Central Liverpool
The Museum Area
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Last updated 30th April 2017
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Walk: Liverpool Town Centre
In the text below, whole paragraphs in italic are quotations from original sources, as follows:
SOL   The Streets of Liverpool, James Stonehouse, 1869.
The Museum Area in Gage's map of 1836
The Museum Area
Liverpool's Museum Area, containing a concentration of some of the city's finest buildings, is almost entirely a creation of the mid-19th century. This has given the area an architectural coherence dominated by the neoclassical tastes of the time. St. George's Hall, the art gallery, the museum and the library, along with pedestrian areas and green spaces, provide a focal point for culture and relaxation in the city.
Shaws Brow c.1800
The Museum Area and environs from the West Tower
St. John's Church in the later 19th century
Historically, the tidal creek known as the Pool provided the western boundary of the district. This was later filled in and became Whitechapel, Old Haymarket and Byrom Street. By the mid-17th century, the Pool was crossed by the Townsend Bridge, connecting Dale Street to Shaw's Brow, now William Brown Street, and on to London Road. This was a pack-horse, later stagecoach, route to Prescot and the world beyond, with the Gallow Field on the left and the Great Heath on the right.
The area was becoming built up by 1750 and the Liverpool Infirmary had been constructed on the site now occupied by St. George's Hall. Over the previous 50 years, the population of Liverpool had quadrupled and this was becoming one of the most crowded, disease-ridden and impoverished areas of the city. In 1767 the plot of land corresponding to the present-day St. John's Gardens was enclosed as a large public burial ground. In 1775 the construction of St. John's Church began in the middle of the plot.
St. George's Hall opened in 1854 and the buildings on William Brown street were constructed from 1860 to 1884. The cemetery was closed in 1865 and St. John's Church was demolished in 1899. A cathedral was initially planned for the site but in the event St. John's Gardens were laid out instead and opened in 1904.
William Brown-street was within the last few years known as 'Shaw's-brow,' and is still so named by many who have objected to the change, or who cannot forget its old appellation. It was the main outlet from Liverpool in the olden time by way of Dale-street, and the 'Towns-end,' as that part of Liverpool was called. It was a narrow steep street. It derived its name and title of 'Shaw's-brow' from being the road to Mr. Alderman Shaw's extensive potteries on the rising ground. When Mr. Shaw was Mayor in 1794 he gave away the whole of his allowance of £800 to the charities. After Mr. Shaw had settled on the Brow, other banks or potteries were opened, and increased in number, until the vicinity became quite a potters' colony. [...] The bottom of Shaw's-brow, facing the Haymarket, was called St. John's Village. Up the south side of Shaw's-brow were the potters' dwellings. It is said that some of these men, in the time of resurrectionism, were in the habit of getting over the church-yard wall and exhuming any newly interred bodies, taking them into their houses, and selling them to the medical students and others who purchased such subjects.
On Shaw's-brow there was once a well of famous water, which was advertised for sale in the Weekly Advertiser of the 17th November, 1758, at nine-pence per butt. It is recommended by Mr. Parker, the proprietor, as being 'so soft as to be excellent for washing and boiling peas!' It may be recollected by many as a never-failing well, supplying the engine of an emery-mill. In the same yard was one of the cones of one of the old pottery works. [...] The widening of Shaw's-brow took place in 1852. The houses were in some cases of rather a picturesque appearance, some being constructed of wood, lath, and plaster, and others of timber and brick. The triangular piece of ground on which stands the by no-means beautiful Wellington testimonial was purchased by the Corporation in 1780. The Townsend Mill stood at the western end. It was taken down about that date. [SOL]
Pottery on Shaws Brow c.1800
St. George's Hall
St. George's Hall
In 1839 and 1840, Harvey Lonsdale Elmes won competitions to design both a concert hall and assize courts. The Corporation then wanted the two combined, which resulted in the present magnificent building known as St. George's Hall, which opened in 1854 and is Grade I Listed. It is a neoclassical masterpiece, 'one of the greatest [buildings] in England and a monument of world importance' (Quentin Hughes).
