In 1866 Matthew Thompson’s eldest Daughter laid the foundation stone for Guiseley Town Hall which was to be officially opened on 26th December 1867. The building was opened to a successful performance of Handel’s Messiah, before a crowded audience- a moment we recreated as part of the Tales Told Festival 2017 with Vocal Assembly and other Guiseley Choirs. In the Leeds Mercury, it is reported that local woollen manufacturer Charles Herbert Walsh’s proudest memory of Guiseley was the opening of Guiseley Town Hall where he took part in the rendition of Handel’s Messiah, aged just 7. Clearly a memory that stuck with him throughout his life.
The cost of the building was £3000 most of which was paid for by Matthew William Thompson who formally handed over the deeds to the Local Board in March 1868 “for the use of the inhabitants of Guiseley forever.” In 1868, a detailed article reporting the opening of the Town Hall in the Bradford Observer explains Matthew William Thompson’s motives for the building of a Town Hall in Guiseley;
“It occurred to him and to others that it would be advisable to have in Guiseley a public building of that kind, in which they might meet on a common footing, no considerations connected with church or chapel or anything of that kind interfering, where town meetings might be held, and where they might assemble, everyone feeling he had perfect right to be in the room.”
Some say that the building lacks the grandeur and excitement of other buildings of the period in this area, particularly Yeadon Town Hall which was built just 13 years later, but it is not completely without the decorative characteristics of Victorian architecture with its carved window heads and sill corbels, all of which can be seen intricately drawn in the original plans for the Town Hall. The Thompson Crest (a fistful of Barley) is also delicately carved into the stone above the Main Entrance. Above this also sits what resembles a button. This curious little quirk of Guiseley often goes unnoticed by the hundreds of people who pass it every day. The button above the door of Guiseley Theatre has been there since the building was built 150 years ago, but nobody is sure why it is there! Some say it is to signify Guiseley's strong ties to the linen trade, others say it was to show off the craftmanship of the masons of the time the building was built, some merely think it isn't a button at all but once held a gas lamp. Whatever the reason, it has become a much-loved part of the building and a reminder of the rich industry our town was once home to.
F.E. Rogers, in his detailed account of ‘The Life and Times of Guiseley Theatre’ (1985) describes the original layout and architectural features:
“In 1874 when the new school premises were being built and the old school demolished the scholars were taught in the Town Hall. It contained an upper hall, with a balcony and platform, from which a short flight of steps on each side descended into a mezzanine, divided into two ante-rooms. The ground floor has some six rooms, and a foyer, leading to the most notable feature, the main staircase, built entirely of large stone slabs cantilevered from the main walls, the front of each step resting on the back of its neighbour below, so that no other support is necessary. The mainly open roof reveals not wooden trusses but an interesting construction of wrought iron tie rods. At some stage buttresses were added to the rear walls. Originally the balcony front was supported on two equidistant cast iron pillars. These spoilt the view of people sitting under the balcony at performances, and also were a hazard to anybody dancing. Sometime in the 1920’s, civil engineering experts were called in and they pronounced that in fact the pillars were providing no useful purpose and they could be removed as the girders of the balcony front were of such dimensions that they were capable of supporting many times more than the safe working load. It Is almost certain that in the view of the recency of the arrival of a gas supply in the town, the hall was lighted by this means from the beginning, and heated by hot water from a coke-fed boiler in the basement.”
Further to the building itself, the Town Hall also had a sizeable yard which housed a steam roller, piles of limestone, a snow plough, the fire brigades pump-cart, as well as a tar boiler!
The hall has had many uses in its 150-year history from social activities including concerts, dances and socials, teas; the annual demonstration of the Guiseley Temperance Society, the annual balls of Guiseley Cricket and Rawdon Football Club, the Roman Catholic Community, and the Volunteers. As well as serving the Guiseley Community on a more official basis. The Town Hall was home to the Head Quarters for the Local Board, Urban District Council, and housed the Registry Office, the Rates Office, Old Men’s Parliament, Mechanics Institute Classes and the Library, until the building of the new Library.
In the very heart of Guiseley, it has always been a natural place for people to gather and celebrate; including carnivals and public processions such as Queen Victoria’s Golden and Diamond Jubilees of 1887 and 1897. In addition to this, it has always been a great venue for local community groups to host performances, including the St Oswald’s Guild of Players, Sunday Schools, Guiseley Amateur Operatic Society, Guiseley Vocal Union and many others. The very popular St Oswald’s Pageant was also moved into the Town Hall in 1931 to escape the heavy rain!
The first Amateur Operatic Society was formed in 1903, only lasting for a few years before disbanding. The wood and canvas arch was added around this time and was later moved forward to the front edge of the platform to provide a much larger area to perform. GAOS as we know it today is the legacy of Guiseley Ambulance Amateur Operatic Society formed twenty years later in 1923.
