September, 2010 Archives

When Liverpool’s most important buildings are discussed, it is surprising how often retailing is left out. In Quentin Hughes’s City of Architecture, not a single shop features in his selection – a surprising omission. Cripp’s on Bold Street (now Waterstones), GH Lee on Basnett Street, Lewis’s (one of the better post-war buildings) and Premier Buildings (on the corner of Church Street and Hanover Street) were all worthy of inclusion. However, the shop that should have been in for both architectural and historical significance is Compton House – now home to Marks and Spencer, Joseph Sharples describes it as majestic and of international significance because it was one of the earliest (if not the first) purpose-built department store, finished five years before Bon March? in Paris.
The store replaced an earlier building destroyed by fire in 1865. Two brothers, William and JR Jeffrey financed a new building, which opened in 1867. In Picton’s words, tragedy struck: “Mr William Jeffrey, the brother and right hand of the principal, was cut off suddenly by apoplexy and JR Jeffrey was left to fight his battle alone. The battle was a losing one.” The receipts of the new shop never met the outgoings and in March 1871, the shutters were closed.
The photograph shows its later reincarnation as Compton Hotel, with William Russell as proprietor. On the ground floor, the shops are Lilly Addinsell (hatter and hosier), JR Cramer & Co., William Hay & Co. and, on the right hand side, Watts & Co., drapers.
In the revised City of Architecture (due next year), Compton House will find its place as one of Liverpool’s great pioneering achievements.

Two photographs from the same collection taken in the 1870s. Frustratingly, I cannot identify the photographer although there is a barely visible blind stamp on one photograph. The presence of the blind stamp suggests a professional photographer – and there were a number in Liverpoolat that time making a living selling local views. There are 36 photographs in total – showing familiar and unfamiliar Liverpool landmarks but all taken from slightly unusual vantage points. The two of the Custom House are cases in point – for the focus seems to be the pump house to the Albert Dock (which of course survives). The bottom photograph gives a clear idea of the height line of the buildings along the dock road – with the prominent spire of St George’s Church standing high above surrounding warehouses. The rows of barrels along the quayside have markings – but nothing clear enough to identify their contents.
Are there any other collections out there from this period? I have a rare copy of Francis Frith’s album of a similar period but surely there are other collections of photographs pre-1875. I have stereo views and the odd individual image going back to the 1860s but I still think that there are images out there which will bridge the gap from c1850 to 1875 which will add significantly to our knowledge of how Liverpool looked at the height of its economic power. If anyone has knowledge of these rare images, I would be grateful for the information.

Building sites don’t usually make the most interesting photographs but the sheer size of the plot for the new St John’s Market is quite staggering. The Royal Court stands out in isolation on the edge of the cleared site.
I have already made my feelings well known that I consider this development to be amongst the worst sins committed in the post-War period. It was not only the demolition of Foster’s original market – a place of great character which would have a viable function today (just look at Bury and Bolton markets – which are thriving enterprises) – but the wholesale destruction of a complete area of Georgian squares and streets. Liverpool was, unfortunately, not alone. There was a national outcry at the ‘sack’ of Bath, when a similar outrage took place (in the 1970s) and citizens of Newcastle are equally upset at the removal of half of Eldon Square to make way for a monstrous shopping mall. Why do we not learn as a country that development cannot be allowed for purely commercial motives? Developers still plough through our towns and cities with no regard for history and community. At least the recession has temporarily stopped the in their tracks.

Colin Mcindoe emailed me in reply to a recent blog where he reminisced about his Liverpool schooldays and remembered a short verse he had gleaned from the 1962 Sphinx – that slightly risque Panto magazine that students sold as part of their Rag Week charity drive.

“I wandered lonely as a cloud
that floats on high o’er hills and vales
when all at once I met this lad
a Scouser who had dirty nails.”

It got me thinking as to what happened to Rag Week. Has it just disappeared? I remember the parades they had in Sheffield, with dozens of decorated floats parading through town with students holding out buckets to catch the (old and heavy) pennies that were often thrown at them with deliberate intention to maim. It was a week in which substantial amounts were raised for charities and was one of the few occasions when gown met town.
The press photograph is of a 1936 Rag stunt in Church Street. The caption reads: A happy band of the students playing ‘Ring-a-Roses’ round a traffic policeman in Church Street. I had always thought that Rag week was a post-War phenomenon. Does anyone know its history and what has happened to it? Surely with ten times as many students today, it could make a dramatic revival.

