Once upon a town...

It is now almost impossible to imagine Bolton town centre without its iconic Town Hall. The sheer weight of stone makes it feel as though it has been there forever, unchanging. In fact, the building is less than 150 years old and has been radically altered several times during its distinguished career.

Before 1838, Bolton consisted of a confusing patchwork of independent districts, the two central townships being the most prominent. Little Bolton was (roughly) situated to the north of the River Croal while Great Bolton lay to the south.

Each of the two Boltons were governed separately by a ramshackle system of feudal 'courts leet', magistrates, a Boroughreeve (the senior municipal officer) and a Board of Trustees - in Great Bolton's case known by their many critics as 'the 40 thieves'.

Very few people in Bolton (or anywhere else in Britain) had a vote at the time and the various arms of local government effectively lay in the hands of a small group of wealthy property owners and gentry. Corruption was endemic. The more that Bolton's population, prosperity and importance grew during the Industrial Revolution, the louder the calls for local government reform became.

Little Bolton had built its own modest Town Hall on St George's Street in the 1820s. This building was the administrative centre of the township and also contained the court, police station and lockup.

Great Bolton's Trustees had toyed with building a Town Hall on the Market Square (now Victoria Square) as early as 1796 but had never quite got round to doing anything practical about it.

In the years following the incorporation of Bolton as a single borough on 11 October 1838 the new Council was obliged to adapt a range of more or less unsuitable premises scattered around the town centre in order to carry out its work.

As the Corporation expanded its operations and ambitions it became increasingly obvious that Bolton needed a substantial, purpose-built Town Hall.

The Council established a Town Hall Committee in 1863 and it is largely due to the determination of its Chairman, James Rawsthorne Wolfenden (Mayor of Bolton 1861-63) and his successors, that serious planning finally began after many years of postponements and false starts.

The compulsory purchase of properties around the Market Square that needed to be cleared for the project was made.

Deputations were sent to various other boroughs to view their new town halls, with Leeds making by far the strongest impression.

The Town Hall Committee made three main stipulations for the design of the new building:

  • That the ground plan of the building should not exceed the allocated area.
  • That it should not cost more than £40,000 to construct (a hopelessly optimistic figure as it turned out.)
  • That they were not to adopt the Gothic style of architecture (as seen in Alfred Waterhouse's phenomenally expensive design for Manchester Town Hall).

200 architects were invited to compete for the design contract. The 6 finalists were placed in order of merit by Thomas Leverton Donaldson, President of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

The £54,000 design submitted by William Hill of Leeds - "Experientia Docet" (experience teaches) was awarded first place while that of the Bolton architect, George Woodhouse, was placed fifth.

This was far from the end of the matter. A great deal of lively debate within the Council followed. Very little could be agreed about the merits of each design, the costs involved or even (at this late stage) whether a Town Hall was needed at all.

It was only following the timely intervention of J R Wolfenden, who quietly pointed out that the borough was actually in a very healthy financial position and could comfortably afford to finance the building project, that progress was made.

It was at this point that the original design requirements for a library and museum within the building were struck out completely and the size of the main hall was greatly reduced. William Hill and George Woodhouse were appointed as architects.

Another long public debate about whether the building should have a tower or not followed. Those against suggested that a tower was an expensive luxury and that the £7,000 that it would cost could be spent more usefully elsewhere, or even better, not spent at all. Happily, in the end, the tower won.

Ellis & Hinchcliffe of Manchester were appointed as contractors for the basement (now the ground floor) and work finally began in late 1866.

It was resolved that the then Mayor, Richard Stockdale, should lay the cornerstone on Saturday 20 October 1866. For reasons that remain a mystery the Mayor firmly declined to perform the ceremony. Several later attempts proved abortive and the matter was quietly allowed to lapse. As a result, Bolton Town Hall has no formal cornerstone.