Excursion to Limehouse Town Hall, by Jane McChrystal.


A new municipal HQ for the Borough of Tower Hamlets is being built on the site of the old Royal London Hospital, and it’s due to open in 2022.

Can you imagine anyone marking the occasion by composing An Ode to the Whitechapel Civic Centre? No, I can’t either.

But things were different in 1881, when the Parish Council of Limehouse opened the doors of its new Vestry Hall built to serve the 40,000 East Enders who lived within its boundaries.

The “Parish magnates”, “Local Board” and “vestry men” responsible for its construction wanted a building fit to impress all who beheld it with the measure of their power and prestige.

Limehouse had recently experienced a period of rapid expansion, with an increase in its population of 35,000 over thirty years.  Its jerry-built terraces and mean tenements teemed with the dockers and labourers who had flocked there in the hope of finding work in the warehouses of the Thames and factories in the East End.  They laboured for low wages in dangerous places and returned each day to wives and children crammed into overcrowded homes blighted by poor sanitation, infestation and disease.

But any population, no matter how deprived, needs its shops, pubs and services, so Limehouse was also home to plenty of prosperous business men –  landlords, tobacconists, chandlers and the like – of the kind who were keen to get involved with civic life and take control of the apparatus of local government.

They weren’t the only ones who wanted a piece of the action.  The last three decades of the Nineteenth Century were a period of intense social change, when religious groups, philanthropists and radicals of every kind were drawn to the East End in search of fertile ground for their own particular brand of social reform among the local inhabitants who lived and toiled in such penury.

Ode to Limehouse Town Hall

JA May

All hail! This bright, auspicious day

For Limehouse and the whole East End;

Come happy faces blythe and gay,

Our town hall opening to attend.

Hence for discussions, concerts, balls

May it your patronage command;

Till like a fountain from its walls

Gush mirth and knowledge hand in hand.


So join the chorus with me one and all

Who in one gladness share sing away;

Proclaim aloud – our new town hall

Is opened on this day.

The architect with master mind

Beholds his skill with praise survey’d

Who the foundation witness’d find

The stone was well and truly laid,

The parish magnates here will meet,

Our vestry men and Local Board;

Transact their business learn’d, discreet

In rooms that comfort will afford

We might expect the two groups to be at odds with each other, but their ambitions were surprisingly similar in some respects, and suited to the spirit of the age, with its insistence on the pursuit of self-improvement and moral uplift.

Consider this statement made by one of the speechmakers at the opening ceremony of the Hall reported in the East London Observer of 2nd April 1881 where he pointed out that “…the Parish of Limehouse was rising in dignity and importance” and then added he “…trusted it would also rise morally, socially and intellectually”.

Now compare it with the original aim of the Seaman’s Mission operating on East India Dock Road a ten minute walk away, declared by the Reverend David Roe upon its foundation in 1843.

“…to minister to the spiritual needs and promote the social and moral welfare of seafarers and their families in the vicinity of the Port of London”.

Both sides also agreed on the value of learning, but diverged when it came to the question of having a good time.  The Reverend Roe provided his sailors with sober pastimes – praying, reading, classes in seamanship – offered in the hope of keeping them on the straight and narrow, whereas JA May’s is all for “concerts”, “balls”, “pleasure” and “mirth” gushing from the town hall’s walls for the benefit of those “…happy faces blythe and gay”.

I became aware of the Town Hall on a regular journey from Limehouse to Aldgate on the 135 bus along the Commercial Road, where it stands in the shadow of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s St Annes Church, distinguished from neighbouring terraces of shops, flats and low-rise social housing by its tall arched windows and imposing portico framed by granite pillars.  The use of Suffolk brick and Portland stone embellishments for the facade in the construction of a building which cost more than £12,000 ruffled local feathers.  How could a Parish Council spend so much of its rate payers’ money on a monument to their own pride, when so many of them had so little?

Over time, boundaries have been redrawn and boroughs merged and renamed, while the Town Hall has served many different purposes.

During the Nineteenth Century it functioned as the seat of local government and hosted the balls and concerts envisaged by J. A. Mays in his ode, but at the same time pulled in so many orators from the emerging labour movement that by the early Twentieth Century “to Limehouse” became synonymous with delivering any kind of rousing, radical speech.

The Town Hall then served as a medical practice and an infant welfare centre.  It was bombed during the Blitz and remained out of commission until repairs were completed in 1950.  In the post-war period it has housed the National Museum of Labour History, the Wapping Neighbourhood Centre and a shelter for homeless people.  Finally, in 2004 it was taken over by the Limehouse Consortium Trust and remains in its care to this day.

The view of the Town Hall from the top deck had stirred my curiosity about what happens inside now, so I hurried along when it opened its doors to the public on Open House Sunday in September to be greeted by Olivia, a Trustee of the consortium and helpful, friendly volunteer guide for the day.

She described the vital role played by the Consortium in the preservation of the building’s fabric and their determination to save it from conversion into yet another block of luxury apartments.  She told me about the Consortium’s mission to foster community arts through projects such as Fabricworks, which trains disadvantaged local women in the design and manufacture of textiles with a view to helping them become part of the organisation’s production team or find work in the wider world.

The interior of the Town Hall and its fittings are well suited to the practical nature of the activities that take place there today, but traces of the splendour to which its founders aspired are still apparent in the intricate iron work of the bannisters flanking the central staircase, the elaborate plaster work swags which ornament the grand assembly hall and sunburner lamps embedded in its ceiling.  The opulent Persian rugs, Moroccan leather chairs and mahogany desks which originally filled its rooms “that will comfort afford” are all gone.

The town hall’s exterior was designed by Arthur Harston with nods to the Italian Renaissance palazzo, but it gives an impression of strength and solidity rather than classical harmony.   Maybe this is something to do with the more usual commissions undertaken by its architect – hospitals, asylums and workhouses.  What it lacks in elegance it makes up in spades with its history and the contribution it makes to community arts today.

You can make a one-off donation to the Consortium for the upkeep of Limehouse Town Hall or become a friend and make regular contributions.  There are also opportunities for volunteers suited to individual skills and talents.

You can find more information and details of forthcoming events on the Town Hall’s website and Facebook page.

“Within These Walls: The Story of Limehouse Town Hall”.

A pdf available on the Limehouse Town Hall Website was an invaluable source of information in the preparation of this article.

The Ode to Limehouse Town Hall was reproduced from material on display at the Assembly Hall on Open House London, 22nd September.

Jane McChrystal © 2018.




Here commerce too may plume its wing,

Ships, colonies and trade be scann’d,

The graces meet, the Muses sing

And toll and pleasure wealth expand.

The great and good from time to time,

The seeds of wisdom here may sow;

And thousands learn that truth sublime

To ”know thyself” enough to know.

Limehouse Town Hall

646 Commercial Road

London E14 7HA

Website: www.limehousetownhall.co.uk

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