By the mid nineteen thirties Wolverhampton desperately needed a suitable music venue with good acoustics and comfortable seating for large audiences. At the time there were three buildings in the town where concerts could be held; the Agricultural Hall, the Baths Assembly Hall, and the Drill Hall, none of which was built with concerts in mind. They all suffered from terrible acoustics as can be seen from the following contemporary descriptions:

Sir Henry Wood said that to give a concert in the Agricultural Hall was “like performing in a railway station.

Mr. A. J. Sheldon, music critic of the Birmingham Post described the Drill Hall as “Wolverhampton’s sorry substitute for a concert building. He also stated that “Its acoustics are not only bad, they are inconsistent. A little way past the centre of the floor the orchestra and chorus sound as if a gentle dispute were in progress a few miles off. To one seated on the tavern-like benches at the rear of the place, the volume of sound, though fuller, is completely distorted. If Mr. Joseph Lewis, who conducted last night, has any regard for his personal reputation. He will not again seek any critical appreciation of such a work when its performance is possible only under such wretched conditions.

He summarised his feelings for the building as follows:

Wolverhampton may possess a capable fire brigade, yet if ever the Drill Hall of the town should become ablaze the imagination can visualise the musical enthusiasts of the city making a united stand against the passage of anybody attempting to save the building.

The Wolverhampton Drill Hall would serve admirably the purpose for which it was designed; as a concert room however, it is an atrocity. It is even chillier to begin with, than the Birmingham Town Hall has been since it was reopened to the public. An additional diversion is a still chillier draught which blows down the centre of the room while a concert is in progress. Doors are banged unmercifully while the music is going on, and when a particularly soft bit of playing is entered on, noises come from the back of the hall which suggest a well patronised canteen not far away.

The public baths.

The Baths Assembly Hall in the boarded-over swimming pool was similarly draughty. As well as bad acoustics it had a bare and naturally bath-like appearance, with a canopy of iron girders.

The lack of a suitable venue for concerts was a serious problem for local orchestral and operatic societies. Many of them ceased to exist because of the lack of a suitable place to perform. One of the casualties was the Wolverhampton Musical Society.

The reasons for its demise were listed in an article in the Express & Star by Mr. E. M. Purkis entitled “An Inquest on Wolverhampton Music.”

An Inquest on Wolverhampton Music

What are the reasons which have brought this splendid society to an end? Broadcasting is blamed for affecting the attendances, but many of those who have followed the society's career are satisfied that the lack of a suitable concert hall is what has actually killed it. Every time the Musical Society gave a concert in the Drill Hall it cost them nearly £40 as a minimum, and up to £60 in the early years, for the hire of the hall, hire of chairs, erection and taking down of platform, extra light and cleaning….. Roughly the Musical Society have dropped in their career not less than £650 through the lack of a public hall. Their deficit when they reached their financial crisis early last year was about half that, which seems to show that the hall difficulty has meant the difference between a handsome balance in hand and a crushing deficit. The lack of a hall has also been a severe handicap in other ways.

The Drill Hall serves excellently the purpose for which it was built, but it was never built for a concert hall. It is cold and draughty. There are no cloakroom facilities.

The concert patron had to listen seated upon a small uncomfortable chair, usually hedged-in like the proverbial sardine, and with coats, hats and umbrellas packed all around him. Little wonder if many preferred to listen to broadcast music in the comfort of their own homes. There is no doubt whatever that the uncomfortable conditions kept many people away and had their part in gradually reducing the audiences.

The same drawbacks were felt to some extent at the Baths Assembly Room, which, however, is not really large enough for concerts run on the scale of the Musical Society. Other reasons have no doubt operated against Wolverhampton Choral Society, which has also suspended operations, but a good hall would have given them, too, a better chance, and any organisation which seeks to provide concerts on a large scale in Wolverhampton comes up against the same difficulty.

As most people are aware, the Wolverhampton Corporation have a site for a public hall adjoining the Town Hall. Upon it stands the telephone exchange, and until that is replaced by a new exchange elsewhere which the postal authorities have in view, that site will not be available. Plans for the new exchange are at the moment passing through the necessary channels for adoption, a slow process with government departments. The contracted date for giving-up the site for the Corporation is May, 1932. Add two years to that for the erection of a public hall and we have about five years to wait before we can have any hope of the hall being ready for use. The final moral of the Musical Society's decision to close down, however, is most certainly that Wolverhampton cannot hope to stage big concerts again without great trouble and anxiety, if at all, until it has secured that public hall which will mean so much to its culture and social well-being.

Planning a new public hall

For many years people talked about the possibility of building a civic hall, but nothing happened until 1920 when Councillor Clement Jenks raised the matter at a council meeting. It took another two years for the council to seriously consider the project.

