We’ve all been ignoring Portobello Town Hall for a while; it sits in the High Street, a bit grand, a bit grey; a bit graceless. On a bad day, it looks like a closed public lavatory; those blank windows filled by white sheets of glass for modesty (there are toilets behind); no sign of life. What actually is it for?
120 years ago, when Edinburgh persuaded Portobello Town to merge with the City, various enticements were offered, like the Baths, improved Prom, paved streets, trams and, eventually, a Town Hall. So as the Town lost its separate municipal identity, with no more Town Council, we got a fairly high quality Town Hall.
We’ve had several, others included the one opposite, currently an elegant Police Station, and the one before that, now the Baptist Church. You see, when you have a Town Council it has to have somewhere grand to meet and for Council Officers to write important copperplate notes in large ledgers. We had our own Police Commissioners so they needed appropriate premises. There’s a tale to tell about all this, with The Provost of Portobello beginning his presiding in a house in Brighton Place. Another day for all that.
So what did Edinburgh give us? Before Facebook, the whole Town used to meet in the Town Hall, to hear politicians try to persuade our ancestors to vote for them in hustings. Some of these were almost literally riotous. That’s why it was built to seat 800 people. There were no offices in which to pay rent or rates as you find today in, say, the Brunton Halls. Like the Leith Theatre, which arose from a similar annexation by Edinburgh in 1920, it was the centre of social life, with shows, dances, entertainment of all kinds, sales and singing. You would pass our grand building and savour the prospect of the coming evening “there’s always something on at the Town Hall”.
And now? Portobello is richer, more “up itself” and looking out to wider horizons. We all walk past the shy, embarrassed old Town Hall, probably not knowing what it could offer today. Younger people seeking life and adventure don’t believe much happens here for them or that it could be had on our doorstep. Even so, doggedly, people have been enjoying life in our Town Hall until very recently; weddings, dancing, shows, debates, kids. But it has not belonged to the community as it was in the early days. Bureaucracy has descended, and it has ceased to be a priority.
That can be brought back, possibly quite quickly, if Portobello works together with local businesses, strong local organisations and a sympathetic City Council. We can bring a heart back into Portobello in 2020.