Regular readers of my blog will be used to my posts about the unnecessary damage to Liverpool’s architectural heritage over the decades. Today’s image presents a different take on what has happened over the last 30 years. The key date was 1984 with the International Garden Festival, the Tall Ships’ Race and the most enduring legacy, the reopening of the Albert Dock. If anyone is in any doubt as to the significance of the latter event, the photograph above is a reminder of how far the neglect had gone, with the dock filled with millions of tons of silt following a Dock Board decision to keep the dock gates open. The photograph must have been taken only a couple of years before the re-opening (the police headquarters are complete and operational). On the left, the Canning Place complex can be seen (it was finally demolished c2000) and in front of the Cathedral, the land has been cleared prior to new housing being built (a shame, I feel, I would have preferred to have kept the site as a landscape park).
Without a doubt, Liverpool has improved beyond measure in the last three decades. The re-opening of the Central Library is further proof that the city is going in the right direction. I went to the opening night and was blown away by the refurbishment and rebuild. If you haven’t had the chance yet – go and be amazed.
George’s Dock and Goree Piazza, 1891
Following on from my last post, here are three more stereographs. The card shown above can hardly be classified as one of Liverpool’s oldest photographs but it does show a scene almost unchanged from the 1860s. Sailing boats line the docks into the distance and horse drawn wagons trundle down the dock road with their heavy loads. The Goree warehouses with their arcades are on the right hand side (sadly demolished after the War).
An older photograph is that of the old George’s Dock (below) showing the Church of St Nicholas, the Sailors’ Church. The date is probably late 1860s, well before Mersey Chambers was built in the Old Churchyard in 1878. Tower Building is to the right (replaced by the present building in 1906). The image is not sharp but it is an interesting record of the Pierhead before the Floating Roadway and the Landing Stage were built (mid-1870s).
The third stereograph is easy to date (it is printed on the card). Lord Street is bedecked with bunting to celebrate the coronation of Edward V11. A nice, busy street scene with a new electric tram in the foreground.
Brunswick Dock c1865
Brunswick Dock detail
When I started this blog, I raised the question of whether any substantial archive of early Liverpool photographs existed. I posted an early photograph of St George’s Hall (1850) but have had no success in finding other images from that period. This is, perhaps, surprising because Liverpool supported one of the first photographic societies and there were some important photographers amongst its members, including Francis Frith.
The first relatively significant number of images in my possession are stereographs. These are two dimensional photographs of the same subject, slightly offset to separate the left eye from the right eye, which when viewed through a simple viewer give a 3D effect. Cards became available from the early 1850s and were still being produced well into the twentieth century. Stereo cards became very popular and were bought in their millions – which accounts for their survival. Local photographers, such as H. Sampson of Southport, could make a living from churning out local views and the image of Brunswick Dock is typical of his work. I am guessing the date is around 1865, although it could be slightly later. The windmill on Mill Street was still standing and the dock full of sailing ships.
The image below is of the old Adelphi Hotel, again by Sampson. The building on the right is a bedding manufactory owned by Catharine Sanderson. (The couple on the corner are wearing typical clothing of the 1860s). To the left of the Adelphi Hotel, on the corner of Copperas Hill (where the Vines public house now stands) is William Mardock’s pharmacy according to Gore’s 1865 Directory.
Last week I posted a photograph of Pierhead in the 1880s and commented on how the Liverpool waterfront had changed over the last 150+ years. The change in the twentieth century has been dramatic, starting with the filling in of George’s Dock to create the modern Pierhead through to the addition of skyscrapers, the redevelopment of Princes Dock and the dramatic changes to the immediate hinterland. Today’s photograph shows the city in the early 1960s. The Cotton Exchange is still there but the Overhead Railway has been dismantled. Key 1960s buildings including the John Moores Centre on Old Hall Street have not been started and the White Star Building on James Street is still standing in isolation. An Empress liner is berthed at Princes Dock – in the final days before the liner trade switched to Southampton and elsewhere.
Fifty years on and today’s waterfront is, again, significantly different, with the new Museum of Liverpool, Liverpool One and all the other recent developments significantly changing both the landscape and the height line. Originally, the JM Centre was planned to have several extra storeys but had to restrict its height so as to be in keeping with its surroundings. Clearly the rule no longer applies except in the thinking of the inspectors for Unesco in their threats over World Heritage Site status. What will the outcome be? One thing is certain – in 50 years time, the waterfront will be significantly different from today.
The Floating Landing Stage was a marvel of engineering. Originally constructed in 1874, it was consumed by fire before opening. Two years later, it had been rebuilt and, with additions, became the largest floating structure in the world, stretching for nearly half a mile. Sadly, in 1974, the structure was dismantled and replaced by a concrete pontoon – which sank, rather inevitably in January 1976 only to be rebuilt. I suppose neither the old or new structures are of any great aesthetic appeal – purely functional – but the top photograph shows the original in use in the late 1880s.
