Those stepping out of the station into St. George’s Square for the first time cannot fail to be impressed by the quality of the grand Victorian buildings that face them. For, not only does St. George’s Square contain one of the finest collections of architecturally and historically important buildings in the north of England but it contains perhaps the finest of all railway stations in the UK, described by the architectural critic, Ian Nairn, as ‘a kind of stately home with trains in’.
Borne of the ambitions of the Lords of the Manor of Huddersfield, the Ramsden family, and driven by the rapid commercial growth of the town, the area around the Square, known as the ‘new town’, can be likened to the rapid growth and ascendency of Italy’s great maritime powers during the Renaissance. In fact, it is to these cities and to their forebears, from Classical Greece and Rome that we can follow a story of commercial acumen, increasing wealth and a desire to impress.
These are not buildings that evoke delight in the way that, say, those former woollen towns of the Cotswolds cast their charm. These are robust and formal, sturdy and dignified, transmitting a sense of wealth and power. They are refined and balanced in proportion and mass, the exception being the Ramsden Estate Office, built between 1870-74, over fifteen years after most other buildings around the Square had been completed, which is an exceptional interpretation of High Victorian Gothic.
Their sense of permanence is reinforced with the use of local York sandstone, ideally suited for sawing and tooling and able to withstand those years of industrial pollution. This is a location where the skill of the architect is matched by the skills of those masons who dressed and sculpted the raw material.
These buildings were built to impress but look behind their facades and what becomes apparent is that these palaces of power were used primarily as offices and warehousing for the burgeoning textile industry that established the town’s reputation worldwide for the quality of its cloth.
And yet, the grandeur of these buildings is partly undermined by the open space which constitutes the Square. For this is not a square in the conventional sense. It is a space that seeps away in several directions with the effect that the physical grouping of buildings is dispersed across a wide, less than formal area. The grid of the ‘new town’ is not apparent at this point and, it could be argued, the harmony of the whole does not match the quality of the individual buildings.
Although the Ramsden family had promoted the town as a commercial hub with the building of the Cloth Hall (1766) and Sir John Ramsden Canal (1774 -80), the latter extended as the Huddersfield Narrow Canal across (and under) the Pennines, the town remained relatively cramped and poorly planned. The canal had allowed goods in far greater quantity to be exported across the country and via the ports of Liverpool and Hull but Huddersfield’s greatest disadvantage by the 1840s was the lack of a direct link by train. The idea of a line from Huddersfield had been proposed in 1835 but many years of bitter argument passed between the Trustees of the Ramsden Estate, the townspeople and speculators, before an Act of Parliament in 1845 authorised the building of the line.
An open site was selected for the new station on the east side of the town, and work on levelling the ground commenced in December 1845. The architect was J.P. Pritchett (1789-1868) who also designed the Parish Church of St. Peter and the Huddersfield College on New North Road.
The builder was Joseph Kaye (1780-1858) who was responsible for building many of the finest buildings in the town including Holy Trinity (1816-19), Queen Street Chapel (1819), Ramsden Street Chapel (1824), St. Paul’s (1829), the Infirmary (1829-31), St. Patrick’s (1832), St. John’s, Birkby (1852) and the George Hotel. He was probably responsible for many of the other buildings in the ‘new town’.
There are several factors, which led to the creation of what we see today.
Firstly, the controlling influence of the Ramsden family, at the time under control of trustees, with Isabella Ramsden acting as guardian to the young John William, the fifth baronet, and whose brother-in-law, Earl Fitzwilliam, was one of the country’s most prominent politicians and landowners, whose influence on the development of the Square was certainly key to its creation.
They appointed an astute auditor and land agent, George Loch, to manage the estate. Loch negotiated the beneficial location of the station and the purchase of surrounding land, on behalf of the Ramsdens. Loch realised the potential value of the land in front of the station, but it was inaccessible because the existing George Inn, standing across the end of New Street prevented satisfactory access. In January 1849 Loch suggested the demolition of the inn, the building of a new hotel and the extension of the main street to provide ‘a proper approach to the station’. Within a few days Isabella Ramsden had approved Loch’s proposals as well as his idea that the new street be named after her son.
