Flashback to 1966: When Shirehall first opened for business

Not long now... The Shirehall on the eastern outskirts of Shrewsbury has been the Shropshire council hub for 55 years, but the clock is ticking.

Finishing touches being put to the Shirehall in August 1966 – staff were already working in the building.
Finishing touches being put to the Shirehall in August 1966 – staff were already working in the building.

A council headquarters which moved out from the centre of town in the 1960s, followed by the demolition of the prominent town centre building it vacated, now looks like moving back to the centre of town, followed by the demolition of the prominent out-of-town building it vacates.

The move by Shropshire Council to a new £12.5 million Pride Hill centre headquarters came closer in February when councillors voted to progress to the next phase of the process – compiling a detailed design for the new civic centre and providing in-depth costings.

It is an idea which is not without controversy. One councillor described the Shirehall as an iconic example of 1960s architecture, worth preserving. But council leader Peter Nutting described it as "a big, ugly lump of concrete" which was an embarrassing example of architecture from the decade.

If and when the council does move out, the building is probably going to be knocked down as Historic England doesn't think the Shirehall is of enough architectural or historical merit to be given listed status, which would have given it some protection against demolition.

Whatever your view of it architecturally – and it has been described as one of Shrewsbury's few exceptional buildings of the 20th century – it opened for public business on Monday, April 18, 1966, as the new offices for what was then Salop County Council, along with new law courts which formed part of the complex. The last item to be transferred by removal men from the old headquarters in the centre of the town was the safe.

The first meeting of the county council in the new chamber in 1966.

This was Shropshire's main council, and below it was a lower tier of district and borough councils.

Since then there have been major changes in local government on the county scene.

The Wrekin district broke away and went it alone as a unitary authority in 1998. Then on April 1, 2009, all the remaining lower tier councils – Oswestry Borough, Shrewsbury & Atcham, Bridgnorth District, South Shropshire District, and North Shropshire District – were knocked on the head and a new super council, the Shropshire Council unitary authority, was born.

The new Shirehall got down to business quietly, and the fanfare had to wait for almost a year, as the official opening was by the Queen on March 17, 1967. It was the largest public building built in Shropshire since the war.

The building was designed by the county architects' department headed by Ralph Crowe. The idea of centralising all county council administration on the outskirts of Shrewsbury was first mooted in the 1930s, and revived after the Second World War.

Before the arrival of that 1960s office complex, the road went both sides of The Column. A casualty of the redevelopment was a building called The Cottage, which was erected by public subscription.

No prizes for guessing the viewpoint for this 1988 photograph of the complex.

It comprised a parlour, kitchen and bedroom for a veteran soldier appointed to show people The Column.

Another casualty was a building known as Nearwell, an old town house which was used as student accommodation. A few of the trees were retained.

Among the features of the new building was a fan-shaped council chamber, an ornamental pool and fountains, and in the main entrance a cast iron mural, made by a traditional sand moulding process at Coalbrookdale, was created depicting Shropshire industries.

Planned as a connected complex of blocks around enclosed courtyards, each courtyard was landscaped differently and one contained a piece of sculpture in cast aluminium by Michael Eastham.

Included in the site complex was a separate single storey building housing the Civil Defence department.

The previous Shirehall in The Square had been built in 1834 to a design by Sir Robert Smirke, but a serious fire in November 1880 gutted the whole upper part amid an incompetent and chaotic firefighting operation. The building was reconstructed internally.

After the council moved out in 1966 the old Shirehall lay empty and there was a campaign to save it, but it was demolished in 1971 to make way for the Princess House shops, offices and car park development.

Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, if the old Shirehall in the Square had been preserved, it would have been a ready-made town centre site for the council to move back into, saving a vast amount of money all round.

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