In August 1922 the General Purposes Committee was asked to recommend seven of its members to form a Civic Hall Committee to consider, and report on the desirability of building a hall out of the rates, and if so, what form it should take, and where it would be built.

Word of the formation of the committee soon got around and great public interest was shown in the project. It was aided by the Express & Star which published articles and letters about the project, and also ran a competition to decide on the most desirable facilities that a public hall should have.

The competition was won by two people who shared the prize. Thanks to the newspaper’s influence, most of their suggestions were eventually incorporated into the new building. The competition and the articles in the newspaper greatly increased public interest in the project, and stirred the council into action.

Councillor Bertram Kidson, J.P. Chairman of the Civic Hall Committee.
In July 1924 the council decided to adopt the committee’s recommendations after a debate that lasted three hours, and a vote which was won by 19 to 16 votes. It was estimated that the hall would cost around £80,000 which equated to a two penny rate. On the following day the Express & Star wrote:
The civic life of the town will unquestionably be enhanced when a suitable hall has been completed. Those who today are possibly feeling somewhat timid will, we are sure, eventually realise the necessity for a forward step and the wisdom of the decision, though this was reached by a small majority of the council.

Although it seemed that the project would soon get underway, there were still many delays which lasted over ten years. In August 1925 the council launched an improvement scheme to clear a site in readiness for the building of the hall, but little else happened until February 1934 when the Civic Hall Committee asked the council to proceed as soon as possible with the scheme, and organise an open architectural competition for the design.

The council agreed to the recommendation, and two months later the committee produced a second report which suggested that the hall should be used for banquets, concerts, dances, meetings, and receptions. It should cost no more than £100,000 plus an allowance of £10,000 for contingencies, and fluctuations in the price of materials and labour. Prizes of £350, £250, and £150 were offered for designs.

There were still further difficulties. By 1935 the estimated cost of the hall had increased to £150,000. The council made an application to borrow the money which was considered at an inquiry run by the Ministry of Health. The Wolverhampton Property Owners’ Defence League opposed the plan, and suggested that it should be postponed for five years, but the Minister approved the plan and building work began in April 1936.

The proposed Civic Hall.

The competition for the design was won by E. D. Lyons and L. Isreal, A.A.R.I.B.A. of Ilford in Essex.

There were 122 entries from all parts of the country which were examined by the eminent architect Mr. Cowles Voysey who said of the winning design:

It is an excellent scheme which I feel sure will produce a very satisfactory building.

The new Hall

As building work progressed, it was supervised by the Civic Hall Committee, which in 1938 had the following members:

Councillor Bertram Kidson, J.P.  Chairman Councillor R. E. Probert.  Mayor of Wolverhampton
Alderman Sir Charles A. Mander, Bt., D.L., J.P.   Deputy Mayor
Alderman M. Christopher, J.P. Alderman W. Rooker
Alderman J. Clark, J.P. Alderman J. Whittaker, J.P.
Alderman M. H. Costley Councillor H. Bowdler
Alderman A. Davies, J.P. Councillor G. Luce
Alderman T. Frost, J.P. Councillor T. W. Simpson
Alderman J. Haddock Councillor F. W. Smithies
Alderman J. F. Myatt, J.P.  
Councillor Bertram Kidson, a chartered accountant, and mayor of Wolverhampton in 1933/34 had been chairman since the committee was formed.
The building, built of local multi-coloured brick with Portland stone dressings, took around two years to complete.

It was built by a local firm, Henry Willcock & Company Limited.



An early view of the building.

The contractors were as follows:

