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History of Lancaster town hall

  • Lancaster Town Hall viewed from Dalton Square
    Lancaster Town Hall viewed from Dalton Square
  • The Mayor's Parlour
    The Mayor's Parlour
  • Council Chamber
    Council Chamber


Based in Dalton Square, Lancaster Town Hall was officially opened on 27 December 1909 by Lord Ashton. It replaced the existing town hall, now the city museum in Market Square, as the then Lancaster Corporation had outgrown the building. The corporation was unable to finance a new building but Lord Ashton offered to pay for a new municipal building. Lord Ashton was a local multi millionaire businessman and industrialist, who had made his fortune after inheriting Williamson's, his father's oil cloth and linoleum business. Based on the quay at Lancaster, Williamson's exported their goods all over the world.

In 1904 a town hall committee was formed to draw up plans and requirements for the new building. The committee visited various buildings throughout England, to gather ideas for the 'best class of building available'. The committee were impressed with many buildings but particularly those designed by the famous architect of the day E.W. Mountfield FRIBA. He was responsible for the town hall in Sheffield and London's central criminal court, The Old Bailey. He was chosen to design and draw up plans for the new town hall incorporating the ideas of the committee.

The construction began in 1906 and was finally completed in 1909. Waring and Gillows were the main contractors for the stone work, furniture and wood carvings. The stone carving over the front steps was undertaken by F.W. Pomfrey and the stain glass windows were made by local firm Shrigley and Hunt.

Originally, the new town hall incorporated all the council's services and departments. In addition Lancaster police station, including cells, was in the basement, the magistrates court was based on the ground floor, with a separate connecting staircase to the police cells. Located on the first floor were the mayor's parlour, reception rooms, committee rooms and council chamber. To the rear of the building was the public hall, known as the Ashton Hall and adjacent to the town hall was the new fire station.

The final cost of the complete works, which also included a redevelopment of Dalton Square and the erection of a statue of Queen Victoria, was £155,000.

Main entrance, staircase and landing

On entering the town hall by the front steps, the walls of the reception area are clad in Swedish green marble, which rises up the sides of the magnificent white marble staircase and continues around the landing and throughout the first floor corridors. With the exception of the reception area, the rest of the ground floor corridors are clad in Spanish red marble.

At the top of the stairs is a portrait of Lord Ashton, by Howard Somerville, which was presented by Lady Ashton in 1932, two years after Lord Ashton's death.

On either side of the staircase are two large stain glass windows, made by Shrigley and Hunt, showing four different coats of arms. On one side there are the arms of the old borough of Lancaster, with the motto 'Luck to Loyne, 'Loyne' being the old name for the River Lune and the arms of Lord Ashton, with his motto in Latin, Murus Æneus Conscientia Sana, which translated reads 'a healthy conscience is a bronze wall'. On the opposite side are the royal arms and those of the Duchy, with two Latin phrases which translated read 'Lord make safe the Borough' and 'Lord make safe the King'.

Council chamber

The council chamber houses the original mayor's chair and councillor's seating from 1909. Arranged in a circle and consisting of two banks, there is seating for 35 members, although there were actually only 32 members, 8 aldermen and 24 councillors.

The walls of the council chamber are oak panelled and listed on the panels are former mayors of the borough and city, honorary aldermen, honorary freemen and former town clerks and chief executives. The list of mayors starts from 1835, when local government was reformed and made more democratic, although Lancaster has had a mayor since 1338. Lancaster's first lady mayor wasn't until 1932, when Annie Elizabeth Helme was elected to office. Lady mayors are still addressed as 'Mr. Mayor'.

Although they are stamped 'Gillow', Waring and Gillow, as the firm was now known, produced all the chairs (and panelling) at their Lancaster workshop in 1908. The council chamber was last used for a Full Council meeting in 1974. Following the reorganisation of local government in 1974 Lancaster City Council now has sixty councillors and Full Council meetings are held at Morecambe Town Hall.