The many features of St. George's Plateau in front of the hall include four huge lions (Cockerell 1856), equestrian bronzes of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (Thornycroft 1866-9) and dolphin-based cast-iron lamp standards (also by Cockerell). Disraeli (Birch 1883) stands on the steps. Wellington's Column was completed in 1865. The column was designed by Andrew Lawson of Edinburgh and the bronze statue of the Duke by Glaswegian George Anderson Lawson, who also created the relief of the Battle of Waterloo on the south side of the plinth. Together they are 132 ft (40 m) high. The statue is said to be made from melted-down cannons from the battle.
St. George's Plateau and Wellington's Column
The County Sessions House and Steble Fountain
The County Sessions House
It is difficult to take in the entire sweep of the magnificent buildings on William Brown Street in one go. The street was named after a Liverpool merchant whose generosity enabled the Town Council to act upon an 1852 Act of Parliament that allowed the establishment of a public library, museum and art gallery. At the top end of the street is the County Sessions House. Completed in 1884, it owes more to Renaissance Venice than the Greece and Rome of its neighbours. The interior is set out in a complex manner, designed to keep lawyers, public and prisoners in separated zones.
The cast iron Steble Fountain, erected in 1879, was designed by sculptor W. Cunliffe and named after the former mayor Col. R.F. Steeble. Neptune, Amphitrite, Acis and Galatea sit around the base. There are replicas in Boston, Geneva and Launceston (Tasmania).
The Walker Art Gallery
The Walker Art Gallery
Next down William Brown Street, the Walker Art Gallery houses one of the largest art collections in England outside of London. It was designed by H.H Vale in 1873, completed in 1877, enlarged in 1882 by Cornelius Sherlock and again in 1931 by Arnold Thornly. It is named after brewer and Mayor of Liverpool Sir Andrew Barclay Walker, who provided the funding. On the top of the building is an allegorical figure representing Liverpool holding a traditional trident and a somewhat more progressive ship's propeller.
The nucleus of the collection was formed in 1819 from 37 paintings belonging to William Roscoe, acquired by the Liverpool Royal Institution following his bankruptcy. More were added over the subsequent decades. Today the collection ranges from early Renaissance Italian and Netherlandish paintings, including The Nymph of the Fountain by Cranach the Elder, via works by Rubens, Rembrandt, Poussin and Degas, to a small but interesting modern collection including works by Lucien Freud, Paul Nash and David Hockney. There are two famous portraits of Monarchs: Henry VIII by Holbein the Younger and Elizabeth I by Hilliard. There is also the expected strong element of British works, especially the Pre-Raphaelites, including Waterhouse's Echo and Narcissus. Also look out for the extraordinary symbolist painting The Punishment of Lust by Giovanni Segantini.
The Picton Library
The New Central Library
The Central Library
Next to the Walker Art Gallery, a complex of buildings makes up Liverpool Central Library. The William Brown Library, sharing a building with the Museum (see below), was the first of the new buildings on William Brown Street. Work was completed in 1860 with funding for the land and construction provided by merchant William Brown.
Today the group is dominated by the circular Picton Library with its massive Corinthian columns. This section was designed by Cornelius Sherlock and completed in 1879. It is named after James Picton, then president of the Libraries and Museums Committee. It was unkindly known as Picton's Gasometer when it opened and was the first building in Liverpool to have electric lighting. Its circular shape seems to act as a hinge between the upper and lower parts of the William Brown Street complex. The impressive interior beneath its vast dome feels like a bibliophile's shrine.
Behind and not visible from the street is the beautiful Edwardian Hornby Library designed by Thomas Shelmerdine and opened in 1906.
Parts of the library buildings were damaged by bombing in World War II and reconstructed post-war in a utilitarian and unbeguiling manner. However, a stunning and multiple award-winning upgrading of the interior and facilities was completed in 2013. The jaw-dropping new interior is topped by a roof terrace and café with great views over the city.
