On Friday 25th May 1962, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II visited Solihull – apparently the first official visit of a reigning monarch to the town. She officially opened the new Solihull Civic Hall before visiting Solihull Hospital and then going onto Solihull School, which was celebrating its 400th anniversary.
The visit was part of a two-day Royal visit to the Midlands, with the Queen visiting Wolverhampton, Wednesfield, Walsall and Wednesbury on the previous day.
Arriving at Solihull Railway Station at 10am, the Queen was accompanied by the Countess of Euston, Sir Edward Ford, and Captain Peter Harvey. She was greeted by Sir Willoughby de Broke, Lord Lieutenant of Warwickshire, and other civic dignitaries, including the newly-elected Mayor of Solihull, Councillor J. Leslie Shepherdson (1902-1988).
Her Majesty was then driven to the Civic Hall via Ashleigh Road, Warwick Road, Poplar Road, High Street, Church Hill Road, and Homer Road.
At the Civic Hall, the Royal Salute was given by a guard of honour formed by the Queen’s Own Warwickshire and Worcestershire Yeomanry, led by Major M. B. Haycock. The National Anthem was played by the band of the Queen’s Own Hussars.
The architect of the building, Mr Ernest Berry Webber (1896-1963), presented the Queen with a silver-gilt key, surmounted by the borough’s coat of arms, with which she opened the main doors. The official party then proceeded to the main floor. The band of the 1st Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment played as the guests assembled.
The Queen entered the main room at 10:23am to a fanfare of trumpets by the Junior Leaders’ Regiment, Royal Artillery.
Inside the Hall was an invited audience of more than 800 people, including 50 representatives of the public. These were chosen on 21st May 1962 by the then Mayor and Mayoress of Solihull, Councillor & Mrs J. W. Wall, from 250 applications from Solihull residents.
Proceeding to the stage, the Queen was welcomed by an address from the Mayor, and she replied by declaring the Civic Hall officially open. The Bishop of Birmingham, Dr J. L. Wilson, dedicated the building, and the Deputy Mayor of Solihull, Alderman J. W. Wall, presented the Queen with a souvenir of her visit in the form of an antique George III silver butter dish and cover.
After meeting the Bishop of Birmingham and Sir Martin Lindsay, M.P. for Solihull, the Queen received more than 80 people, including former Mayors and Mayoresses of the Borough, senior officials, architects, contractors and workers. A bouquet was presented to Her Majesty by four-year-old Judith Bayliss, granddaughter of the Deputy Mayor.
In the foyer of the Civic Hall, the Queen met artist Anthony Baynes (1921-2003), who had created a 19-panel mural installed as a continuous frieze along two end walls and above the bar on the upper floor of Solihull Civic Hall. The mural depicted various Warwickshire scenes and was 5ft 4in high and 140ft in length. It was specially designed for the 90ft long and 18ft wide foyer/bar area.
As she left the Civic Hall, the Queen unveiled a commemorative tablet in the tower of the east staircase, corresponding to one unveiled by Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent, in 1960 when the foundations of the building were laid. The Queen signed the distinguished visitors’ book and also signed a portrait of herself.
Royal visit continues
The Queen was then taken on a tour of the grounds of Solihull Hospital so that she could be seen by patients and staff before going onto Solihull School.
During the 15-minute visit to Solihull School, the Queen inspected a guard of honour provided by the Combined Cadet Force (CCF) and planted a mulberry tree outside the Quatercentenary Memorial Chapel.
Leaving Solihull School at 11:25am, she was driven to Hampton-in-Arden, where she was escorted to the Royal Train by Mrs C. J. H. Wheatley, Chairman of Meriden Rural District, in order to travel to Coventry for the Consecration of Coventry Cathedral.
The Queen’s sister, H.R.H. The Princess Margaret, had arrived with her husband, Earl Snowdon, at Elmdon Airport at 11:20am and they were also driven to Hampton-in-Arden to travel with the Queen to Coventry.
Description of the Civic Hall
The Civic Hall cost £369,000 and was ten years in the planning. It marked the first stage of the construction of the borough’s new Civic Centre on the site of the Old Priory between the High Street and Homer Road.
The main front of the building facing Homer Road, had an overall length of 240ft and the overall width was 108ft. At the rear, the building was 188ft long, and there was a recessed service yard adjacent to the kitchens and loading bay. At its highest point, the building rose to 49ft.
The extensive car park between the building and the High Street had a capacity of 450 vehicles. The Birmingham Post 25th May 1962 noted that motorists could drop off their passengers at the main entrance on the south front before parking their vehicles at the back of the building and entering the building by one of two back doors leading from the car park to the centralised cloakroom. Wheelchair access from the entrance floor to the main hall was also possible.
Structurally, the hall was a concrete-encased steel-framed building with infilling of hand-made brick. Tall pillars of Hollington stone flanked the nine windows over the 90ft canopy, which was faced with phosphor bronze and silver bronze.
Hollington stone was also used to frame the ornamental windows in the staircase towers on either side of the entrance. Each of these windows consisted of 27 octagonal panes of amber glass framed by Portland stone, which was also used in the foundation stone and the opening stone.
Three tiers of steps at the main entrance were of Cumberland slate, which also formed the floor of the entrance hall. Wall linings and columns were of travertine marble and there was a suspended ceiling.
From the entrance, visitors went into the crush hall, with access to a large cloakroom where the five service positions enabled the speedy handling of coats. Washrooms were adjacent, and there were also two telephone callboxes.
At opposite ends of the crush hall were a lounge and a bar, with two staircases leading up to the main floor.
Between the heads of the staircases was a long foyer with a 50ft-long bar, enabling the maximum number of people to be served in the minimum of time. As the intention was to create a room compatible with the due dignity of civic occasions while having the efficiency of a public house, steps were taken to provide for the concealment of the bar when it was not required.
