Like other towns, Leeds was hit with the Cholera outbreak in the early 1830s. At the time it was believed that people contracted the virus through breathing in contaminated air. But local Dr Robert Baker made the connection between insanitary living conditions in poor areas and the higher prevalence of the disease compared with more affluent areas of Leeds. The poor areas had dirt streets which were littered with human excrement, polluting local water supplies. He campaigned for the Council to bring clean water to the town, to build sewers and to pave the streets and he was successful.
The Leeds Town Council created a corporation to do this and when the second wave of Cholera hit the Country in the 1850s, Leeds suffered less than other areas including London which suffered badly. Dr Robert Baker eventually became a town councillor (Leeds did not achieve city status until 1897). The Corporation then started creating other public services such as a gas producing company and an electricity producing company. Leeds was the first town in the Country to run an electric tram service.
Older readers will recall that council houses were called ‘corporation houses’ and our buses ‘corporation buses’.
In 1870 when the Government introduced compulsory education for children aged between 5 and 14, local authorities, mainly corporations, were in place to supply the school buildings and train the teachers. And, of course, much later when the National Health Service was formed in 1947, the corporations were in place to deliver all medical services outside of hospitals such as employing district nurses, running an ambulance service, supplying medical equipment to residents, supplying free home helps for elderly or incapacitated residents and even building local doctors’ surgeries.
I was the last Leeds City councillor who had served on the Leeds Corporation for its last two years 1972-1974. It saddens me now that all those services which the Corporation provided at a low cost to residents have been taken away from local government.
By the 1850s Leeds Town Council had become very busy and its existing accommodation in the Moot Hall at the bottom of Briggate was not big enough to not only accommodate the councillors but also the senior employees carrying out the work. It invited architects to enter a competition for a new town hall. This was won by a young architect called Cuthbert Brodrick who went on to design the Mechanics Institute (now the City Museum) and the Leeds Corn Exchange.
In 1858 Queen Victoria opened Leeds Town Hall when 150,000-200,000 people turned out to watch. The building housed the council chamber (situated in what is now known as the Albert Room), the Assize Courts for serious criminal cases and the Quarter Session Courts for less serious crimes, a major police station, and a prison in the basement called the Bridewell for those awaiting trial. If a prisoner in the dock was found guilty, a judge would say, “Take him/her down”, meaning down the stairs leading directly from under the dock to the Bridewell cells below.
With the City’s increasing population there were more wards and more councillors and, unfortunately, there was more crime and pressure on court accommodation. This led to the Council moving out in 1933 to the newly built Civic Hall. It always amused me and my council colleagues that for many years, whenever there was a news item on television concerning local government, a picture of Leeds Town Hall was always shown despite the council not meeting there for several decades!
The courts relatively recently, moved out to new accommodation. Leeds has the legacy now of a premier performance space and many arts and sporting organisations already use it. The Council was successful in obtaining two Heritage Lottery grants. The first grant was for the restoration of the huge pipe organ – thought to be the biggest in Europe with 4,000 pipes, most of which are stacked behind those decorated pipes displayed in front in view of the audience. Many of the organ’s pipes had deteriorated to such a state that they have had to be replaced. The only company making such pipes in the country is the Leeds firm Shire Organ Pipes in Bramley and they have been engaged.
The second Heritage Lottery grant was to restore and refurbish the building to be fit for community use. The Town Hall exterior has been improved by the installation of new double-glazed windows, a new ground floor entrance has been provided which will enable modern wheelchair access to the lift, and a central handrail to the front steps. The Courts had fitted plasterboards everywhere to give them more office and court space and this has been removed to restore the original circulation areas.
An exiting discovery was made in the north-east corner of the Town Hall when plasterboard was removed to reveal a hidden staircase. This led to a small balcony, a replica of the main one in the Victoria Hall. The downstairs had a plasterboard ceiling so the balcony could not be seen from below. That ceiling has now been removed to reveal a beautiful stained-glass ceiling and other architectural features. An additional access staircase to this balcony will be installed and new comfortable seats to cover the Victorian theatre-style balcony benches will be provided creating a delightful small performance area.
New toilets space has been created commensurate with the increased use by the many organisations which use the Town Hall. Unfortunately, because of the increase in the cost of materials, the Heritage Lottery Grant will not cover total redecoration although much will take place based on illustrations held at Temple Newsam and also by scratching the existing paint to see what lies beneath.
It is difficult to imagine how ghastly life was for most people in little over a hundred and fifty years ago. Our Town Hall is a monument to those dedicated councillors who strove to make life better for all of us. Our Town Hall is already nationally and internationally famous for its magnificent external architecture but will undoubtedly become famous as a magnificent setting for community, local, national and international events.
This post was written by Honorary Alderwoman Elizabeth Nash
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