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History of the Guildhall

The Guildhall has played a central role in the lives of the inhabitants of Swansea for many years.

Guildhall History 2The Guildhall was opened on 23 October 1934, and was originally conceived as the answer to an acute accommodation problem in the former Guildhall at Somerset Place (now the Dylan Thomas Centre).  It was erected in a decade of biting recession and high local unemployment, so the construction of the building helped to alleviate local hardships.  Had it not been for the availability of unemployment relief schemes, the Guildhall may never have been built.

The building has proved to be functional as well as being architecturally splendid. Its innovative design and features were widely copied in other municipal buildings during the two decades following its completion. As the civic centre, it has functioned as the focal point of local government and justice, it is the fount of civic ceremony, and is one of the principal centres of social and cultural life in Swansea.

The Guildhall has undergone several alterations and extensions, but it has retained its original character as an example of 'a classical approach to modernism'. It is now regarded as an historic building in its own right, and one of which the people of Swansea are justifiably proud.

Source: The Guildhall Swansea (Essays to Commemorate the Fiftieth Anniversary of its Opening). Edited by J R Alban, BA, PhD, DAA (City Archivist) 1984.

Please contact the West Glamorgan Archives Department on 01792 636589 or email for a full list of publications available, alternatively check out their website.

Architecture of the Guildhall
The Guildhall has a host of interesting architectural detail. The building is clad in Portland Stone, which has been left plain, or modelled, or incised with the aim of creating important shadows and points of interest, which the entrances are marked by huge bronze screens.

Internally a greater degree of embellishment is to be found, but again, there is a marked restraint in the use of features.  In general terms, the interior is of colour-washed walls, with doorways marked by heavy architraves in a simplified style.   Plasterwork is decorated with cornices and pilasters, and walnut is used wherever natural wood is exposed, such as on doors and counters.

In contrast, the Grand Corridor, leading from the main entrance, has marble floors and deeply coffered barrel vault ceilings, made possible both by the greater height of the rooms on either side, and by the lack of further accommodation above.

This corridor gives access to the main civic rooms, which consist of the mayoral suite, committee rooms, robing and reception rooms, and the Council Chamber.  These rooms contain a wealth of interest, with a greater use of walnut in panelling and furnishing, and decorative features of local interest.

Finally, and at the end of the Grand Corridor, but with its own separate entrance, is the Brangwyn Hall.

Source: The Guildhall Swansea (Essays to Commemorate the Fiftieth Anniversary of its Opening) - An Architectural Appreciation of the Guildhall by I J Campbell, edited by J R Alban, BA, PhD, DAA (City Archivist) 1984

Guildhall History 1Building the Guildhall
The County Borough Council had decided back in 1907, that the need for a larger and better town hall was pressing.  They wished to build a town hall on a site of importance, not down-town by the docks.  They realised that such a site would have to be at least two acres in extent to meet their needs.  Thus, a town-centre location would cost more than a building would, since there was no open site of that size available.  Businesses would have to be disturbed and standing building be demolished if they chose to build in town.

Victoria Park, which belonged to the County Borough Council, could provide more than two acres, was in a much nice area than the docks, and was within reach of the tramway services from all districts.  It would be spacious enough for a Civic Centre which would be set back 'in a bit of a vista'.

Loan and grant approval could be expected only for expenditure which would entail the maximum use of manual labour.  This was important because use of manpower, and not money spent on purchasing land, would contribute most to the relief of unemployment in the locality. 

The year was now 1929 and the Wall Street Crash had happened.  Over the next few years, unemployment in some European countries was set to triple.  By September 1932 unemployment in the UK country would total three and three quarter million - mostly men, who were the bread winners.  Between January and March 1929, the Council had provided 2,828 men of all trades with a fortnight's work.

The Council had approved a £300,000 spend to build a sufficiently prestigious Civic Centre.  The building would include -

  •  A Council Chamber and Committee Rooms
  • Offices for all departments
  • A self-contained block of Law-Courts 
  • A Hall of Public Assembly

The scheme went out to competition and attracted seventy-seven submissions, from which the assessor chose that of Mr. Percy Thomas of Cardiff.  Messrs. E Turner & Sons Ltd. of Cardiff tendered successfully for the main contract and started work in 1930, with the foundation stone being laid in May 1932.

The Brangwyn Panels
In 1933 there was an announcement that sixteen panels painted by Mr Frank Brangwyn would be exhibited at Olympia, and afterwards, be given by Lord Iveagh's trustees who owned them, to such municipality or other body who, in their opinion could worthily house and display them.

Among the first to see them in Olympia was the late Councillor Leslie W. Hefferman, who hurried home to tell the Council that they were a 'must' for Swansea.  A committee was set up and their very simple proposition was that they could alter the plans for the hall that they were about to build to accomadate the panels.  They were off to a flying start.  A most cordial negotiation ensued, and on 28 October 1933 it was decided that the panels should find a home in what would be called 'The Brangwyn Hall, Swansea'.  It was certainly Swansea's lucky day.

The Opening Ceremony
All that was needed was a popular figure to perform the opening ceremony.  The Council's invitation was accepted by the young Prince George, Duke of Kent, who opened Swansea's Guildhall on Tuesday, 23 October 1934.

Source: The Guildhall Swansea (Essays to Commemorate the Fiftieth Anniversary of its Opening) - The Guildhall and Local Government in Swansea, 1934-74 by W C Rogers, edited by J R Alban, BA, PhD, DAA (City Archivist) 1984

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