Henry Willcock & Company Limited. Builders Rubery Owen & Company Ltd. Structural steelwork
Henry Vale & Sons. Quantity surveyors S. H. White & Son. Consulting structural engineers
G. Stinton Jones and Partners. Consulting engineers J. Gilbert Mills. Organ consultant
J. R. Newton. Clerk of works Shaw’s Glazed Brick Co. Ltd. External glazed ceramics
Troughton & Young Limited. Electrical work Manley & Regulus Ltd. Mechanical services, heating and ventilation
W. Wadsworth Limited. Lifts Waygood-Otis Limited. Hand-power lifts
Horseley Smith & Company Limited. Dance floor James Gibbons Limited. Metal windows, doors, and ironmongery
Baldwins (Birmingham) Limited. Sanitary fittings Potter Rax Limited. Shutters
Gimson & Company (Leicester) Limited. Stage equipment Haywards Limited. Saucer lights in the cloakrooms
Tentest Fibre Board Company Limited. Wall boarding Henry Miller Limited. Chair lifts
Carron Company Ltd. Staircases and kitchen equipment Art Pavements Limited. Terrazzo floors
Fenning & Company Limited. Marble panelling H. H. Martyn & Company Ltd. Handrails, balustrading, grilles, etc.
Starkie Gardner & Company Ltd. Screens and cloakroom fittings James Walker Limited. Fibrous plaster
Furse & Company Limited. Curtain tracks, steel shutters, projection room etc. Carter & Company. Decorative tiling
Charles Hunter. Dunlop rubber flooring Eric Munday. Lettering, motifs, etc.
G. H. Turner & Company. Light fittings John Compton Organ Company. Organ
James Clark & Sons. Mirrors Stourbridge Glazed Brick Company Limited. Wall tiling
W. Beddows & Company Limited. Flush doors Rivers-Moore Radio Limited. Public address equipment and deaf aid system
PEL Limited. Chairs Kinematograph Equipment Company Ltd. Projection room equipment, carpets and stage equipment
Braby & Company. Ventilators Heal & Son Limited. Furniture
Marion Dorn Limited and Peter Jones. Curtains Kingfisher Limited. Chairs for the orchestra
John Lewis & Company Limited. Linoleum W. Smith & Company Limited. Carpet druggets
J. Avery & Company. Blinds  
A description of the building in its original form

The Civic Hall.

There are two main assembly halls, the larger Civic Hall and the smaller Wulfrun Hall, each forming an independent unit with separate entrances and cloakrooms, but for important functions they can be used as a suite of rooms with a centrally-placed refreshment room and crush room.

The entrance leads into a large vestibule extending across the full width of the building, with an open gallery on three sides, and large doors leading into the Civic hall.

The hall seats 1,283 people on the ground floor, and 497 in the gallery. A lower platform has space for an 80 piece orchestra, with tiers behind, for a choir of up to 200.

The hall is completely encircled by promenades at both ground and balcony levels. The colour scheme is grey, primrose and fawn, with striped decorations, and oyster coloured glass in the ceiling through which light filters. The platform is flanked by silvered walls, and the upholstery and carpets are a rich dark brown.

The Civic Hall during a rehearsal by the Hallé Orchestra.

The Wulfrun Hall.

The Compton organ has over 5,500 pipes, and an electronic unit which provides many solo tones, and carillon and bell effects.

The console has four manuals, sixty one notes, and a concave pedal board with thirty two notes. 

The Wulfrun Hall has a seating capacity of 700 with walls covered with acoustic boards, and red ceiling beams and door panels.

On each side of the proscenium opening are murals depicting the civic and social life of the town. They were produced by Muriel Gilbert, a young artist who was responsible for many of the paintings on the R.M.S. Queen Mary.

Both halls are equipped with cinema projectors, naturally sprung dance floors, and a public address system. There is ample accommodation for visiting artists on the upper floors and under the stage of the Wulfrun Hall.

There is a large, well-equipped kitchen which can supply anything from light refreshments to a banquet for 500.

There is a fully backed-up air-conditioning plant for both halls with viscous oil filters to purify, wash, and heat the air as required.

Great consideration was given to the acoustics in both halls. One of the leading experts in the field, Mr. Hope Bagenal, A.R.I.B.A. advised on the installation.

The murals in the Wulfrun hall.

The official opening and the early years

The Wulfrun Hall, as preparations are made for a dinner.

The official opening took place on Thursday 12th May, 1938.

The proceedings began at 11.30 when Mr. G. D. Cunningham the city organist of Birmingham gave a recital on the Compton Organ while the audience arrived.

He was the first musician to play in the new building.

At 12.10 the official procession arrived.

The following people took part in the official procession:

The Chief Constable The Mayor, Councillor R. E. Probert
The Town Clerk, J. Brock Allon The Chairman of the Civic Hall Committee, Councillor Bertram Kidson
The Earl of Dartmouth The Deputy Mayor, Alderman Charles A. Mander
The Mayor’s Chaplain, Canon J. Brierley The High Sheriff, Major S. J. Thompson
The Bishop of Lichfield Sir Robert Bird, M.P.
Geoffrey le M. Mander, M.P. Ian Hannah, M.P.
The Borough Coroner, C. O. Langley The Stipediary Magistrate, Bertram Grimley
The Lord Mayor of Birmingham, Councillor E. R. Canning The Chairman of Staffordshire County Council, Alderman R. G. Patterson
The Mayors and Town Clerks of Walsall, Dudley, West Bromwich, Smethwick, Stafford, Wednesbury, Bilston, and Rowley Regis The Civic Hall Committee
The Architects, E.D. Lyons and L. Israel The Builders, H. B. Wilcock, and F. Stephens
The procession proceeded through the hall to the platform where speeches were given, prayers were said, hymns were sung, and Lord Dartmouth declared the building open for public use.

