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Preston Town Hall History: From Gothic Riches to Fiery Ruin

Preston town hall is a piece of iconic architecture that holds a place dear in the hearts of many a Preston resident.

Opened after the cotton famine, the project, along with the creation of public parks served as a beacon of promise and hope to the residents of the great town.

Here we will take a look back at why Preston town hall and its demise remains such a prominent part of Preston’s history.

Designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott

An architect held in high regard was the creator of Preston’s old town hall Sir George Gilbert Scott who was appointed architect to Westminster in 1849, from then on he was highly sought after for his Gothic Revival style.

Scott’s work can be found all over the UK, such as the Reading prison which resembled a medieval castle and the wide world with pieces remaining in Hamburg and New Zealand.

Reading Prison – a George Gilbert Scott design

Distinctive of the time Scott’s talents eventually blended the signature Gothic Revival with classic European influences and he was still able to conjure up buildings to order in more classical styles.

Scott’s commission to build Preston town hall came at a high point in his career where he was inundated with requests for his work for new buildings and restorations projects.

Given his huge £70,000 budget, Scott went to town, literally. He embellished the interior of the town hall as affluently as the exterior and gave the building a sky-scraping clock tower which was recorded as the second highest in the UK after London’s Big Ben.

Preston Town hall
Preston Market Place and Town Hall

Not a man of great modesty Scott was said to have put a discussion to rest about which side of building the clock tower would look its best saying;

 “It would look superb regardless of which elevation was chosen for the main street”.

The undeniably superb building was completed on the site of a former town hall and timber homes and stood out for miles down the main streets of Preston.

Ceremony for a new city

Coinciding with the opening of Avenham, Moore and Miller parks the new town hall was opened by the Duke of Cambridge to great fanfare in October 1867.

People lined the streets dressed in their Sunday best and made their way along the streets of Preston to see the grand opening of Preston town hall.

Depiction of Preston town hall opening ceremony 1867

The procession then made its way to the new public parks of Preston followed by big bands and banners.

Over the course of a few days, the town of Preston had gone from mostly moorland and workhouses to having a brand new town hall designed by one of the greatest architects in the world and three beautiful new city parks.

Destroyed by fire

Preston historian Marian Roberts recalls being awoken at around 01:00 am on the chilly morning of March 15th, 1947 to the sound of Preston town hall’s clock face striking the ground. Preston town hall was on fire and the people of Preston had to watch as their proud landmark building was consumed by flames.

Preston town hall ablaze March 15th 1947

There has never been any official cause of the fire found although no evidence of arson was relevant upon investigation. The only information that could be gathered was that the last event to take place in the building was a secondary school awards ceremony at around 16:00 pm on the 14th March. Once completed the building was secured by the caretaker Mr Freeman and the fire followed hours later.

The caretaker and his family were asleep in the apartments above the town hall when they were alerted by a phone call that the building was on ablaze. The whole family luckily escaped on hand and knees through the thick smoke into the streets.

Here over 80 fire engines, still operating under wartime national fire services, had assembled to tackle the quickly spreading blaze but with little effect.

Wartime National Fire Services

Those present at the catastrophic event said the night and early morning were so cold it was like being in the Arctic and when the water from hoses struck the burning building onlookers swore they saw icicles form.

It wasn’t just the huge clocks that were dangerously falling from the colossal tower, but the hour bells which weighed 4.75 tonnes each. If these fell the damage to the surrounding shops and homes would be disastrous.

Town hall bells recovered from the fire site

Falling debris striking the bell made what was reported as a sombre tone that echoed across the town. Eventually, the fire loosened the bell which plummeted down the tower and became lodged inside the deteriorating structure.

Preston town hall the fiery aftermath

Following the blaze, Preston Council decided that the best course of action would be to tear down the entire structure and rebuild. This was however opposed by residents who organised a petition that was signed by more than 8000 individuals.

Preston town hall interior – fire damage

The people of Preston wanted their town hall back and restored to its former glory, a cost at which could not be fathomed and only shortly after World War had ended.

Preston Council instead opted to salvage what they could of the lower parts of Preston town hall and used it for various functions and community events until 1962 when it was completely demolished and replaced by what is now known as the Preston’s least favourite building, Preston Crystal House.

Preston town hall site after final demolition 1962

Now to catch a glimpse of the remnants of Preston Town Hall take a stroll along the picturesque banks of the River Ribble where plenty of the foundations of Gilbert Scott’s grand creation lies.

The Shankly Hotel Preston coming soon

old post office
Harris Hotel – The Old Post Office

Soon guests will be able to book their stay inside another iconic piece of Preston’s heritage architecture in what was once the old post office. Preston itself has a large collection of listed buildings that were erected around the Victorian era. These buildings hark back to a time when Preston was a midland getaway for high society, on the cusp of industrial revolution.

Many of the buildings that remain in Preston today show signs of early architectural grandeur take some time to explore the stunning listed buildings of Preston on your next visit.