Civic glory

By stages through the 18th and 19th cen­turies, Liver­pool brought into be­ing per­haps the great­est Ge­or­gian civic build­ing in Bri­tain, as Steven Brindle ex­plains

Country Life Every Week - - Athena - Pho­tographs by Paul High­nam

iver­pool over­looks the great es­tu­ary of the Mersey, a brac­ing set­ting with dis­tant views that call to mind its epic his­tory. De­spite many depre­da­tions in the 20th cen­tury, its orig­i­nal town cen­tre re­tains an ex­tra­or­di­nary con­cen­tra­tion of fine com­mer­cial buildings and at the heart of this area is the Town Hall. in its ar­chi­tec­ture and dec­o­ra­tion, this rep­re­sents three stages in Liver­pool’s his­tory: its rise to wealth and power in the mid 18th cen­tury, its spec­tac­u­lar ex­pan­sion in the early 19th cen­tury and its lat­e­vic­to­rian and ed­war­dian apogee.

The me­dieval town of Liver­pool orig­i­nally had seven main streets and the Town Hall stands on one of these. Cas­tle Street to the south orig­i­nally led to the 13th-cen­tury cas­tle and, just to the south of this, a tidal creek of the Mersey, the orig­i­nal ‘Liver pool’, wound in­land. This was the fo­cus of the first port; in 1715, be­cause of the prob­lems caused by the Mersey’s huge tidal range, the town had it trans­formed into an en­closed, tidal dock, the first in Bri­tain.

The port was well placed for the coast­ing and Dublin trades and had al­ready re­ceived its first Amer­i­can car­goes of to­bacco and sugar. Soon after this, Daniel De­foe vis­ited it and wrote: ‘ Liver­poole is one of the won­ders of Bri­tain… What it may grow to in time, i know not.’

in fact, the town ben­e­fited im­mensely from the threat pre­sented to Bri­tish ship­ping around the south­ern coast from the French navy and Con­ti­nen­tal pri­va­teers—mer­chants be­gan to move there as a com­par­a­tively safe haven. As Liver­pool rose, it chal­lenged Bris­tol’s dom­i­nance of the At­lantic trade, es­pe­cially the slave trade, and, by 1740, it was the lead­ing euro­pean home port for this wicked but prof­itable busi­ness.

LThis was the back­ground to the town’s de­ci­sion, in about 1747, to build a new ex­change. An older ex­change stood just to the south of the present site, ‘placed on pil­lars and arches of hewen stone’ with a pub­lic meet­ing place on the ground floor. The new build­ing was to be a much larger and grander in­ter­pre­ta­tion of this theme.

At the time, Liver­pool had a lo­cal ar­chi­tect and ma­son of some dis­tinc­tion, Henry Seph­ton (1686–1756), but it is a mea­sure of the coun­cil’s am­bi­tions for their new build­ing that he was not en­trusted with the job. They were very con­scious of their ri­valry with Bris­tol, which, in 1741– 3, had equipped it­self with a splen­did new ex­change build­ing de­signed by John Wood the el­der of Bath (1704– 54). in June 1749, a Liver­pool busi­ness­woman, Sarah Clay­ton, wrote from Bath that Wood was ‘on all hands agreed to be a great ge­nius’, so, in 1749, he was ap­pointed, on the un­der­stand­ing that the work would be su­per­vised by his son, John Wood the Younger (1728– 81).

Mat­ters must have pro­ceeded quickly, as the foun­da­tion stone was laid on Septem­ber 14, 1749. The new ex­change was opened in 1754 and the Woods, fa­ther and son, were both made freemen of Liver­pool as a mark of es­teem.

The Woods had in­deed given Liver­pool a mag­nif­i­cent pub­lic build­ing, the finest to date in the North-west, but it was a very dif­fer­ent thing to the present Town Hall. it only had façades on its south and east sides; the other sides abut­ted other buildings. There were

Liver­pool Town Hall

open, arched en­trances in both fronts, which led to a rather cramped cen­tral court­yard sur­rounded by Doric colon­nades, the fo­cus of the ground-floor ex­change area.

