The Headrow, Leeds LS1 3AD
Leeds Town Hall(Cuthbert Brodrick, 1854-8).

The Leeds Town Hall is testament to both civic pride and civic rivalry, being deliberately bigger than St George’s Hall in Bradford completed in 1853.  Embarrassingly, though, while Bradfordians raised the money for their hall through public subscription, a similar attempt in Leeds failed and so the new building had to be paid for through the rates. 

John Deakin Heaton is now remembered as one of those who were most active in pressing the case for the new building.  His most celebrated intervention was a paper on ‘Town Halls’ given to the Philosophical and Literary Society in January 1854, although his journal records that the event was poorly attended (i. p. 119).  Heaton used the examples of the medieval town halls of Ghent and Bruges to demonstrate the importance of their great bell-towers to the aesthetic and moral value of such buildings.  His targets were the so-called ‘philistines’ on the municipal council, who opposed the addition of a bell-tower to the original design because of the cost.   Heaton believed that great architecture would serve as an inspiration to the population of Leeds, giving them pride in their town and an aspiration to self-improvement.  Now that the Town Hall tower is an instantly recognisable symbol of Leeds throughout Yorkshire and perhaps the world, few would disagree with Heaton’s view that it was money well-spent.

The hall was officially opened by Queen Victoria in 1858 (for a description, see Briggs, 1963, pp. 174-80).  The great Victoria Hall was from the outset a venue for the Leeds Choral Festival, and is still a major music venue.  Its main purpose, though, was to accommodate public meetings on every issue of the day, a now almost vanished part of our public life.   A gallery was even provided to allow ‘ladies’ (i.e. respectable middle- or upper-class women) to attend these meetings in comfort, which should put paid to the notion that such women were confined to a life of domestic indolence at this time (Morgan, 2007, pp. 172-7). 

The town hall was also equipped with council offices, a row of cells (hidden beneath the front steps) and four court rooms.  These last were designed to make the case for giving Leeds its own assizes, where felons could be tried by circuit judges.  Up to this point, such cases were heard in Wakefield, the official administrative capital of the West Riding. 

When the assizes first came to Leeds in 1864, Heaton recorded the ‘excitement’ in the town: a ‘procession was formed from the R[ailway] Station to the Town Hall, consisting of the High Sheriffs (Mr Gascoigne of Parlington), state carriage, javelin-men, trumpeters and foot-men, and several private carriages, & a great mob of the people’. ‘the Judges opened the commission and thence proceeded to the Judges Lodgings’ (Journal, ii. p. 43).

Further Reading:

Allanbrook Books (1994), The Queen’s Visit to Leeds in 1858
Briggs, Asa (1963) Victorian Cities. London: Odhams, esp. chapter 4.
Morgan, Simon (2007), A Victorian Woman’s Place: Public Culture in the Nineteenth Century. London: I.B. Tauris.
Reid, T. Wemyss (1883), A Memoir of John Deakin Heaton MD, Longmans, Green & Co. Chapter VII.

See further information on Leodis.  For an image of the town hall in 1894, click here.