I have deliberately avoided selecting photographs from well-known sources such as the City Engineer’s Collection in the Liverpool Record Office. Today’s selection does come courtesy of LRO but I hope I can add an additional dimension to what is my favourite photograph in the whole CE archive.
The role of the CE photographers was to document their department’s work. They did not see themselves as artists but they were skilled at using the plate cameras as well as being able to deal with the attention their presence would always attract. Setting up a camera would take enough time for all the kids in the neighbourhood to appear – it was an event and they wanted to be part of it. Fortunately for us, the CE photographers clearly realised that it was easier to humour the crowds and include them in the photograph rather than spend futile time chasing them away. As a result their earlier photographs (until the 1940s when they had largely switched to 35mm), are full of animation.
Why I specifically like the Netherfield Road photograph is because it has three distinct areas of interest.

What a fabulous image of Ms Barkers shop with the boys looking enviously at the sweets on display. Isolated from the main photograph, it stands up as a brilliant image in its own right.

Here we have those strange landings (leading to Everton Terrace at the back) with a group of children gathered to have their photos taken.

Finally, possibly the weakest image but fascinating, nevertheless, as another group stand watching the proceedings and a small boy follows his mate up to the first landing. How much do you want in one photograph!

Watching BBC News this morning, I was made aware that today marks the 70th anniversary of the start of the Blitz. As always, the focus was on London – with just an incidental mention that other places in the country were also affected. I was going to post these photographs in November to mark the Durning Road tragedy but the news item made me reconsider the timing. The direct hit on the large underground shelter in Durning Road, Edge Hill, was the worst single incident in the Liverpool Blitz as regards loss of life.
In the early hours of 29 November 1940, during the heaviest air raid to date, a parachute mine hit the Junior Instruction Centre in Durning Road, collapsing into the shelter below and crushing many of its 300 occupants. Boiling water from the central heating system and gas from fractured mains poured in. Raging fires overhead also made rescue work extremely dangerous. In all, 166 men, women and children were killed. Many more were badly injured. Joe Lucas lost two brothers and two sisters in the tragedy and recalled that his traumatised mother did not speak for six months.

We are not very good at marking such events but there is still time to have some form of official recognition of such a terrible event. I am writing to the Lord Mayor – and I hope others will make some representation to have a small ceremony of some kind. After all, Liverpool did have the highest number of casualties of any city outside of London and it is important that there is recognition of such suffering.

When its first hall was destroyed by fire in 1933, the Liverpool Philharmonic decided to replace it with a modernist building choosing HJ Rowse as architect. It was inspired choice for Rowse had already enriched the city with its best inter-war buildings. The somewhat plain exterior was inspired by the Dutch architect Dudok – whose influence can be seen in the work of City Architect, Lancelot Keay (Gerrard Gardens/St Andrew’s Gardens). The interior is a very different matter and was one of the first concert halls to be modelled on acoustical science. In contrast to the exterior, the auditorium has sensuous curves and flamboyant art deco detailing.
The panels of musical instruments shown above are by Edmund Thompson and reflect Rowse’s understanding of the use of detail to break-up the wall spaces. Perhaps the greatest tribute to Rowse is that, 80 years on, the Hall is still one of the finest concert venues in Britain.

I mentioned in my recent post about the Queensway Tunnel that Herbert J Rowse was, in my opinion, Liverpool’s greatest architect. His four great Liverpool buildings are:

India Buildings (1923)
Mersey Tunnel (1925-34) including George’s Dock Building
Martins Bank, Water Street (1927-1932)
Philharmonic Hall (1933-39)

Of these, Martins Bank is probably his masterpiece – a cathedral to commerce which would not look out of place on Wall Street. A student of Professor Charles Reilly, at Liverpool University, Rowse was a perfectionist who designed every aspect down to the smallest detail. Rowse persuaded Martins Bank that an expensive building was a good investment and the Travertine marble, bronze and gilding presents a stunning spectacle inside the icing sugar white exterior. What a magnificent building – but clearly not suitable for modern banking since its last tenant, Barclays vacated it.