AFTER St George’s Hall was built, in 1853, it is said there was rivalry with the building next door, a textile property which became the home of the Telegraph & Argus.

“St George’s Hall came first, and when the other building went up shortly afterwards it had a higher roof. Legend has it that the owners of St George’s wanted to raise its roof by 12ft, so the city’s grand concert hall wasn’t overshadowed,” says Bradford Theatres Heritage Learning Officer Penny Green.

In the end the roof wasn’t raised, and the T&A and St George’s Hall went on to have a close association. “Both organisations have survived, they’re still here,” says Penny, who has been looking into Bradford Theatres archives at T&A reports of significant events in the concert hall’s history. In May 1889 the newspaper reported on a visit by the Shah of Persia, whose arrival in Bradford was greeted by a huge reception with military salute, balloons and fireworks in Lister Park. “He came to St George’s Hall for a concert and stayed overnight in the Council Chambers with his entourage,” says Penny.

In 1962 the T&A reported on the Queen Mother’s visit to St George’s Hall. She sat in the auditorium on a specially made velvet chair and was so taken by it she asked to meet the chair-maker, so someone was dispatched to bring him in from his workshop.

In 1910 the T&A carried a report on a suffragette vigil at St George's Hall. After hiding under the stage all night, two women disrupted a speech by Prime Minister Asquith the following day. After they were thrown out, a T&A reporter interviewed them: "They seemed perfectly satisfied at their performance, said what they had called out was a demand to see Mr Asquith for 'Justice for women and freedom'. Our representative left them making their way to Exchange Station, seeking facilities for a wash and brush up." 

On Saturday St George’s Hall will open its doors for Heritage Open Day, with guided tours, talks, exhibitions and even dressing-up opportunities from 10am-3pm. The event will highlight the venue’s links with the Suffragette movement, including protests led by Emmeline and Adela Pankhurst which disrupted speeches of Prime Minister Asquith and Winston Churchill, and local pioneering women. Local historian Helen Broadhead will lead the first 90-minute tour at 11am, taking in backstage areas not usually accessible to the public, and Pioneering Bradford Lasses is the subject of a tour at 1pm, led by Penny Green, looking at women such as school meals campaigner Margaret McMillan and trade unionist and suffragette Julia Varley.

A photograph of Julia, who is buried in Undercliffe Cemetery, hangs in the Upper Circle Bar at St George’s Hall. Other portraits in the bar include Charles Dickens, who read A Christmas Carol at the concert hall in 1854, and WE Forster, who took to its stage to present the 1870 Education Act, which transformed society worldwide. Former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is also photographed on a visit.

St George’s Hall was built as a concert venue - everyone from Sarah Bernhardt to Debbie Harry has appeared there - but, as the T&A has documented over the last 150 years, it has a rich social and political history too. Land for the hall was bought with £15,000 donated by Sir Titus Salt and it was designed by architects Lockwood and Mawson, whose other Bradford designs include City Hall and the Wool Exchange. Victorian concert-goers, arriving at St George’s by carriage, would have ascended the grand gas-lit staircase, sadly removed in the 1980s. A beautiful mosaic floor from 1903 was, however, restored in the recent £9.5 million refurbishment.

St George’s Hall was founded by Samuel Smith, alderman and three times mayor of Bradford. “He felt what Bradford needed was a concert hall to bring music to the people and cure social ills of lawlessness and drunkeness in the city,” says Penny. “When it opened the Illustrated London News said: “If, before St George’s Hall, someone asked where Bradford was you would say ‘near Leeds’. Now you would say Leeds is ‘near Bradford’.”

Within a year the venue was nearly bankrupt, and subscription concerts were held to keep it afloat. It went on to be part of the city’s Victorian and 20th century history. “In 1891 one of the triggers for the Manningham Mills riots, which led to the Trade Union movement, was the refusal of an overspill meeting in St George’s Hall,” says Penny. “Three very grand balls were held at the hall and leftover food was sent to the children of starving strikeworkers.”

Film-maker Sydney Carter sold programmes at St George’s, aged 11, and went on to buy and manage the building. His films of Bradford, dating back to 1896, are screened on a loop in the Stalls bar, and include fascinating footage of an electric tram ride from Forster Square, with excited boys running alongside it.

“Over the years the building has been a polling station, smallpox vaccination centre, even an airport check-in lounge. Holidaymakers in the 1960s came here with their luggage and were taken by coach to Yeadon airport,” says Penny. “It was also a cinema from the 1920s to the 40s.

“It is a place with a great social history and personal history. People had first dates, went to their first punk concert, sang in school choirs here. It has been a big part of people’s lives.”

Particularly for Margaret Jagger, who started sneaking in to see bands aged 12. “She let us take copies of her cherished tickets, from 1970 to 2002, which are now displayed in the Circle Bar, for acts like Bowie, Queen and The Kinks,” says Penny.

The three-day music festival that opened the concert hall in 1853 included ‘a chorus of 200 voices’ that led to the formation of the Bradford Festival Choral Society, which has a long history with the venue. After the war Bradford Civic Society bought the hall and gave it to the Corporation as a civic venue. It re-opened in 1953, after a huge refurbishment that defied post-war austerity, and a contemporary music programme offered more than the previous choice of choirs and bass bands.

Acts over the years have included Cliff Richard, Ben E King, Morrissey, Boy George, INXS (Kylie, then girlfriend of Michael Hutchence, was rumoured to be backstage), Dionne Warwick and Elton John who joined Bradford’s Kiki Dee on stage in 1976 to sing their hit Don’t Go Breaking My Heart. It is also ‘home’ to the mighty Halle Orchestra, and was described by conductor Sir John Barbirolli as having “the best acoustics of any concert hall in Europe”.

In the ground floor bar a ‘comedy corner’ features posters of comics who have appeared over the years, such as Ken Dodd, Jimmy Carr, Lenny Henry and Joan Rivers. Also on display is an 1871 playbill found under seating during the refurbishment, promoting an Irish-themed evening of comedy and music, aimed at the large Irish population in Bradford at the time.

Posters of illusionists including Houdini, Paul Daniels and Derren Brown are displayed alongside a ‘magic mirror’. “There has been a lot of illusion and clairvoyancy here, particularly in Victorian and Edwardian times,” says Penny.

Programmes, posters and tickets displayed around the building reflect its rich past as an entertainment and public speaking venue. Items found during the refurbishment include old cigarette packets, an 1860 Bradford Festival Choral Society songbook, a 1956 school speech day programme, cinema tickets, a Galaxy chocolate wrapper and a Rimmington ginger beer bottle.

Penny leads regular heritage tours at St George’s Hall and also takes community organisations, including a stroke recovery group, young people with learning disabilities and a group for older Asian women. “It’s such a pleasure to bring people here and see how much they love the building, and enjoy learning about its past,” she says.

* The Heritage Open Day is free, but places on the tours must be booked in advance. Visit or call (01274) 432000.

* For more about Penny Green’s community tours email her at