Manchester Town Hall: A look back at its illustrious history

Manchester Town Hall: A look back at its illustrious history

It’s one of the most famous buildings in Manchester and has played a big part in the city’s history. Now, as the Grade I-listed Manchester Town Hall undergoes a massive refurbishment, Move Commercial takes a look back at its illustrious history.

Words by Christine Toner


Did you know?

–  Manchester Town Hall’s three spiral staircases are built in granite sourced from different parts of the UK. One was built with English granite, one with Irish granite and one with Scottish granite.

–  The Clock Tower is 280 feet (87 metres) high. The inscription on the three clock faces, visible from Albert Square, reads: “Teach us to number our days”.

–  The Great Hour Bell in the Clock Tower, which weighs more than eight tonnes, is known as ‘Great Abel’, in honour of mayor Abel Heywood.

–  The town hall bells were cast by John Taylor & Co, a renowned firm responsible for most of the UK’s heaviest bells, including the one hung at St Paul’s Cathedral. Experts consider the town hall’s bells to be among the very best sets of English-hung bells in the world.

–  The landing outside the Great Hall is known as the Bees, after its mosaic floor decorated with bees – symbols of Manchester’s industrious spirit. The mosaic was laid by Venetian craftsmen.


In the centre of Manchester, situated in the famous Albert Square, sits one of the city’s most recognised structures – the town hall. A Victorian building that has played host to countless events and meetings in its 140-year history, the hall is a key feature of Manchester’s architectural landscape. But within a few months it will close its doors for six years as work begins to bring the building into the 21st Century.

Architect Purcell has been appointed for the refurbishment which, it says, will bring the 1860s building up to ’modern access and safety standards’ and will include the restoration of the Great Hall and its Ford Madox Brown murals. External repairs include work on the roof, stonework and drains.

“Our aim is to bring the town hall back to the cultural heart of Manchester city as a flagship destination,” says Mark Goldspink, chief executive officer at Purcell. “We are looking forward to working closely with Manchester City Council and our project partners.”

Councillor Bernard Priest, deputy leader of Manchester City Council, says while it will be sad to see the town hall building closed for a number of years, it would be “infinitely worse” if it was allowed to slide into disrepair and decay.

“We are determined that both the town hall and Albert Square will continue to play a role at the heart of city life and as internationally important symbols of Mancunian pride.”

“We simply can’t and won’t allow that to happen which is why we are taking action now to safeguard this gem for current and future generations of Mancunians,” he adds. “We are determined that both the town hall and Albert Square will continue to play a role at the heart of city life and as internationally important symbols of Mancunian pride.”

The construction of Manchester Town Hall took place from 1868 to 1877 after the existing town hall, a Grecian-style building on King Street, was deemed too small for the needs of a rapidly expanding Manchester. The council was forced to rent extra office space – a situation which became worse when space had to be found for the Cotton Famine Relief Fund, set up to tackle the suffering caused by the American Civil War, in 1862.

Over 120 architects entered a competition to design the new building, with most entries featuring Gothic or Italianate styles. However, it was architect Alfred Waterhouse who won the competition after his friend, the author Elizabeth Gaskell allegedly asked art critic John Ruskin to recommend Waterhouse to the council.

The project is estimated to have cost as much as £1,000,000 – a huge amount at the time.

The money, it seems, was well spent as the building has received plenty of praise over the years.


Manchester Town Hall: Illustrious history


Dan Cruickshank, art historian at the Daily Mail, called the design “arguably the greatest Gothic Revival public building anywhere in the world,” adding “Manchester Town Hall is a building that encapsulates the wealth and aspirations of a mighty city in its prime and is a wonder to behold.”

Architectural historian Dr Jonathan Foyle described it as “truly majestic design… to take the imagination beyond the realms of practicality and into the sublime,” adding: “Waterhouse delivered for Manchester a truly magnificent municipal Gothic palace”.

Meanwhile Kathryn Hughes of The Guardian claimed “Manchester needed an administrative centre that reflected its sense that it was a centre of massive economic prosperity, but also radicalism”. She went on to say: “I love Manchester Town Hall because it’s a building which absolutely understands its place in history… not at the beginning of a story, or at the end, but right in the middle”.

Both the courtyard and interior rooms are regularly used in the making of TV shows and films, including ‘Sherlock Holmes’, ‘The Iron Lady’, ‘Victor Frankenstein’ and ‘The Limehouse Golem’ while famous visitors to the hall have included Queen Elizabeth II, Winston Churchill and President Xi Jinping of China. Notably Queen Victoria did not attend the opening of the hall, despite the council at the time naming the square on which it stood after her husband.

“When our Victorian predecessors commissioned this building they wanted something special, an announcement of Manchester’s arrival on the world stage, and they got it,” says Cllr Priest. “Our town hall endures as a symbol of Manchester’s confidence and ambition. It is in that spirit that we have determined that the building cannot be allowed to slide into decay and disuse but we must protect it, improve public access and bring it up to modern safety and energy efficiency standards. That is a huge undertaking but I can think of a no more fitting way to mark the building’s 140th anniversary.”

> Related | Commercial proposals for Manchester Town Hall revealed

Memories are made of this

Manchester City Council has issued a call for people’s memories of Manchester Town Hall to mark the 140th anniversary of its official opening.

“Whether it is getting married in the town hall, a chance encounter with a VIP, attending a memorable event in the building or square, you or a relative once worked there or another anecdote, you could be part of that story,” says the local authority.

The council is inviting anyone with stories or photos to share to contact them via its Facebook or Twitter (@ManCityCouncil) accounts or by email to