would go and they then held an architectural competition and 70 architects bid for the job.  Hanson and Welch won first prize and had a budget of 35,000 to complete the Town Hall.

Having procured the stone from the Penmon Quarry in Anglesea, there were delays in getting the stone to site due to labour strikes.  But once the stone was on site, they were worried that the weight of the ceiling would be too much for the trusses to deal with and in fact it was a rope that snapped under the weight of the stone which tragically killed John Heap and William Badger.  This was the last straw for the project and the build came to a halt.


The interior of Birmingham Town Hall,  pictured in ca. 1845

The Town Hall in use & the alterations made to it

An organ had been installed but then they decided to move it so a 9ft deep niche was built and the organ was dismantled and moved.  In 1848 the north and west extensions were added and in 1850 another extension was installed.

During WW1 it was used for recruiting purposes and was in a dire state after the war.  The interior was renovated after the war but they “made a mess of it” and ruined the acoustics.

The Town Hall has always been used for royal occasions and has continued to be a hub for political meetings.

Symphony Hall Birmingham was opened in 1991 and within 5 years the Town Hall had closed.

Recent history

Now transferred from Birmingham City Council to the Performing Arts Birmingham and used for graduations, concerts, comedy and performances to name a few.


Birmingham Town Hall from Chamberlain Square in 2009  (Photo: Very Quiet)

Conclusion

An insightful lecture on the history of a building that before now, I knew nothing about.  It has certainly made me want to go and visit Birmingham Town Hall armed with the knowledge I now have of this building steeped in history.

Louise Taylor


Related Links (open in new windows):

Anthony Peers' website
Birmingham Town Hall website
Birmingham Town Hall - Wikipedia article