In 1785, the town coun­cil re­solved to clear the buildings to the west and, in 1792, its sur­veyor, John Foster Se­nior (1758–1827) de­signed a new west front, which fol­lowed Wood’s de­sign fairly closely with some vari­a­tions. A cu­ri­ous square dome, which orig­i­nally crowned the cen­tre of the south front, was re­moved in about 1786. Then, in 1787, it was de­cided to clear the buildings to the north and build a large ex­ten­sion to house the mayor and court on the ground floor, with a grand as­sem­bly room above. The idea of roof­ing over the cen­tral court­yard ap­peared around this time, too.

The town had a very ca­pa­ble sur­veyor and ar­chi­tect to hand in Foster, but, again, it was felt that this pres­ti­gious com­mis­sion re­quired an ar­chi­tect of na­tional rep­u­ta­tion, so the coun­cil went to James Wy­att (1746–1813), then at the height of his celebrity. Wy­att pro­vided de­signs that Foster ex­e­cuted. Work be­gan in 1789 and the north­ern ex­ten­sion was ap­par­ently struc­turally com­plete by 1792.

How­ever, in 1795, the Ex­change was gut­ted by fire and all of the orig­i­nal in­te­ri­ors de­stroyed. It was de­cided to re­build within the orig­i­nal shell, trans­form­ing the ex­change into a more fully equipped town hall, with a com­pletely new in­te­rior by Wy­att and Foster. The ground floor of the orig­i­nal build­ing was en­closed as of­fices for the town’s se­nior of­fi­cials.

The new dome above the cen­tral court­yard was com­pleted in 1802, the de­signs for the in­te­ri­ors were ap­par­ently ap­proved in 1805 and the new por­tico to the south front was com­pleted in 1811. Work on fit­ting out and fur­nish­ing the mag­nif­i­cent new re­cep­tion rooms went on un­til about 1820.

Dur­ing the re­build­ing of the Town Hall, the great cam­paign to end the slave trade tri­umphed with its abo­li­tion in 1807; this was vig­or­ously op­posed in Liver­pool, but the pre­dicted de­cline in its for­tunes failed to ma­te­ri­alise. In­stead, the town surged for­ward to achieve a nearcom­plete dom­i­nance of the At­lantic trade, its busi­ness now led by boom­ing im­ports of cot­ton for Lan­cashire’s tex­tile mills.

There are two more sig­nif­i­cant phases in the his­tory of the build­ing to note. In 1898–1900, the ground floor of the north wing was re­mod­elled to pro­vide a mag­nif­i­cent new coun­cil cham­ber. This was needed, as Liver­pool had been granted city sta­tus in 1880; it now had a Lord Mayor and an en­larged coun­cil ( Fig 5). After the First World War, the space be­tween the cen­tral Grand Stair­case and the Coun­cil Cham­ber was made into a Hall of Re­mem­brance to the city’s war dead, ded­i­cated in 1921– 3.

The Town Hall’s main front looks south down Cas­tle Street ( Fig 1). One im­por­tant change was Wy­att’s ad­di­tion of the por­tico, which adds depth and drama to the façade. It also forms an ef­fec­tive vis­ual sup­port for the mag­nif­i­cent dome, also by Wy­att, that rises above the new stair­case, which oc­cu­pied the site of Wood’s cen­tral court­yard. Wy­att seems to have taken his cue from Wren’s domes at Green­wich and his de­sign is tri­umphantly ef­fec­tive. A fig­ure of Bri­tan­nia mod­elled by J. C. Rossi crowns the dome and, low down on each face, there are clocks, whose de­sign was prob­a­bly based, as John Martin Robin­son has pointed out, on Sir Wil­liam Cham­bers’ clock in the So­ci­ety of An­ti­quar­ies’ rooms in Lon­don.

Wood’s east front was al­tered with the con­ver­sion of its ground-floor win­dows to have arched heads. Both of Wood’s façades re­tain richly carved friezes level with the pi­laster cap­i­tals with em­blems of the city’s trade, in­clud­ing the heads of African slaves, a de­tail that Foster left off the west front when he de­signed it in 1792.

The grand north­ern ex­ten­sion em­bod­ies Wy­att’s rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of Wood’s hand­some ar­chi­tec­ture, with sim­i­lar pro­por­tions but more re­fined de­tails. The north front has a pro­ject­ing fron­tispiece with paired Corinthian columns, which were orig­i­nally ‘en­gaged’ against the façade; it was re­built in its present form so an al­cove could be cre­ated for the Lord Mayor’s seat in the Coun­cil Cham­ber in­side in 1899–1900.

