Civic and Public Buildings

In 1832 and 1867 constitutional reform had increased the size of the electorate at national level, with the result local authorities increased in power and function as the 19th century progressed. Local government had been reformed (not to say largely created) by the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 that swept away the old system based on corruption and nepotism, with a mainly uniform pattern of elections and representatives. Councillors were to be elected for three years by all resident ratepayers; one third would stand down every year and the council would also elect one third of its number as Aldermen who would serve for six years. The change in the conditions of the towns in the 19th century was very much the result of local government activity, especially where it was given the initiative from central government. Many local authorities took advantage of legislation such as the Electric Lighting Act or the Artisan’s Dwelling Act to improve their towns, though very few did so with the vigour, foresight and commitment of Birmingham’s Joseph Chamberlain with his “Civic Gospel”.

It was the construction of Birmingham Town Hall in 1829 that sparked off the spate of civic building in Britain. Newly enfranchised towns and cities displayed their civic pride in majestic, imposing and sometimes downright vulgar buildings, the apogee (or nadir) probably being the Town Hall at Colchester.

Sometimes the term Town Hall covers both administrative offices and a hall for social occasions such as in Walsall; a building quite separate from the administrative offices as at Birmingham or a purely legal and administrative building as at Wolverhampton. The oldest town hall in Wolverhampton was in High Green. The present one is on the site of the Old Town Hall built in 1856. It soon became manifest that the old Town Hall in North Street and the police barracks in Garrick Street were quite out of date and very inconvenient. A certain Alderman Fowler pointed out that there was a large piece of unoccupied land at the back of the Town Hall, which could be adapted for the construction of a new building in keeping with the town’s newfound dignity. In the event what should have been a dignified and stately progress to a new civic building took on an element of farce.

The design for a New Town Hall for Wolverhampton was put out to competition and attracted nineteen competitors, including the local architect Bidlake. This competition did not run smoothly, with complaints and fits of pique from the competitors. In the competition £100 and £50 was offered for first and second prize, on the condition that the realisation of the designs could be carried out for £15,000. The first prize was initially awarded to Bidlake, with Bates of Manchester second. The designs were forwarded to the notable architect Waterhouse, who was acting as adjudicator, to see if they could be carried out for £15,000. He reported that Bidlake’s designs would cost £25,000, with another five or six hundred for a tower, whereas Bates’ would cost about £25,000. Accordingly both designs were rejected and two more chosen. Architects then went in for even fancier names than modern housing developments. Two of the designs chosen were “Salve” by Christopher Wray of London and “Perceverance Urices” by Lloyd of Bristol. Once again the proviso was that the designs had to be carried out for under £15,000. Whether the borough was short of money or just wanted the work done on the cheap is unclear. The committee found that none of the plans chosen could be carried out for £15,000 and so obtained fresh designs from Bates of Manchester, the Wolverhampton architect Mr. Veall, Griffiths of Stafford and Mr. Lloyd of Bristol, all of whom had been previous entrants. Bidlake, in what appears to have been a bout of hurt pride or possibly pique, refused to submit a second design. Finally the designs of Bates were accepted.

Wolverhampton Town Hall.

When it came to actually building the Town Hall, there were once again problems. There were a large number of tenders submitted and the one accepted was that of Mr. Robinson of Manchester. However after the terms were agreed the plans were changed to incorporate more features. Robinson, justifiably aggrieved, asked if he could withdraw, a request that was allowed. In the new tender the lowest was that of Horsman the local builder.
The Town Hall was opened with great ceremony in 1871 by the Lord Lieutenant of the county but the rejoicing over the New Town Hall was short lived, for very soon after there were numerous complaints about the building, not least that the acoustics in the council chamber were diabolical. This was a cause of considerable irritation; for the building had in the end cost almost double what it should. The building was badly constructed, so much so that a prisoner in custody for a serous offence had actually been able to scale the walls of the exercise ground. Also the Borough Police Court and the Quarter Sessions Court were so badly designed in regard to their acoustic properties that the Magistrates, Recorder and Jury were not able to hear the evidence brought before them. In the council chamber there was a notorious echo preventing the mayor from hearing the councillors and the press from hearing either. Attempts were made to improve things by hanging flags around the chamber. For a time a large canvas sheet was hung below the level of the ceiling, which though partially effective, was hardly aesthetically pleasing. The Town Hall was extensively re-modelled in 1903. Originally the vestibule ended where the present stairs begin. Here there was a blind arch, in front of which was the statue of Thorneycroft, Wolverhampton’s first mayor.1

