The changing faces of Falkirk Council headquarters

The Burgh Buildings in Newmarket Street pictured circa 1890s
The Burgh Buildings in Newmarket Street pictured circa 1890s

By now everybody knows that Falkirk’s Municipal Buildings and Town Hall are long past their sell by date and that sooner rather than later they will have to be replaced.

The safety of all who work there and the need for adequate facilities to discharge the vital work of the Council point the way to a new building though where it will be and what it will look like is as yet unknown.

In Victorian times the burgh fathers faced the same problem. The very first council elected in 1833 had almost no power so the meetings were small and infrequent and employees were limited to a few clerical workers and a collector of rates.

However, the famous Falkirk Police and Improvement Act of 1859 changed everything and with the expansion of responsibility came many new posts. Up to that point the elected councillors and baillies held their meetings in a variety of premises, including the Red Lion Inn in High Street, and the room in the Steeple with the round arched windows.

It was handy for the Pie Office where many a session was said to have concluded.

As the iron trade expanded the prosperity of the area increased and a new sense of municipal pride brought many handsome new buildings to the town centre.

Two of these were a fine Town Hall in Newmarket Street, and on the other side of the road the new Burgh Buildings, opened in 1879.

Designed by Falkirk’s leading architect William Black in the Scots Baronial style they were the council’s home for nearly 90 years and remain as one of the most attractive places in the town.

Here the elected representatives held their debates and the key officers – burgh chamberlain, town clerk, burgh engineer and the rest had their offices. The 20th century was a time of huge growth for local government, especially after World War II and plans were made to expand the Burgh Buildings all the way down Glebe Street in the same baronial style as the original, but this was not followed up. Instead, the authorities decided on a complete replacement and the outcome was the present municipal buildings and town hall which opened in 1966. They are typical of the square box, all glass and concrete creations so beloved by the architects of the period, but disliked by most ordinary folk who found something reassuringly solid and dependable in the old places.

It was no doubt this public appreciation for something worth keeping that saved the old buildings from demolition which was to be part of the development of the old brewery site in 1974.

Having watched the old Town Hall bite the dust in 1968 an influential group, led by the redoubtable James Middlemass, fought a determined campaign which in the end led to a reprieve.

Today the building remains as home to the registrar of ‘hatches, matches and despatches’ as well as the Town Centre Management team, though it still proudly bears the carved coat-of-arms of Falkirk with the message ‘Better Meddle wi’ the Deil than the Bairns o’ Falkirk’ on the east gable.

Now it seems likely that Westbank will disappear before its 50th birthday and few will mourn its passing or campaign to save it. Dear old Jimmy Middlemass will rest easily in his grave . . . at least until we see the new plans.