Building Name

Free Trade Hall Peter Street Manchester

1853 - 1856
Peter Street
Central, Manchester
GMCA, England
New build
George Harrap

Edward WaIters's fame as an architect chiefly rests upon his designs for the third Free Trade Hall in Peter Street, close to St Peter’s Fields, the scene of the “Peterloo Massacre” in 1819. A public hall had existed on the Peter Street site since 1840. The first hall referred to as the Pavilion was a temporary timber building 150 feet by 105 feet erected in 11 days.  A second, and more permanent, hall was constructed in 1842.  Completed in six weeks and built at a cost of £3,000 the hall was constructed of brick with a slate roof and lacking any architectural pretensions.  In February 1853 the Manchester Guardian provided the following description of this building: The vast size, low roof, and barn-like character of the present Free Trade Hall have long unfitted it for anything but the reception of large assemblages of people, such as the great free-trade gatherings during the anti-corn law agitation; while its temperature during the winter months, unless quite filled, is such as, combined with large grids in the floor and numerous other apertures causing draughts – to induce ladies and delicate persons instinctively to avoid it. … Since a year or two ago it was determined to take it down, its old decorations have been allowed to remain till they literally hung in tatters from its ceiling and walls, and the whole place is as cold, dirty and comfortless as any room can well be.

By the early 1850s, Manchester recognised that a modern city needed a substantial and well-equipped hall for the holding of public meetings, as well as providing a venue for concerts and other entertainments. Mancunians were well aware that other northern towns had schemes to provide imposing public halls. Elmes's St. George's Hall in Liverpool was nearing completion while Bradford's great hall was opened in 1853. Leeds was building a new town hall that would contain a magnificent public room. Manchester needed a new public hall. As the idea of the hall took shape, it was also evident that a new building could be a unique monument to the triumphs of the Anti‑Corn Law League, a building that carried forward not simply the name of the movement but its idea. Inaugurated on October 9th 1856, it was built on the site of a hall of the same name in which the Anti-Corn Law Meetings were held.

The proposal to build a new hall was first made public early in 1853. Further details emerged the following July. The existing hall was to be demolished and to be replaced by an elegant public hall "with a view to afford to Manchester and Salford, and the surrounding districts, the advantages which result from the possession of a large and commodious hall for public meetings.” The scheme was put in the hands of a committee that included many who had campaigned against the Corn Laws: Sir Elkanah Armitage, Henry Ashworth, John Bright, Thomas Bright, Henry Cooke, James Kershaw, Edward Ryley Langworthy, Joseph Leese jnr., Henry Peacock, Robert Platt, Henry Rawson, Smith Phillips Robinson, Joseph Simpson, Thomas Thomasson, William Benjamin Watkins, James Watts, John Whittaker, George Wilson and Thomas Wrigley.  Negotiations were opened to purchase the site from Richard Cobden at a cost of £2,900. To meet the estimated cost of £25,000, it was proposed to form the Manchester Public Hall Company and issue of £10 shares. The committee also agreed that the building should contain a great hall capable of holding 4,000 people seated or 10,000 standing and a smaller assembly room for 600 individuals. The latter room was, in part, a response to fill the vacuum created by the demolition of the Manchester Assembly Rooms in Mosley Street. The remaining space was to be given over to anterooms and offices. To maximise the company’s income in a city where commercial demands were driving up the cost of warehouse space, the basement was to be "spacious fire‑proof cellarage", although an earlier idea of allowing shops to occupy the ground floor was discounted. The design was to be selected by a limited architectural competition.