Many Town Halls derive their designs from the Italian Renaissance or the Jacobean, but architects also drew upon the architecture of France. In designing Wolverhampton Town Hall. Ernest Bates, who submitted the winning design, used French style wholesale. There is a trio of mansarded pavilions that provide an effective substitute for a tower. It has a rusticated lower course and fifteen bays created by pilasters. However, like so many prestigious but essentially workaday buildings, only rather functional and not very prepossessing brick backs the impressive façade. The vestibule of the building is especially imposing. There are cells for prisoners and at the rear an impressive courtyard that backs on to the police offices in Red Lion Street.

At the opening of the Town hall it was stated in regard to the usefulness of the building, “nor is architectural beauty sacrificed to utility, but both are so well combined that is at once an ornament to the town and a most excellent building for the transaction of the public business”

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In 1827 there was a small shop in King Street opened as a library for the gentry. In 1835, many of the leading people in the town thought that this same privilege should be extended to the middle classes such as clerks, shop assistants and others; accordingly they formed a company and subscribed about £1,000 towards building a Mechanic’s Institute in Queen Street as a library and lecture hall.

The growth of literacy, due largely to the Education Act of 1870, resulted not only in an expansion, one might say creation, of a popular press, but the growth of public libraries and reading rooms. However circulating and subscription libraries had long existed. The most popular were subscription libraries and Wolverhampton had its own in Waterloo Road that was built to a design by Edward Banks.

In 1855 the Free Libraries Act was passed allowing authorities to provide libraries out of the rates. The act was not mandatory but permissive, as was so much 19th century legislation that affected towns. There was an attempt in 1860 by Councillor C. B. Mander to adopt the Act for Wolverhampton. Although the proposal was carried, the idea of increasing the rates by one penny in the pound to pay for the library (and incidentally to pay for the accumulated debts of the School of Art), caused an outcry from disgruntled ratepayer’s and at a public meeting the council was forced to back down. In the following years the Working Men’s College had closed down, as had the Mechanic’s Institute. At a meeting to wind up their affairs it was resolved to hand over the three thousand books and furniture to the corporation as a start towards a Free Library.

The culmination of Wolverhampton library service was the building of the present library. The laying of the foundation stone was a grand affair. The council had granted £1,600 to meet expenses and £1,000 came from the Carnegie Trust. An address was read, the Bishop of Lichfield gave prayers and afterwards Theodore Mander gave a splendid luncheon to a thousand people in a large tent. The Duchess of York gave prizes to children from the Royal Orphanage.

Wolverhampton Library is a fine building dating from 1900-1902 built to a design by E.T. Hare, who won a competition sponsored by the Borough Council. It stands on the corner of Garrick Street and Cleveland Road. This was once the location of two old buildings, the most interesting one being the previously mentioned Elizabethan Old Hall, which was demolished to allow the building of the library; the building is still remembered in the street of that name. It is fitting that such a grand building should be the final summation of a long trend in Wolverhampton to provide reading for all classes of society.
Here the many eclectic details of the building can be seen. Note especially the lovely bowed window overlooking Cleveland Street.

