BRADFORD’S St George’s Hall, one of the oldest concert halls still in use in the UK, celebrates its 170th anniversary this year.

Opened on 29 August,1853, this grade ll listed building was described by the Bradford Directory of 1861 as 'a noble structure of beautiful masonry'.

It was designed in the neoclassical and Italianate style by Messrs Lockwood and Mawson, the local architects who also designed Bradford City Hall, the Wool Exchange and the model village of Saltaire.

With its classical pillars, ornate cornice and beautifully carved trusses it was the architectural gem of northern England.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: The grand hall in the centre of BradfordThe grand hall in the centre of Bradford

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: St George's Hall looking spectacular at night. Picture: Rais HasanSt George's Hall looking spectacular at night. Picture: Rais Hasan

As the directory states: ' This great hall is elegantly fitted up for concerts and balls, and has a raised orchestra at one end, with accommodation for 300 vocalists and instrumentalists and 3,300 hearers may be accommodated in this elegant saloon'. Today the hall seats around 1300.

The gas lighting was a special feature: a continuous line of 1,750 gas jets was served by pipes carried around the upper surface of the cornice.

Sir John Barbirolli, conductor of the Hallé Orchestra, in 1958 declared that the hall had ‘the finest acoustics of any concert hall in Europe,' and, as he said “its non-echo perfection makes my conducting of music therein a pleasure."

But as well as being a truly beautiful building St George’s Hall has a fascinating history.

The idea of having a concert hall in Bradford was mainly that of Samuel Smith, a wealthy stuff-dyer and the town’s mayor from 1851 to 1854.

Believing that “music and intellectual pursuits” would “elevate” public taste and “counteract vice”, Smith called a meeting in 1849 to consider the erection of “a great building” in Bradford.

Consequently, a committee was appointed which, accepting the idea, recommended the formation of a joint stock company selling £10 shares.

The foundation stone was laid in 1851, and building work began. Since its opening in 1853 St George’s Hall has been a centre of vibrant music, magic and a myriad of stars.

The Bradford Festival Choral Society often held concerts and, from 1858 the hall became home to the Hallé Orchestra, a tradition which continues to this day.

Many famous figures have spoken in St George’s Hall including politicians such as WE Forster who introduced the Education Bill 1870; Keir Hardie, the Scottish Trade Unionist and a founder of the Labour Party; and Prime Minister Asquith who was interrupted by two suffragettes who, having hidden under the stage for 24 hours, demanded “justice for women and freedom”.

Other famous people appearing at St George’s Hall include Emmeline Pankhurst, the Suffragette leader; Sir Henry Irving, the famous actor; the escapologist Harry Houdini and in 1889, Naser al-Din, the Shah of Persia for whom a civic reception was held at the hall.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Emmeline Pankhurst spoke at St George'sEmmeline Pankhurst spoke at St George's

In December 1854 the Teetotal Association invited Charles Dickens to give a talk. The celebrated novelist, a believer in moderation, accepted the invitation and gave a public reading from A Christmas Carol, to a packed auditorium. The organisers made it known that Dickens waived his fee and paid his own expenses for the anti-drink cause.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Charles Dickens reading from A Christmas Carol in St George's Hall in 1854Charles Dickens reading from A Christmas Carol in St George's Hall in 1854

During the strike at Manningham Mills in 1890-91, the striker’s Dispute Committee held meetings in St George’s Hall. One of these meetings led to a disturbance, the reading of the Riot Act in front of the Town Hall and the dispersal of a crowd by the hussars.

Winston Churchill in 1910, gave a speech but was interrupted by Alfred Hawkins, heckling on the issue of women’s rights.

More recently, in1999, Thousands of people packed St George’s Hall to hear the former prime minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto speak.

And of course, there have been royal visitors. The Prince and Princess of Wales (later King George V and Queen Mary) attended a Grand Reception at St George’s Hall, after opening Cartwright Hall, the Technical College and unveiling a statue of Queen Victoria.

During the 20th century, and into the new millennium, St George’s Hall has hosted most of the top names in entertainment including Shirley Bassey, Jerry Lee Lewis, Petula Clark and the Rolling Stones in the 1960s; Led Zeppelin; David Bowie; Queen, Status Quo and Slade in the 1970s; and the punk band the Clash; Kiki Dee, Stereophonics and Sugababes in the 1980s.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: David Bowie performing at St George's in 1973David Bowie performing at St George's in 1973

In the 1990s bhangra bands, music which affirms the identity of young British Asian audiences in Bradford, such as Heera and Sahotas, took to the stage.

St George’s Hall has also hosted stand-up comedians like Jo Brand; Billy Connolly and Jimmy Carr. It also hosts brass band championships, religious meetings, magic shows, cookery demonstrations, flower shows, school speech days and wrestling matches.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Bradford Schools' Prom rehearsal, 2016Bradford Schools' Prom rehearsal, 2016

But it has faced hard times as well as good. In 1928 the film company Gaumont bought the hall and ran it as a cinema until 1949. By 1948 however, the building was in danger of being demolished. Bradford Corporation bought it and the site was re-opened as a civic concert hall

The interior underwent extensive remodelling after the Second World War and again after fires in the 1980s.

In 2016 St George’s Hall was closed again for much-needed refurbishment but reopened in 2019 with improved seating, newly refurbished bars and foyers and better access for wheelchair users.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: St George's in 2017 during its extensive refurbishmentSt George's in 2017 during its extensive refurbishment

During the COVID crisis St George’s Hall was closed and used as a walk-in testing centre.

St George’s Hall, a tribute in stone to Bradford’s rich heritage and diverse culture, continues to provide the best in entertainment to the people of Bradford.

As Adam Renton, General Manager of Bradford Theatres states:

“St George’s Hall, holding much of Bradford’s social and performance history within its walls, has a special place in the hearts of many local people, and we are so pleased to be able to celebrate its 170th birthday.”

Simon Ross Valentine is a local historian and lecturer, author of Bradford City Hall 150 Years of Civic Pride