WHEN Bradford’s grand new concert hall opened in 1853 its founder, Alderman Samuel Smith, declared it was to have the effect of ‘suppressing the immorality and vice prevalent among our population’.

St George’s Hall initially hosted grand musical soirees, Masonic balls and orchestral concerts - and 168 years later it is still centre stage in the city’s cultural life. Audiences have been entertained by the likes of David Bowie, Queen, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Blondie, Bryan Adams, Take That, Shirley Bassey, Billy Connolly, the Stereophonics and Little Richard, and it is home to the Halle Orchestra. Some of the most significant figures of the 19th and 20th centuries have appeared there, not least Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill, Benazir Bhutto and Emmeline Pankhurst, and it has been a court room, a cinema - even an airport lobby.

Now the story of the Victorian venue is told on a new website - stgeorgeshallheritage-bradford.co.uk - tracing its history and how it has survived and adapted through two world wars, changes of ownership and most recently a global pandemic. Supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the website illustrates the historical, cultural and aesthetic significance of St George’s Hall. It includes a timeline, exhibitions including Black History events and rock and pop, and invites people to share their memories of the venue.

Bradford Theatres general manager Adam Renton said: “We hope people of all ages will enjoy browsing the new site and learning about Bradford’s first public grand building and its heritage, and perhaps share their own memories and experiences of St George’s Hall. A big thank you to the National Lottery Heritage Fund for enabling us to launch the site.”

St George’s Hall opened in 1853 with a three-day concert. The following year Charles Dickens read A Christmas Carol to a “riveted” packed audience.

In 1873 one of the earliest African American vocal groups, the Jubilee Singers, performed at the concert hall. The group was mainly made up of freed slaves from Fisk University in Nashville; they introduced slave songs to the world, preserving the musical tradition and breaking racial barriers in the late 19th century.

In 1904 there was a Royal visit to St George’s Hall when the Prince and Princess of Wales (later King George V and Queen Mary) attend a Grand Reception after opening Cartwright Hall and unveiling the city’s statue of Queen Victoria.

The following year saw illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini appear - and disappear - on the stage for a week-long run, finding time for a jail-breaking stunt in another Bradford building while he was here...

St George’s Hall has been a platform for notable politicians and trailblazers, including Suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst who was heckled when she spoke at a 1907 meeting in support of votes for women. The Labour Party, formed in Bradford, held many meetings at the venue and in 1914 young men lined up to be recruited to the Bradford Pals.

The hall became a cinema in the 1920s, with its first screening The Eagle starring Rudolph Valentino. It was a cinema until 1948 when, saving it from a risk of demolition, it was purchased by Bradford Corporation.

In 1953 - a century after it first opened - St George’s Hall re-opened as a municipal concert hall. A celebratory concert featured performances from BBC Northern Orchestra and Bradford Festival Choral Society, which has a longstanding association with the venue.

In the Sixties the auditorium rocked to popular live music - including the Rolling Stones, who came on their second UK tour in May 1964. And if you were flying off to the sun from Yeadon Airport in 1964 you may have found yourself checking in with your luggage at St George’s Hall first. For five years travellers relaxed in a lounge at the venue, before taking a coach to the airport.

In 1984, after a year-long closure and a £2m refurbishment, the historic hall re-opened. In 1985, following the Valley Parade fire, three nights of benefit concerts took place at St George’s Hall to raise money for those affected, with Bradford acts Kiki Dee, The Cult and Smokie on the line-up.

The venue closed in 2016 for a £9.5m restoration and opened in 2019 with a gala celebration headlined by Beverley Knight. The refurbishment included major works to the roof and stone work, increased front-of-house areas and upgraded seating.

Posters, tickets and programmes from past shows are displayed in the bar areas.

In 2020, like all live venues, the hall closed due to the pandemic but later opened as a Covid testing hub. Now the team is preparing to re-open it as a concert venue, with acts booked for later this year.