Hampstead Town Hall: Open House tours give the public the chance to see inside historic building
- Credit: Archant
Very few places in Hampstead can say they’ve played witness to both love and war.
Yet visitors to Hampstead Town Hall over the Open House weekend will have found out it has done exactly that.
Not only did the likes of Judi Dench, Lulu, Cleo Lane and James Joyce get married there, but it was also the site of "The Battle of Hampstead Town Hall" in 1959.
David Pitt was chosen to stand for Labour in Hampstead, becoming the first person of African descent to stand for parliament. After his selection he gave a speech on the steps of the town hall, which a racist mob tried to disrupt.
This disruption turned into a fight and eventually a riot, which became known as the Battle of Hampstead Town Hall. The building housing his surgery was also firebombed. Pitt went on to lose the election to Tory incumbent Henry Brooke but later founded the Campaign against Racial Discrimination and became a member of the House of Lords in 1975. On being ennobled, he chose the title of Baron Pitt of Hampstead in London, and Hampstead in Granada.
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This wasn't the first brush the town hall had with disorder. William Joyce, who became better known on the wartime airwaves as the fascist Lord Haw Haw, spoke at the town hall on several occasions in the 1930s. On one occasion, a year before the Second World War broke out, large numbers of women were arrested and there was fighting among protesters.
The tour for lucky visitors on Saturday and Sunday was given by Wac Arts' director of programming Lindsey Pugh and events co-ordinator Ryan Schultz, in character, as Wolly Sykes, a town hall archivist, and Mr Dappery, chairman of the Friends of Old Hampstead Town Hall.
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They took guests around the building which was built as a Vestry Hall in 1877 and held its first parish council meeting in July 1878. As powers held by London boroughs grew, the vestry hall became a town hall, and an extension was added in 1910.
It played host to another trail blazer, Reina Lawrence, in 1907. She became Britain's first female councillor when she was elected in Belsize in a by-election in 1907. This was the same year the Qualification of Women Act was passed, allowing them to stand for council positions. She lost her seat two years later, but led the way for others to follow.
One usually off-limits part of the Town Hall that visitors were able to see was the air raid shelters on the Belsize Avenue side of the hall. The three bunkers protected locals during the Second World War, including the scouts group.
Graffiti in the bunkers is still visible today, including images depicting the V1 and V2 bombs and missiles that they were hiding from, while others scrawled on the wall their frustration at waiting for the all clear from the ARP station above.
Back inside, standing at the feet of the Queen Elizabeth Imperial Staircase, Mr Dappery explained her Majesty had visited in 1953 to unveil them. However she was 45 minutes late, and she only stayed in NW3 for seven minutes. Amends were made decades later when Prince Charles visited in 1999 for the re-opening of the Town Hall in 1999.
The building took on a lesser importance when Camden swallowed up the borough of Hampstead in 1964. It was mainly used for events, including weddings and concerts.
Yet as it approached the millennium the building faced an existential crisis. Camden Council planned to demolish the building, to turn it into housing or a hotel. It had been Grade-II listed in 1994 as a "fine example of a London vestry hall." The Friends of the Hampstead Old Town Hall, including former Ham&High editor Gerry Isaaman, was formed to help save it. By the turn of the century the council had agreed a 100-year lease to Wac Arts at a £1 a year rent. Wac Arts provides alternative education for 14-19 year olds through a creative arts and media, and counts Danny Dyer and Ms Dynamite among its alumni.