On the final page of our recent book Town Hall: Buildings, people and power, we asked readers to share their town hall stories, to continue the conversation. Here is one of those stories, sent by John Schultz, one of the country’s longest-serving council chief executives. He retired from Stockport Town Hall in 2010 after 16 years of service.
“Arriving as I did from jobs with three county councils, I couldn’t fail to be struck by how integral local people were to Stockport Town Hall, claiming it – and especially the ballroom – as their own space.
Wednesday afternoons were for tea dances. Coachloads of pensioners came from all over, including from across the Pennines; and woe betide any newcomers who accidentally ousted regulars from their favourite tables. The arrival of the Wurlitzer from the soon-to-be-demolished Free Trade Hall led to hugely popular lunchtime organ concerts; but there was an initial flurry of disapproval from the tea dance crowd when the upstart new instrument sometimes took over from the modest electronic keyboard they knew and loved.
One of the things I enjoyed about having a powerful organ in the ballroom (apart, that is, from the opportunity to play it!) was the reminder of the role that had been played in the nineteenth century by many of the town halls older than Stockport’s. In the days before sound recordings and radio, live performances were the only way people could get to hear both the classics and new compositions. There were local orchestras, of course; but how much more accessible for the local organist to play an arrangement of a symphony on the king of instruments – one that could mimic all others.
Every bit as rewarding for me was the annual beer and cider festival. As chief executive, I considered it my solemn duty to check that the sprung dance floor was being properly protected! It was a sad day when I had to cancel the festival’s booking in favour of a general election count, called at short notice (as was the practice before the Fixed Term Parliament Act). Understandably, but most regrettably, the festival has stayed away.
Yet there was always something special about election counts. They represented the very heart of what we were about. Three parliamentary constituencies were all counted together in the same room; or – at local elections – a large number of wards, with others counted in far-flung rooms in little-known recesses of the building. Including in the splendid art deco ‘ladies’ withdrawing room’.
Of particular satisfaction for me was to see the broad range of people who used the ballroom to the full. As by far the largest classy room in the borough, it was unrivalled as a venue for the huge wedding and other parties thrown by families from Stockport’s Jewish and Muslim communities. How apt that the building had traditionally been known as ‘the wedding cake on the A6’, courtesy of Alfred Brumwell Thomas’s baroque revival design – the architect of Belfast City Hall and Woolwich Town Hall as well.
But my understanding of what the public expected from their town hall remained woefully incomplete until Princess Diana died one Sunday. I planned to have a book of remembrance for the mayor and councillors to sign at the council meeting on the Tuesday evening, with the book available to the public from the Wednesday morning. How naïve I was. In no time, the sheer pressure of public demand had the book made available by the Monday lunchtime. And the bank of flowers all along the town hall’s frontage was wondrous to behold. Only the town hall would do.
So imagine my delight when, on my retirement after 16 years, a member of staff – in an act of extraordinary thoughtfulness – presented me with a medal (found on eBay, I believe) that had been struck to commemorate the opening of the town hall by the Prince and Princess of Wales 102 years earlier.”