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‘The very focus of municipal life’

‘The very focus of municipal life’: The opening of Middlesbrough Council Chamber, 9th August 1887

A sketch of Middlesbrough Town Hall and Municipal Buildings

Middlesbrough Town Hall and Municipal buildings, designed by G.G. Hoskins, are amongst the most significant landmarks of the Ironopolis, serving as centrepiece in the town’s civic, cultural, economic, political and social life since the 1880s. It was from the buildings that major debates have taken place and decisions made on key developments in Middlesbrough’s history, including important debates on education, health, policing, welfare and even whether to adopt the curious proposal of a Transporter Bridge to cross the Tees. 1

Although Middlesbrough Town Hall and Municipal Buildings were officially opened on 23rd January 1889 by the Prince and Princess of Wales to much fanfare, civic pomp and ceremony involving town-wide celebrations that cast Middlesbrough and the rise of the manufacturing town into the national spotlight, many of the offices and meeting rooms of the grand G.G. Hoskins designed landmark had actually been in use since 1887. The existing Corporation premises in the town, including the Old Town Hall, had proven insufficient in coping with the Infant Hercules growing up and bringing with it expansion of municipal services required to support a town that had expanded phenomenally in population and size.

A sketch of Middlesbrough Town Hall and Municipal Buildings

Exactly 130 years ago, on 9th August 1887, the current Council Chamber was inaugurated by hosting the quarterly meeting of Middlesbrough Town Council, with the event hailed as an important day in the history of the town and the ongoing construction of the Town Hall and Municipal Buildings. Just two weeks earlier, Hoskins had presided over a visit to the venue by members and friends of the Northern Architectural Association in his role as Chairman, attracting the attention of The British Architect.2 Locally, the North Eastern Daily Gazette described the building’s style as of thirteenth century gothic architecture ‘suffused with the feeling and spirit of the present time’ and listed the various bodies the buildings would accommodate including the whole of the corporation departments, police, Water Board, Board of Guardians, School Board and Free Library.3 The July 1887 article described the ‘almost complete’ Council Chamber as ‘probably one of the most magnificent Council Chambers in England’, and looked forward to its first meeting on the 9th August.4

Official Middlesbrough Town Hall and Municipal Buildings Opening Souvenir Programme, 23rd January 1889

The architectural magnificence was once again praised in the local press in reports on the inaugural proceedings in the Council Chamber, the ‘very focus of municipal life’, with the Gazette describing the new structures as ‘among the finest municipal buildings in the North of England, and will form a conspicuous ornament in a town where architectural adornments are all too rare’.5 Key features were picked out to give the reader a glimpse into the centre of municipal activity, including ‘stained glass windows richly dight, casting a dim religious light’, elaborate gasaliers and a civic chair of ecclesiastical order design ‘surmounted by a canopy in moulded oak, with a miniature carved lion rampant and shield on either side of the canopy.6 One criticism by the Gazette, however, was the absence of accommodation for the press, who diligently recorded minute details of meetings long before the days of YouTube video recordings and social media ‘check-ins’.7

The day’s business dealt with a number of aspects of life in day-to-day Middlesbrough. Agreement was made that the Sisters at Nazareth House should not be charged for sending children to the Fever Hospital.8 Death rates for the borough in July were reported by Dr Malcolmson at 75 deaths giving a mortality rate of 14.78 per thousand per annum, before Councillor J.F. Wilson presented the report of the Finance Committee.9

Following the meeting, a dinner was held by Mayor Amos Hinton in the reading room to mark the important day in the history of the town.10 The number of key figures in attendance reflected the significance of the event, with guests including Vicar of Middlesbrough Reverend J.K. Bealey, G.G. Hoskins, numerous aldermen and councillors, the Town Clerk, Borough Treasurer, Chief Constable, Nuisance Inspector and School Board Superintendent.11

Amongst the numerous speeches and toasts, the business, political and social developments and challenges in 1887 Middlesbrough were chronicled. The Vicar of Middlesbrough praised the town’s good moral condition and challenged ‘extravagant exaggerations that been put forward as to the immorality of Middlesbrough’.12 Belk reflected on trade in Middlesbrough and expressed hope of a more positive future after several challenging years, highlighting increasing pig iron prices, the rise of steel production in the area, encouraging exports of local produce to America, Canada, India and promising future deals for Bolckow Vaughan in producing steel rails for the Chinese market. Despite not sharing Belk’s optimism for the iron trade, Hanson reflected on the spatial development of the town and future industrial prospects, pointing to ‘houses being built in all directions’ and speculating on the important role steel would play in shaping the district in the ensuing decades.13 

As proceedings grew to a close, the last word fell to architect G.G. Hoskins who praised the contractor and clerks of the works and confidently remarked that ‘he did not think there was an item, however small, in the building that he could find fault with’.14 

Tosh Warwick
August 2017

All images courtesy of Middlesbrough Libraries.

[1] “The New Council Chamber at Middlesbrough: Inaugural Proceedings”, North Eastern Daily Gazette, 9 August 1887

[2] “Middlesbrough New Municipal Buildings”, The British Architect, 29 July 1887

[3] North Eastern Daily Gazette, 25 July 1887

[4] North Eastern Daily Gazette, 25 July 1887

[5]“The New Council Chamber at Middlesbrough: Inaugural Proceedings”, North Eastern Daily Gazette, 9 August 1887

[6] “The New Council Chamber at Middlesbrough: Inaugural Proceedings”, North Eastern Daily Gazette, 9 August 1887

[7] “The New Council Chamber at Middlesbrough: Inaugural Proceedings”, North Eastern Daily Gazette, 9 August 1887

[8] “Middlesbrough Corporation in its New Home”, Northern Echo, 10 August 1887

[9] “Middlesbrough Corporation in its New Home”, Northern Echo, 10 August 1887

[10] “The New Council Chamber at Middlesbrough: Inaugural Proceedings”, North Eastern Daily Gazette, 9 August 1887

[11] “The Opening of a New Council Chamber at Middlesbrough: The Mayor’s Dinner”, North Eastern Daily Gazette, 10 August 1887

[12] “Middlesbrough Corporation in its New Home”, Northern Echo, 10 August 1887

[13] “The Opening of a New Council Chamber at Middlesbrough: The Mayor’s Dinner”, North Eastern Daily Gazette, 10 August 1887

[14] “The Opening of a New Council Chamber at Middlesbrough: The Mayor’s Dinner”, North Eastern Daily Gazette, 10 August 1887

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