I have often wondered why the City of Manchester labelled its principal civic building the Town Hall. The only convincing explanation I have heard is that, by so doing, it kept the peace between the supporters of its two main football teams, one of which (for the uninitiated) is called Manchester City F.C. In any case it’s a remarkable building and I recently joined a guided tour of its huge clock tower. I was curious about why so much effort and expense had gone into building a giant clock.
A dozen of us gathered in the lobby for the inevitable Health & Safety briefing and ritual signing of the disclaimer form. We were a group of strangers, mostly middle- aged and with the earnest look of amateur historians, except for a mother and her teenage daughter who looked as though they had strayed too far from the department store on Deansgate. Perhaps they had won their tickets in a raffle. Nevertheless, undeterred by our guide’s warning of hundreds of steps to climb and no toilet or retail opportunities, they followed as he led the way and told the story.
The building was completed in 1887 when Manchester had become the world’s first industrial city and its inhabitants were wage-slaves whose working lives were strictly ruled by the routine of clocking in and out of the mills. Despite industry’s reliance on measured time, it was apparent that the wage-slaves were too poor to own clocks and watches so the City obliged by building this giant, four-faced clock located 250 feet above Albert Square. In case anyone should miss it (visibility was poor in those days of coal-fired mill engines) they endowed it with an eight-ton bronze bell to strike the hours and a set of smaller bells to chime the halves and quarters.
Half a mile away is the original passenger rail station which, when it opened in 1832, highlighted the fact that there was no standard time in England - which made it impossible to compile train timetables. So there was an international convention to standardise time and Greenwich (after a fight with the French) was appointed as the prime meridian. Our clock was originally regulated by telegraph signal from Greenwich but now has a digital reference from the International Earth Rotation and Reference Service whose boss has the grand title of Director of Time.
By now we had reached the open gallery housing the main bell and were looking down on the city and its historic sites. The mother and daughter spotted the department store and began to look agitated but our guide had more to tell us concerning the architecture:
Not only the clock tower but the entire Town Hall building is, and was intended to be, a lavish statement of power and wealth. Everywhere the details of its design and decoration symbolise the ethics, religion and perceived history of the period. And, in ultimate praise of mammon, the very tip of the Gothic tower was topped with a golden sculpture representing the cotton boll – the blessed source of all Manchester’s wealth.
When the glorious building was complete Queen Victoria was invited to come and cut the ribbon. She however, sulking because of the slights she had been dealt by the politically radical inhabitants of Manchester (its mayor in particular), sent a minion in her stead. Rumour has it that, in retaliation for the snub, a plan was conceived to replace the golden boll with two fingers in a V sign. But for the fact that such an act of treason could have resulted in incarceration in that other Tower (of London), we might have inherited a unique monument to political freedom rather than one to fleeting prosperity – on top of a clock that no one really needs anymore.