Loading...

Sunderland Town Hall’s demolition is still a sore point, 50 years later

For a provincial public building that hasn’t existed for half-a-century, Sunderland Town Hall receives an inordinate amount of attention.

Sunday, 2nd January 2022, 4:55 am

Sign up to our Wearside Echoes Newsletters. A monthly round-up of our retro best bits

It is regularly referenced in the Echo’s letters page when today’s council is being berated for whatever reason; which is something akin to blaming the present government for the Munich Agreement.

It isn’t true that all of Sunderland’s best buildings have now been flattened, such as the recently revitalised River Wear Commissioners Building.

Nor is it a case of “only in Sunderland…” For example, in 1973 Newcastle’s beautiful Italian Neoclassical town hall was also demolished and replaced with nothing special. There are many other examples, as reported regularly in the Nooks and Corners column of Private Eye.

The town hall clock peeking from behind Binns' department store in 1954. JPI.

Sign up to our Wearside Echoes Newsletters. A monthly round-up of our retro best bits

Gone for 50 years, yet paradoxically won’t go away; Sunderland Town Hall’s fate remains a cage-rattler to this day. But why?

Origins

From 1835 Sunderland’s civic leaders would meet in the Exchange Building in High Street East, now the Quayside Exchange.

But it was too small, so a new building in Fawcett Street was proposed.

Sunderland Town Hall on George VI's coronation day, May 12, 1937. JPI.

Twenty years would elapse between the decision to move and the official opening of the new town hall.

A design competition was held and in 1886, after a process as convoluted as Eurovision, the winner was declared as Ipswich architect Brightwen Binyon, a wonderfully named gentleman.

A construction budget of £27,000 was set aside and Sunderland builders John and Thomas Tillman were awarded the contract. This money met the building costs, but the final amount was £50,000 when the cost of the land, utilities and fit-out was totted up.

This is the equivalent to around £7 million in today’s money, but it was generally felt to be worth it. It was stunning and it’s most eye-catching feature was the clock tower. It was equally exquisite inside, with the staircase a particular highlight.

The clock tower was the town hall's starring feature. JPI.

It opened on November 6, 1890 and a New Year’s Eve tradition soon began whereby local athletes would attempt on the stroke of midnight to sprint the length of Fawcett Street, starting from Mackie’s Corner and ending at Borough Road, before the clock had chimed 12 times. Runners needed to be of virtually Olympic standard to achieve this.

Demolition

As the population of Sunderland grew, so did council business. Like the Exchange Building before it, the town hall became increasingly unfit for purpose. In the 1960s the idea of a new venue was mooted and Sunderland Civic Centre was opened in 1970.

People appreciated that new premises were required, but were less understanding as to why the old hall had to be levelled, rather than adapted for some other use.

The town hall in 1962. JPI.

The UK had a hotel building boom in the early 1970s and initially Dragonara Hotels, owned by Ladbrokes, showed interest in the town hall, but pulled out.

Enter Newcastle builders, Greensitt & Barrett. They wanted to build a new hotel on the site, but to achieve this the town hall would have to go, not least because that was necessary to secure Government grants. Things then moved very quickly.

Sunderland’s Planning and General Purposes Committee met on December 30, 1970 and gave the builders planning permission. A lease was signed in January 1971 by which Sunderland Corporation would receive £8,000 a year rent on a 125-year lease, with seven-year rent reviews.

The bell chimed for the last time on February 22, 1970 and soon after the outstanding town hall became 2,000 tons of dust and rubble; staircase on the tip. But at least a swish new hotel would replace it. Ahem.

Shambles

A platform was erected so the public could view “progress” on the site. But all they got was an unrivalled view of a 2,065 square-metre hole in the ground.

Demolition underway in 1971. JPI.

The builders couldn’t find operators to run a hotel; although in April 1972 they were still making confident noises to the General Purposes Committee.

Later that year the builders finally admitted to the council that negotiations with a national operator had come to nought. Another operator was therefore needed – but never found.

Plans for another hotel fell through in 1974, by which time the whole affair had caused considerable anger and embarrassment.

The council gave up, landscaped the area and added a few seats. After some years it became the site of the unremarkable building that today houses Virgin Money and the post office.

What was arguably architecturally Sunderland’s greatest building of the last two centuries – had been levelled for nothing.

Aftermath

As today’s Labour and Lib Dem supporters like to point out, the decision to demolish was made under a Conservative council. But the horrendous misjudgement seem to have stemmed from gullibility; and we can never know what another council would have done.

There were plenty of culpable parties: be they misguided, incompetent, naive, opportunistic, out of their depth or just plain cack-handed. Yet we struggle to recall anyone accepting blame. A good idea has a thousand parents. A bad one is an orphan.

Public ill-feeling was exacerbated by the new Sunderland Civic Centre, which since 1970 has been treated with indifference at best. It was designed by Basil Spence and hopes weren’t high from the outset.

Coventry’s great cathedral was bombed in World War Two and Spence is the man who made it look as it does today; like a job centre. If and when the civic centre disappears, it is highly unlikely to create the outrage that met the razing of Sunderland Town Hall.

And the outrage won’t go away. People who weren’t even born when Sunderland Town Hall was knocked down can still become quite exercised by it.

Fifty years on the annoyance has not abated. Will people be any less exasperated after 100? Don’t bet on it.

* Our thanks to Philip Curtis of Sunderland Antiquarians

Read More

Read More
When Sunderland’s ‘Tower Bridge’ was the only aluminium bridge in the world

Support your Echo and become a subscriber today.

Enjoy unlimited access to all of our news and sport, see fewer ads, experience faster load times, test your brain with daily puzzles and get access to exclusive newsletters.

Your support for our journalism means we can continue telling Sunderland’s stories for generations to come. Click here to subscribe – and click here to get a snapshot of the Echo’s news and sport to your inbox through our email newsletters.

Health and safety conscious workmen take away the clock's bell. Does anyone know what happened to it?
The demolition of Sunderland Town Hall was a painful site for many. JPI.
"Progress" on the site of the former town hall in 1954. JPI.
The town hall's accidental replacement wasn't exactly a tourist magnet. JPI.