On a bright St George’s Day I ventured down to see part of Birkenhead’s most impressive architecture around Hamilton Square most particularly the town hall building.
Birkenhead Town Hall is a Grade II listed building and was built as the main civic building for the former County Borough of Birkenhead. It continued to be used as council offices by the town’s successor council, the Metropolitan Borough of Wirral, and up until 2010 it housed the Wirral Museum. It still remains the location of the town’s register office.
When Hamilton Square was designed in the early 19th century, a plot of land was made available for the erection of a town hall between Hamilton Street and Chester Street. However, it wasn’t until 1887 that the current building was completed after four years of building. It was designed by local architect Christopher Ellison in 1882 and was constructed using Scottish granite and sandstone from the now filled in local quarry at Storeton which I have written about in earlier blogs.
The building consisted of a council chamber, offices, with a concert hall and function rooms known as the Assembly Rooms. Birkenhead’s magistrates’ court chambers are located in a separate building of the same design to the rear of the town hall.
The clock tower is 200 feet in height and consists of four faces. After a fire in 1901, the upper part of the clock tower was rebuilt to a design by Henry Hartley. The rebuilding included the installation of a stained glass window by Gilbert P Gamon representing Edward I’s visit to Birkenhead Priory in 1277.
The County Borough of Birkenhead was abolished on 1 April 1974 with the creation of the larger Metropolitan Borough of Wirral and nearby Wallasey town hall became the main civic centre for the new combined borough. The Birkenhead building continued to be used as council offices until the early 1990s, when work was undertaken to restore the external stonework and many interior decorations and features, including the former council chamber.
The Wirral Archives Service was based in the building until 2008, when it transferred to the council’s Cheshire Lines Building nearby. The service collects and stores all types of historical documents relating to the Wirral area, its people, businesses and institutions.
Between 2001 and 2010, the Wirral Museum occupied a significant portion of the building. It featured both themed and permanent exhibits such as the history and development of Wirral, the Cammell Laird collection, the Wirral Silver and Mayoral collections, Della Robbia Pottery and a detailed scale model of the historic Woodside area in 1934.
Birkenhead town hall continued to house many council staff until the 1990s, but departments were then moved out to other buildings in the area and the town hall was only used as the museum and archives service together with the registry office for births, marriages and deaths. However the civic building has also continued to be used as a venue for local and national elections and for the celebration of notable occasions as well as the town’s focal point for annual Remembrance Sunday ceremonies.
In 2009 Wirral Council put the town hall on the market but found there was relatively little interest and the council found no suitable options were put forward. The Council therefore decided to keep the town hall and it is again being used as offices. Now there are more than 100 staff based at Birkenhead town hall, mostly transferred from former council offices at Acre Lane which has been closed and is being sold off. There are plans to bring many more staff to the town hall as the authority sells off unwanted buildings across the borough to save cash.
The town hall has a rich history in itself. Throughout the First World War the Mayors and Mayoresses who were in office arranged a number of fundraising events and relief funds. Funds were used such as buying ambulances for the Birkenhead Red Cross. With the vehicles touring the town, starting at the Town Hall then travelling to Birkenhead Park, where at times there were practical demonstrations given to the public by the Borough Fire Brigade and the Voluntary Aid Detachment.
In September 1914 the Mayoress of Birkenhead started an appeal for Belgian Refugees, who were heading to the area after fleeing from the German invasion.
The recruitment of the Birkenhead Bantam Brigade started at the Town Hall before moving to Bebington Showground. Over 1000 men were expected to attend ready to enlist and have a medical examination. Other large recruitment events were also held at the Town Hall.
From 1915 for the duration of the war a party was held before Christmas and in January for the children of soldiers and sailors who were serving in the HM Forces being paid for by the Mayor’s Annual Relief Fund.
The first Annual Meeting of the Birkenhead Branch of the National Union of Women Workers was held at the Town Hall. At this meeting the authorities gave permission for patrols of women to be formed, with the support of the police, to maintain order as so many girls appeared to be loitering by the newly formed camps for soldiers.
In 1916 concerts were held here to raise funds to provide comforts to men serving in the War and in November 1918 a Thanksgiving Supper Dance was held for American soldiers who were billeted in the area.
The town hall looks out onto Hamilton Square which is surrounded on the other three sides by Georgian terraces. No two sides of the square are identical.
Hamilton Square was one of the first residential areas for business people and the growing professional classes to be built in the newly formed town of Birkenhead, following the introduction of steam ferries across the River Mersey from Liverpool in the nineteenth century. Whilst there is still some residential accommodation in the square, many properties are now used as offices and for commercial uses.
The land on which the square was developed was purchased in 1824 by Scottish shipbuilder William Laird (1780–1841).and he commissioned Edinburgh architect Gillespie Graham, to lay out a square and surrounding streets, in a similar style to Edinburgh New Town. Gillespie Graham envisaged vistas of long, straight and wide avenues lined by elegant houses. Hamilton Square, named after Laird’s wife’s family, was built piecemeal over the next twenty years as the focus of the regular street layout. Nearby Hamilton Square railway station opened in 1886.
The private gardens within the square were acquired by the local council in 1903 and were subsequently opened to the public. Features of the square include the town’s cenotaph immediately in front of the town hall, a large Queen Victoria Monument at the centre of the gardens and a statue of John Laird, the first Member of Parliament for Birkenhead and the son of William Laird. Laird’s house, at 63 Hamilton Square, is a Grade I listed building.
Between 1995 and 2002 Wirral Council had access to around £80m of public funding through the then government’s ‘Single Regeneration Budget’ to rejuvenate the area around Hamilton Square in what became known as the Hamilton Quarter initiative. This saw shop front renewals, conservation and landscaping works which included the installation of the ornate ‘moon and stars’ lamp posts which are found all around the square. The Hamilton Quarter intiative also funded initially the Wirral International Guitar Festival which still goes on today.
It may be a surprising statistic but Hamilton Square is second only to Trafalgar Square in London for having the most Grade I listed buildings in one place in England.