This is Oriel Chambers on Water Street in Liverpool. It is one of the city’s greatest treasures, the world’s first metal framed glass curtain walled building erected in 1864 and a precursor of the modernist architecture that took flight two decades later in Chicago. It was designed by a little known Victorian architect, Peter Ellis who, in his time, was reviled and scorned for it.
The rationale for the oriel windows with their maximum area of glass was a desire to provide good daylight for the clerks at work inside. The oriels on the front and side elevations are separated by tall stone mullions, carved with nailhead decoration, and designed to look like cast iron. But the oriels themselves are framed in the thinnest sections of iron, and in the courtyard behind, the glazing forms a curtain wall, cantilevered out beyond the line of the frame.
The building’s minimalist forms and large windows were hard for Victorian traditionalists to take. It was described as ‘an agglomeration of great glass bubbles’ and even ‘a great abortion’ which almost certainly led the disheartened Ellis to abandon architecture. He designed only one other building at 16 Cook Street, another striking modernist edifice.
Like Oriel Chambers, it is the rear of building that presents the most remarkable feature. A glazed cast iron spiral staircase (below) dominates the narrow courtyard. The spiral has no central support, but appears to be cantilevered from each floor. The influence of this can be traced in the early skyscrapers in Chicago, and there is speculation of a direct link between Ellis and the American architect John Root, one of the founders of the Chicago School style. Root, having been sent to abroad to avoid the Civil War, was in Liverpool at the time that Cook Street was being built, and some of his work shows the influence of Peter Ellis.
I’ve been reading The Rescue Man, the first novel by Anthony Quinn, film critic of the Independent. Quinn has taken the bare bones of the Peter Ellis story (for that is all there is – little more is known of Ellis than the facts stated here), fictionalised them and woven them into a gripping story of Liverpool during the Blitz of 1940-41. The central character is an architectural historian, Tom Baines, who, at the outbreak of war in 1939, is languidly working on a Pevsner-style survey of Liverpool’s architectural heritage. He’s making slow progress, partly because he is making architectural drawings of each building. But, with the threat of aerial bombardment looming, he’s keen to preserve a record of Liverpool’s magnificent heritage. Someone suggests that he would make more progress if he photographed the buildings, and he is directed to a photographer who works from a city centre studio along with his wife.
This couple seem, very loosely, to be based on the celebrated Liverpool photographer, E Chambre Hardman and his wife, Margaret. This is characteristic of Quinn’s approach: there are echoes of real people in several of his fictional characters (Baines, for example, might be inspired by Quentin Hughes who, like Baines, studied at the University of Liverpool School of Architecture before the War). In the novel, Baines becomes deeply committed to recording and preserving Liverpool’s architectural heritage, making him a close approximation of Hughes, who, in 1964, published the magnificent Seaport: Architecture and Townscape in Liverpool, which utilised superb black and white photograhs to underline the significance of the Victorian and Edwardian architectural inheritance of the city. Much of the city centre was saved because of Hughes’ influence, including the Albert Dock Warehouses and Oriel Chambers. His book was influential in opposing the architectural brutalism of the 1960s. In 1967 he wrote a detailed policy for the conservation of Liverpool’s architecture which was adopted by the City Council.
In the novel, Baines discovers the journal of Peter Eames, an 1860s architect whose radical designs for the city centre office building, Janus House, provoke ridicule and scorn. Eames, clearly, is Ellis – though radically fictionalised, few aspects of the personal life recorded in the journal extracts bearing any relation to that of Peter Ellis. But it’s clear that they are one and the same when Eames writes in his journal:
Janus House opened for business last month & every day the people file down Temple street to stare & point & declare their astonishment, as if some asteroid had plummeted from the Heavens & landed on their doorstep. The press notices have been, thus far, extraordinarily hostile. The Mercury slights it as ‘a greenhouse gone mad’ while the satirical weekly, the Badger, offers this: ‘The plainest brick warehouse in the town is infinitely superior, as a building, to that large agglomeration of protruding plate-glass bubbles in Temple-street, known as Janus House.
Quinn alternates between Baines’s story – he volunteers as a ‘rescue man’ in a Heavy Rescue Team during the period that saw the Christmas Blitz of 1940 and the May Blitz of 1941 destroy large parts of Liverpool and kill over 4,000 residents – and the 19th century story of Eames, the Victorian architect. The war revitalises Baines. In the most evocative passages in the novel, working with his rescue crew, he employs his specialist knowledge of building structures to assess the risks involved in a rescue operation. Quinn evokes a real sense of time and place in stories that intertwine amidst the fear and tension that builds in the city during the months leading up to the bombardment:
The city was still holding its breath as spring lurched into summer. Anxiety had become his companion. It woke in the morning in front of the blackout curtains, hovered by the wireless, read the newspaper over his shoulder.