In 1904 a plaque was unveiled on the outside of the building commemorating men from the township who served in the 1899-1902 Boer War. This was moved to the cross and stocks where it can still be seen. For many years since the marble base has been left empty in its original position, but a new plaque has been unveiled as part of this year Tales Told Festival 2017, to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the building, and the life and work of Sir Matthew William Thompson.
In 1913, the building was briefly used as a cinema to cope with the demand of the township to see silent films. The newly built picture palace was already proving itself too small to cope with this. What is now the men’s toilets on the top floor housed the projector which was all powered by an oil or gas engine generator as mains electricity had not yet arrived in the town.
The cinema had to close with the arrival of war when the Town Hall was requisitioned by the military. It was used as an auxiliary hospital during the Great War (1914-1918) with rows and rows of beds filling the main auditorium. Apparently, there were no proper laundry facilities so volunteers were organised to take out washing to willing Townspeople on Mondays and collect it on Fridays.
After the war, the demand for shows became ever more popular, with many successful operettas being performed in local churches. This in turn led to the revival of Guiseley Amateur Operatic Society which is still going strong just short of a century later.
In 1919, electricity came to Guiseley and the Town Hall was connected to the mains supply. However, for events the lighting had to be scaled up so much that this alone did not always suffice! In the early years, spotlights were ‘limes’; acetylene flames directed onto cylinders of lime to make them incandescent. The classic acetylene lamp contained two chambers; one for water and one for Calcium Carbonate (lime). The water slowly dripped into the main chamber reacting to produce acetylene gas. The use of this type of lamp for theatre spotlighting is where the common phrase ‘in the limelight’ originates.
In the summer of 1929, the council agreed to update the lighting, carry out redecorations and replace all seats in the auditorium when they were approached for the lease by Douglas Milton, an entrepreneur. Due to the redecorations, Guiseley Town Hall for the first time in its history was referred to as a theatre in GAOS’ advertisements, “Come into the Town Hall and see the alterations and redecoration. Guiseley Ambulance Operatic Society has pleasure in presenting the first production of Come Out of the Kitchen in Guiseley’s new Theatre.” It was not to be officially referred to as Guiseley Theatre again until members of GAOS set up a Limited Company to take over the management of the building in 1981.
With the outbreak of WWII, the Town Hall became the Headquarters of the Air Raid Precautions organisation and an air raid warning siren was mounted above the Main Entrance, as well as the cellar of the Town Hall dug out and fitted with eight telephones.
In 1952 the Town Hall hosted the British Drama League Festival of Community Drama with groups from the area including Rawdon Methodist Players, Bradford Townswomen’s Guild and Huddersfield Business and Professional Women’s Club showcasing their performances.
In 1953, the Town Hall also had a huge part to play in the celebration of the coronation. As reported in the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, the Town Hall held a fancy-dress ball to celebrate and the Caretaker generously distributed tickets for the viewing of the coronation on TV for the old folk of Guiseley!
In 1985 the building was officially re-opened as ‘Guiseley Theatre,’ with the theatre ambiance being created throughout the building by the naming of the rooms after composers such as Offenbach, Dvorak, Strauss and Lehar. A new plaque was unveiled to acknowledge the original contribution of Matthew William Thompson, a second acknowledging the refurbishment.
The auditorium was also named the ‘Barney Colehan Hall’ in memory of the Guiseley man who was President of the Society for many years.
Since taking over responsibility for the building, the Board have refurbished many parts of the building including redecorating throughout and repainting in a rich colour scheme to give it the "feel" of a living, intimate theatre.
Below is a list of other works carried out since the Theatre was taken over;
-Constructed lighting and sound control rooms and installed an amplification system.
-Renewed the central heating boilers and hot water system.
-Built a scenery construction workshop at the rear of the theatre.
-Converted old wartime ARP offices behind the theatre into a self-contained rehearsal room.
-Redecorated ground floor rooms.
-Conducted successful fundraising campaigns in order to replace the seating in the stalls area of the auditorium and to refurbish the seating in the balcony.
-Installed a stair lift.
The Theatre Board are currently instigating a new phase of refurbishment works and have already carried out full redecoration of the Offenbach Room, installed a disabled toilet and refitted the ladies, with further plans in the coming few years.
To this day the magnificent building continues to be used for its intended purpose by the people of the Guiseley Community. With a growing number of regular weekly groups and bookings, as well as for one off events, shows, parties and weddings. The Theatre is as thriving now as it was when it served the community 150 years ago as the Town Hall. Let’s just hope that in another 150 years’ time, this building is still standing as a legacy of Matthew William Thompson’s community spirit and as a representation of the joy and unity of the Guiseley people!