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History of Bishop Auckland Town Hall

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Bishop Auckland Town Hall

When is a Town Hall not a Town Hall? When it is a temperance hotel, Conservative Association offices, an indoor market, an air raid shelter, turkish baths, and a public toilet. These are just some of the uses to which Bishop Auckland Town Hall was put before its re-opening as a library and arts centre in September 1993.

Writing in 1858, the Editor of the Bishop Auckland Herald stated that what the town needed was a "good, substantial and convenient building , the main feature of which should be its large room or hall with its requisite offices attached...suitable for a missionary meeting or a ball room, a mechanics' institute lecture or a philharmonic society's performance, a theatre, a bazaar or any other of the multifarious uses for which such a room is required".

The present site of the Town Hall was occupied by groups of old houses and a market cross around which traders gathered on market days to sell eggs, butter, poultry and other produce. A company was formed in 1859 to build the Town Hall. In order to raise money shares in the new Company were sold, in the main to local people.

A competition was held for architects to produce designs for the proposed building and the competition was won by the London architect, Mr John Philpott Jones. When Jones found out that the Company had, despite his victory in the competition, decided to employ a Newcastle architect, he asked for his drawings back. They were duly returned, but not before tracings had been taken! The Directors employed John Johnstone of Newcastle (who had come third in the competition) to modify and improve on Jones' design.

The official opening ceremony was held on 28 October 1862. Although many parts of the building were not finished the opening took place and the entertainers employed for the event declared that it was "the easiest room they had ever tried". Although the founding of the Town Hall was by a private company it was bought in 1888 by the Local Board of Health which, in 1894, became the Bishop Auckland Urban District Council. A description of the Town Hall at this time records that the large lecture hall held 800 people whilst there was also a boardroom, a series of public offices and a "commodious temperance hotel". Shaw's Temperance Hotel, originally managed by Mrs Jane Shaw, was a landmark in the Market Place.

The Town Hall has seen a range of activities taking place. There were regular concerts and theatrical performances. On 2 December 1919, Sir Edward Elgar conducted a selection of his own work played by the Leeds Symphony Orchestra. The Town Hall was also the setting for 'Industrial Week' exhibitions, organised to promote manufacturing and commerce. In the early 1950s the Hall was renovated and improved, "including the provision of a new sprung dance floor and modern new lounge bar for drinking facilities, when granted by licence for special occasions by the Justices of the Peace".

This varied history has prepared the Town Hall for its present role as library and arts centre hosting a wide range of performances and exhibitions, and reflecting part of the history of the town.