The end of the century saw a number of public buildings designed in a highly decorated Free Style and Wolverhampton Library is one of the best, with its fine light reading rooms. The details are eclectic, including Jacobean as well as Baroque features. The library makes interesting use of its difficult corner position with a fine façade built of yellow terracotta. It has an angled entrance loggia surmounted by a cupola. Around the walls, moulded into the terracotta are the names of various literary luminaries – Byron, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Pope, Milton and Dryden. By about 1860, terracotta had replaced stucco as the fashionable material; it was not a new material, but it began to be used extensively and was appreciated for its red and yellow appearance and (so it was claimed) great durability.2 Above the entrance is the Royal Coat of Arms in moulded terracotta with the legend “To Commemorate the Sixtieth Year of Queen Victoria’s Reign”.

The interior of the library must be the finest piece of secular architecture in town, but it would be better appreciated if it were not for all the books that get in the way. Downstairs, to the left of the vestibule, graceful Corinthian columns create four wide bays. A wide curving staircase3 is lit from above by a dome embossed with the town’s Coat of Arms. Upstairs, in the room occupied to the left, there is a fine glass dome in the roof and, although it can hardly be seen, high wooden panelling around the walls. One small interesting feature is the small oriel window at the rear of the room. This room was once used for lectures and recitals and it is a pity that the shortage of space in the Central Library no longer allows this room to be kept free and its beauties better appreciated. The reference section has recently been renovated and whilst the shelves were out, the room could be better appreciated.

Art galleries and libraries usually go together the latter very often serving the purpose of the former. However Wolverhampton Museum and Art Gallery dates to the decade before the library being built between 1883 and 1885 to a design by the Birmingham architect J.A. Chatwin. The Art Gallery occupies a prominent place in Lichfield Street, which itself lies roughly on the route of Kem Street, which together with Burg Street was probably Wolverhampton’s most ancient street. Modern Lichfield Street was extended beyond Queen Square as part of the redevelopment and slum clearance that took place after the passing of the Artisan’s Dwelling Act of 1875. The gallery was officially opened on the 30th May 1884 for the Wolverhampton and Staffordshire Fine Arts and Industrial Exhibition.

The origins and impetus to the building of the Art Gallery were a little unusual. Alderman Jones, during the period of his Mayoralty, took a deep interest in art teaching, especially the application of artistic principals to the manufacture of the town. In 1881, Alderman Jones presented £500 to the town “as the nucleus of a fund to provide works of art manufacture applying to various trades of the town”. This gift occasioned the following letter:

Dear Mr. Mayor,

I see you have started a subscription for an Art Gallery in the town. I am therefore prepared to erect and present to the town a building of the value of £5,000 upon the following conditions: - First, the town to provide a suitable site with provision for enlargement. Second, that you form a committee, consisting of yourself, the Rector, and Sir Rupert Kettle, for the purpose of maturing the plans, say whether a museum should be associated with it, and for the purposes of inducing a gentleman in the neighbourhood to contribute works of art in painting, sculptor etc, and when you have promises to the extent of 10,000 and are otherwise ready, I am prepared to begin building. Third, it must be a strict condition that no other person, except yourself, know the name of the giver. Of course the secrecy I require does not prevent you mentioning the offer before you vacate your office.

       Yours very truly


The letter was written by Philip Horsman who was a notable philanthropist to the town and who also gave money towards the building of the Eye Hospital. In the entrance hall to the Art Gallery is a memorial plaque and portrait of Horsman cast in bronze that shows a rather dreamy, bearded man with his sights set firmly on the next world. He founded a building firm in 1860 and was later joined by a partner named Wilcock. The firm was responsible for many of the notable buildings in the town including the library, Town Hall and Art Gallery. In the garden attached to the Art Gallery is a fountain to the memory of Horsman, erected by public subscription. The unveiling took place in 1896 by the Mayoress Mrs. Mander.