Five Manchester architects: John Edgar Gregan, Edward Salomons, Starkey and Cuffley, Travis and Mangnall, and Edward Waiters were invited to submit designs. Given that this was to be the most important public building in Manchester since the building of the first Town Hall in King Street and the Royal Institution in Mosley Street and all of the architects must have been conscious of the opportunity presented by the invitation. Gregan, however, declined the invitation. The selected architects were given six weeks to present their designs.  At the end of 1853 the committee announced that the winning design had been submitted by Edward Walters with the young Edward Salomons placed second, receiving a £100 premium. The choice of Walters   the committee had decided ten votes to four in favour ‑ was hardly a surprising one. However it would be misleading to suggest that Walters was awarded the commission solely because of his League connections with the Corn Law League. However, his patronage could not be hidden, and inevitably some of his fellow architects felt that the competition was not entirely open, especially when it became known that not only had Waiters failed to settle on a final design but that his scheme would considerably exceed the £25,000 set in the competition. Unfortunately the drawings submitted by the other competitors have not survived to allow a more detailed assessment of the competition.

Building work might have been expected to start early in 1854 but for reasons that are not entirely clear ‑ the rising cost of the hall may have been an issue ‑ the project stalled. The old hall continued to be let for events one of the last to be held was a poultry exhibition. It was not until the winter of 1854‑5 that the construction side began to get underway. In November it was announced that the committee had finally approved one of Walters designs for the Peter Street elevation. About the same time notices appeared in the press advertising the sale of materials from the old hall. In January 1855, the necessary financial arrangements were finally completed. A joint‑stock company, the Manchester Public Hall Company, was officially registered with a capital of £35,000 issued in £10 shares. The preamble to the company's deed of settlement provided a clear statement of its aims. The subscribers being of opinion that the providing and appropriation of a large and permanent public building in the City of Manchester for the purpose of offering accommodation for Meetings of Political Religious Literary and other Associations and other meetings on public occasions and for public lectures and for concerts exhibitions and other objects of public amusement or instruction would be of great convenience and advantage to the inhabitants of the said City and profitable to the promoters of such an undertaking have agreed to form themselves into a Joint‑Stock Company for the purpose of erecting and so appropriating such a building ... The Deed of Settlement also confirmed that the Manchester Public Hall Company's place of business was to be called "The Manchester Free Trade Hall." This angered many of those who had previously opposed the League. Fears were expressed that the name would serve only to keep open these old divisions. Letters in the Tory press gave vent to these concerns. It was even suggested that those who had invested in the innocuously‑sounding Manchester Public Hall Company had been misled by the passionate Corn Law Leaguers on the committee: "the name was imposed upon the majority of shareholders by a mean trick played off upon them by a notoriously shabby and unprincipled remnant of the old faction."

Although some shareholders appear to have had no obvious League connections, a large number of the directors and the larger shareholders had been leading supporters of the League. George Wilson was chairman and, with Sir Elkanah Armitage, John Bright and William Benjamin Watkins, he was also one of the four trustees. Most of the 140 original shareholders were from Lancashire. Even those few investors, such as Richard Cobden and Mark Phillips who lived outside the region, could demonstrate a strong local connection. With Henry Ashworth, Robert Barnes, John Rylands, Sam Mendel, Robert Platt of Stalybridge and the Platts of Oldham listed amongst the original shareholders, the hall was largely financed by the profits of the Lancashire cotton industry. Some names were missing. Although later consulted over the position and design of the platform in the new hall, Charles Halle was not one of the original shareholders. However, David Banks, another of Manchester' s musicians and music teachers who had organised concerts at the old hall, was listed.

It was erected by subscription among a very limited number of residents in Manchester, and cost £25,000 without fittings. The hall is 135 feet long, and 78 feet wide, and only 52 feet in height. It was originally intended to be 64 feet high, but acoustic considerations induced a curtailment of its proportions. In addition to the hall proper there is an assembly-room, 76 feet by 37 feet, and 28 feet high, approached by a separate staircase, with a supper-room over, a drawing-room, 40 feet 6 inches by 24 feet, and other apartments. The principal front measures 153 feet, and the total height is 75 feet. The entire building covers an area of 2,300 square yards. The galleries will accommodate 754, and the floor of the hall will seat 3,156 persons, making a total of 3,910 persons, allowing 18 inches of seat to each individual.  [Builder 16 March 1872 pages 199-202]

