The proud history of Burnley Town Hall

Years gone by: Burnley Town Hall
Years gone by: Burnley Town Hall

It is not normally the case that, when there are meetings in Burnley’s Council Chamber, it is full, but “full to bursting” it was when the annual meeting of the council took place. At this meeting, Coun. Andrew Tatchell took office as Burnley’s 119th Mayor.

Many of you will know that Burnley did not achieve borough status until 1861, a full 10 years after Blackburn. However, you might not be aware that the first mayor of Burnley, the cotton spinner, Mr John Moore, was not elected until 1862. There have been 162 years since then, but we have only had 119 mayors? That can’t be right, you might think.

The reason for the discrepancy is that mayors now only serve one-year terms of office whereas, in the past, some of them served terms of two years. The situation would have been complicated if I had counted only once the mayors who have served two terms. These men, and at first they were only men, were often, apart from their Mayoral roles, very important citizens in their day. They include John Barnes, also a cotton spinner, the second and sixth mayors, who held office from 1863-4 and 1869-71 and William Waddington, the banker, third and 10th mayors, who held the office 1864-66 and 1875-77.

The first woman to hold the office of mayor was Mrs Marie Brown, who was Lady Mayor of Burnley in the year the Second World War broke out. I think the events were unconnected! (Cheap joke, I know, but I could not resist it).

The second Lady Mayor was Miss Alice Fearnehough, who also served in the war years, 1942-3.

Not all of our mayors have known the present town hall. In fact, when the town became a borough, Burnley had no town hall and council meetings had to be held in the old fire station in Manchester Road.

The alternative was to hold council meetings in a pub. The favourite had been the Bull Hotel because the predecessor of the council, the Burnley Improvement Commission, had held its meetings there until it was disbanded by the granting of borough status in 1861.

This situation sufficed until 1868 when the council acquired the public hall in Elizabeth Street. The actual acquisition had been in 1867 but the building itself had been built in 1861 by a private company serving the town as a public hall, theatre and swimming pool, which had been known as Albert Baths. The company which had built the facility found itself in financial difficulties and Burnley Council took over the building and the council offices opened in 1868.

There is a footnote to this in that the Elizabeth Street building was not the council’s first choice for council offices, effectively a town hall. Officers and members had shown interest in another pub, this time the Old Red Lion, at the bottom of Manchester Road, as a site for a new town hall.

There was already a public building nearby, the local lock-up, which had been built in 1817. As you will know, a small section of this building still survives as part of the Old Red Lion’s next door neighbour, the Swan Inn, but the council failed to secure the site and Thwaite’s, the Blackburn brewers, acquired the Old Red Lion (a converted farm house), pulled it down and built the present building.

The council offices and council chamber in Elizabeth Street served for 20 years until 1888 when the present town hall opened. It was in 1885 the first Mayor of Burnley had anything to do with the present town hall. John Baron (pronounced Bare-on) was mayor from 1883 to 1885 and it was he who was called upon to lay the foundation stone for the town hall we all know today.

If you are wondering where this massive stone is, you will have to make your way to what is now the town hall car park, off Yorke Street. There you will find the stone, built into what, at first sight, appears to be the rear of the town hall, bearing John Baron’s name. He was a cotton waste dealer of Old Finsley Mill in Finsleygate, Burnley.

While you are there, look about you: there are several clues as to how forward-thinking Burnley Council had become by the 1880s. The foundation stone is flanked by impressive double doors and, a few yards away there are some small barred windows. There is clearly something going on at this elevation.

Burnley Council did not merely construct an impressive town hall in 1888. This is there for all to see but, round the back, these two massive doors gave access, the first to a new police station (which had 30 prison cells) and, the second, to an imposing magistrates’ court.

One of the pictures I have included shows the rear of Burnley Town Hall. Unfortunately, the large doors cannot be seen but, on the right, notice the public baths, the Central Baths to give the proper name, adjacent to the town hall and built at the same time as the town hall.

Another image I have published today is taken from an OS map of Burnley centre. Here you see the complex that became Burnley’s Municipal Buildings, as it was in the 1950s. The buildings are, left to right, with their completion dates; the town hall (1888), the public baths (Central Baths, 1888) and the Mechanics Institution (1855). Also on the map, bottom left, the fire station is marked. By the time the map was produced, these building had undergone some changes from the structure of 1861-68 when council meetings were held there.

The map also shows, middle right, the old town hall. This was the council offices, of 1868-88, and you can see them in Elizabeth Street where they are marked as “School Clinic”. In my day the school dentist was also there and, in addition, the building contained my father’s council department, Printing and Stationery.

I should point out the Mechanics Institution was built privately to serve as a place for the education and improvement of the social lives of the workmen of Burnley. It also served as an exchange for the cotton masters and there was a splendid library in the building, open to all subscribers. Of course it was remodelled as Burnley Council’s Arts Centre in 1979 when the name was changed to the Mechanics Theatre. The acquisition of the building completed the creation of the Burnley Municipal Complex, one of the most impressive of its type in the country.

So, this week, Burnley Town Hall is to see the beginning of the 119th chapter in its history when Coun. Andy Tatchell and Lorna, his wife, become the town’s chief citizens, the Mayor and Mayoress of Burnley. It is a splendid building in which to hold the mayor-making ceremony. The town’s civic regalia will be on display and the public parts of the town hall decked with flowers. I am sure you will join me in wishing them “All the very Best” for the coming year.