More Light More Power: 150 Years of Shoreditch Town Hall

Shoreditch Town Hall has received a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) Sharing Heritage grant to support More Light, More Power: 150 Years of Shoreditch Town Hall, a project to celebrate the building’s 150th anniversary.

To mark the occasion, Shoreditch Town Hall will produce a commemorative publication to document the former civic building’s rich history: from its roots in 19th century progressive politics, to its role in East London working class culture as a music hall and boxing venue; from community-led campaigns to save the building, to its contemporary usage as an arts and events space. 

The project will also include a temporary exhibition of photos and materials in a number of spaces inside the building, as well as permanent displays to help people understand and appreciate its heritage.

Despite the architectural and historical importance of Shoreditch Town Hall, there is currently no single place or publication where the buildings story is available. Although some key moments in the life of the Town Hall are on record, there are many significant gaps in knowledge and few photographs of people using and enjoying the space.

A team of staff and volunteers from Shoreditch Town Hall will go out into the community in the coming months, working with project coordinator Brona O’Toole to meet local people, carry out a selection of interviews and document stories or memories of the building over the years. We will also research and compile information from a range of archives and public sources, as well as personal collections.

If you would like to volunteer or have a story or memory of the Town Hall, if your family or friends have been involved with the building in the past – especially if you have photographs or documents – we would love to hear from you. Please email history@shoreditchtownhall.com or write to Brona O’Toole at Shoreditch Town Hall, 380 Old Street, London, EC1V 9LT

A Meet and Greet will be held on Thursday 15 September (2pm - 5pm) where we will introduce the project to those who want to be interviewed and meet a few potential volunteers.

Volunteer training will be Monday 19 September (2pm - 5pm) with interviews to follow later in the week.

On completion of the project in December 2016 archive materials, our history publication and links to information on wider local history will be made available from on a newly launched history section of www.shoreditchtownhall.com.


The History of Shoreditch Town Hall

Designed by Caesar Augustus Long and built on the site of the old Fuller’s Hospital, Shoreditch Town Hall opened in 1866 as the Vestry Hall for Shoreditch. With its high-coved ceilings, Doric columns, large chandeliers and stained glass windows the Vestry Hall (now known as the Council Chamber) was thought of as “the grandest Vestry Hall in London”.

Throughout the building the motto ‘More Light, More Power’ can be seen beneath the crest of Shoreditch. This motto, together with the statue of Progress on the front of the tower, commemorates the reputation that the Vestry, (later the Metropolitan Borough of Shoreditch), had as a progressive local government, particularly in its provision of electric power to the borough. From the Vestry of St Leonard Shoreditch Electric Light Station, later known as the Shoreditch Borough Refuse Destructor and Generating Station and now as The Circus Space, the borough’s rubbish was burnt to provide steam for the generator sending electricity throughout the borough. The waste heat from the fires was used to heat the public baths. The motto for the Electric Light Station was ‘Out of dust, light and power’. The Town Hall’s tower stood as a beacon shining light over the borough. Today the statue of Progress proudly holds aloft a burning torch in commemoration.

1866 - 1965

From its earliest days Shoreditch Town Hall was at the heart of civic life, managing all aspects of the parish, one of the densest in Europe, including law and order and the recording of births, marriages and deaths.

On 12 November 1888 the Vestry held the widely reported inquest into the murder of Jack the Ripper’s last victim Mary Kelly. A verdict of ‘wilful murder against some person or persons unknown’ was lodged by the Jury and no further inquests took place. A full transcript of the inquest can be found online.

In 1902 William Hunt led a series of expansions, including the addition of the large Assembly Hall, office accommodation, a new tower and the Caretaker’s Cottage. Following a fire in 1904, which led to extensive damage to the Assembly Hall and Council Chamber roof, the new extended Assembly Hall was opened in 1907.

As well as being a centre for civic duties the Town Hall provided entertainment for the borough in the Assembly Hall, packing the building with variety and music acts from across the land. In 1933 the Shoreditch Housing Association held a Shakespeare Festival to raise funds for a local housing estate. The festival attracted the Bishop of Stepney and HRH The Princess Royal with a matinee of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ being followed by a procession down Curtain Road to the site of the Curtain Theatre.

In 1938 an expansion to the Town Hall saw the addition of our Committee Rooms and the Red Brick Annexe (sold to fund the restoration of the building). The Town Hall now has a floor space of over 48,000sq.ft.

Throughout the Second World War the Town Hall acted once more as a beacon for the borough. It was here people would come to be evacuated to the country and for help and support when the blitz came to East London. During War Week the borough of Shoreditch raised 3million in war savings. Due to its incredible generosity the borough became associated with HMS Thrasher (N-87), a submarine based in the Mediterranean. Following an attack on 16th February 1942 HMS Thrasher was awarded two Victoria Crosses and a Distinguished Service Order for its commanding officer Lt. H.S. Mackenzie. On their return to the United Kingdom the Mayor of Shoreditch held a reception for the ship’s company at which Lt. Mackenzie was awarded freedom of the borough. For more information visit the Imperial War Museum archive.

In 1965 Shoreditch Town Hall ceased to be a centre of municipal administration, when the boroughs of Shoreditch and Stoke Newington merged with Hackney to form the larger London Borough of Hackney.

1965 – 1996

In the 1960s the Town Hall’s Assembly Hall became one of the East End’s premier boxing venues until in 1969 when, after a hard-hitting fight against Joe Bugner, the tragic death of Trinidadian boxer Ulric Regis led to a ban on boxing throughout Hackney.

Gradually the Town Hall began to fall into disrepair, only experiencing a brief but colourful revival in the 1990s when the now infamous Whirl-Y-Gig trance nights descended on the Assembly Hall on a weekly basis. Sadly, the building was placed on English Heritage’s Buildings at Risk register in 1996.

1997 – 2012

Shoreditch Town Hall Trust was formed in 1997 with a mission to restore the decaying fabric of the building and regenerate its role as a commercial and community resource.

In 2002 the Trust obtained a 99-year lease from the London Borough of Hackney and commissioned the first phase of a large-scale restoration of the building.

Following major structural renovations and restoration works the building reopened in 2004 and has since this time continued to attract a diverse and exciting range of hire clients. The Town Hall has been home to weddings, civil partnerships, receptions, award shows, meetings, workshops, concerts, rehearsals, high-profile events, birthdays, fairs, dinners, graduations, film shoots, major fundraisers, music videos, exhibitions, tv filming and much, much more.

Support of projects such as The New World Order, the Barbican / Hydrocracker’s site sensitive interpretation of Harold Pinter and Mind Over Matter, an exhibition and symposium supported by the Wellcome Collection, demonstrate and exciting movement in the venue’s approach towards proactive and artistically driven future programming.