The building is a monument to civic pride and was opened with great ceremony and display. The best description of the building comes from a contemporary at the opening ceremony:

“Though but two storeys in height, it presents an imposing appearance. The façade towards Lichfield Street is 90 feet long, while that towards St. Peter’s is 66 feet. The style of architecture is mixed Doric and Ionic. The material used is Bath stone. Three fine red granite pillars support the portico on each side of the man entrance. Along each façade of the building a frieze runs, containing various allegorical representations of the arts and sciences. The very most is made of the interior of the building. There is a handsome vestibule, beyond which is a lofty hall, out of which open three spacious rooms which are to be devoted to the Art Gallery. Ascending a stone staircase, four rooms are reached, two of which, running parallel to each other, are exceedingly fine. These are occupied by pictures, and it is expected that they will be permanently devoted to the same use. The light, particularly in the upper rooms, is excellent. Both gas and electric light are provided, and the building is generally the beau ideal of a Fine Arts Gallery”.

The above-mentioned frieze is one of the most striking aspects of this building and was executed by Mr. Carter from the Cheltenham firm of Boulton and Company. The carving is in Portland stone and represents the Arts and Sciences. This frieze has much in common with that around the Albert Memorial in London opened some years before. Victorian buildings were meant to be read in a way that modern ones are not; the Albert Memorial is a mass of cultural and historical references that would have been readily understood by contemporaries. The figures on the Art Gallery, though not so numerous or elaborate point to the images of the building and the Victorian age that the designer was trying to convey. They are figures of the past, historical, symbolic and allegorical, which the Victorians saw as the forerunners and embodiment of their own age.

Art and beauty are personified by graceful female figures on panel three to the left of the main entrance.

There are four panels; two facing Lichfield Passage and two either side of the entrance facing Lichfield Street. Panel one; reading from left to right, shows the fruits of industry. There are scenes of glass blowing and engineering workers with large hammers. One figure holds up a large lock, a potent symbol of the town’s premier industry. Other figures are at work on delicate pots. 

On the far right of the panel, one figure personifies design. The second panel is dedicated to discovery in the arts and sciences. Classical figures on the right are engaged in geometrical drawings. Ǽsculapius the god of healing is shown with his serpent entwined staff. In the centre a figure (Copernicus?) stands in contemplation of a globe, whilst a figure that we take to be James Watt holds the governor mechanism that so improved the performance of the steam engine. Behind him is the Sun and Planet system that did so much to allow the steam engine to be used for a wide variety of industrial purposes i.e. converting vertical to rotary motion. Panel three is if anything the most graceful and the only one incidentally that shows a female figures. One holds a sign carrying the words “Truth and Art”. In panel four an Assyrian figure stands in front of a winged beast whilst Michelangelo is at work on the statue of Moses. At the end, ironically on such a classical building, a religious figure holds a Gothic building.
The entrance is grand and imposing with either side granite columns, these too were the gift of the builder. They support a balcony above which there are further pillars. From the entrance hall is a flight of stairs leading to the upper story.

Progress in the Sciences and Navigation.

The most impressive feature of this staircase is the wooden oak panelling that covers the walls to a considerable height, with a graceful carved border inlaid at first floor level. This can be better appreciated now that the large paintings that once hung here have been removed. The gallery contains a large number of paintings by 19th century artists.

The fountain erected in honour of the philanthropist and benefactor of the art gallery, Mr. Philip Horsman. J.P.

The fountain in the garden that is dedicated to the memory of Horsman is dated 1894 and consists of six dolphins interspersed with bulrushes, supporting a bowl with their tails. Above, four cherubs alternating with carved lilies and fish-like grotesques support a smaller bowl.
The gardens, which have now been softened by the addition of shrubs and trees, were originally laid out in a highly formal manner, the surrounding iron rails adding to the effect. Until recently, forlorn stubs of these said iron rails were a painful reminder of what had been lost but recently they have been replaced to great effect.

Attached to the Art gallery is the School of Art. There had previously been a Wolverhampton School of Practical Art, the first in the country to be erected for that special purpose. Although housed in a large building designed by Edward Banks and liberally subscribed by C.B. Mander, the building was “indifferently appreciated”.

The building can easily pass notice but the Scottish turret is a fine and notable feature. The brick work oblique to St. Peter's Close also shows what can be done with restrained effect when using brick. 