The gripping rescue scenes, in which Baines and the members of his team pull people from the rubble in the most dangerous circumstances, are brilliantly told and evidently draw upon careful research of actual incidents. When the Lipton factory is bombed, the crew pours cold water on tea leaves to douse the burning smell. In another memorable scene, Baines encounters an unexploded bomb in the cellar of a bombed-out pub, ‘a steel cylinder in green-grey casing, snouty and heavy like a prize-winning marrow, its tail fins set at a jaunty-looking angle’. It could go off at any minute, but the rescue of a woman and her baby goes ahead.
All through this terrible period, Baines continues to read Eames’ 19th century journal. He knows that Eames’s designs – and many other fine buildings – may not survive the war. When the city rebuilds there will be a new vision of Liverpool and he is not sure how he feels about this: ‘The transient landscape of the city, its inexorable susceptibility to change, both thrilled and depressed him’. The damage to the Custom House, built between 1828 and 1839 by city architect John Foster on the site of the original Old Dock, concerns him deeply. This huge domed building graced the south end of South Castle Street and its dome complemented that of the Town Hall at the other end of Castle Street. It was larger than St Georges Hall and, like the hall, built in the classical style.
Custom House from Canning Dock 1891. Source: Liverpool And Merseyside Remembered
Baines was right to be concerned: following the heavy damage that the building incurred during the May Blitz of 1941 which gutted the interior and destroyed the dome,the decision was taken to demolish the shell of the building. There is controversy to this day about whether or not reconstruction would have been practical, but there seems no doubt that the loss of the Custom House was Liverpool’s greatest architectural casualty of the Second World War.
The two main strands of the novel finally draw together one night during the May Blitz as a firestorm rages around Abercromby Square in the city’s Georgian quarter. It was here, in the 19th century, that Peter Eames’ family had their home, and here in May 1941 Baines and his men struggle to save themselves amidst the inferno which threatens St Catherine’s Church on the square.
Again, Anthony Quinn has done his homework: the church was badly damaged, but still stood, the centrepiece of an elegant wing of Liverpool’s most elegant square, as seen in the panorama below, from Quentin Hughes’ Seaport.
This is what Quentin Hughes wrote about the church and its setting in Seaport in 1969:
Physically, most of the area has deteriorated badly. The houses, now too large for single family occupation, have been turned easily into flats and lodgings. Many races inhabit them and dark-skinned, curly-headed children play in the streets.
The shopping centre of Myrtle Street is cosmopolitan. Untidy and threadbare, it has the quality of an eastern bazaar, remarkable in its range of goods which cater for every taste. Paint peels from the walls, the stucco cracks and crumbles and ornate cast-iron balconies rust and fall apart. The once proud district has gone to seed.
At the north end the University attempts to arrest this dilapidation and has shown how admirably adaptable these fine buildings can be. Even here the stucco houses of Regency Bedford Street are being pulled down under the pressure of redevelopment to higher densities and new uses within the University precinct.
Abercromby Square is threatened, but is still well cared for and well loved. The last of the London-type squares built between 1820 and 1865 for the wealthy merchants of Liverpool, it is named after Sir Ralph Abercromby, the intrepid general who was killed in Alexandria in 1801 after his brilliant landing of the British forces at Aboukir. The Square is sufficiently high to command a fine view over the river and the Cheshire bank to the rising hills of Wales beyond. The elder John Foster submitted a plan to the Common Council on 21 November 1800 for this area of the Moss Lake Fields, proposing that ‘houses with not less than twenty-one feet frontage shall be built to a form elevation approved by the Common Council or its Committee’. However, the development appears to have awaited the installation of the city sewerage scheme which John Rennie was commissioned to undertake in 1816, draining amongst other places the ‘intended Abercromby Square’.
Picton called this the ‘most aristocratic quarter of the town’ and each resident had a key to the square and was able to use it for his recreation.
Most of the houses are of plain brickwork, well proportioned and dignified. The doorways are uniform with the exception of a few stone columnal porches which project from the face of the buildings. On the first floor, cast-iron balconies are continuous across the fronts of the houses. On the east side stands St Catherine’s church, its dome shattered in the war, but its splendid stone Ionic portico remaining intact. On each side are stucco-faced houses which set off the sombre character of the church facade.