The Picton Reading Room
View from the Roof Terrace of the New Library
The William Brown Library and World Museum
The Central Technical School
The World Museum and Central Technical School
The William Brown Library and Museum were originally designed by Thomas Allom, but there was controversy over the cost of the winning scheme. The design was modified by John Weightman and funding issues resolved by wealthy local merchant William Brown. Work was completed in 1860 with 400,000 people attending the opening ceremony. The steps are a 1902 feature replacing an elevated terrace. The building was badly bombed in 1941, fortunately leaving the facade intact. It was a miracle that so much survived on William Brown Street when large tracts of the surrounding area were obliterated. There were significant losses among the exhibits but the most important parts of the collection had been previously removed to a safer location.
The museum was reconstructed unsympathetically (architects put it more forcefully) in 1957-1969, modifying the skyline above the entrance. The building is now part of the World Museum Liverpool and part of the Central Library. The main classes of exhibit are Astronomy, Space and Time, including a planetarium, Archaeology, Egyptology and Ethnology, and Biology, Zoology and Geology.
At the end is the Museum Extension and Central Technical School building, now used entirely by the museum. It opened in 1901 with its main entrance on Byrom Street
Facing the Central Technical School is the entrance to one of the two Mersey tunnels. This, the original tunnel and now known as Queensway, was constructed between 1925 and 1934. It was an extraordinary feat of engineering and in its time was the longest underwater road tunnel in the world at 2.1 miles (3.4 km). The Portland stone frontage in Liverpool's beloved Art Deco style features two winged bulls intended to be symbolic of 'swift and heavy traffic'. 1.2 million tons of rock were excavated that went as landfill to Storeton Quarry and Otterspool Promenade. The statues either side are of George V and Queen Mary, who conducted the official opening on 18th July 1934. Those of a nervous disposition might like to know that at one point there is only four feet of solid rock above the tunnel.
The Mersey Tunnel (Queensway) Entrance
St. John's Gardens
St. John's Gardens
St. John's Gardens behind St. George's Hall were laid out over an 18th century cemetery in one of the most crowded, disease-ridden and impoverished parts of the city at the time. The construction of St. John's Church began in the middle of the plot in 1775. The churchyard was closed for burials in 1865 after 82,491 bodies had been interred and the church was demolished in 1899. A cathedral had been planned for the site but in the event St. John's Gardens, designed by Thomas Shelmerdine, were laid out instead and opened in 1904.
Today these gardens provide a welcome and popular green space in the heart of Liverpool, laid out formally with flower beds, memorials and statues. The latter, by some of the most famous Victorian sculptors (Frampton, Brock and Pomeroy) constitute one of the major groups of outdoor public monuments of the early twentieth century ('Liverpool's al fresco Valhalla', according to a local newspaper of the time).
Opposite St. John's Gardens on St. John's Lane is Dr Duncan's, an unusual and spectacular pub of several rooms with dark stained woodwork, elaborate lofty ceilings and tiled walls. Although it features pharmaceutical memorabilia it was originally not, as often stated, a pharmacy, but was built for Pearl Insurance in 1901. It is named after Liverpool born Dr. William Henry Duncan, who became Liverpool's first Medical Officer of Health.
Dr Duncan's
Acknowledgements and Further Reading
As usual, I have drawn on the indispensible Liverpool (Pevsner Architectural Guides), by Joseph Sharples, which has much more on the architecture. The engraving of Shaw's Brow is form Yo! Liverpool, that of St. John's Church in the late 19th century is from OnLine Parish Clerks for the County of Lancashire and that of the Pottery on Shaw's Brow is by W.G.Herdman and was published in Pictorial Relics of Ancient Liverpool, 1843, sourced from the wonderful Ancestry Images. My thanks to all of the these.
This is a non-commercial website that is intended entirely for research and educational purposes. If I have unintentionally breached copyright with any images, I hope that the copyright owner will tolerate my usage in the present context, otherwise I will remove the material. Modern colour photographs are by the author.