This was followed by a short recital given by the Wolverhampton Musical Society, conducted by Harold Gray and accompanied by G. D. Cunningham on the organ.

Afterwards the civic party departed and the audience left the building.

In the evening, a ball attended by all of the civic dignitaries was held to celebrate the opening.

The guests were entertained by Jack Hylton and his orchestra.

The vestibule.

The first concert in the hall took place four days later. It was given by the Old Royals Association (old pupils of the Royal Wolverhampton School) and featured Webster Booth and Ann Ziegler as soloists.

The first orchestral concert in the Civic Hall was appropriately given by the Wolverhampton Philharmonic, conducted by John Matthews.

They gave three concerts in the hall in 1938 and two in 1939, but sadly to small audiences, which resulted in the disbanding of the orchestra.

In the 1940s the hall became well known in the concert world because many of the country’s leading orchestras played there, mainly to get away from the London blitz.

As a result, audiences grew larger, and the venue became greatly appreciated and successful.

Between 1940 and 1945 concerts were given by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, the Hallé Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra, the City of Birmingham Orchestra, the Glasgow Orpheus Choir, and the BBC Men’s Chorus.

Conductors included Sir Thomas Beecham, Sir Henry Wood, Sir Adrian Bolt, John Barbirolli, Malcolm Sargent, and Albert Coates.

There was also a Shakespearean season in the Wulfrun Hall, given by Donald Wolfit and his company.

A corner of the balcony.

The balcony promenade.

For a time, concerts were planned by the Music Advisory Committee, set up by the Civic Hall Committee, and consisting of local music lovers who made recommendations about the number of concerts, who should give them, and who should appear in them.

The committee tried to ensure that concert-goers would hear as wide a range of the best music and artists as possible, but their recommendations were not always followed.

In June 1943 the Civic Hall Committee decided to let visiting orchestras hire the hall, and take all of the profits, rather than engaging orchestras.

So there was no further use for the Music Advisory Committee, which was disbanded.

At the time, seat prices varied from six shillings to two shillings and six pence.

Assuming the Civic Hall was full, the takings amounted to just under four hundred pounds, which was about the same as the cost of engaging an orchestra, and paying for advertising etc.

So at the time it was not very profitable.

The refreshment room which is served by lifts from the kitchens below.

Another view of the Wulfrun Hall.

The total takings in the Wulfrun Hall were one hundred and five pounds, so many concerts ran at a loss.

At the same time the council was still paying off the debt from the original loan.

Many ratepayers complained, but as the hall became more successful, and the debt was paid-off, people came to realise what a wonderful amenity it was.

A later view of the Civic Hall with Corporation Street on the left.

Later Years

In the 1950s and 1960s the halls became a fashionable place for all kinds of entertainment and are now a well known and popular venue. All kinds of events featuring well known artists have been held, including classical music concerts, opera, popular music, comedy, sporting events such as boxing and wrestling, and televised darts tournaments. There are also club nights, ballroom dancing, and the annual Wolverhampton Beer Festival.

A view of the Civic Hall from a 1950s postcard.

An advert from 1968.

The Cultural and Entertainments Committee regularly sponsored symphony concerts, plays, dances, and the civic choir. The committee also organised a competitive music festival, a festival of contemporary music, and a drama festival. The Arts Society and a film society regularly met at the Wulfrun Hall.

By the late 1960s many famous variety stars had appeared at the Civic Hall including Danny Kaye, Gracie Fields, Tommy Steele, Diana Dors, Johnny Ray, and Nat King Cole.  Every leading British dance band appeared there, and many of the events were regularly broadcast on radio and television.

A few years ago the building was refurbished to increase the seating capacity to 3,000, and expand the stage area. Work began on the three million pound project in April 2000 and included the building of two new gallery bars with frameless glazed facades, new toilets and cloakrooms, new fire escapes and dressing rooms, bars on the ground floor, a gallery promenade to provide easy access to seating, and improved servicing facilities with direct access to Corporation Street. The architects were Penoyre & Prasad, of London.

A view from the early 1970s.

While the work was underway a new music venue opened in 2001 in North Street at the Little Civic, which was previously called the Town Hall Tavern. It opened to provide a box office facility while the renovation work was underway, and soon became an extremely popular venue for lovers of pop music. It closed in 2009, much to the disappointment of many people, and later reopened as the Slade Rooms in Broad Street.

After the renovation, the Civic and Wulfrun Halls have continued to be an extremely popular venue for all kinds of concerts and events. The building received a Civic Trust Award in 2004.

A modern view of the building.

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