But the church did not survive – and this where my own story links with that of the fictional Baines and Eames. In 1966, the University of Liverpool reduced St Catherine’s to a pile of rubble to make way for their new Senate House. I arrived as a student at the University the following year, and in 1969, working as a student journalist, I discovered through friends involved with the local tenants’ association that the University owned many of the slum properties in the area, in which families, often with young children, lived in indescribable conditions. The student newspaper published my story, and a movement gathered pace in which students and tenants joined forces to protest at the fortune squandered on Senate House, due to be opened officially that spring by Princess Alexandria.
Colin Wilkinson on his Streets of Liverpool blog makes this comment about the destruction of St Catherine’s:
Whether the destruction of St Catherine’s Church in Abercromby Square was vandalism or redevelopment is a matter of opinion. The whole integrity of the square was quite incredibly broken up by no less a body than the University of Liverpool in their drive for expansion. Street after street of Georgian housing was removed to allow for their vision of a modern campus and John Foster’s classical church of 1829 unfortunately stood in the way. At least until 1966, when it was reduced to a pile of rubble.
In Quinn’s novel, however, Baines is able to rescue a precious (though entirely fictitious) building. Hidden under bomb damage he discovers Peter Eames’s final unfinished project, a grand public library, planned as a monument to his dead brother. He launches a campaign to save the building from Corporation demolition, enlisting the support of a journalist from the Liverpool Echo who is initially sceptical of his chances:
‘But I thought, with it being a site of historical interest, they might want to preserve the place.’
‘My dear chap, this is Liverpool we’re talking about. “Preserve”? When has this city ever honoured the principles of culture or heritage above the cold brute urge to make money? You know as well I do that the place has always been a mercantile centre – and if a thing isn’t paying its way it’s either knocked down or left to rot.’
One of the features of this fictitious building is ‘a row of lovingly carved capitals beneath the frieze … all of the same figure, a young man seated, one leg crossing the other, reading a book’. Quinn must have been inspired by the images of boys engrossed in a book that are carved in stone on the exterior of Norris Green library, on the outskirts of the city. These were sculpted by George Herbert Tyson Smith who executed many works in the Liverpool and Merseyside area, in particular war memorials, including the beautiful reliefs on the Liverpool Cenotaph outside St Georges Hall.
The Rescue Man is an impassioned tribute to Liverpool – the city’s history, its architecture and its people. It’s a gripping read for anyone, but if you have a love for this great city by the Mersey you will relish it. Quinn ends the book with Baines musing on the changes being wrought to the cityscape as a result of the war’s destruction:
He’d heard that they were planning to pull down the old Customs House, which had stood by the river since 1829. It would be infamous – unforgivable. Whole streets and lanes were disappearing, their names remembered only by word of mouth, or in the forgotten folds of disused maps. These brief candles. They were blowing out their own past … But maybe he’d got that wrong. Maybe you couldn’t destroy history. You could only add to it.
There are echoes here of the controversy in Liverpool right now about the plans by Peel Holdings for a massive redevelopment of the North Docks – the Liverpool Waters scheme – which will feature skyscrapers housing offices, shops and apartments, but threaten the city’s UNESCO World Heritage status.
Oriel Chambers is now a Grade 1 Listed Building. It was damaged during the war, but sympathetically restored with a 1950s extension. It’s a working building still, housing a set of barristers’ chambers.
A notable Liverpool landmark, however, is a building left in ruins since the Second World War. St. Luke’s Church stands prominently at the top of Bold Street as an enduring symbol and reminder of the destruction caused by the Blitz. The church was hit by an incendiary bomb on Monday 5th May 1941 and the ensuing fire proved impossible to quench. The city was burning as a result of the prolonged attack by the Luftwaffe; fire fighters and relief workers were already stretched to the limit. In the early hours of Tuesday May 6th local residents who were sheltering in the nearby basements of Roscoe Place reported hearing the great bell fall from the tower.
A fantastic example of neo-gothic architecture, St. Luke’s was designed by another great Liverpool architect, John Foster along with his son. It took nearly 30 years to build, but a single night to destroy. Now the burnt out shell is commonly known locally as ‘the bombed-out church‘. It is now a garden of remembrance, commemorating the thousands of local men, women and children who died as a result of the bomb attacks on their city. It remains one of Liverpool’s best loved landmarks.
- Many of the photos on this page are from Liverpool Monuments website
- An Emotional Involvement: my blog chronicling Liverpool student protest, including the Senate House protest