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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 4th June 2010
Ripon Town Hall
Town Halls are to be the subject of a celebrity talk to Ripon Civic Society next week. David Winpenny considers how we should view Ripon’s own town hall.

When television’s architectural historian Dr Jonathan Foyle, Chief Executive of the World Monuments Fund in Britain, gives his talk in Ripon on 11 June about the 19th-century town halls in the North of England, what should we feel? Should Ripon be smug in the knowledge that not only are we a much more ancient city than any of the upstart rivals, and that our Town Hall is an 18th-century building? Or should we be envious of those industrial cities that had the funds, the prestige and the civic pride to commission some of the 19th-century’s best architects to design them a purpose-built seat of local government?

Dr Foyle may reflect on the purposes of a town hall. Why should we need one? What purpose should it serve? When Mrs Allanson gave money for the building of Ripon Town Hall, it was, as the inscription inside the building says, ‘for the Preservation of the Muniments of the Corporation of Ripon, and for holding the Public Meetings of the Body.’ So it was intended as a place where the records were kept and where the Council could meet. Its great room was, of course, also used as an Assembly Room for the city.

There are several interesting facts about Ripon’s Town Hall. One is that it was designed by the very fashionable James Wyatt, and is one of his few northern works. He was very much a London-based architect, and perhaps he was too busy with his southern practice to give much attention to a small northern commission. He (or possibly one of the many pupils working in his office – we cannot be sure) produced a decent if unexciting design.

Another point of interest is that it was built not by the Corporation but by a local landowner. The inscription makes it very clear: it was erected ‘In grateful Remembrance of the Benefits conferred on this Town by MRS ELIZABETH ALLANSON, WIDOW late of Studley Royal Who erected these Buildings MDCCXCIX And during her Life, permitted them to be used . . .’ Nearly a century later the council took it over when, as an addition to the memorial to Mrs Allanson notes rather exasperatedly, ‘This Edifice was finally presented to the Corporation by the . . . Marquess of Ripon KG on the 31st of July 1897’.

This sort of ad hoc arrangement would not have suited the great Victorian manufacturing cities. As Sir Charles Barry, the architect of the Houses of Parliament wrote to Halifax corporation, for whom he designed a sumptuous Town Hall, ‘A Town Hall should . . . be the means of giving due expression of public feeling upon all national and municipal events of importance . . . [serving] as it were, the exponent of the life and soul of the city.’

The architects of the north’s 19th-century town halls certainly took this to heart. With the enthusiastic support of Aldermen and Councillors they were able to design and build a succession of imposing and elaborate structures that not only provided public meeting spaces and municipal offices but also embodied the aspirations of the mercantile middle class that raised the funds for them. They form a roll-call of magnificence.

Leeds Town Hall was one of the first such buildings whose construction was paid for not by private enterprise but by the Corporation out of the rates. Designed by the Hull-born architect Cuthbert Brodrick, its foundation stone was laid in August 1853 and the finished building was opened by Queen Victoria on 7 September 1858. It had what became an imperative feature of a 19th-century town hall – a clock tower, proclaiming not only the wealth of the city but also that from henceforth the workers were working to the city’s time and for the city’s wellbeing.

Halifax Town Hall opened four years after Leeds, and Barry used an Italian Renaissance style, showing that the Halifax merchants were the lineal successors of the Medicis both in commerce and in artistic patronage. The great Manchester Town Hall was later – it was completed in 1873 to designs by Alfred Waterhouse – and is in the 13th-century Gothic style. Its interiors are especially elaborate (and often double for the Palace of Westminster in television political dramas) and its 286-foot clock tower is one of the tallest. The contemporary Bradford Town Hall was built to designs by local architects Lockwood and Mawson (though they largely copied them from the unbuilt scheme by Burges for London’s Law Courts). It has a tower based on that of Sienna’s Palazzo Pubblico.

The catalogue rolls on – Gothic at Rochdale and Middlesbrough, classical at Bolton and Oldham, French Renaissance in Sheffield, Queen Anne in Wakefield, full-blown neo-Baroque in Hull. All of them seem a far cry from Ripon’s modest effort.

So what should we make of our Town Hall? Perhaps it is a symbol of the city just as much as these great Victorian ‘Palaces for the People’ (the title of Dr Foyle’s talk). Ripon is not a great manufacturing city, but it is a place with a long and illustrious history. So when the members of the council meet in its upper room (even if the building is now owned by Harrogate rather than by Ripon), perhaps they should be mindful of the symbolism of the building they occupy.

• Tickets for the talk, which takes place on Friday 11 June at Holy Trinity Church in Ripon, starting at 7.30 pm, cost £10, including refreshments. (Ripon Civic Society members £8.) They are obtainable by calling 01765 607641, by sending a stamped addressed envelope and a cheque made payable to ‘Ripon Civic Society’ to RCS 2010, Victoria Villa, Princess Road, Ripon HG4 1HW, or at the door.

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