After nine years of trying to decide if it could afford a new town hall, Preston Council decided that ‘an eminent architect’ would have the necessary authority to bring the scheme to fruition. By February 1862 the Council had chosen a site and Scott was requested to submit plans, a drawing of the ‘Market’ exhibited by Sir George Gilbert Scott at the Royal Academy that year.
Preston was the ideal place for him to put into effect his ideas, as stated in the Remarks, for the expression of civic dignity. It was an ancient and prosperous borough, the judicial centre of Lancashire and it had a great history of industrial enterprise. But if the councillors of Preston expected that their building would resemble the formal designs of Hamburg or Halifax, they must have been somewhat surprised to see that Scott’s design was an informal layout, owing more to Kelham than Hamburg.
The site was between the main street and the Market Square and two narrow side streets. On the north side, towards the Market Square, Scott designed a symmetrical elevation, while the other three elevations were irregular. The main feature was a clock tower at the south-western corner, which became a prominent landmark in the main street. This started as a more robust version of Kelham’s clockless clock tower but, apparently, it was not high enough so it was raised during construction to an overall height of 197 feet.
On 2 September 1862, the Mayor laid the foundation stone of the new town hall. The contractors, who were only appointed after the ceremony, were the local firm of Cooper and Tullis, and the total cost was £69,412. The building was constructed entirely of local stone from quarries at Longridge, four miles north-east of Preston, with a considerable amount of ornamentation and carving by Farmer and Brindley. Although Scott’s layout of the building was probably functionally effective as the administrative centre of the Borough of Preston, its siting seems to have denied him the opportunity of making it into a grand and dignified composition to reflect his stated aims. The south front, towards the main street was the show front, and it was illustrated in The Builder of 30 August 1862 with a drawing by John Drayton Wyatt. This shows an arched colonnade at street level with a range of tall plate-traceried windows above, like a portion of the Hamburg facade, but with the great clock tower on the extreme left. Under the tower was the entrance to a vast space, like a medieval undercroft, containing two rows of polished granite columns supporting a vaulted ceiling. It was intended to be an ‘exchange and public news room’, as well as housing a ‘weekly market day for commercial purposes’, but neither idea seemed to be successful and it became the public library until the monumental Harris Library was completed across the Market Place in 1893.
The fundamental fault in Scott’s design was that the main entrance to the Town Hall proper was actually off the side street on the west side where he provided all the trappings of a grand approach, including a projecting porch, incorporating much heraldic carving, and a balcony over. The symmetrical north elevation toward the Market Place was the only place that Scott could have formed a really dignified entrance to the building, and although he provided another porch here, it only led to the Town Clerk’s and Treasurer’s offices and those of the School Attendance Officers in the basement.
On the other hand, the interior of the building, beyond the somewhat demeaning approach via the main entrance, was as grand as befitted its status. A short flight of steps led up to the entrance hall from where an imperial staircase, only slightly less grand than that of the Foreign Office, rose up to the first floor, with the Guild Hall to the left over the exchange and the Council Chamber to the right over the offices. The Guild Hall has been described as ‘spacious, and stately in appearance – while, in ornamentation, it is charmingly elaborate’.
The building was opened on Thursday 3 October 1867, ‘amid much pomp and circumstance’, by the Duke of Cambridge. But in 1947, the only town hall that Scott ever built, and what he considered to be one of his best works, was damaged by fire, and eventually demolished in 1963.
Hewitson, A., A History of Preston (Chronicle Office, Preston, 1883), pp. 358-60, 362, 365.
Scott, G. G., Remarks on Secular and Domestic Architecture, Present and Future (John Murray, London, 2nd ed. 1858), p. 201.
Eastlake, C. L., A History of the Gothic Revival (Longmans, Green and Co., London 1872), p. 116.
The Builder, 30 August 1862, p. 621.
Read, B., Victorian Sculpture (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1984), p. 240.
Cole, D., The Work of Sir Gilbert Scott (The Architectural Press, London, 1980), p. 124.