Category: Shops

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.

The poster outside The Jacey cinema is advertising Black Orpheus, a 1959 film about the Rio Carnival, but this is 1970 and the end of an era for Brown’s department store. Clayton Square was once Liverpool’s finest city centre square but it had gradually become rough at the edges and in need of serious investment. Had it got it, back in the 1970s, we would be admiring an interesting mix of late-Georgian/Victorian buildings which would have softened the brutal impact of St John’s Market. What we got was a repeat of the same mistake. Rip out the character and erect a shopping mall which, after little more than 20 years, is already showing its age. As is always the case, commercial interests run rough-shod over the sensibilities of the public – the very people they are trying to entice into their crumbling malls. In truth the public has voted – which is why these ‘shopping experiences’ are emptying out. Sadly, the damage is already done and no amount of hand-wringing can restore the period character to the area.

Houghton Street was once a busy street connecting Williamson Square and Clayton Square. It is still there but one side is taken up by St John’s Market and the other by what were George Henry Lee’s and Owen Owens. This is an interesting colour photograph taken just before the buildings were demolished to make way for the new market. There is not a lot I can add to my previous comments about the destruction of this area. Even the landlords of St John’s appear to have thrown in the towel and have abandoned the complete refit indefinitely.

I can remember that when the precinct caught fire (in the 1980s – my memory fails me), architects gathered at their club in Bluecoat Chambers and toasted its demise. They celebrated too soon. Unfortunately the fire damage was repairable and the Market continued to trade. There are a few other buildings I would raise a glass to if they were to be consumed by fire (no casualties of course): the black glass buildings on Mann Island and St John’s Market topping the list.

In my list of Liverpool ‘grot spots’, this corner of Ranelagh Street would be near the top (along with the rest of the block along Lime Street). My reaction, though, is generated by the lack of care and maintenance rather than the intrinsic quality of the architecture. In fact, looking at how the building was when it first opened, as Peter Robinson’s new store, one can see the boldness and brightness of the architect’s vision. Concrete is not a material that ages well, but the addition of strong colour gives a cohesion and life to the building that is sadly lacking today.
Post-War architecture is slowly coming back into fashion as a new, younger generation looks at it with different eyes. Just as Georgian architecture fell out of favour with the Victorians and Victorian architecture, in turn, was disliked until the 1970s, the modernist movement of the 1950s and 60s has had its years in the shadows. Much that was built in the rush to reconstruct after the War was substandard but there are gems which should be appreciated. I would not go so far as to include this building in Ranelagh Street, but it would certainly look much better if restored to its original colour scheme.

I have just returned from a few days in the North East, including a day spent wandering around Newcastle. Walking past Eldon Square, once one of Europe’s finest squares, it seems inconceivable that a magnificent Georgian townscape could be so ruthlessly destroyed for a concrete replacement. Much of the town centre was the work of architect John Dobson, the Newcastle equivalent of the Fosters (father and son) who dominated Liverpool’s emerging townscape in the first half of the nineteenth century. The Fosters had similar grandiose plans to reshape Liverpool and were responsible for many of the public buildings including the Custom House, the School for the Blind, the Oratory and St James’s Cemetery, St Luke’s Church, St Andrew’s (Rodney Street) and St John’s Market. The Market, regarded by the much-travelled artist James Audobon as the finest he had seen, was widely admired for its fine Classical detail, advanced lighting and engineering. Sadly, its fate was, like Eldon Square, to be replaced by an ugly concrete shopping centre which, like its Newcastle equivalent, had nothing in keeping with its surroundings.

I must admit I do not have much background on Bunneys store. It had long gone by the time I arrived in Liverpool. Henry Greenwood, the outfitters, apparently bought the site (if not the business) in the late 1950s. Their new store was opened on the site in 1958 – so the photograph was taken some time before that. Bunneys building was slightly eccentric – a bit of Edwardian baroque in the high street. The 1950s building that replaced it is one of our better post-War buildings, although I imagine most readers will feel more strongly about the more characterful original.
As a publisher, I am surprised that there is so little written about shops, considering how much a part of lives they are and have been. (Although the same could be said about schools – where is the definitive tome about Liverpool schools?). Anyone up for the challenge?


I received an interesting query regarding yesterday?s posting about Church Street. The question was about the white building protruding between the Compton Hotel and Bon March?. My first thought was that this was the original street line prior to the completion of Bon March?. The white building was clearly removed at some stage since today?s photograph clearly shows the whole building set back from the street. If so, that would date the previous photograph to 1877/78 ? well before my estimate of 1890 – unless the corner building was demolished a few years after the main Bon March? building was erected and replaced by an extension. Certainly a check in Gore?s 1887 directory shows AT Smith (fancy toy dealer) and Dixon & Moore (auctioneers) at that corner address. Unfortunately, my maps are either too early or too late to answer this question. Any answers?
By 1893 (as seen in the photograph), the corner site was owned by Richardsons, a shop selling mantles/furs and waterproofs. Bon March? appears to have no frontage to Church Street (its entrance being through the arcade on the left. The other premises to the street were The Avondale Caf? and Durandu, a well-known tobacconist.
Bon March? took its name from the famous Parisian store and had a very successful history. The original building was replaced in 1918-22 (by the George Henry Lee building) and the store was famous for its promotions (Gracie Fields appeared there during the 1930s selling stockings for fifteen minutes) and, in 1937, it introduced Younger Liverpool, an early example of a boutique style department. During the 1950s, its fortunes declined and, having been briefly owned by the Liverpool Co-operative Society, it was acquired in 1961 by the John Lewis Partnership, who decided to merge it with George Henry Lee.