Last week was the 85th anniversary of the opening of one of the most recognisable buildings in Leeds – the Civic Hall. Librarian Helen Skilbeck looks back at the opening day itself where King George V and Queen Mary visited Leeds to officially open the building.
The idea of building a new Civic Hall was conceived in 1928 after the Town Hall and adjacent Municipal Buildings (now Leeds Central Library) were deemed of insufficient size to accommodate the Council Chamber, Lord Mayor’s Room and Committee Rooms. A new building was needed and a scheme to provide a new civic building was submitted to the council in early 1930. The scheme was accelerated with a view to providing work for the unemployed and a grant followed from the Unemployed Grants Committee in July 1930 with a proviso that the building be completed within three years.
Mr E. Vincent Harris was chosen as the architect and land off Calverley Street was selected as the preferred location of the building. Work began in September 1930 and cost approximately £360,000, of which £270,000 was contributed by the Unemployed Grants Committee.
The new building was to house the City Council, the Lord Mayor and the Departments of the Town Clerk, the City Treasurer, the City Engineer, the Waterworks Engineer, the Sewerage Engineer and the Baths Superintendent. This left the Town Hall and the Municipal Buildings with more space to accommodate the Justice and Police staff as well as allow the Central Library to expand.
Mr E. Vincent Harris designed the exterior of the building in the English Renaissance Style to complement the Town Hall and used Portland Stone throughout. The twin towers stood at 170 feet tall and were finished with gilded owls, each measuring 7 feet, 6 inches high. The main portico marked the ceremonial entrance of the building, now facing Millennium Square, with the arms of the city carved above. It was on this side of the building that the opening ceremony would take place.
The grand opening was set to be on Wednesday 23 August 1933 with the King and Queen visiting Leeds to bestow this honour.
William Towers, Director of City Buildings, describes the scenes in Leeds that day:
‘Glorious weather, with hardly a cloud in the sky, but a cool breeze to temper the heat of the sun, prevailed; and the citizens of Leeds who were not present at the ceremony cannot have an accurate conception of the glory of the scene. Thousands of people lined the streets and from every building flew bunting and the other marks of devotion and patriotism to their Majesties.’
The Local and Family History Library has a copy of the original programme of events which was donated by a local councillor in attendance that day. Using this we can see the exact order of events and the precise timings everyone was obliged to keep to.
Their Majesties were to depart Harewood House at 11.05am and stop for five minutes at Oakwood, which was the city boundary (11.25 – 11.30am). Here they would alight from their motor car and enter the Royal Carriage. They were to travel in procession along Roundhay Road, Roseville Road, Regent Street and Eastgate, with a tour down Briggate along Boar Lane and back up to Park Row. They would arrive at the Town Hall at precisely noon where a fanfare of trumpets would sound.
Everything had been planned to the smallest detail and positions on the route of the King and Queen were allocated to certain groups. Boy Scouts and Girl Guides were on Regent Street, the British Legion were on the Town Hall steps, Civic Hall workmen, patients from the Ministry of Pensions Hospital and Limbless Ex-Servicemen were allocated Calverley Street. We can see from this police plan where certain groups were to be positioned near the Civic Hall.
Their Majesties would stay at the Town Hall until 12.50pm and then depart for the Civic Hall itself. At 2.00pm they would depart from the Civic Hall and at 2.30pm they would arrive at the city boundary where the Lord Mayor would take his leave. However, the best laid plans, even in the case of the Royal family, can sometimes take an unexpected turn – more of which later.
Meanwhile, City Councillors were given a white ticket for entry into the Town Hall. They were allocated a blue ticket for a family member to attend the ceremony and a pink ticket was issued to the blue ticket holder for refreshments. Councillors were to assemble and robe at 11.30am in the Town Hall ready for the 12 noon arrival of the King and Queen.
At midday the Lord Mayor, R. H. Blackburn, gave a speech welcoming the King and Queen and recalled a previous visit in 1894 to open the New Hall and Library and School of Medicine of the Yorkshire College – this was also the occasion of the bread archway. The King gave a reply and then Councillors and Aldermen were presented to their Majesties. The Royal Carriage then took the King and Queen to the Civic Hall where a party of workmen engaged on the construction of the building were assembled, along with the architect and main contractors.
The King opened the door with a golden key and formally declared the building open. A tour followed and various other people were presented to their Majesties until luncheon with the Lord Mayor in his Apartments.
Unfortunately, on the short drive from the Town Hall to the Civic Hall, the Queen had a slight mishap and a piece of sand or grit got into her eye. It was common practice to place fine sand on the road before the Royal procession to stop the horses from slipping, but unfortunately the wind had blown a piece of this sand into the Royal Carriage. Lord Moynihan, the noted surgeon, was one of the invited guests and telephoned to the Leeds Infirmary for assistance. The matron and a nurse arrived with eye dressings for the Queen, although they were somewhat delayed due to the large numbers of people outside the building. The Queen was treated in the Lady Mayoress’s room while the King chatted and smoked with the Lord Mayor. In total, their Majesties departure from the Civic Hall was delayed by over an hour while the Queen was attended to but it was later reported by the Yorkshire Post newspaper that the Queen had suffered no after effects and recovered quickly.
More can be read about the opening of the Civic Hall in our collection of official and souvenir programmes as well as a collection of newspaper cuttings.
Collection of press cuttings concerning the opening of the Civic Hall (1933)
Official Programme on the Occasion of the Official Opening of the Civic Hall (1933)
W. Towers, City of Leeds: Civic Hall (undated)
Leeds Civic Hall: Souvenir of Opening by H.M. The King (1933)
R. L. Matthews, Visit of Their Majesties The King and Queen on the Occasion of the Official Opening of the Civic Hall: Police Regulations and Instructions (1933)
T. Thornton, Leeds Civic Hall Opened by His Majesty King George (1933)
Yorkshire Post, Pictorial Souvenir of the Royal visit to Leeds (1933)