Mayor's parlour, reception room and banqueting hall

The mayor's parlour is used for small receptions or meetings and may only be used with the mayor's permission. It can be used as a separate room or incorporated as part of the banqueting suite. The parlour, as a room in its own right, is separated from the reception room by the means of a two ton solid oak screen, which is counterweighted and is raised up into the loft space above. In turn the reception room is separated from the banqueting hall by an identical screen. When both screens are raised the three rooms, opened up this way, are referred to as the banqueting suite and have the capacity to seat up to 200 people conference style or for lunch/dinner.

The centre piece of the mayor's parlour is Waring and Gillow's centrifugal table. The table is made of Cuban mahogany and by rotating it from its smallest setting, which is approximately 2 metres in diameter, eight leaves are inserted and the table expands to become approximately 3 metres in diameter. The date of manufacturer was circa 1910, with as few as five being produced, although the whereabouts of any other examples is unknown. This particular example sat on display in Waring and Gillows showroom until 1945, when it was presented to the city by the firm to commemorate their 250th anniversary (1795-1945), although it is widely acknowledged that Robert Gillow didn't actually set up the business until approximately 1830. The discrepancy in the dates remains unexplained.

Above the fireplace is a portrait of Lord Ashton's third wife Florence Maud Williamson, nee Whalley, latterly Lady Ashton, who also became the first female freeman of the borough in 1932. Other portraits in the mayor's parlour are of James Mansergh, a freeman of the borough, who was a renowned engineer and was responsible for the Lancaster Waterworks. Sir Thomas Storey, a freeman of the borough, industrialist and four times mayor of Lancaster. There is also a portrait of Mr William Briggs and one of Mrs. Briggs, mayor and mayoress for six consecutive years, from 1913 to 1919.

The Ashton Hall

Housed in the Ashton Hall is the magnificent organ which was built by Norman and Beard of Norwich, as part of the original plans for the new building. The organ is currently being totally restored by a local volunteer group - the Ashton Hall Organ Restoration Project (AHORP), who are a registered charity. The work is estimated at £300,000 and this independent group of musicians and organ enthusiasts continue to raised funds for the full restoration of this fine Gillow organ.

The hall, which is a public hall, has a sprung dance floor and was used for numerous dances and balls each year. It is still used for a wide variety of events, including the annual Round Table beer festival, Lancaster grammar schools' speech days and presentation days, the annual school's music festival, various concerts, weddings, fashion shows, antique fairs, sportsman's dinners and choral society concerts to name a few. There are regular organ recitals too.

A later addition to the decoration of the hall was the painting of the heraldic shields on the ceiling sections, each showing the shield of the different dukes of Lancaster, from the first one in 1066 through to 1422. Originally the title 'The Honor of Lancaster' and then 'The Earl of Lancaster' was used. The first time the title 'The Duke of Lancaster' was used was in 1361. The queen is the current duke of Lancaster.

Originally the hall had a capacity of 1,700, but now due to licensing restrictions and health & safety regulations, capacity is limited to 600 with a maximum of 200 people in the gallery.

The magistrates court and police cells

The new magistrates court, with its Waring and Gillow's oak panelling and furniture, was a direct replacement for the court in the old town hall. Its main business was of a minor nature, such as theft or drunkenness and was also used as a coroner's court. As with all magistrates courts, it was the starting point for some major trials. One of the most infamous cases brought before the court, was that of Dr Buck Ruxton, who in 1935, was accused of the double murder of his wife and their housekeeper, Mrs Mary Rogerson. He appeared before the court in October and November 1935, before being committed for trial at Manchester assizes court. He was subsequently found guilty of both murders and was hung in Strangeways prison, Manchester in May 1936.

The police cells are situated directly below the courtroom, hence, a judge or magistrate saying 'take them down' when a defendant is found guilty. From the courtroom the cells are accessed via a staircase to the rear of the dock. The cells are very basic, with a wooden bench and a toilet in each. The only source of heat comes from the hot water pipes that run around the top of each cell. Of the seven cells, one was reserved for anyone who was 'intoxicated'. The bench is low to the floor and slopes from the head to toe. It was designed, to hopefully stop anyone who was 'ill' from choking. Each cell has a bell and indicator system, for alerting the officer in charge, that you required something. Originally two cells were designated for ladies. The court and cells were last used in 1985.

Last updated: 12 July 2021

Lancaster City Council logogram

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