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High Street History: Municipal buildings

Updated Tuesday, 3rd July 2007

Town halls and firestations trace the rise of civic pride.

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Municipal buildings

Dewsbury Town Hall
Dewsbury Town Hall

Municipal buildings like town halls, hospitals, and fire stations reveal much about the people who built them. They attest to the expanding power of the state as it took over administrative capabilities from the parish in the nineteenth century.

As ever, Victorian and Edwardian buildings were often grand and lavish, whilst less extravagant styles prevailed before and afterwards. Nonetheless, even modern municipal buildings often retain a certain imposing quality.

Grand municipal buildings may reflect a sense of local pride and confidence at the time when they were created. Local councils and other bodies wanted to project a sense of success and power. Many older municipal buildings are now used for functions quite different from their intended ones: in fact, all three of the examples you’re about to see no longer have any local government purpose.

Finsbury Town Hall

Town hall

Grand municipal buildings like this former town hall were a nineteenth century hallmark. The building was put up in 1895; it endeavoured to copy a Flemish Renaissance style. The clock, cupola (domed tower), and flamboyant ironwork porch were all ornaments that suggested confidence and power – as might befit civic government.

   Wolverton Bath House


Municipal bath house

Built in 1891, these Baths were built by the London and North West Railway Company. They were for public use – an example of corporate philanthropy. In 1893, a local newspaper described them as “fitted up in the most modern style, with every requirement, and the official in charge is most civil and obliging.” Today, the Bath House accommodates the Living Archive.

Wolverton Fire Station

Fire station

Like police forces, fire services were a very visible sign of the extension of municipal government in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This station dates from 1911 and, unlike some older examples, was purpose built. It pre-dates the legal requirement for councils to provide a fire service. This happened in 1938 though most local authorities did have one by that point. The station now houses a shop – another sign of change in the urban environment.

Taking it further

If you are interested in the medical aspects of social problems, the OU offers Medicine and society in Europe 1500-1930 (A218) . On the interaction between Victorian civic culture and the British Empire, our Empire (A326) history course offers plenty of food for thought.


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