Shoreditch Town Hall | Electricity, boxing, music hall and gangsters in 150 years of history
Discover the history of the progressive former Shoreditch Borough Council and its headquarters.
Standing on Old Street amidst the tech companies and hipster coffee shops is a towering monument to civic duty. Shoreditch Town Hall hasn’t had its own council for over 50 years, but was known in the Victorian era for being progressive. Before establishment of Borough Councils in the late 19th century, parishes of London were administered by vestry halls. The ancient parish of Shoreditch had boomed in population during the early Victorian era, with over 129,000 residents by 1861. Before building the Town Hall, the site contained the old Fuller’s Hospital, a collection of almhouses founded in 1605. Shoreditch district surveyor Caesar A Long designed the original town hall, which was smaller than the building you see today (see a 1865 sketch of the building). The façade was made of Portland stone, with five bays across the two-storey building. The exterior features Corinthian columns at the front entrance and allegorical keystones, representing Justice, Labour, Mercury and others. Inside, it impressed many with its Doric columns, stained glass windows, glittering chandeliers and ornate interiors. The entrance hall still features the original Victorian details, such as a triglyph frieze, ceiling roses and red Minton tiled floor. Its grand façade and interiors led to it being described as ‘the grandest Vestry Hall in London’.
When it opened in 1866, there were 120 members of the Shoreditch vestry. As well as being a civic centre for the vestry members, the hall was also a local entertainment centre. It was used for the popular Music Hall style of entertainment, with big names such as Arthur Lloyd (1839-1904), Max Miller (1894-1963), Dan Leno (1860-1904) and George Leybourne (1742-1884) performing there. The vestry’s main hall (now the Council Chamber) hosted the inquest into the last Jack The Ripper victim, Mary Jane Kelly, in November 1888.
In 1899, the Shoreditch Vestry became the Metropolitan Borough of Shoreditch when London’s local government system was re-organised. The new council adopted the motto, ‘More Light, More Power’, which is seen frequently throughout the building. This referenced the council’s innovative approach to bringing the new technology of electricity to the area. In 1897, the vestry had built the St. Leonard Shoreditch Electric Light Station, (later known as the Shoreditch Borough Refuse Destructor and Generating Station). Revolutionary at the time, it burned rubbish to provided steam for an electricity generator, with the waste heat heating the public swimming baths next door. Today, the generating station is now the National Centre for Circus Arts school. Shoreditch Vestry was the first municipal energy company to generate electricity by burning waste.
Increasing council duties meant more space was required so architect William George Hunt (b.1870) was enlisted to design a western extension at a cost of £30,000. Hunt lived in Kensington and had also worked on an extension for his local town hall in 1898-9, as well as the Harrods Furniture Depository in 1894. Hunt added the large Assembly Hall, a tower, caretaker’s cottage and more offices. A new staircase was added with cast iron balustrades, along with a stained glass window depicting a municipal crest His designs retained the old Vestry chamber to be used as a council hall. The tower united the original and new extension and featured a female sculpture of Progress, which alludes to Shoreditch’s innovative reputation at the time. Progress wears a winged helmet (symbolising speed) and is holding a torch (to shine the light of progress) and an axe (to cut through forest to make way for civilisation). The extension features more allegorical keystone heads just like the original: Labour, Justice and Protection. Meanwhile, the top western pediment features two reclining figures, with a shield in between and the council motto underneath.
The foundation stone was laid on 9 September 1901 by Sarah Ellen Kershaw (1860-1925), wife of the first Mayor of Shoreditch, Henry Edward Kershaw (1864-1928). Although the foundation stone describes Mrs Kershaw as ‘the first Mayoress of Shoreditch’, it’s important to note she was given the title ‘Mayoress’ as the spouse of the Mayor, rather than being a female elected to run the council. However, Shoreditch Borough Council were certainly progressive when it came to equality in the council and have many female mayors (mayoress) over its 66 year history, the first being Henrietta Girling (1875-1969) in 1930. The ceremony to unveil the foundation stone was a bit of a public relations disaster for the council, with the London North Middlesex Standard And Tottenham And Wood Green Echo reporting: “The unveiling was completely obscured from public view by a hoarding constructed to meet the necessities of building operations, but being so close to the continuous roar of the traffic in Old Street, as to render the voices of speakers at the ceremony at times almost inaudible.”
