photo-icon CC000027, Civic Collection, City of Adelaide Archives

Artworks of the Adelaide Town Hall – bringing the city's history to life

Cultural Heart

In the second of a series of articles showcasing some of the amazing pieces of classic and contemporary artwork housed inside the Adelaide Town Hall - City of Adelaide Curator, Polly Dance delves into the captivating collection of plans and paintings of this historic centre of city politics held by the City Archives. Providing interesting insights into this important civic building, some of these plans have been reproduced in exquisite detail and are currently on display to the public on the Adelaide Town Hall’s first floor, in the Southern and Northern Galleries.

The City of Adelaide is incredibly fortunate to be the custodian of so many important historic documents, cared for by its City Archives team. Among these are many important plans and paintings which can tell us so much about our city’s history and culture.

I’m thrilled to be able to share with you here just a few of the stories of the Adelaide Town Hall, as told through these artworks. I also encourage you to visit the Southern and Northern Galleries to view these pieces of history in person. Both galleries can be accessed for free between 9 am and 5 pm, Monday to Friday, excluding Public Holidays.

So, let’s start with the Adelaide Town Hall itself!

The land on which the Adelaide Town Hall stands (Town Acre 203) was originally purchased by the Adelaide City Council Corporation on 15 February 1841 for 12 shillings. That’s the equivalent of AU$1.20. The building was designed by renowned architect, Edmund Wright and constructed by Thomas English at a cost of £20,000 (AU$36,000). Both gentlemen were early Mayors of Adelaide.

On 20 June 1866, a ball was held to mark the official opening of the Adelaide Town Hall – with all of Adelaide’s colonial society invited along to celebrate. You can feast your eyes upon a glorious reproduction of this event on the Mezzanine Floor. Titled, ‘Opening Ball in the Town Hall Adelaide 22nd June 1866’, this artwork was painted and signed in 1867 by former Mayor, James Shaw.

James Shaw Opening Ball in Adelaide Town Hall
photo-icon CC000027, Civic Collection, City of Adelaide Archives

James Shaw – ‘Opening Ball in Adelaide Town Hall 22nd June 1866’, signed and dated 1867, oil and collage on canvas,

A ‘Fun Fact’ about this particular oil painting by Shaw is that it incorporates collage elements featuring cropped photographs of people’s faces in the lower half of the canvas. It’s thought the artist may have made a few extra pennies by providing attendees to the ball with the opportunity to include their photographic portrait in this documentary painting.

Shaw sketched the event in real-time and then, to detail the interior, later used architectural plans, like those reproduced in the Southern and Northern Galleries. This is evidenced by the inclusion of the Regency style gasoliers (chandeliers with gas burners) that weren’t actually installed until 21 August 1866. Shaw was also instructed on the colour and style of the outfits of the individuals in attendance, to capture their likeness as accurately as possible.

Shaw’s unique painting forms part of the City of Adelaide’s Civic Collection (CC000027). The original painting is on permanent display in the Lord Mayor’s office.

In 1869, various extensions were made to the Adelaide Town Hall, including the southern wing which, up until 1953, served as the Prince Alfred Hotel run by the Fletcher family. It’s now been absorbed into the building’s main structure and forms offices and function rooms, one of which is named the Prince Alfred Room.

While the Council Chambers were added at the rear of the Adelaide Town Hall in 1882, it wasn’t until 1934 that the Albert Tower clock was installed, thanks to a generous donation by Sir J. Lavington Bonython, also a former Lord Mayor. Over the years, various other additions and refurbishments have been made to restore the building’s structure while retaining its inherent historic charm. Today the Adelaide Town Hall caters to a wide variety of services including exhibitions, concerts, functions, events, weddings and council meetings - the list goes on!

Working Drawings Proposed Alterations to Organ Galleries and Platforms c 1899 Accession 0423
photo-icon Accession 0423 Item 4, City of Adelaide Archives


The Adelaide Town Hall’s original pipe organ was made by Hill & Son in 1875 for £2,106 (AU$3,800). Arriving on site in 1876, it was first publicly played on 2 October 1877 at the swearing-in of the Governor, Sir WFD Jervois.

Significant redevelopments to the Adelaide Town Hall saw the Hill organ replaced with the current model, built by Walker & Sons in 1989. At the time of its installation it was the largest mechanical action organ built in Britain for more than 100 years. Hill’s organ now stands, magnificently restored, in the Barossa Regional Gallery and remains the oldest concert organ on the Australian mainland.

For details about events and to find out how to book a free guided tour visit the Adelaide Town Hall website.