Back in the early 1990s, I met a young American, Zane Branson, who was trying to raise funding to bring a Mississippi paddle steamer over to Liverpool as a tourist attraction. The timing was completely wrong and the idea went back across the Atlantic with him but, as the photo shows, paddle steamers are not a new phenomenon to the Mersey. The nineteenth century ferries were nearly all driven by paddles. What a great shame none have survived.
George’s Dock c1875
New Brighton c1875
I have almost given up on John Sergeant’s television series. Four programmes in and Francis Frith has almost vanished from sight. Whoever conceived this vanity needs reminding that the central figure should be the pioneering Victorian photographer not a presenter showboating his amateur photographic skills. Harsh comment, perhaps, but I can only make comparisons with Michael Portillo’s excellent Great British Railway Journeys, in which he puts the subject before himself and reveals the magnificence of the Victorian railway system.
To further my research on Frith, I need to visit Birmingham Public Library, where the Frith archive is held. I want to get some handle on his negative numbering. I have in the region of 100 of his Liverpool photographs plus another 50 of ships in the Mersey.
Many are of familiar subjects, particularly St George’s Hall, which have limited appeal because they are places and buildings covered by many other companies. There were serious competitors such as Scottish firms James Valentine and Washington Wilson, as well as local Liverpool photographers. Their photographs were the postcards of the time and the popular attractions were the most saleable. Frith realised that liners were a good market and produced hundreds of the great Cunarders, Inman Line and other familiar ships. How active Frith was personally is difficult to ascertain, his company had grown substantially and he was in his late 50s when the real growth occurred.
The earliest photographic book on Liverpool I have come across was published by Philip, Son and Nephew in about 1875. It features some of the great buildings in Liverpool including the Custom House, Exchange Flags, the old Adelphi Hotel along with a liberal assortment of the new churches that were being built. The photographs, all by Frith, are hand-tipped in (this was before photo-mechanical printing was invented) and are rather lonely, uninhabited images (the exposures were so long that movement appears as a blur, as in the New Brighton photograph above, so the photographer chose to avoid people in the photograph whenever possible). I have reproduced a number of photographs from the album previously but here are two new ones, of George’s Dock and New Brighton.
A mother walking with her children through a derelict docklands. Like a frame from one of the ‘kitchen sink’ films of the early 1960s, it brilliant captures the dying moments of a once-bustling port. I am not sure about the location. My first thoughts were the granaries which once dominated the southern end of the docks but, on closer examination, Birkenhead docks might be the answer.
My reason for using the photograph, apart from its dramatic quality, is to illustrate the dilemma faced by the City Council in deciding on the merits of Peel Holding’s plans for the Liverpool Waters scheme.
The report that the Unesco team was potentially minded to withdraw World Heritage status should the scheme go ahead without serious modifications raised a storm of adverse comments on the Liverpool Echo forum. The consensus seemed to point to Liverpool going the way of development and foregoing the hard won World Heritage accolade. (Of course there were the usual anonymous posters suggesting banning all Unesco officials from Liverpool permanently – but that, sadly, is the norm of internet forums). The basic argument is whether outsiders have the right to challenge Liverpool’s future by imposing conditions on any future development. Peel is seen as representing a golden future with the promise of thousands of jobs and the badly needed regeneration of north Liverpool.
In my opinion, there is a different scenario. Peel have already stated that their plan is a 50 year plan – hardly immediate development. The time scale makes no sense if plans are being put forward now that cannot be fundamentally changed (which is Peel’s position – stating they have already compromised on the number of high rise buildings and that the economics of the development will not add up otherwise). So far, the whole plan is speculative – no major commercial parties have been announced who might underpin Liverpool Waters. All we have seen are fairly wild artist impressions of what might be. In other words, is there any substance to Peel’s case or is it just a case of getting planning permission for the old-fashioned carte blanche approach to planning (the kind that blighted Liverpool in the 1960s and 70s – allowing whole areas from St John’s Market, Derby Square/South Castle Street and the Georgian quarter around the University to be removed wholesale)?
Of course most of Peel’s land is already cleared, which is an important distinction, but should we just sit back and let them do what they think is best (for themselves or the city?).
What is essential is that Liverpool gets it right and it must take the necessary time to make an informed decision. If Liverpool Waters is a 50 year plan, what is the problem in having a public inquiry and allowing anyone who is concerned to see Peel’s proposals in detail. I have never heard of a development planned over half a century before – even over a decade there are significant changes in economic circumstances to say nothing about architectural tastes. The argument must be about a sustainable and sensitive development that brings back Stanley Dock and other important features into proper focus. Skyscrapers are not necessarily the answer. Very few are architectural masterpieces, most are uninspiring filing cabinets in the sky (especially in Manhatten, London or Shanghai). The Unesco officials are right to be concerned – Liverpool’s heritage is too important to be railroaded by speculative developers.
