19 June 2012

Town Hall, Guildhall and Joseph Hansom

The Town Hall in 1834

Joseph Hansom, with his partner Edward Welch, won the competition to build the Town Hall out of 67 applicants in 1831. The hall is one of the most iconic of Birmingham's buildings and its history has been traced by a number of writers. Those who have read any history of Birmingham will probably be aware of how Hansom had grossly underestimated the costs of building, and that as he had borne the entirety of the financial commitments, he was declared bankrupt before completion (and the hall had to be completed by Charles Edge). In the early 1830s though, Birmingham was teeming with political radicalism, and Joseph Hansom, influenced by Robert Owen's ideas, was part of the wider socialist movement. We do not know whether the Town Hall was built by builders in co-operatives, there were a large number of builders working on the building, but with Hansom behind the project it would have been built with the aspirations of socialism, which marks it as an important building.

Although he went bankrupt, the Town Hall was not the last of Joseph Hansom’s Birmingham commissions; in 1833 work began on the Operative Builder’s Guildhall. The Guildhall was initiated by Birmingham’s Builder’s Trades’ Union (the Operative Builder’s Union) who wanted a building for meetings, lectures and for education.* The idea was that the builders themselves would erect buildings as co-operatives without the need for the masters. Hansom, being a socialist, was a keen advocator of co-operatives. The objective of the builders trade unions was ‘to give permanency and efficiency to the efforts of the working builders to obtain secure sufficient wages and full employment for every member of their body’ and also 'to provide [...] schools for instruction in all the branches of the art of building' as well as 'a good, sound, and practical education for their children’.* There was also the desire to offer 'provision for times of illness or accident, and a comfortable retirement for the aged and infirm'.* The larger businesses and employers saw the Operative Builder’s Union as 'a direct threat to private property and capitalist enterprise', and initiated a counter-attack on those workers involved by refusing to employ them.*

The day the first stone of the Guildhall was laid there was a procession; 'bands of music, flags, banners, &c., were seen moving in all directions towards the scene of action. After parading the principal streets, amidst throngs of spectators, [...] the procession proceeded to the site of the intended building in Broad Street'.* The building was seen as part of 'the commencement of a new era in the condition of the whole of the working classes in the world'.* The excitement and optimism would be short lived though. The aim had been to raise the funds for the Guildhall from donations from the Builder’s Trades’ Unions but they suffered from organisational weaknesses and funds that were earmarked for the building of the Guildhall were used to support strikers in other towns.* In 1834 the union collapsed as did the plans for the Guildhall, which was only ever half built, but the ideas and operatives were mainly absorbed into the wider radical movements of the time.*

** With thanks to Alex Lawrey who first let me know of this aspect of the Town Hall's construction. You can visit his site: http://www.builtheritageresearch.org/
* References available on request.

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