THE LAST time I was inside the Old Town Hall it was a grim experience.
The last tenants were pigeons who had left their mark throughout the building and the damp and rot had eaten through the once grand features.
I had taken the opportunity to view the building some years earlier – before I became Council Leader.
It was then that I felt the council had failed as the civic custodian and we simply had to put it right.
I can be a romantic about heritage at times, I admit, but this feeling was deeper than mere sentimentality.
When the Old Town Hall, particularly the Firth Street extension, was built in 1890 we were the Kings of Cotton.
We ruled the world in that realm to the extent that we even had our own stock exchange here setting the price of cotton, reflecting our place as the most productive cotton spinning town in the world.
As we entered the building on my first-ever visit the health and safety briefing was, I thought, a pretty standard ‘tick box’ affair: nothing too serious, just going through the usual motions.
But within seconds of entering, the sights were truly shocking.
A deep sense of sadness drew down as we began our walk through the building and it never left me.
When I made my second visit back into the Old Town Hall, I was now leader. This time I was the council – no one else to blame or push for an answer.
No lights were on. The electricity had been disconnected some time ago and so we relied on the thin slices of light highlighted by the dust we were disturbing and, of course, our trusty torches to light the way.
The building stank of a mixture of damp and pigeon mess. The floors had now become covered in a white chalky substance and as we walked our feet were often caught unaware on the bumpy surface.
The old ballroom at the front of the building was secured with a thick steel door. We were approaching the ‘safe room’.
Many of the features throughout the interior had been removed following a spate of thefts years before. What remained had been taken into the ballroom and locked away to save them from thieves. Unfortunately it didn’t save them from decay.
Beneath dust sheets there were stacks of chairs, tables, fireplaces and light fittings from various parts of the building. Some had been damaged during removal and others just showed inevitable signs of age. It’s hard to imagine what damage can be caused when a building has been left for more than two decades without ventilation or heating. The roof was acting merely as a colander in places, bringing down the ceilings and fittings as the water passed through.
Throughout the building various details and odd features would catch my eye: the old family crests, the decorative mouldings and tiled flooring all giving sad hints to its former grandeur.
The layout is complex, the corridors in the place are like rabbit warrens and I can still smell ‘that’ smell as I write this.
The Council Chamber was as unnerving as it was dangerous. The floor had given way in a large section showing the room below and the wallpaper still gave a fleeting sense of its historic past.
The courtrooms were by far the most impressive and, perhaps with the exception of Oldham Parish Church, have some of the most wonderful details in the borough. Courtroom A, along with its crests and hand-painted frescos, showed a softer side to the bulky building and large-scale fixtures elsewhere.
The old police cells told a more modern social story as the graffiti from their former occupants – perhaps even someone reading this now – was made as they passed the time before being presented to the magistrate.
I won’t repeat some of their more colourful thoughts, but I did think to how we now view hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt as an important recording of a point in time.
Quite what someone would make of “Dave ‘ov Oldham” and his views of the police of the day would be interesting if nothing else.
The stunning Egyptian Room (notice that seamless link?) with its floor to ceiling tiles and its double-height vaults was once home to the Treasurers department, where the good folk of Oldham had come to pay the rates not that long ago.
Fast-forwarding to the present day, I had requested that all the fixtures and furniture from the safe room should be relocated during building works and I was keen to see them once again.
Last week I went to the secure offsite storage facility to view what had been saved.
With the benefit of light and a safe calm place to view I realised just how much we had managed to safeguard and we’re now looking to renovate some pieces and rehouse them for us all to enjoy in the future.
Why does any of this matter?
Well to some people it won’t matter one bit. Some will complain about the Old Town Hall as a symbol of civic decline but be equally outraged by our attempts to bring it back to life. Personally, I think it matters a great deal.
I consider the council’s role to be that of a custodian: not simply the owner of buildings like this. Our occupation or control isn’t anywhere near as important as our responsibility to take care of it for the next generation.
Let’s not kid ourselves that someone will come along and save the day for us. The responsibility to sort this is ours alone.
Having missed out on a number of commercial developers and cruelly being turned down for a Heritage Lottery Bid we simply cannot wait any longer.
Today we have a plan and it’s coming together. At long last we will transform the Old Town Hall into a cinema with the restaurants you and I want to see in Oldham. We are determined that we will create something special here, something to be proud of and that will make a statement about where Oldham is going.
Like many old buildings the scale, complex layout and design of the Old Town Hall act as a barrier to its future survival.
Without conviction and – let’s be honest –bloody-minded determination it would continue to fall to ruin until there would be no other option left than to send in the bulldozers and flatten it. Then we would lose something which once made us great: we would lose a big part of what makes us Oldham.
I want Oldham to be confident in our future, but we can only do that if we also build on our past.
You will be starting to see more modern signs of other regeneration projects now with the new Oldham Leisure Centre development breaking ground this week, for example.
This is just the latest physical indication of investment plans coming together and it will be a facility that will be the envy of other towns.
There is no doubt we have many challenges here as a borough – but the opportunities are also very exciting.
Thanks for listening,