How Manchester beat Leeds in architecture's War of the Roses

The Neo-Gothic interior of the Manchester Town Hall
The Neo-Gothic interior of the Manchester Town Hall Credit:  Mark Sykes

The ambition of the Victorians is plain from their buildings, as is their civic pride. In an age before heavy central taxation, local councils raised funds to build institutions of which their people could be proud, and often did so in a spirit of competition with nearby towns.

Libraries, schools, hospitals and commercial exchanges sprung up, all manifestations of a country that was daily becoming wealthier and more sophisticated, and especially in its newly industrialised regions, signifying what then really was a northern powerhouse.

The cathedrals of this belief in civic power were the great town halls of newly wealthy and expanded cities; and few exemplify that cult better than the town hall at Manchester. Manchester’s challenge, when embarking on the project in 1863, was not least to have a building that could hold up its proverbial head to Cuthbert Brodrick’s neoclassical design at Leeds, built between 1853 and 1858; it was like an architectural War of the Roses.

Leeds’s truly was an urban temple: as well as housing the city fathers and council offices, it originally included the assize courts, function rooms for great civic ceremonies and an ornate concert hall. When Queen Victoria opened it in 1858, it was said she was opening a “municipal palace”; and as she surveyed this overpowering building, she must have thought she was.

Manchester hired one of the great Gothic revival architects of the day, Alfred Waterhouse, then in his late thirties, after a competition that had 137 entries. Waterhouse was born in Liverpool but established his practice in Manchester in the 1850s, where he won acclaim for Strangeways Prison and for his Assize Courts, which attracted abundant praise from John Ruskin for his use of the Gothic, and Ruskin was not lavish with his praise.

The Neo-Gothic interior of the Manchester Town Hall Credit: Getty/John and Tina Reid

Manchester took a risk with Waterhouse because he had just moved to London and was now exceptionally busy, and less able to oversee the execution of his plans than previously.  Contemporaneous with Manchester Town Hall is Waterhouse’s massive North Western Hotel in Liverpool, in the Renaissance style; the equally massive, but Gothic, Seamen’s Orphan Institution and the Royal Infirmary in the same city; buildings at Balliol College, Oxford, and Pembroke College, Cambridge; the Cambridge Union Society; a number of country houses and churches; and, above all, the Natural History Museum in London.

But Manchester Town Hall was of special interest to him, and he took great pains over it. The city fathers had demanded that the building be “equal, if not superior, to any similar building in the country”. Waterhouse ensured its 286ft-high clock tower was 55ft taller than Leeds’s. It took nine years to build (1868-77) and devoured 14 million bricks. But Queen Victoria, by then wallowing in a self-pitying widowhood, declined an invitation to open it.

Outside, this secular Gothic cathedral has some surprises to offer, such as the relative restraint of its decorations, with simple tracery in the windows and modest foliation on the capitals. Memorable are the pinnacled pavilions on the steep slate roofs that crown the building.

Interior of London's Natural History Museum, Waterhouse's masterpiece Credit: John Nguyen

Inside, the effect is of subdued colour, thanks to the use of tiling; and cloister-like corridors and high windows enhance an ecclesiastical effect. Waterhouse designed the furniture in the great rooms, too, and used a variety of stones and mosaics on the floors and walls to give an effect that is far from the sense of austerity seen outside.

One of the mosaic floors has a pattern of cotton flowers and bees, the symbols of the city; the great hall has murals by Ford Madox Brown that tell the history of the city; and, very much like a great cathedral, the great hall in the centre of the building has a Cavaillé-Coll organ. Ruskin raved over this hall, with its fine wagon roof decorated with coats of arms, as the finest he had seen in Europe; he approved, too, of the polychromatic effect around the variety of spaces Waterhouse created inside the building, an imaginative interior plan that overcame the difficulties of the site, essentially a blunted triangle.

The main ceremonial rooms show enormous attention to detail, with dado rails, fireplaces, mouldings and carvings of the highest order. “Manchester Town Hall,” Pevsner wrote, “stands as one of the greatest and most original architectural works of Victorian England.” That is unquestionably true, and an opportunity to see inside this Gothic palace is one to be seized.