The "indifferently appreciated" original Art School, but a little gem of a building by Edward Banks.
The building of the Art gallery acted as a spur to the committee of the School of Art who decided to dispose of their building in Darlington Street and build a new one in larger premises in conjunction with the Art Gallery. The council originally gave the land for the purposes of making any necessary extensions to the Art Gallery. Horsman and Co. built the new Art School. It had numerous rooms including a light and shade room for Machine Building Construction. Numerous classes were run for the benefit of those “artisans” who wished to improve themselves. It is an attractive building with a corner tower surmounted by a conical roof, thus giving a Scottish feel to the whole. In the roof there are a number of gable windows. Although built in brick there is some restrained decoration.

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The former Post Office.

The building in town that makes even more use of terracotta than the library is the Post Office, of which now no part is used for that purpose. It is the work of the Government Architect Sir Henry Tanner who was not highly regarded in his day. The Penny Post had been established in 1840 by Rowland Hill (who lived in a farmhouse on the site of the present Horse Hill Drive off the Compton Road, and was married in St Peter’s church in 1827) and although the new scheme was regarded as foolish and did in fact lose a great deal of money, the new system spread rapidly throughout the country. The result was much Post Office architecture, not least the pillar-boxes designed by the novelist Anthony Trollope.

Despite Tanner’s low standing among his brother architects, Wolverhampton Post Office is a most interesting building, far more so than the one in Birmingham that he also designed. Part of its attractive nature is the contrast between the yellow terracotta and the warm red brickwork.

The front elevation is most attractive but would be better appreciated if it could be seen from a little further back. There is an impressive entrance with two Corinthian pillars. Above the entrance is the date supported by two lions. On a level with the balustrade is a recessed space containing the Royal Coat of Arms. There are two pointed gables and, surmounting the whole, a cupola. There is wealth of swags and mouldings. The Royal monogram is repeated above each window in the bottom storey.

One of the grandest and most forbidding pieces of public Victorian architecture in the town is that of the Wolverhampton and Staffordshire General Hospital situated in Cleveland Road. The building owes its origins to an accident which befell a Mr. George Briscoe who broke his leg whilst dusting a picture. Whilst incapacitated his thoughts turned to the poor, who did not have the benefit of his surroundings when taken ill. After recovery Briscoe contacted Mr. H Rogers and together they founded the present institution. The hospital is built in the Italian-Doric style. Once again the building is erected from a plan by Edward Banks. At the time of its building the Royal was described as a “large and handsome building of red brick with stone pilasters, columns and window dressings and is pleasantly situated in Cleveland Road nearly opposite the new cattle market…the rooms, wards, staircases, etc, are well-lighted and ventilated and the whole building reflects much credit on the skill of the architect, Mr. Banks”.

The Royal Hospital.

The cost of building the hospital was £15,000, raised by public subscription and supported by public contributions.

“There are twelve gentlemen who constitute the board, meetings being held once a week; annual sermons are preached in its behalf in all places of worship in the town”.

The Eye Infirmary too contains Victorian work. It was established in 1881 and the new buildings, erected to a design by T.H. Fleeming, are in a simple Gothic style with two spired turrets. The in-patients department was erected principally at the cost of P. Horsman. The hospital was supported by voluntary contributions.

The loss of the Victoria Nursing Institute in the 1970s was a sad blow for it was a fine building with much terracotta embellishment.

The Hogshead public house, formerly the Vine Inn. Behind it is the Headquarters of the 3rd Battalion of the South Staffordshire Regiment.
We have seen the imaginative use made of terra cotta, but brick could also be used in an attractive an imaginative way. A good example of the imaginative use of brick is the range of buildings that occupy the corner of Broad Street and Stafford Street. These are the Headquarters of the 3rd Battalion of the South Staffordshire Regiment, erected at a cost of £8,000. They form an attractive range in the early Gothic style and were designed by Daniel Arkell of Birmingham. Originally the ground floor contained an orderly’s room and stores. 
The drill hall was 184 feet by 76 feet, with a stage at one end and a gallery at the other. The building range also appears to incorporate the Vine Inn whose sign can still be seen in brick over the entrance in Stafford Street, so much so that a cursory glance makes the whole look like one range. Closer inspection shows that it is of a later date. The inn was closed for a number of years but has now once again reopened as licensed premises but under a different name.