Orig­i­nally, Wy­att and Foster’s north front faced a mag­nif­i­cent new square, Ex­change Flags, built in 1803– 8 to pro­vide a larger mer­chants’ ex­change, re­plac­ing that on the ground floor of the Town Hall build­ing. The other three sides had no­ble neo-clas­si­cal façades echo­ing its new north front, but these were de­mol­ished and re­placed, first by T. H. Wy­att in a florid French Sec­ond Em­pire style in 1863–70 and later by the present rather over-scaled buildings by Gun­ton & Gun­ton of 1939–55. The mid­dle of the square is still oc­cu­pied by the Nel­son mon­u­ment of 1807–13, de­signed by Wy­att’s son Matthew Cotes and sculpted by Richard West­ma­cott.

The Town Hall’s por­tico leads to its Vestibule, with a mag­nif­i­cent en­caus­tic tile floor of 1848 bear­ing the town’s arms, ma­hogany pan­elling and mu­rals of about 1900. The ground-floor rooms to ei­ther side orig­i­nally housed the Sur­veyor, Town Clerk and Trea­surer and re­tain groined ceil­ings and some orig­i­nal fit­tings.

The north ex­ten­sion at the back houses the grand Coun­cil Cham­ber, re­mod­elled in 1899–1900 with the coun­cil­lors’ seats ranged fac­ing the

Lord Mayor’s seat, also lined with fine ma­hogany pan­elling. Be­tween it and the Stair­case Hall is the Hall of Re­mem­brance, lined with lists of the Liver­pudlians who had fallen in the First World War and with al­le­gor­i­cal mu­rals by Frank O. Salisbury, com­pleted in 1923.

At the heart of the build­ing is Wy­att’s grand stair­case ( Fig 2), over-sailed by the great dome ( Fig 3). It is a space heated by spe­cially de­signed ca­st­iron ovens ( Fig 4). The whole first floor is oc­cu­pied by a se­ries of re­cep­tion rooms of great beauty, ar­ranged in a crescendo of mag­nif­i­cence around the Stair­case Hall. First, there are three re­cep­tion rooms on the south front, all with high vaulted plas­ter ceil­ings by Francesco Ber­nasconi.

Next, the cen­tre of the west front is oc­cu­pied by the Din­ing Room and, beyond this, the Large Ball­room, 89ft long, which oc­cu­pies the whole of Wy­att and Foster’s ex­ten­sion ( Fig 6). This great room calls to mind im­ages of the Prince Re­gent’s lost Carlton House. The Small Ball­room, on the east front, has a seg­men­tal ceil­ing and curved or ‘ab­si­dal’ ends like Wy­att’s sa­loon at Hevening­ham Hall, en­clos­ing al­coves for the mu­si­cians.

The re­cep­tion rooms were orig­i­nally en­dowed with su­perb fur­ni­ture of rose­wood in­laid with brass, most of which sur­vives, although, in re­cent years, much of it has had to be put in store be­cause of the Town Hall’s daily use. In ev­ery other way, the in­te­ri­ors are com­plete and beau­ti­fully main­tained. It is very much a liv­ing build­ing, not a mu­seum: the Lord Mayor still has his of­fice there, the full coun­cil still meets in the Coun­cil Cham­ber four times a year and it re­mains at the heart of Liver­pool’s civic and so­cial life.

Liver­pool Town Hall is tes­ti­mony to the city’s heroic age, when it had the wealth and con­fi­dence to de­mand the best that money could buy.

Fig 1: The main fa•ade is rus­ti­cated. Corinthian pi­lasters in the up­per storey orig­i­nally framed two tiers of win­dows. The up­per win­dows were blocked by the high ceil­ings de­signed by Wy­att and are here re­placed with dec­o­ra­tive pan­els

Fig 2 fac­ing page: The im­pe­rial stair. Fig 3 above: The dome. In 1902, its an­gles were adorned with paintings of labour­ers in the docks by Charles Welling­ton Furse. Fig 4 be­low: Stoves be­neath the stair

Fig 5: The Coun­cil Cham­ber added in 1898– 1900 was splen­didly fit­ted out with pan­elling and wood­work de­signed by the city’s sur­veyor and ar­chi­tect, Thomas Shelmer­dine

Fig 6: The Large Ball­room is re­flected to in­fin­ity in the huge mir­rors at ei­ther end. Its three im­mense chan­de­liers were sup­plied by Thomas Hawkes & Com­pany in 1820

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