Two photographs of the same block on Brythen Street, with the Playhouse clearly visible in the first photograph to fix the location. A bit of a pub crawler’s dream – with The Old Royal next to Quinn’s Oyster Bar, Roberts (bird dealers), The Dart and The Old Dive on the opposite corner.
I have already posted a number of photographs around the Williamson Square/St John’s Market area. The destruction of the network of streets and squares to make way for the new market, road widening and (abandoned) civic centre scheme was one of Liverpool’s most significant architectural losses. My reason for resurrecting my opinion is the visit of Unesco officials to determine the threat posed to Liverpool’s World Heritage Status by Peel Holdings’ proposed Liverpool Waters development.
It is reassuring that the issue is being discussed at this stage. In the 1960s, the heritage lobby would have been brushed aside as an irrelevance. Today, the balance has shifted but is Liverpool Waters a threat or a necessary, even essential, scheme to create a future for the city? I am fairly clear where I stand. Unlike the 1960s redevelopment, which removed over a century of character and history, the Peel proposal is on derelict land which has been vacant for decades. The physical integrity of Pier Head is not threatened, the key issue is the visual impact (which has already been badly compromised by the Mann Island development). I cannot say I am a great fan of skyscrapers unless they are of a very high architectural quality – and most in this country are not. I prefer the human scale of smaller buildings in a more intimate setting where a restored Stanley Dock could take pride of place. Clearly Peel will have a strategy that will accommodate revisions to their plans and I hope that the public can have some input. Development at all cost is not the issue – even with 12,000 jobs at stake – but what future Liverpool has got without an ambitious plan.
Salisbury Dock and the Victoria Tower
The recent announcement by English Heritage to fight Peel Holdings’ £5.5bn Liverpool Waters scheme – unless Peel agrees to make further changes to its plans, may come as a surprise to many who have watched in horror as the Mann Island development has destroyed the harmony of Pier Head. The Regional Director of English Heritage, Henry Owen-John, said Peel has a “significant” way to go to persuade English Heritage that it should back Peel’s plan regenerate the city’s northern docklands and that it would not damage the city’s World Heritage Site.
If English Heritage lodges an objection and the city grants planning permission, the scheme would automatically be referred to Communities Secretary Eric Pickles – dramatically increasing the chances of a lengthy and costly public inquiry. Mr Owen-John also revealed that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has notified Unesco, which oversees World Heritage Sites, about the Liverpool Waters project.
So here we have a government agency that has singularly failed to protect Liverpool’s historic waterfront now complaining about a development of a derelict brownfield site that has the potential to change Liverpool’s international status and secure huge amounts of investment. Ironically, one of the concerns is about the Victoria Tower, which under Peel’s plans would become a major feature. English Heritage has raised the objection that key views to and from the Victoria Clock Tower, reflecting its symbolic and actual importance in historic dock management, will be lost. So do we sit back and look at it from afar in its present abandoned and inaccessible state?
Liverpool desperately needs a vision of the future and there is no public money going to be thrown at it. What Peel have recognised is that the economic power of the future lies with China and that Liverpool can hold the key to a huge amount of inward investment. Their plans for a major trade centre (either in Ellesmere Port or Birkenhead) are well-advanced and Chinese investment is already in the pipeline. Liverpool Waters is another piece in a jigsaw which will transform a previously derelict area with no future into a dynamic extension of the waterfront with a feature Shanghai Tower skyscraper. The economic prosperity of Liverpool has always depended on adapting quickly to change. World Heritage status is important, as is the protection of architecturally important sites such as Stanley Dock, but are these really threatened by a scheme which will create thousands of jobs and create a new, dynamic image of Liverpool?
Mr Owen-John said: “We fully support the principle of developing the area. Clearly it is a brownfield site at the moment which is inaccessible and there is real opportunity that could have enormous benefit for Liverpool widely and north Liverpool particularly.” So why throw a spanner in the works having allowed far more sensitive sites to be developed without serious objection.
The view of the photograph is clear enough, looking to the Custom House and beyond, but I am puzzled as to where it was taken from. The dock in the foreground is empty, the remnant of George’s Dock, but I had assumed it had been filled in at the time Mersey Docks and Harbour Board building had been erected in 1907.
The rooftop shown would indicate it was taken further along the road – Goree Piazzas and Brunswick Street are to the immediate left – roughly from the position of the Cunard Building. Perhaps someone can enlighten me as to when the dock was finally filled in and where the camera is positioned.
That problem aside, I have often thought what was the ‘best’ year to have enjoyed Liverpool’s architecture. My own choice is slightly later than this photograph – probably the late 1930s. The Blitz and post-War destruction had yet to inflict devastation on the fabric of the city and the new buildings (Pier Head, India Buildings, Martins Bank, the Philharmonic Hall, the Mersey Tunnel and the Anglican Cathedral) were all positive additions. The photograph illustrates three key losses: the Goree and Custom House (to wartime bombing, although salvageable in both cases) and the Overhead Railway (through financial pressures). A real tragedy for Liverpool.