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