Above: The imposing Town Hall, standing beside Old Street.
Before Metropolitan London came into effect in 1900, the parishes of London were run by Vestry Committees – acting rather like the Parish Councils which still run rural communities to this day. The members of the committee met in a Vestry Hall, some of them being very large and imposing buildings, while others were quite small. With the formation of the 28 Metropolitan Boroughs, some of Vestry Halls continued used by the new administration while others were demolished and larger premises were erected.
The neo-Baroque building opened in 1866, being built on the site of the old Fuller’s Hospital. It was designed by Caesar Augustus Long and came to be known as ‘the grandest Vestry Hall in London’ due mainly to its high-coved ceilings, Doric columns, large chandeliers and stained glass windows. The frontage on Old Street rises to a great height, incorporating a large square tower.
The interior of the building carries the council’s motto of ‘More Light, More Power’ at several places on the walls. This, together with the statue of ‘Progress’ enshrined their ambition to be a progressive, forward-thinking Vestry – including the provision of electric street lighting in the area. From its earliest days, Shoreditch Town Hall was at the heart of civic life, managing all aspects of the parish.
The building was used for an inquest, on 12 November 1888, when the Vestry Hall famously was used to consider the murder of Jack the Ripper’s last victim, Mary Kelly.
The Town Hall was extended in 1902 when William Hunt added the large Assembly Hall. Following a damaging fire in 1904, the new extended Assembly Hall was opened in 1907. Whilst upholding its municipal duties until 1965, the Town Hall also provided entertainment for the borough in the Assembly Hall, packing the building with variety and music acts from across the land. In the 1960s the Assembly Hall also became one of the East End’s premier boxing venues until 1969 when, after a brutal fight against Joe Bugner, the tragic death of Trinidadian Ulric Regis led to a ban on boxing throughout the newly formed London Borough of Hackney.
From 1965, Shoreditch (along with Stoke Newington) was combined with Hackney to form the larger London Borough of Hackney. The Town Hall was in Mare Street and Shoreditch Town Hall’s days of glory seemed to be over. It stood unused for many years and, as a result, it fell into gradual disrepair. It experienced a brief but colourful revival in the 1990s when the now infamous Whirl-Y-Gig trance nights descended on the Assembly Hall.
With a mission to restore many of the building’s historic interiors, and re-open it as a venue for arts, events and community use, the Shoreditch Town Hall Trust was formed in 1997. In 2002, the Trust commissioned the first phase of a large-scale restoration of the building and, following major structural renovation and restoration, the building reopened in 2004.
Today the old Town Hall welcomes around 70,000 people through its doors every year. It is an independent, flagship arts and events venue for Hackney. There are eight performance spaces, ranging from 40 to 800 people in capacity. The building has become a vibrant home for original and ambitious work connected with the arts. The Assembly Hall is an ideal location for corporate dinners, product launches, talks and other events. The high ceilings, Italian marble panelled walls, Matcham style balcony and glorious architectural features give the Assembly Hall a distinctive feeling of grandeur and elegance.
Within the old Town Hall are Committee Rooms, with their distinctive period features, Edwardian fireplaces and elegant buttressed ceilings. They are used for private parties, networking drinks, receptions, meetings and breakout spaces. In addition, there are exhibitions, business meetings, film shoots, weddings, private parties and other cultural activities held in the building throughout the year.
Shoreditch Town Hall is used for product launches, conferences, fashion shows and dinners. As an arts venue with a programme of non-traditional theatre, it has established itself as a key part of the east London cultural landscape. The mission of Shoreditch Town Hall Trust is to regenerate Shoreditch Town Hall for both community, and use for the benefit of the local and wider communities.
It is obvious from looking at the building from the grim surroundings of Old Street that the old Town Hall plays such an important part in the life of the London Borough of Hackney. All this activity has come to pass due to the considerable effort by those who are devoted to preserving this elegant building. The key to success of an old building is to find new uses and new purpose. AT least for this building that seems to be the case.