It cost £4,940 15/6d to build, now monument to civic splendour is 125

, by , in Features

A NEW revised guidebook for Lerwick Town Hall is to be launched next week to coincide with the building’s 125th anniversary. The guidebook was last published in 1984 and as copies were running low it was decided that rather than reprint the existing book it would be a good idea to update the original and print a new version. The new guidebook is slightly bigger than the old book and the print is slightly larger too.

Several historical details such as the history of some of the heraldic shields at the hall were omitted from from the original book as little was known about them, but thanks to dedicated research by author Charlie Simpson, these details, along with a lot of interesting facts and figures about the hall, have now been included.

Vice chairwoman of Lerwick Community Council Avril Simpson welcomed the publication of the new book, saying: “The idea to print a new version of the guidebook was first put forward over a year ago. Charlie Simpson said that he would be happy to write the book and we are delighted with the result. The book will be for sale at several local outlets and will be of interest to local people and visitors alike.”

Meanwhile, the front door steps to the Town Hall have been replaced in time for the 125th anniversary. The steps, which were badly decayed and had been patched with concrete, have been replaced with new stone selected after geological analysis and colour matching to be as near as possible to the original stone. A team of stonemasons from Shetland Amenity Trust carried out the expert work to a high standard in keeping with the importance of the building.

SIC convener Sandy Cluness said: “I am delighted that the steps have been replaced just in time for the Town Hall celebrations and now present a fitting entrance to this fine building to take it through its next 125 years.”

Here, CHARLIE SIMPSON tells the story of the building from construction to the present day.

LERWICK became a Burgh of Barony in 1818, but its town council had no powers to raise revenue and the provision of basic civic services was virtually impossible. It was well through the 1870s before the town had such amenities as a piped water and drainage system, reasonable schools, regular mail and shipping services, and a town plan for developing streets and houses beyond the Hillhead.

By 1880 the expanding Shetland herring fishery brought prosperity – to island merchants and traders at least – which raised civic ambitions for their little capital town, its population approaching 4,000.
The town council had no home of its own. The century-old Tolbooth – the original “town house” – had other uses, so council meetings and magistrates’ courts took place in the former Parish Kirk in Queens Lane. The town clerk worked from home, and had no secure place to keep the town’s records.

In 1880, a leading article in the <i>Shetland Times</i> led to the recognition that a new Town Hall, to accommodate the town council and serve as a public venue, was necessary and desirable. The town council was still powerless to raise the funds required, so the funding method adopted was actually an early example of the present-day private finance initiative.

A private company – Lerwick Town Hall Company Limited – was floated in December 1880 with a capital of £4,000 in 2000 shares of £2 each, all fully subscribed. The company’s chairman was Joseph Leask of Sand, leading Lerwick merchant, town councillor since 1835 and past chief magistrate.

In reality, the Town Hall Company was the town council of Lerwick wearing another hat, and it was always intended that apart from the main hall, the rest of the building would meet the accommodation needs of Lerwick town council and the council would buy the building as soon as it was able to do so.

Events moved rapidly; a site on the north Hillhead was acquired and architect Alexander Ross of Inverness was commissioned to design the building. On 13th October 1881 the tender of Lerwick builder John M. Aitken was accepted, to construct the building for £3,240, and work began the following day. John M. Aitken suggested alterations to the original plan, giving more office space on the ground floor and extra rooms above. These amendments also made it feasible to incorporate a stone tower of Aitken’s design, in place of the slender spire proposed by Alexander Ross.

As finally adopted, the ground floor plan gave the town council a chamber, a Burgh courtroom, lock-up cells, a magistrates’ room, strong-room and kitchen, plus two office rooms rented out to H.M. Customs and Inland Revenue. A wide stairway led up to the main hall and other rooms, narrowing and steepening to finally reach the tower – accessible to visitors for over a century until “health and safety” put a stop to such adventures.

The Town Hall’s foundation stone was ceremonially laid by Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and second son of Queen Victoria, while on a visit to Shetland to inspect the local Royal Naval Reserve on 24th January 1882. That same evening the town was “brilliantly illuminated” and the very first Up-Helly-A’ torchlight procession took place.

Work on the Town Hall went on; when one considers that every stone was dressed and shaped on site by hand before being lifted into place by human muscle-power aided only by pulley-block or hand-winch, the time of 21 months taken to erect the building was not long, even by modern standards.

On 30th July 1883, the Town Hall was opened formally by George Thoms, sheriff of Caithness, Orkney and Shetland. This ceremony was brief, for Lerwick Horticultural Society’s Flower Show was in full swing in the hall, and the fact that the dignitaries later went across to the county buildings to partake of cake and wine is perhaps an indicator that not all of the building’s rooms were fully usable. <b>

</b>The original contract did not include everything in the building; in particular there was no provision for stained glass in the hall windows, or any other decoration, although the city fathers were determined that their brainchild was to be a showpiece among its peers elsewhere, decorated inside and out in a style befitting the new-found dignity of the little northern Burgh.

Accordingly a decorations committee of four directors was established, whose driving force was Arthur Laurenson of Leog, a merchant prominent in Lerwick affairs and a keen student of Shetland history. He conceived the decorative theme reflecting Shetland’s history – in particular its Scandinavian links – and coaxed civic governments, landed gentry and prominent citizens nationwide to contribute the funds for stained glass windows, armorial tablets, fireplaces and paintings with which to grace the building. When one realises the short timescale available for the whole process, the achievement of the decorations committee becomes really unique and truly remarkable.

