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A Town Hall Mystery

Articles > Vic's Memories of Barking

A Town Hall Mystery

Vic Howard

I read an article in my local paper recently about a building consultant who was studying the make-up of building mortar. Most of us think of cement when we think of building mortar and, unfortunately, many very old buildings have been destroyed by being  "restored" using cement instead of the type of mortar that was used for centuries before Portland cement was discovered.

Don’t worry! This isn’t going to be a treatise on building mortar. The significance of the above is that the firm owned by the consultant I mentioned has been employed to restore the façade of Statshuset in Stockholm in time for the centenary celebrations in 2023. Did you know that the architects of Barking’s relatively New Town Hall were inspired by Stockholm’s Statshus?  Neither did I until recently. The architects, Herbert Jackson and Reginald Edmonds won a competition for  a design for a replacement Town Hall that would be suitable for the newly created Borough of Barking in 1931. Plans were finally agreed in 1936 and building work started, but was halted when war broke out. At that point only the basements had been completed,  which were used as air raid shelters during the war. Work was not resumed until 1954 and the first part of the building was finally completed in 1958. At the time it was the biggest building project undertaken by a local council work force; which I think  is a significant feather in the cap of Barking Council and the men who built the place.  

As a municipal building I believe it fulfils its function and has been extended and improved over the years; but I fail to see the similarity to Stockholm’s Stadshus, other than that both buildings have a tower and both are built from bricks. Battersea Power Station came to mind when I first saw the completed Barking Town Hall.

I quite like the Stockholm building and can see why it might have provided inspiration, though a Swedish architect friend of mine who is even older than I am, and who can almost remember Statshuset being built, says he hates it. I have to admit that there is an air of Venetian Disneyland about the place, but where buildings are concerned, time makes the heart grow fonder. Most new buildings are hated for the first few decades, until they become part of the landscape. Then they are loved by future generations because, to them, they have always been there. I wonder if Barking Town Hall has collected any admirers yet?  Perhaps the original drawings entered in the competition had a greater similarity to the Stockholm inspiration. That was before a building committee got to work and turned it into a good, solid, municipal structure. Who knows?  I do remember some vague mumblings at the time about how many new houses could have been constructed from the bricks in that tower.

I was there when the place was opened. I am talking now about the Barking building, not the 100 year-old Stockholm one, though my acquaintance with Stockholm’s Stadshus now goes back fifty years. I was born in Barking but never guessed that I would one day move to Stockholm, or that there was a slight and unusual link between the two towns. I have to admit that I have not been near Barking Town Hall since that opening day and have never been inside.  But there is a mystery attached to that opening day which I have often thought about and never had confirmed.

I once contacted Valance House Museum and asked if there were any records of the event, only to be told there were none. The mystery is: Did Sir Adrian Boult and members of the LSO give a small concert on that opening day?  I have a clear memory of being there, in the front row, and seeing his benevolent face looking down at me as he took his bow after the performance. What they played I have no idea. Why he was invited, I cannot imagine, but I am glad he was, since I love music and particularly that conducted by Sir Adrian. The room in which the performance took place was not very large and the front row of seats where I sat was less than two feet from the podium, which is why Sir Adrian looked down on me as he bowed. He always favoured English composers and may well have played some Holst, Delius or Vaughn Williams on that day. I believe he was also a Socialist and may well have turned up because Barking was always a socialist stronghold. Sir Adrian Boult was completely devoid of the diva syndrome that so many of his generation of conductors suffered from; a gentle man of music in every sense. Since that first concert I believe the building has been improved and extended so that it now looks more like an ocean-going liner than a power station.  A concert hall was added to the building, which has often been used as a recording studio for classical music due to its excellent acoustics. Maybe Sir Adrian was able to return to the more spacious surroundings than those on offer that first day. I do hope so.

Now the question is this: Is there anyone reading this who also remembers that opening day, or has any record of the events surrounding the opening of the New Town Hall? If there is then I would love to hear from you. Just to set my mind at rest and confirm that I am not imagining it all.

Vic Howard

Postscript 4th August 2014

Linda Rhodes, Local Studies Librarian, Heritage Services has very kindly had a look at the opening  ceremony brochures for Barking Town Hall and the Assembly Hall. The Town Hall was opened by Dame Evelyn Sharp ("Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Housing & Local Government") in December 1958, and the Assembly Hall by Tom Driberg MP in May 1961.  Linda adds "Perhaps Sir Adrian conducted an early concert at the Assembly Hall, or made the first recording there?

A quick Google search reveals that on 26th  November 1969 in Barking Town Hall, Sir Adrian Boult (8th April  1889 – 22nd February 1983) conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Two short items in the concert were recorded, Patrick Hadley’s (5th March 1899 –17th  December 1973) One Morning in Spring [1942] (celebrating Vaughan Williams's 70th birthday); and Arnold Bax’s  (8th November 1883 – 3rd October 1953) warmly atmospheric Mediterranean [1922].

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