Also in Stafford Street is a rather mundane range of buildings but they are distinguished by one rather elegant decorative feature. On the corner building facing the University is white painted plaster work with the date 1898

For such a large and important town, Wolverhampton is remarkably light on public statuary. Until fairly recently there was only the statue of Prince Albert, but previously there was also a statue at Snowhill to Charles Pelham Villiers. Although this statue was moved and now graces West Park, it seems fitting to include it. The statue, the work of the London artist W. Theed is of heroic proportions, being 9 feet high and carved from Sicilian marble. Villiers represented Wolverhampton as its M.P. for sixty years and was one of those M.Ps who campaigned for the repeal of the Corn Laws. The statue was unveiled on the 6th June, 1879.5

Lastly, the story concerning one of the most famous sights in Wolverhampton, the equestrian statue of Prince Albert in Queen Square, which was the object of the Queen’s visit as recorded in the prologue. Whilst Mr. Underhill was Mayor in 1862, there was a strong desire to provide a memorial to Prince Albert. It was decided to erect an equestrian statue, life size, as soon as subscriptions came in. The work was placed in the hands of Mr. Thorneycroft of London and the work took him four years to complete. During the construction of the statue, Queen Victoria visited Thorneycroft’s studio to ensure the exactness of the drapery of the figure. She lent the sculptor not just the uniform worn by the prince, but also his horse. This interest in the progress of the statue was no doubt one of the reasons that led the Queen to attend the unveiling personally. The Memorial Committee erected a granite pedestal in Queen Square and the task of casting the bronze was put in the hands of Messrs Elkington and Co. of Birmingham.

The inherited story has always been that the sculptor committed suicide after the unveiling, when it was pointed out to him that a horse, supposedly, cannot adopt that stance without falling over. The story is recounted by Phil Drabble in his passionate book on Staffordshire:

The statue of Prince Albert in Queen Square.

“In Queen Square is the statue of a man on a horse about which there has been a good deal of controversy. The man is Prince Albert, and his horse has both legs striding forward on the same side, like a camel. People said that no horse ever had such an action. They even said the sculptor had committed suicide when told what he’s done”.6

The statue is about 9 feet in height, or with the pedestal, nearly 16 feet. The Prince Consort is represented in the uniform of a Field Marshall, the idea of military dress being the Queen’s own. Perhaps appropriately for an equestrian statue, Albert has had a peripatetic existence having occupied four spots in the last thirty years; for a time he was a little farther down the Square majestically standing guard over the public toilets.7


1. This statue of Thornycroft, which was sculpted by Thorneycroft, had originally been placed over the family vault, but after exposure to the weather had shown signs of wear. When the new Town Hall was completed, relatives gave permission for the statue to be placed in the vestibule.
2. Terracotta is highly durable, mainly due to the "skin" that forms during firing. This makes it especially invulnerable to weathering. However, if cleaning is necessary it needs to be done sensitively. One terracotta rich building in Birmingham, which shall remain nameless, had the outer "skin" removed in aggressive cleaning; the result being that water has already seeped into the material causing it to start to flake.
3. This staircase is not meant for two way traffic or someone descending with their nose in a book, as one of the authors found to their cost.
4. Express & Star, Thursday 29th May, 1884.
5. There was in St Peter’s a life-size statue of John the Baptist sculpted by the eminent artist Thomas Earp. Although still in the church it is no longer on view.
6. Phil Drabble, "Staffordshire", Robert Hale, 1948, p.23.
Drabble goes on to say “But Yankee pacers move like that, and I once saw a photograph of a horse in a procession in an exactly similar attitude”.
The legend of Thorneycroft’s suicide is a juicy one but, like most legends, has little relationship to fact. He did not in fact die until 1885.
7. Sister Dora occupied a similar favoured position in Walsall.

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