During the extension building, the warren of basement rooms were extended, while the original eastern facing steps to the street were bricked over. When I visited Shoreditch Town Hall during Open House London one September, I was allowed access to a small, separate basement on the eastern side, in which you could see grand Victorian steps leading to a doorway that no longer exists and some 19th century paving stones from the street that once stood there (this 1865 sketch shows the western version of the steps just on the right). Meanwhile, the main basement has a series of interconnecting rooms, with many fireplaces, ovens and windows. Over the decades, it was used for many purposes, including storage, kitchens, and a bomb shelter during World War II. Today, the rooms are known as ‘The Ditch’ and can be rented as an events space. You can still see the former caretaker’s accommodation, with fireplace and old peeling wallpaper, as well as several large ovens which were once used to cook the meals for the councillors.
Unfortunately, the Assembly Hall and Council Chamber’s roof were damaged by a fire in August 1904, to be re-opened three years later. The current Assembly Hall is the Edwardian rebuild by A W Cross from 1905. The Hall is a huge space, covered by a curved ceiling of six bays, leading to a stage topped by an arch with the drama masks of comedy and tragedy. The lower level features marble panelled walls. A second extension was added in 1936-1938, adding a rear wing in the south, which can be accessed from Rivington Place.
As you would expect, Shoreditch Town Hall was a draw for protestors and political rallies. Suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested there in 1913. Labour leader Clement Attlee (1883-1967), Labour minister and London County Council (LCC) leader Herbert Morrison (1888-1865) and Fascist politician Oswald Mosley (1896-1980) all spoke here. (Watch a 1947 video of then-PM Attlee, Morrison and their wives at a Shoreditch Trade Council dinner in the Assembly Hall). In the early days of Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF), its candidates William Joyce (1906-1946) and Jim A Bailey ran for Shoreditch in the March 1937 LCC elections. The BUF, known for their anti-Semitic views, ran several election candidates in the East End, which had a large Jewish community at the time. Although none of the BUF candidates were elected, they did manage to get 14 percent of the popular vote in Shoreditch. Joyce and Bailey lost to the Labour Party’s Henrietta Girling, who described them as “dirty rats” and “no gentlemen”. Joyce later fled to Germany and became a Nazi propaganda broadcaster during World War II. He was the last person to be executed for “treason” by the UK in January 1946.
From the 1930s to 1950s, Shoreditch had five female mayors. As well as Girling, subsequent mayors/mayoresses included Dorothy Thurtle (1936-1937), Eileen Kellet (1945-1946), Mary Isabella Higgins (1950-1951) and Emma Esther Smith (1953-1954).
During the 1950s and 1960s, the Town Hall became a popular boxing venue. The first ever televised boxing match took place in the Assembly Hall. However, a ban was imposed on boxing in Hackney (then then-council) after Trinidadian Ulric Regis (1939-1969) died of fatal brain injuries a few days after a bout with British-Australian Joe Bugner (b.1950) in March 1969. During the same decade, the notorious Kray twins used to attend boxing matches and host card games in the antechamber of the men’s toilets. The unlikely location meant the players could easily disperse into the toilets if the police raided. Unsurprisingly, the games sometimes descended into violence.
In 1965, the LCC was abolished and the capital’s councils were restructured as the Greater London Council. Shoreditch, Stoke Newington and Hackney councils merged, under the latter’s name. The last Mayor of Shoreditch was Albert Sidney Simmons (1901-1976).
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the building gradually fell into disuse and neglect. Despite being Grade II listed in 1975, it ended up on English Heritage’s Buildings at Risk register in 1996. During the 1990s, the Town Hall saw some life as an entertainment venue again as the home to trance club night Whirl-Y-Gig.
As the 21st century dawned, a campaign to save the building saw the Shoreditch Town Hall Trust acquire the lease in 2002. Over £2.3million has been invested to restore and utilise the building as an arts and events space. Today, it is a great venue to see fringe and mainstream performers from the worlds of comedy, dance, drama and music. As well as an events space, the old Town Hall has also been used as a filming location for TV and films, including Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), The Death of Stalin (2017) and Florence Foster Jenkins (2016). Meanwhile, part of the building’s western extension is home to The Clove Club, an upmarket restaurant serving British cuisine since 2013.
- Shoreditch Town Hall, 380 Old Street, Shoreditch, EC1V 9LT. Nearest station: Old Street or Hoxton. For more information, visit the Shoreditch Town Hall website.
Read about the history of Old Finsbury Town Hall in Clerkenwell.
For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.
Posted on 18 Apr 2020, in Architecture, History, London and tagged East End, Shoreditch. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Shoreditch Town Hall | Electricity, boxing, music hall and gangsters in 150 years of history.