Hackney Town Hall’s 1930s vaults - uncovered during £16m refurb - thrown open to public in free guided tours
- Credit: hackney council
A display in Hackney town hall’s newly refurbished vaults will shed light on the building’s 1930s origins, and the amazing relics unearthed during its £16m revamp. Emma Bartholomew speaks to curator Jacoba Mijnssen about democracy, regalia, and the mysterious cleaning unit uncovered by workers
Unusual artefacts uncovered during the 12-year £16million renovation of Hackney town hall can now be seen in its vaults, which are being thrown open to the public twice a month during tours of the building.
The three vaults were used for storing birth, death and marriage certificates and council tax, which was paid in cash. Now they’ve been turned into exhibition rooms where intriguing objects like a “central vacuum system” are on show.
The arcane cleaning apparatus, made by Sturtevant, dates back to the ’30s, and was plumbed into the walls of the 81-year-old building. It had been put to one side by puzzled workers sifting through the contents of every single room of the Grade II-listed building – until museum officer and curator Jacoba Mijnssen finally worked out what it was.
“It’s a container thing as big as a person with a name plate on it,” she told the Gazette. “I did a bit more research and realised what the company did.
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“You can see sockets in all the rooms of the building, where you plug in your pipe and it will start vacuuming. It’s not a vacuum cleaner as such – it’s a construction of tubes all around so that you didn’t have to lug around a big vacuum cleaner or a dustpan and brush.
“You would plug in the hose and it would start sucking out down to the basement. Every single room linked down.”
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The town hall was opened in 1937 to great fanfare. The then mayor of Hackney, Herbert Butler, called it a “great dignified centre of public life”.
The art-deco building was designed by architects’ firm Lanchester and Lodge and most of the furniture and fittings in Hackney Town Hall were specifically designed for the new, modern civic hub.
Many of the original features had not been touched throughout the town tall’s history, and 1930s era technology remained in use for decades.
Also on show are electrical parts from the fresh air system, a lighting desk, and a phone from the 1950s with the original directory, allowing visitors to glimpse the different departments in the town hall at the time.
The vaults are set to be opened to the public for the first time to celebrate London History Day on Thursday, as part of the town hall tours – which will then take place twice a month.
The three rooms focus on the building itself, its representation as the symbolic centre of civic pride, and its function as a home of local democracy.
Regalia worn by the mayors of Shoreditch and Stoke Newington, which helped form the London Borough of Hackney in 1965, are in display cabinets where the public can admire the chains of office and maces in all their early 20th century glory. The robes worn by the Speaker of Hackney (currently Cllr Claire Potter) are trimmed with faux fur, replacing a rather less vegetarian set used until the 1990s.
Part of the exhibition is dedicated to the work of the council and the ways residents can influence its policies. It will help teach kids about voting in local elections and other ways their voices can be heard, such as campaigning or signing petitions. Two Gazette cuttings are on show, including one from 1962, when a delegation of amazing Hackney schoolchildren marched on Parliament to demand inciting racial hatred be made a crime.
Youngsters from Morningside School Council got a sneak peek a week before the opening.
But Year 5 school councillor Ebenezer Zelalem said his favourite room in the building was the council chamber because all the debates happen there.
He added: “I would like to be the mayor of Hackney one day, and I would say other children should come and visit as you can see a lot and learn more about what they do at the council.”
Hackney mayor Phil Glanville said: “It is important that the citizens of Hackney have a sense of civic ownership and can explore their town hall, the heart of civic life in the borough, to find out more about its history and what actually happens in its four walls.
“The history exhibition really brings to life local democracy and activism, and explains how residents have always played a key role in shaping this building and the borough’s politics.”
As revealed by the Gazette last year, the town hall refurb went £3.4m over budget – but is expected to help the council rake in more cash from venue hire and weddings.
To book a free guided tour of the building visit hackney.gov.uk/speaker or call 020 8356 3591.