The efforts of the local activist and journalist, Joshua Hobson, whose articles in the Leeds Mercury, criticising Loch’s proposals to crowd as many properties as possible into the area around the station, was taken up by the newly created Improvement Commissioners for the town whom Hobson, by that time, was employed as Clerk of Works. The Commissioners’ proposals were accepted by the Trustees who, by December 1850, agreed ‘to leave nearly the whole of the elegant station front open to view from the very centre of town, forming one of the finest architectural vistas in the provinces’.
The next key element to the Square’s appearance lies in the architects who were commissioned to oversee the development and design the buildings. J.P.Pritchett secured the commission for the station, having previously worked for Earl Fitzwilliam. His designs, based on classical Greek architecture, were equally influenced by Fitzwilliam’s stately home at Wentworth Woodhouse, with its impressive portico and Corinthian columns. By the time the station was completed in 1850 the Greek Revival had become passé but Classical influences prevailed. The George Hotel by local architect William Wallen was the first building to be completed in 1850 and established a benchmark for further development in the Italianate style.
In 1851 William Tite was appointed to oversee the design of individual buildings as they were submitted for approval by the Ramsden Trustees. Tite was already a well-established and prosperous architect who favoured classical design and most of the buildings reflect his taste for the palazzi, built by wealthy families during the Italian Renaissance. Pritchett, who by the early 1850s had fallen out of favour with the Ramsdens, designed Lion Buildings for Samuel Oldfield, though Tite rejected initial proposals, later informing George Loch that ‘they are greatly indebted to me for putting a very crude design into shape and proportion’.
Arguably, the grandest building is Britannia Buildings (1856-59) designed by George Crosland with its full-blooded interpretation of the palazzo, incorporating boldly sculpted masks, rustication, scrolled brackets and rich festoons with its central parapet bearing the Royal Arms above which is the sculpted figure of Britannia.
It was the Ramsden Estate Office that broke the mould, with a design by Huddersfield born W H Crossland, who had established his reputation with his designs for Rochdale Town Hall and was to develop a distinctive interpretation of Gothic architecture that culminated in his outstanding design for the Royal Holloway College in Surrey. The Estate Office was a clear break from the Classical traditions that had pre-dominated and followed a period when the ‘Battle of Styles’ was fiercely contested between the supporters of the Gothic and the Classical. The architectural and decorative flamboyance of Crossland’s scheme is striking, incorporating intricate sculptural details, the use of wrought iron and granite as well as introducing turrets, trefoil-headed windows and many other features that successfully add charm but retain the overall grandeur of the architecture of the Square.
Perhaps the final factor in the story of the Square is the least documented. Much has been written over the past 40 years about the Ramsdens, their agents and architects but little is known about the masons who cut and tooled the sandstone and sculpted the decorative features. Draw close to these buildings to admire and even touch the stonework, noting the copings, cornices and balustrades, armorials, tracery, balustrades, festoons, ornate capitals and, especially on the Estate Office, the elaborate carvings of birds, animals, flowers and foliage and, for those with sharp eyes, the bare bottom of a naked man. The power and the charm of these buildings lies as much in these features, some of which were said to have been carved in situ, and perhaps further research will cast a light on the toil and skills of these unnamed people.
Today, St George’s Square retains the affection of Huddersfield residents and, indeed, improvements, particularly those carried out in the opening decade of the twenty-first century, have successfully resulted in a largely traffic free space centred around the sculpture of Huddersfield born Prime Minister, Harold Wilson by Ian Walters, unveiled by PM Tony Blair in July 2009.
Changes of use have also become commonplace over the past 25 years, especially with the decline of office and retail space and the increase of restaurant and upper floor residential accommodation. As I write this, work to convert the George Hotel is underway while the station itself will be subject to major internal alterations should finance for upgrading the trans Pennine rail line be allocated.
One thing is certain though, the Square will remain a proud emblem of the town for its residents and a dramatic introduction to those who are visiting for the first time.
David Wyles, August 2021
David Wyles is Chair of Huddersfield Civic Society and author of The Buildings of Huddersfield