The history of the construction of Sydney Town Hall is a complex one, interspersed with scandal, subterfuge, suicide and lengthy delays, and a roll call of architects, designers, engineers and builders whose associations with the project and with council were not always amicable or professional.

The winning competition entry, submitted by J H Willson, was the basis for the architectural design of the town hall and although he did not live to see the completion of the first stage in 1880, he has been credited with its concept and Council’s City Architect, Alan Bond, with its execution.

The first stage of the town hall (1868-1884) to be completed comprised the Vestibule and aldermen’s offices on the ground floor, the Council Chamber and retiring rooms and a proposed library on the first floor and operational facilities in the basement. The clock tower was completed in 1873.

Work on the completion of the grand hall behind the Vestibule was delayed by more controversy and while engineers haggled over the veracity of the foundations and council argued over the economics, another succession of architects came and went. By 1883 however, the City Architect, Thomas Sapsford and his assistant John Hennessey, had produced designs which became the basis for the second stage (1884-1889). Construction began soon after, with a significant extension to the west to include a grand hall, capable of accommodating several thousand people at one time, with complimentary backstage facilities at the rear and additional offices along the northern and southern sides. A secondary hall which was smaller and much less grand, was built under the grand hall. Two imposing external sandstone staircases were constructed on either side of the hall and opened into large internal and grand staircases which led to the upper galleries of the grand hall.

Town Hall Steps

The front steps of Sydney Town Hall are the city’s most popular central meeting place – they are also the stage for many of Sydney’s public civic events. It is here that the Lord Mayor of Sydney welcomes and receives honoured citizens, visiting dignitaries sporting teams, military units, and street parades to the city.

Town Hall Clock

The Town Hall clock was manufactured by English clockmakers Gillet & Co in 1883 and installed into the tower the following year. Gillet & Co, which operated from Croydon, Surrey, had a fine reputation for large turret clocks, which continue to keep time in palaces, parliaments, town halls and courts throughout the world. The mechanism, which has been wound by hand for over 120 years, uses a system of rods and counterweights to rotate the hands. The four glass clock faces are position exactly towards north, south, east and west and are illuminated at night. The hour hand measures 1.1metres, the minute hand 1.7 metres in length.

The Westminster quarter chimes, similar to those used on ‘Big Ben’ at London’s Houses of Parliament, are thought to have been adapted from music composed by George Frederick Handel in 1741 (The Messiah ‘I Know That My Redeemer Liveth’). These and the hourly strikes are struck on four large bronze bells, also supplied by Gillet & Co. For the comfort of inner city residents, the bells are silenced between 10pm and 6am.

Town Hall Surrounds

The site for Sydney Town Hall was Sydney’s first official cemetery which was used between 1792 and 1820 for the burial of its early residents. While the footprint for the Town Hall was exhumed and the graves which would have been affected by the excavation for the foundations of the building were relocated prior to the construction of the building, gravesites still exist in the area around the Town Hall. This explains why archaeological remains continue to be uncovered every time the area is disturbed.

One of the conditions imposed on the Council in the 1860s prior to the construction of the Town Hall was that the site be enclosed with a sandstone wall and a fence. Early photographs show that wrought iron palisade fencing with gates and sandstone gate piers defined the curtilege. The fencing was removed in 1927 as a consequence of the construction of Town Hall railway station, and the fence and gates re-erected at St Joseph’s College, Hunter’s Hill.

The creation of an open plaza between the Town Hall and St Andrew’s Cathedral is regarded as an important example of co-operative urban planning and this civic precinct has been an important rallying point for democratic expression, including the demonstrations against Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War and the dismissal of the Whitlam Government during the 1970s.

The Town Hall steps are Sydney’s favourite meeting place. They have also been the ceremonial stage from which official dignitaries receive royalty and watch the parades which celebrate the achievements of victorious sporting teams, the contributions of military units and the cultural heritage of Sydney’s community organisations.