Edward Salomons Prize Design for Free Trade Hall was subsequently exhibited at the Royal Manchester Institution Exhibition: water colours. The Manchester Guardian critic noted: PRIZE DESIGN FOR FREE TRADE HALL -  E Salomons - A very creditable design, simple in form and solid in character, - indeed perhaps rather too much so. The principal façade looks rather flat; and wanting in projections and recesses; but most probably the designer may have been tied down by regulations which precluded the possibility of an elaborate exterior. [Manchester Guardian 11 October 1854 page 8]

Having adopted Walter’s plans (with such modifications as should subsequently suggest themselves), in December 1853, it might reasonably have been expected that building works would commence early in 1854. However, for reasons which are still unclear, the project stalled. Even the Manchester Guardian was mystified, noting - spring has come and gone; the summer has come and is passing away; and not a brick of the old building is yet down. Is it wise to wait until another spring? What stops the way? [Manchester Guardian 22 July 1854 page 6]. In November 1854 it was announced that the committee had finally approved one of Walters three designs for the Peter Street elevation, submitted as part of his competition entry almost a year before.  Construction of the new hall began without ceremony in March 1855. The main building contract was awarded to the local firm of George Harrap. Work progressed without any serious interruptions and was completed by the autumn of 1856. The Manchester Free Trade Hall was opened with a grand ball on Wednesday 8th October 1856. Not for the last time in Manchester's history the inauguration of a major building was entrusted to a local man. George Wilson conducted the ceremonies that opened the Free Trade Hall. Yet, while the opening ceremony was not the great political demonstration that might have been anticipated, the promoters had every right to feel satisfied even if at £40,000 its cost had far exceeded the original capital estimate.

In 1940 a firebomb destroyed the hall, which by then had become an intrinsic part of Manchester cultural life. By 1951, it had been rebuilt to a design by Leonard Howitt that retained the Peter Street and South Street façades. But the hall’s fate was finally sealed when the Halle Orchestra, who had been patrons for many years, moved to the newly built Bridgewater Hall in 1996. The Free Trade Hall subsequently closed due to lack of demand.   

The sculptor was the very prolific John Thomas. The principal works are a series of nine semi-circular panels each with an allegorical female figure situated above the upper floor windows. As well, there are eight full and two half triangles of foliage etc. at first floor level, and on the Southmill Street side, there survives a few further triangles of foliage, and a little head. The foliage is mostly entwined oak and olive branches, with central motifs showing little shields with various devices relating to towns trading with Manchester. Corn sheaves also feature, recalling the Corn Law repeal. As is usual with John Thomas, the girls are Greco-Victorian, tending to the muscular, solid of limb and neck and shoulder, big-breasted, and with rather round faces. Idealised and attractive certainly, but neither the hard beauty we might find in the later 19th Century ideal, or the slender girlishness of the New Sculptors.

FREE TRADE HALL - TENDERS will be RECEIVED for the BUILDING MATERIALS of the Free Trade Hall, including the whole of the bricks, iron, slating, lead, woodwork, etc., up to Friday March 25th. The hall will be open for inspection the whole of this week and three weeks will be allowed for clearing away the materials. For further particulars apply to E SALOMONS, architect, 63 King Street, to whom tenders can be addressed. [Manchester Guardian 16 March 1853 page 1 col 6 -sales by private contract]

MANCHESTER FREE TRADE HALL —The land on which the Free Trade-hall stands (3222¾ square yards), has at length been sold by Mr. Cobden to the new company, formed for the purpose of taking down the present building and erecting another. The first storey is to be an underground cellar, with fireproof ceiling, to be let off; the second is to be a large hall, capable of seating 4000 persons, or standing room for 10,000; and over this there is to be a concert room to seat 600 persons, with suitable ante rooms and other apartments. [Civil Engineers and Architects Journal 1853 page 470]