On a wet afternoon just before Christmas 1883, the first foundation stone of a Mechanics Institute for Silsden was laid. “In spite of the very inclement weather, there was a large gathering of spectators”, reported the local newspapers.
This building is of course now known as the Town Hall and has stood as active witness to huge changes in the working, cultural and social life of our town. It has played a crucial role in our community during two world wars; it has encouraged education and learning and a love of books; it has played host to countless gatherings – dances, weddings, parties, fund-raising efforts, public meetings, concerts, election hustings … the list is endless.
Perhaps the village worthies who met in the snug of the Red Lion Inn in the late 1860s, to discuss a proposal for an institute, could not have predicted how large the project would become and how central it would be to Silsden’s development as a growing and lively town.
And indeed not a great deal happened for several years, until local schoolmaster David Longbottom, impatient for progress and anxious to offer the chance of learning to Silsden’s largely uneducated working population, arranged a series of monthly lectures at the Red Lion. These classes included botany, philosophy, local history and the art of debating. Among the teachers and most ardent supporters was Charles Weatherhead, a local grocer and himself a self-taught man who became Silsden’s first council chairman.
The first fund-raising effort for a purpose-built institute was held in 1875 and three years later the committee opened an account with the Yorkshire Penny Bank. A central site adjoining the churchyard in Kirkgate was bought “for a very nominal figure” from Lord Hothfield of Skipton Castle (who owned most of Silsden at the time). He also donated £77 10s.
The foundation stone was laid by Lord Hothfield and by local mill owner George Jacques, following a community procession through the streets from Aire View School. (Both were presented with a commemorative silver trowel and mallet). Tea was provided afterwards along with a big public meeting to outline plans for the new facility – including a reading room, conversation room, classrooms, lecture hall, a shop and an office “all heated by hot-water apparatus”- and to drum up further fund-raising efforts.
“Every mite contributed is a move in the right direction,” declared Lord Hothfield, he was delighted to hear that “the good ladies of Silsden” were to launch sewing meetings and a bazaar. The Mechanics Institute was not for this generation only, he said, but it was intended to go down through future generations for the cultural enrichment of the community.
The Mechanics Institute, at a cost of £2,000 was opened 10 months later in October 1894. Its aim: to encourage villagers “to meet and employ their thoughts on high and noble subjects”.
It became a thriving centre for the community: villagers, most of whom had never been able to afford such things, were able to borrow books, read national and international news, go to evening classes, take part in noisy public debates, listen to musical concerts. It was a preparation for universal franchise and greater democracy that was to come.
In 1909 the trustees handed over the management of the institute to the Council, who officially re-named it as the Town Hall. Extensions were added and an entertainments licence obtained. It has continued to play its unique role in Sildsen’s community life ever since.