Rochdale Town Hall - A box of delights

PUBLISHED: 11:21 13 September 2010 | UPDATED: 15:42 20 February 2013

The Grand Staircase vaulted ceiling

The Grand Staircase vaulted ceiling

This Lancashire town hall is a cathedral to the Victorian industrial age. Andy Marshall pays homage in words and pictures

ON a drizzly evening while walking, head down, along the glassy sheen of the paving in Rochdale, most will find themselves drawn to what looks like a giant, bejewelled casket shimmering beyond the tungsten lamplight. What they will conceive as the mirage becomes reality, is the warm, welcoming pattern and hue of the stained glass of Rochdale Town Hall.

Surprisingly it is a little known building despite its international architectural and artistic pedigree. Completed in 1871, it was built upon the back of decades of success in the textile industry. It was commissioned by proud citizens, who saw their success to be on a par with the medieval merchants of Venice.

The architect was William Henry Crossland and the original estimate for the building was 20,000, but in the next seven years this was to rise to over 150,000. In his opening speech, the Mayor vindicated the massive outlay with the words 'we cannot have beauty without paying for it.'

The outlay pales into insignificance against the rich pedigree of artists associated with the interior and exterior decoration. It was built in a period when architecture gripped the national conscience in the same way that popular film and music does today.

The main protagonists in the design, construction and decoration were 'A' list celebrities, whose rise and fall depended upon the articulate wit and patronage of social commentators and critics such a John Ruskin and William Morris.

Beneath the oak rafters of the Great Hall, almost spanning the full width of the gable, is a mural depicting the signing of the Magna Carta. It was completed over 12 months at a cost of 450 by the artist Henry Holiday.

The flowing garments of the participants in the mural are reminiscent of his most famous work The meeting of Dante with Beatrice. Holiday often stayed at Brantwood which was the Lakeland home of John Ruskin who introduced him to the Pre-Raphaelites.

Beyond the Great Hall, the Grand Staircase is emblazoned in stained glass by Heaton, Butler and Bayne. This band of innovators and artists were one of the most prolific Victorian stained-glass manufacturers in the West. Robert T. Bayne was a disciple of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and later completed schemes as far away as the Church of Saint Ignatius Loyola, New York.

When the original tower burnt down in 1883, it was the architect behind London's Natural History Museum, Alfred Waterhouse, who re-built the imposing clock tower we see today.

Not only the best artists, but also the highest standard of decorative materials were used. The spectacular floor in the Exchange, for example, consists of brightly coloured heraldic motifs made from encaustic tiles manufactured by the leading light of ceramics, Minton & Co.

Added to the significance of the Town Halls artistic pedigree is the surprising juxtaposition of traditional values with cutting edge and topical issues. While the stylistic fabric harks back to the golden age of medieval Gothic, the subject matter belies the innovative epoch of the British Victorian renaissance.

The building is a secular temple to the Victorian work ethic and the cotton industry of the north. Instead of stories from the Bible we have the parable of the textile revolution writ large in flat relief on a frieze in the Reception Room. Lift up thine eyes towards the lanceted stained glass and you will be enlightened by the laissez-faire light of cutting edge technology in the form of Stephenson's steam locomotive.

The whole building comes together within the spatial zenith of the Great Hall. Loosely based upon Westminster Hall, the roof is supported by 16 massive hammer beams which are decorated in gilt and the Royal Livery colours. On the deal panels between the rafters are painted the liveries of Great Britain and Ireland. The hammer beams visual strength is softened with the introduction of angelic carvings with feathered wings in gold relief.

It is regarded as one of the finest civic collections of secular stained glass in Europe. The subject matter is vast: from the animated forms of animals, through to religious and heraldic iconography and finally unique stylistic depictions of the latest technology.

Walking around the building, the combination of visual chutzpah and spatial audacity gives a real feeling of being on an architectural roller-coaster. When you finally step out, dizzy headed and slightly vexed, you finally get to the palpable truth behind the buttressed walls: the Town Hall is not rooted at all in the medieval past, but is a clear beacon of Victorian values; a stakeholder in the exponential advances of science and art witnessed during the period

The tension between the ecclesiastical and secular is palpable and gives the building a tangible cultural fizz, and surely must make it a true icon in the history of architecture and art in the British Isles.

Regular guided tours are available, usually on Fridays. Contact 01706 864797 for more information, or visit

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