The evening after opening day, sheriff Thoms presented the hall with a portrait, and Lerwick Choral Society gave a concert. Next day, 1st August, the presentation of prizes for Lerwick Boating Club’s annual regatta took place in the hall; on the 2nd August sheriff Thoms laid the foundation stone of Lerwick Harbour Works and returned to the hall with all the dignitaries for cake and wine. A grand ball on the 3rd brought a hectic week to an end.

The Town Hall was virtually complete after another year, for in August 1884 the directors accepted the calculation that the total cost of the building had been £4,940 15/6d. The tower, however, remained empty and silent until 1887, when the town council presented the clock and other donors paid for the eleven bells, all to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.

The Town Hall Company Limited owned and managed Lerwick Town Hall for another 18 years. The main hall, with a stage at its south end, was hired for all kinds of purposes, from dances and balls, concerts, election meetings and theatricals to sales, bazaars and meetings of the Salvation Army. In 1896 the hall charges were fixed at 5/- for public sales, 30/- for balls and £3 3/- for “political meetings”.

In 1903 the directors accepted the town council’s long-awaited offer to buy the town hall for £2,750. Management transferred to the Town Hall Committee of Lerwick town council, and things carried on as before. With more money in the town’s coffers, the railed stone walls and gate pillars around the hall grounds were completed in 1909. <b>

</b>“Cinematographic entertainments” first appeared in the hall in 1911, while evening brass band practices began in the Burgh courtroom in 1914. The workers of the British Socialist Party made good use of a room in the building, renting it from 1910 until 1915 when it was let to the Boys’ Own Club. Troop lectures apart, the First World War had little effect on Town Hall activities. The pipers of Lerwick were allowed to practise in the Burgh courtroom in 1924.

The quiet 20s and the hungry 30s saw little change in usage until war broke out again in 1939.

Shetland was soon flooded with service personnel of all three armed forces, and Lerwick Town Hall assumed a simple but vital role as a dance hall, just about nightly except Sundays for six years. The hall was hired by military or naval units of all kinds, and by local organisations to raise funds for national appeals. Weekly “public dances” – for the general public – were also organised. By the war’s end in 1945 three pianos had been worn out, and the hall floor was in dire need of replacement from sheer wear and tear.

Through the 1950s the town council staff grew, so in 1960 the lease of the second floor room to the Lerwick Club, tenant since 1897, was not renewed and the council occupied the whole building for the first time. The town chamberlain and town clerk’s staff occupied the ground floor offices, with the town clerk himself in the hall anteroom on the first floor, and the town chamberlain and Burgh surveyor in rooms on the second floor.

In May 1975 a single local authority – Shetland Islands Council – took the place of both Lerwick town council and Zetland county council, with all assets transferred to the new council and Lerwick Community Council becoming the forum for purely town affairs. One of the town council’s last acts in 1975 was to meet most of the cost of recasting the tower’s 11 bells, which returned – in tune for the first time – in 1977.

The Town Hall became, and remains, the headquarters of the SIC. The main meetings of the council and its committees take place there, while the offices accommodate the council chief executive and his department. The former Burgh courtroom is now the council chamber, while the former town council chamber is the chief executive’s general office and reception, and the office where countless Lerwick tenants paid their rent and rates are now ladies’ and gents’ cloakrooms and toilets.

The offices of the chief executive and his deputy are now on the second floor. To meet modern regulations in the 1980s without extending the building, space was found for an internal fire escape stair from the main hall, while a lift shaft was fitted in the space once occupied by the strong room, and a disabled access created via the south door on the ground floor.

The centenary of Lerwick Town Hall was celebrated in August 1983 with due ceremony, including speeches, toasts, prayers and presentations, concluding with a centenary ball. However, while the centenarian seemed in good order for its age, closer inspection revealed that all was not well outside; in fact to quote the hallkeeper “Shu leaked laek a kishie!” – for a particular reason. The Orkney facing stone was very porous, and held water which in strong wind conditions was virtually pumped into the building.

Lack of resources had always prevented the town council from doing anything other than “first aid” to the stonework and the worst leaks, for the solution required complete replacement of the facing stone at enormous expense in both time and money. Fortunately, Shetland’s new islands council had the resources and the will to undertake this task, so for more than a decade, one part or other of the building was regularly swathed in scaffolding for long periods and the hall closed. Specialist contractors replaced more than 500 decayed Orkney stones with more durable facing stone from English quarries, including the complex oriel window in the main hall and its gable above, complete with replacement stone lion atop its peak. All of the hall’s stained glass windows had to be removed so each was dismantled, cleaned and releaded before reinstatement.

Linked to the Town Hall today is Lystina House. The story is told that many Lerwegians considered the new Town Hall – facing west – to be built the wrong way round, for in 1883 the great majority of the townsfolk lived in Lerwick’s lanes and saw only its very plain east face. Allegedly to improve the hall’s appearance from this viewpoint, Lystina House was built in 1884 and used as a private residence until 1994 when it was acquired by the council as a members’ annexe.

One hundred and twenty five years after its opening, Lerwick’s Town Hall remains a valued community asset, for it is probably still our most versatile public building. It can easily accommodate an wide range of events from public and private meetings, exhibitions and entertainments, to functions such as dinners, dances, weddings and civic receptions, plus fundraising efforts including coffee mornings, afternoon teas, spring fairs and Christmas bazaars. I defy any visitor in the Hall to remain unimpressed when sunlight streams through the stained glass to highlight the sheer elegance and beauty of a civic dream realised so long ago. Will the present city fathers leave anything remotely comparable a century hence? I doubt it very much.