When Earl Fitzwilliam laid the foundation stone of J.P. Pritchett’s railway station in 1849, perhaps surprisingly, there were no plans for a square. Initially reluctant to provide land for railway, the trustees of the Ramsden estate (the town’s major landowner) had a change of heart when the railway company agreed to purchase the Sir John Ramsden Canal and to compensate the family for any loss of income. By now the competing railway companies’ proposals had outgrown the original scheme to build a branch line into the town from Cooper Bridge. Huddersfield would be on a network of lines with connections to Leeds, Manchester, Barnsley and Sheffield.
With the prospect of increased trade which the railways would bring, Earl Fitzwilliam and his fellow trustees, guided by George Loch, who had been appointed agent to the estate, set out plans to develop the land to the north of Kirkgate and Westgate which formed the main axis of the town. These proposals called for the extension of New Street from the Market Place to form a thoroughfare leading to the railway station and on to Bay Hall, which the estate had purchased. The formation of John William Street, named after the fifth baronet, who did not come of age until 1852, necessitated the demolition of the George, which stood on the north side of the Market Place. It was to be replaced by a grander hotel near the station. Built by Joseph Kaye, with stone remaining on site from the building of the station, the new hotel was completed in 1850 at a cost of £10,374 10s 7d. To ensure its success, the railway companies were not allowed to develop a hotel within the station, which explains why the ‘stately home with trains in it’, as it was described by architectural critic Ian Nairn in 1975, is not much more than a grand façade.
The proposed ‘New Town’ developments would have hidden the elegant railway station. It was resident agent Alexander Hathorn who first proposed a square. Writing from the estate office at Longley Hall to his superior, George Loch, in August 1849, he suggested that a plot of land in front of the George ‘in place of being built on at all, should be thrown open and formed into a Square [which] would show our beautiful railway station and still more handsome (of its style) new George Hotel to advantage’. As he observed, ‘there are no Squares now in the town and such another opportunity may never again occur’.
Joshua Hobson, recently appointed secretary to the newly established Improvement Commissioners took up the case. In a series of articles published in the Leeds Mercury in December 1849, which were critical of the management of the Ramsden estate, he complained that the plan for the town centre ‘is greatly deficient, in that it provides no open space, or square, to serve as lungs, or breathing space for the inhabitants of the enlarged town’.
Furthermore, he argued the station building ‘is a magnificent one – a great ornament to the town. And yet, in this plan of the new town, it is proposed so effectually to block it out with other buildings, as to leave only 16 yards of this front open to view!’
Influenced by Hobson, the town’s Improvement Commissioners put forward their own plan, criticising those of the Ramsden trustees as an ‘attempt to crowd the largest mass of buildings possible upon the smallest available space’ without consideration of ‘convenience and public health’.
By the end of 1850, Loch had taken on board most of Hobson’s criticisms and included them in revised plans which incorporated a square, wider streets and back streets to service the buildings. Clearly recognising the architectural quality of the railway station and the George, Loch appointed William Tite, the architect of London’s Royal Exchange to oversee building development proposals. To ensure the preservation of some sort of symmetry and uniformity, the estate had reserved the right ‘to approve or disapprove the elevations of buildings proposed to be erected’.
Tite designed only one of the buildings around the irregular square. Occupying the south-western corner of the site, the appropriately named Tite’s Building was completed in 1856. The Lion Arcade and Buildings, which face the railway station, were the first to be ready for occupation in 1853.
Opposite the George, the only building commissioned by the estate, Loch proposed a town hall. Pritchett produced drawings for a domed classical building, but this was rejected by the Improvement Commissioners. The site remained empty until 1858 when George Crosland employed William Cocking to design a warehouse and office building. Britannia Buildings completed the square. Hobson was very pleased with the results, which created what he described as ‘one of the finest vistas in the provinces’ and which continues to make a great impact on the townscape.
Brian Haigh, May 2021