BURSLEM’S SECOND TOWN HALL.  

(Written by Mervyn Edwards, Local Historian and Burslem History Club Speaker Secretary, December, 2016).

 

Over the years, I’ve been a little coy about naming my favourite building in Stoke-on-Trent. Is a historian meant to rise above favouritism and other such subjectivity and must he, in the desire to preserve his gravitas, remain aloof and detached from such glib questions? Not this one. Let’s spit it out, shall we?

My favourite piece of city architecture is the Town Hall building in Market Place, Burslem – and I recently admitted this on BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House programme - a great platform from which to announce my lack of gravitas.

Through its various reinventions, this building remains, in my eyes, Burslem Town Hall – exuding dignity and authority, a staunch protector against all Burslem’s foes and the many people who delight in deriding the Mother Town.

It’s easy to wax rhapsodic about such a building, and the usual approach is to describe its melange of Classical styles, heavy stone  portico, curvaceous clock turret and what Arnold Bennett called its Golden Angel.

Indeed, as I recall, when Burslem History Club was launched in 2000, several speakers virtually fell over themselves in the rush to describe the town’s most dominant feature.

Our speakers and the club have widened their horizons since those early days, though the Town Hall still casts a spell. Yet it was not always so.  As the regulars at my Green Door history talks will testify, I’m fond of asking the question, what would have happened had history taken a different turn? 

It may come as a surprise to some that a vocal minority wanted Burslem’s Town Hall to be demolished, about half-a-century ago. In 1960, at a time when the Civic Trust had laid out the new gardens area in the town centre, there were rumours that the Town Hall might be replaced by a “multiple store”.

The Sentinel reported on the mixed feelings about the building as viewed by the Burslem Chmber of Trade. In 1972, the newspaper again questioned whether the building’s support from heritage and architecture buffs should guarantee its retention, or whether Burslem’s future lay in the replacement of a structure that was regarded by some as “black, filthy & useless” by a “modern retail paradise.” 
 

Stanley Bourne, a member of the City Council General Purposes Committee, even declared at the time that the hall was a depressing building and a “monstrosity” only deserving of demolition. He advocated its replacement by a supermarket.

Thankfully, this did not materialise, but in some towns and cities, dignified buildings have been converted for retail use. Among those I have encountered in my time have been the Parade Shopping Centre in Shrewsbury – a former infirmary – and Dublin’s classy Powerscourt Townhouse Centre, once a Georgian residence.

Similar may have happened in Burslem, too. In 1993, the Town Hall, then used as a leisure centre by the City Council, might have received the go-ahead to be converted into a shopping arcade. Burslem Councillor Jean Edwards envisaged that the Mother Town’s  centrepiece might be transformed into something similar to the Tontines Shopping Court – the old butchers’ market – in Hanley. Sadly, the Tontines, though an innovative project, quickly went the way of all things.

Burslem’s Town Hall of 1857 is today a grade II* listed building – a reminder of local government, before the Federation of the six towns. It remains a magnificent adornment to the town and has now undergone a change of use as a modern temple of learning.

For a monstrosity, it’s looking in fine fettle.






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