Queen Victoria’s opening of Leeds Town Hall in 1858 is regarded as one of the most illustrious occasions in the city’s history. Building such an edifice reflected Leeds’s civic pride and standing as a thriving commercial centre.
Earlier, the Moot Hall, Briggate, and then the Court House, Park Row, had served as places to conduct council and judicial matters but a more adequate structure was deemed necessary.
Initially, it was intended to raise cash for an appropriate new building through selling £10 shares but this failed miserably. Then, perhaps surprisingly, an idea to place a levy on the rates to support the project was passed in 1851.
Some people were opposed to building a town hall, while others argued between economy or creating a magnificent municipal palace – and the latter argument won.
The town hall was to be built on a site, owned by John Blayds, situated between Calverley Street and Oxford Place, and was acquired for £9,500. By June 1852 the Corporation was organising a competition for architects to submit plans for the building that would broadly comprise a council room, corporate offices, a public room and courts of justice.
The competition’s first prize of £200 was won by the young Hull architect Cuthbert Broderick, while Sir Charles Barry was brought in as advisor. Interestingly, Barry made some alterations to Broderick’s plans and these were adopted, including a tower over the main entrance. Broderick’s designs for the town hall were in the classical, baroque style.
The next step, in 1853, was for building tenders to be invited and that of Samuel Atack, builder and bricklayer, of Trafalgar Street, was accepted for £41,825. James Donaldson was appointed Clerk of Works.
However, due to a string of difficulties concerning further costly alterations to the plans, under estimates of building costs, and the bankruptcy of Atack, during March 1857, the work was completed by other builders. One of the main stumbling blocks had been the cost of the tower but this was eventually authorised after much wrangling within the council and construction was carried out by the Leeds firm of Addy & Nicholls.
The final cost of the building, far exceeding the original estimate, was around £122,000. The costs were also authorised at a time when the city’s working classes were enduring great hardship.
The new building included a police station, court rooms, council chamber, central concert hall, refreshment rooms, dressing and retiring rooms, town clerk’s office, borough surveyor’s office, rate office, rooms for judges, barristers and a West Riding Magistrates’ Court.
Preparations for Queen Victoria to open the town hall were made months in advance. Accompanied by Prince Albert, and the Princesses Helena and Alice, the Queen arrived at Leeds station at 6.15pm on Monday, September 6, 1858. She was on her way from Osborne House to Balmoral and was met by Mayor, Peter Fairbairn, and other civic dignitaries along with the Earl and Countess Fitzwilliam.
On the way to the Mayor’s residence, Woodsley House, crowds estimated between 400,000 to 600,000 thronged the streets shouting and cheering.
The Times commented: ‘It was the cheer, not only of the thousands to who she was visible, but the cheers of all along the line of the route; it was caught up and passed from street to street, over-crowded housetops, and into places far removed from where the Queen would pass –one long sustained outburst of loyal enthusiasm such as we have never seen equalled before.”
The Queen was provided with a suite of rooms at Woodsley. Throughout the night, the house was ringed with a tight military presence.
During the following morning, the Queen listened to hymns sung by 26,000 Sunday School children on Woodhouse Moor. Afterwards she passed along the city and through a huge triumphal arch that had been erected, to the town hall.
Accompanied by the Mayor as she entered the building, a short introduction was made to architect Cuthbert Broderick. Earlier, Prince Albert had ascended the town hall tower.
Then, the formalities began. Prayers were led by the Bishop of Ripon, everyone joined in to sing the National Anthem, addresses were read to both the Queen and Prince Albert to which they both replied. The Queen then took a sword, asked the Mayor to kneel, and knighted him.
It was then left to the Earl of Derby to say: “I am commanded by the Queen to declare in Her Majesty’s name that this hall is now open.” Loud cheering and applause followed.
The inmates of the Workhouse were not forgotten in the general rejoicing. A plentiful supply of roast beef and plum pudding was served to them and a small quantity of ale.
Later, the Queen was escorted to Wellington Street station to continue her journey north to Balmoral.
Reporting on the Queen’s visit the Leeds Mercury proudly commented: ‘For a portion of two days through the condescension of Her Majesty this old and busy seat of industry became the seat of the Empire.’