Two sets of doors led from the foyer into the main hall, which was 103ft long and 63ft wide. The main timber in the large hall was South American black bean and the panelling was of imbura wood. The main woodwork in the foyer was also black bean, with panelling of Australian walnut.
To the left of the foyer was the smaller hall, measuring 54ft by 40ft. This also had black bean timber but the panelling was in Persian walnut. In the lounge, bar, cloakroom and crush hall, the main timber was mahogany with elm panelling.
To the right of the foyer was the reception room or Mayor’s Parlour. The plan was to have a bridge from the corridor alongside this room to the future municipal offices (Council House) and Civic Suite.
The reception roon was decorated in a Regency style of gold-green, with panels of wallpaper bearing a Chinese leaf design and having the characteristics of a chameleon when viewed from different angles.
Each of the two halls has dressing rooms for artistes and there was a Green Room behind the main stage. Behind the west end of the main hall was a well-equipped gas-fired kitchen and servery in which the woodwork was of Hondura mahogany.
Above the kitchen at the level of the top of the orchestra steppings was a suite of offices for the manager and his staff. The suite was planned subsequently to become an assembly area for the orchestra.
The first Manager of the Civic Hall, who was in post for 12 years until his death in 1973, aged 55, was Mr Leslie Holmes (1917-1973). He was appointed from more than 100 applicants in August 1961 at a starting salary of £1,300 rising to £1,480 and came to Solihull from Edmonton, London.
The first performances took place on the day following the official opening – a children’s review at 2.30pm on Saturday 26th May 1962 (featuring Harold Taylor (The Witty Wizard), Darbar & Wendy, Tony’s Wonder Dogs and Hillcrest Dancers. In the evening, from 7.30-11.30pm, there was a “Popular Dance” with Ken Mackintosh and his Orchestra and Jerry Allen and his TV Trio.
The Stage, 31st May 1962 reported on the opening of the Civic Hall and said that the main object of the multi-purpose hall was the staging of symphony concerts, major sporting events, ballet etc. for the benefit of the community who in the past were forced to travel to neighbouring towns to enjoy this type of cultural and recreational activity. At the same time, the Council wished to offer better facilities to local societies and organisations.
The Main Hall was capable of accommodating 1014 seated persons for concerts/stage shows, whilst the Small Hall offered seating accommodation for 342 people. For banquets/luncheons the capacity was reduced to 609 and 215 respectively. For dancing, the capacity was 900 in the Main Hall and 300 in the Small Hall.
An advertisement in The Stage, 28th December 1961, offered bookings from 1st June 1962, and suggested the venue would be suitable for almost every type of function, including: banquets, exhibitions, boxing, dinners, receptions, variety, dramatic & musical shows, luncheons, meetings, lectures, concerts, recitals, festivals, reunions, pageants and dances.
Amongst the most notable of regular performers was a local band, The Applejacks, whose weekly Monday appearances were drawing in hundreds of teenagers according to the Solihull Magazine. Their performance on Monday 13th April 1964 was temporarily halted so that the Civic Hall Manager, Leslie Holmes, could present the group with a bottle of champagne to celebrate their silver disc for 250,000 sales of their single Tell Me When.
The Civic Hall also hosted meetings of the Midlands Sporting Club, a private members’ dining club open to 350 “gentlemen of good standing with an established interest in the sporting world.” The club met five times per year between October-April, at seven-weekly intervals, until it closed at the end of the 1995/6 season after a sustained decline in membership. The club had an established black-tie tradition for its meetings, comprising a reception at 6.30pm, dinner at 7pm and boxing at 9pm. There were no speeches and a strict rule of silence during boxing matches.
On 24th January 1968, there were “Wembley-type scenes” outside the Civic Hall as scores of ticketless fans attempted to get into a sold-out symphony concert! The Manager reported that 100 people were turned away from the performance by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) of a programme of music by Tchaikovsky, conducted by Harold Gray. Staff at the Civic Hall said that they were being offered up to £1 for tickets with a face value of between 3s 6d (18p) and 10s (50p). The CBSO’s general manager said he had never seen such scenes, even during Tchaikovsky night at the Proms at Birmingham Town Hall.
In 1982, Solihull Council contracted out the management of Solihull Civic Hall and it become Solihull Conference and Banqueting Centre. It was demolished in 1998 to enable the construction of Touchwood shopping centre.
An article in the Birmingham Mail, 9th January 1998, announced the forthcoming closure of the hall in the summer, citing the annual cost to the Council of £170,000, and the fact that the premises were in need of updating. Bromwich Catering, who had managed the Conference and Banqueting Centre for the previous three years were given notice that their contract would end in May.
Five of the original Applejacks staged a special concert at the Civic Hall on 28th May 1998 as part of a campaign to prevent the demolition of the building.
The Civic Hall was demolished during the weekend of 5th/6th September 1998, with the Birmingham Mail 7th September 1998 reporting that workmen had been gutting the inside of the building for at least three weeks. However, the newspaper noted that it was a shock for local office workers and shoppers arriving in Solihull on Monday morning to find the external walls had been brought tumbling down over the weekend.
40 years later
On 2nd July 2002, Her Majesty the Queen visited Solihull as part of a programme of events to mark her Golden Jubilee. She did not, as is sometimes incorrectly reported, officially open Touchwood itself.
The official description of the event in the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Programme May-August 2002 is: The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh will visit Touchwood, Solihull’s town centre redevelopment.
The Queen unveiled a plaque to mark the renaming of the gardens between Touchwood and Homer Road as Golden Jubilee Gardens, just over 40 years after she had stood on almost the same site to open Solihull Civic Hall.
Library Specialist: Heritage & Local Studies
© Solihull Council, 2022.
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