NEARLY eighty years ago, on the 13th February 1937, the Rt. Hon. The Earl of Derby officially opened the doors of Southampton Guildhall to the people of the town – bringing to completion the third of the four sections of Southampton’s imposing Civic Centre.

Work on Southampton’s most distinctive building began more than ninty years ago when plans for the new civic building were drawn up by architect E. Berry Webber in 1924 after it was decided that the many different corporation departments, which at the time were scattered across the town, should be brought together under one roof.

For years there had been arguments, discussions and countless meetings on the subject of a new town hall, as it was called in those days.

Plans were put forward and promptly shelved amid demands that money should be spent on local housing rather than developing new premises for the council.

Finally, after years of debate, work commenced on the £385,000 building in 1929 and on July 1st the following year Prince Albert, Duke of York laid the foundation stone to one of the most important and ambitious building projects the town had seen.

In the early days before the Guildhall was completed there were still some who were dubious about building such a hall but the wisdom of the project was proved within the first 10 years of its existence as the guildhall became the entertainment centre for the town and its districts and more than justified its worth to the doubters.

Recognized as one of the finest municipal halls in the country, the main hall, which is 143 feet long, 71ft wide and 48 feet high, is also home to the Guildhall’s large and unique pipe organ, which is regarded by many as the finest in the country.

The organ has two distinct consoles and is a fully featured classical concert organ on the one hand, and also a large theatre organ on the other.

The two consoles share the same body of approximately 4000 pipes which are housed in chambers above the proscenium arch.

It was the largest organ made by its builder, John Compton.

During the Guildhall’s first 10 years a total of 2,333 functions were held, ranging from Whist drives to concerts and dances.

By 1947 a total of 1,750,000 guests had been welcomed through the door and by 1958 this figure had rapidly escalated to 4.5million.

The Daily Echo said of the Guildhall: “Most Sotonians must have entered its fine portals at some time or another; a cavalcade of personalities, including members of the Royal Family, have been guests within its tall walls.”

It is also no exaggeration to say that the Guildhall made an honourable contribution to Southampton during the Second World War.

Entertainment arrangements continued as required with the exception of one period when emergency repairs to damage caused by enemy action were necessary.

In fact, many functions were continued after the general and local air raid warnings had been given and were stopped only on receipt of a message from the A.R.P. Control that bombing of Southampton was imminent.

Tragically one member of the staff was, however, killed when a heavy bomb fell at the rear of Guildhall during the course of a Saturday evening dance.

Serious damage was caused to the rooms behind the stage and the copper and timber roof of the main hall was moved some inches out of position.

Daily Echo: Southampton Civic Centre exterior stock (47961589)

A 3-foot repair also had to be made at the north stage end of the main hall ceiling to fix a hole made by the passage of a bomb which was apparently cracked by a roof girder and only partially exploded in the basement.

In addition to high explosive bombs, numerous incendiary bombs out of the 30,600 dropped over Southampton fell on the Guildhall and were dealt with by the Civic Centre Fire Guard.

On one occasion people collecting ration books at the Guildhall had to avoid the water and burnt floor where an incendiary bomb had fallen during the previous night.

Fortunately it was not necessary to bring into operation many of the schemes, such as an Emergency Hospital or Feeding Centre, for which the Guildhall had been ear-marked to serve during the war.

During the Dunkirk evacuation however it provided sleeping accommodation and food for the French troops awaiting repatriation.

At one point during the war Sotonians found each entrance guarded by Royal Marines as conferences of high ranking officers of the British and United States Forces were taking place inside as the final arrangements for the D Day operations, in which the Port of Southampton was to take such an important part, were made.

The Guildhall was included in the tour of inspection made by Winston Churchill as Prime Minister on a post-raid visit to Southampton.

In addition to the relaxation provided to local citizens of the town, many troops of all nationalities stationed at Southampton were also entertained at Guildhall.

Among the most honoured guests were the Battle of Britain pilots who had defended Southampton so gallantly and the first Commando raiding parties.

The post war years saw the Guildhall become a firm favourite with the ballroom dancing fraternity of the south.

Twice a week, long queues of people would snake around the Guildhall as hundreds of local dancers, all dressed in their sequinned gowns and smart evening suits would wait in tangible anticipation of an evening of waltzes, foxtrots, quick step, and tangos.

The demand and popularity of dancing at the Guildhall was so great that in 1955 a new, specially constructed, sprung dance floor was installed.

For almost two months the Guildhall was closed as workers installed the flooring, turning the venue into the finest ballroom in the South.

Immediately it was open, dancing was the most popular of all the entertainment presented at the Guildhall.

As well as playing host to couples tripping the light fantastic the Grade II listed building has over the years played host to some of the finest live musical acts to appear in Southampton, ranging from the quaint orchestras and big bands of days gone by to the musical heavyweights of the present day.

The Rolling Stones and David Bowie both appeared there, so too did The Who, in what was perhaps one of the loudest gigs ever experienced in Southampton.

According to Echo reports of the time, the noise was so intense at The Who’s concert in October 1971, that many of their fans who had swarmed into the hall had to retreat in tears with splitting headaches and aching ears that had been bombarded by the wall of sound.