The Council and democracy A History of Manchester Town Hall

History of Manchester Town Hall

The building of Manchester Town Hall (1868 - 77) was undertaken because the neo-classical Town Hall in King Street had become too small to house the expanding business of the Corporation. A competition was held and won by Alfred Waterhouse (1830 - 1905), mainly for his ingenious planning. The site was an irregular triangle on which had to be fitted a large hall, a suite of reception rooms and living quarters for the Lord Mayor, as well as offices for all the Corporation departments and a chamber for Council meetings. Waterhouse successfully combined the ceremonial and workaday requirements.

The Town Hall was designed in the thirteenth century Gothic style but it was, in Waterhouse's words, a building "essentially of the nineteenth century." It incorporated such innovations as a warm air heating system. The structure comprises fourteen million bricks encased in Spinkwell stone.

The exterior of the Town Hall, which is now a Grade One listed building, bears some notable sculptures. Over the main door is a statue of the Roman General Agricola, who founded Mamucium in 79 AD. Above him are Henry III and Elizabeth I, while at the apex of the main door gable is a statue of St. George.

Centrally placed is the imposing 280 foot high clock tower. The clock mechanism was made by Gillet and Bland, and was started on New Year's Day 1879. The inscription on the three clock faces which are visible from Albert Square reads "Teach us to number our Days."  There are 24 bells in the tower; the Great Hour Bell weighs 8 ton and 2 cwt and is called Great Abel, named after Abel Heywood, the Mayor at the time of the official opening. He laid the pinnacle stone of the spire on December 4th 1875. The formal opening ceremony took place on 13 September 1877.

The cost of the Town Hall was around £1 million. The main Albert Square entrance has an archway 7 feet deep - the thickness of the wall supporting the main tower. In the glass mosaic roof of the entrance hall is an oak trapdoor through which the tower's bells can be lowered to street level. On one side of the entrance hall is Chantrey's statue of the famous chemist and philosopher, John Dalton and on the other, a statue of the great physicist, James Joule.

Sculpture Hall

The Sculpture Hall is on the right of the main entrance. This unusual hall measures 53 feet by 33 feet wide, with a groined roof of Bath stone brought from the Forest of Dean.  Amongst the statues are those of conductor Sir Charles Hallé; Anti-corn Law League campaigners, Richard Cobden and John Bright and the remarkable triptych of celebrated Hallé Orchestra conductor, Sir John Barbirolli.


Seven staircases lead from level one to level two. The first two make up the grand staircases leading up from the Sculpture Hall to the state rooms; then there are the two centre block staircases followed by the three spiral staircases which are known as the English, Scottish and Irish staircases because each country provided granite for the steps and columns of one of them. Waterhouse designed the "easy tread stairs" to enable the Victorian ladies in their finery to ascend the stairs without having to look down. He ingeniously concealed the gas pipe, which carried the gas for the lighting, underneath the banister rails of the spiral staircases.

Great Hall and state rooms

The second floor is the most impressive of the Town Hall and contains the Great Hall and the staterooms.

  • The Lord Mayor's Parlour is a lofty room hung with portraits of public figures and paintings presented to the authority.
  • The Reception Room has a fireplace of alabaster and bears the figures of Truth and Justice.
  • The Banqueting Room boasts two fireplaces, one of Hopton Wood stone and the other of oak. Above one of the fireplaces is the minstrels' gallery.
  • The Conference Hall, which was the original Council Chamber, contains an interesting oak screen and canopy and a gallery. Above the landing in front of
  • The Great Hall is a glazed skylight on which are inscribed the names of mayors, lord mayors and chairs of the Council since Manchester received its Charter of Corporation in 1838. The superb ceiling of the Great Hall is separated into panels bearing the arms of the principal countries and towns with which Manchester traded. The landing outside the Great Hall is known as the Bees. On the mosaic floor is a pattern of bees. The bee is symbolic of Manchester's industry and is found on the city's coat of arms. Manchester's involvement in the cotton trade is commemorated by a border of white strands and stylised cotton flowers on the mosaic floors. The 4,500 yards of marble flooring was laid by Venetian craftsmen.

The Town Hall Complex

Today the Town Hall Complex, which includes the Town Hall and Extension, make popular tourist attractions. The Complex is the seat of local government in Manchester, an emblem of civic pride and the face of Manchester City Council. It is a centre of office administration, with around 3,500 staff working there, offering direct delivery of services to the public.

Was this page helpful?

Was this page helpful?