History in Structure

Town Hall

A Grade I Listed Building in Central, Liverpool

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Latitude: 53.4072 / 53°24'25"N

Longitude: -2.9916 / 2°59'29"W

OS Eastings: 334175

OS Northings: 390497

OS Grid: SJ341904

Mapcode National: GBR 72N.WM

Mapcode Global: WH877.0MPC

Plus Code: 9C5VC245+V9

Entry Name: Town Hall

Listing Date: 28 June 1952

Last Amended: 19 June 1985

Grade: I

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1360219

English Heritage Legacy ID: 359717

ID on this website: 101360219

Location: Liverpool, Merseyside, L2

County: Liverpool

Electoral Ward/Division: Central

Parish: Non Civil Parish

Built-Up Area: Liverpool

Traditional County: Lancashire

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Merseyside

Church of England Parish: Liverpool Our Lady and St Nicholas

Church of England Diocese: Liverpool

Tagged with: City hall Seat of local government Georgian architecture

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392/48/1334 WATER STREET
392/52/1334 (North side)

(Formerly listed as:

This list entry has been amended as part of the Bicentenary commemorations of the 1807 Abolition Act.

The Town Hall stands on the north side of Water Street. Built 1749-54, by John Wood the Elder; modified, extended and reconstructed late C18-early C19 by John Foster Senior, supervised by James Wyatt. Dome completed 1802; south portico completed 1811; interior completed c1820. Council chamber extended and north portico rebuilt using original columns, 1899-1900, by Thomas Shelmerdine. Stone with slate roof and lead dome.

EXTERIOR: Two storeys, nine bays; twelve-bay returns. Basement of rock faced rustication. Ground floor rusticated with round-headed windows in recessed reveals. All windows are sashed with glazing bars. South facade: three-bay centre loggia with round-arched entrances, windows in returns with wrought iron screens. Recessed door with fanlight and three-panel doors with large ornamental knockers. First floor has unfluted Corinthian pilasters, and central hexastyle pedimented portico with unfluted Corinthian columns. Windows are round-headed on angle pilasters. Above are rectangular panels, carved with swags and garlands, probably by Frederick Legé, which replaced attic windows in 1811. Entablature and balustrade. Between capitals of pilasters are panels carved in high relief, with exotic emblems of Liverpool's mercantile trade, such as African and Indian heads, an elephant, a crocodile and a camel. The panels continue to east and west elevations - the carvers of those on the 1749-54 south and east facades may have been Thomas Johnson, William Mercer and Edward Rigby. East facade: first nine bays form a symmetrical composition round a three-bay centre with applied hexastyle portico. Central door with iron overthrow and lamp. Last three bays (part of Wyatt's northern extension) have first floor niches and blind bull's eyes under garlands. Here the pilasters are coupled. Tall parapet over entablature, with coupled pilasters separating panels with swags, continuing to north facade. North facade: five bays with projecting three-bay centre with first floor open loggia of coupled columns. Centre windows with architraves and pediments, bull's eyes over. Side windows are tripartite, with colonnettes and responds, carved panels over. Loggia surmounted by statues ordered from Richard Westmacott Senior in 1792. Tall parapet over entablature. West facade: similar to east facade. Central dome on drum with large recessed small paned windows behind a colonnade with four projecting Corinthian aedicules. Balustrade with four clocks flanked by lions and unicorns. Dome surmounted by Coade-stone seated figure, either Britannia or Minerva, by J. C. Rossi; the statue's base is decorated with shells.

INTERIOR: Main entrance leads to Vestibule: panelled, with brass plaques naming those given honorary freedom of City. Groin vaulted ceiling, the four shallow lunettes containing murals by J. H. Amschwitz. Ornate fireplace made up from C17 Flemish carvings, presented in 1893. Colourful encaustic tile floor of 1848, incorporating arms of Liverpool. Rooms to east and west. In the northern extension is the Council Chamber, enlarged 1899-1900 to fill the ground floor. Panelled walls. Between the Council Chamber and the Staircase Hall is the Hall of Remembrance, opened 1921: the walls carry the names of over 13,000 Liverpool men who died during WWI; lunettes painted by Frank O. Salisbury. In the Staircase Hall there are two very unusual cast-iron stoves in the form of Doric Columns, possibly designed by Joseph Gandy. The staircase rises under the coffered interior of the dome: a single broad flight between two pairs of Corinthian columns, to a half-landing; then two narrower flights, not attached to walls, return towards the upper landing. Upper landing runs round three sides. The drum of the dome rests on pendentives, painted by Charles Wellington Furse and installed in 1902 show powerful scenes of dock labour. On the first floor there are three reception rooms across the south front, designed by Wyatt: the Central Reception Room has Neoclassical plasterwork by Francesco Bernasconi, who was responsible for most of the stuccowork throughout; to the west and east are room with segmental tunnel vaults. Along the west side is the Dining Room, with a coved ceiling and elaborate plasterwork. Corinthian pilasters of yellow Carniola marble, with painted roundels between the capitals. At either end of the room are niches containing mahogany cabinets (for warming plates) supporting candelabra in the form of red scagliola vases by Joseph Brown, 1813. Between the windows are stoves of remarkable Neoclassical design. Along the east side is the Small Ballroom which is segmental vaulted, with pilasters of Red Carniola. Along the north side is the Large Ballroom, also with a segmental-vaulted ceiling, stucco by James Queen, pilasters of yellow Carniola, and white marble chimneypieces by William Hetherington. In the centre of the south side is a balconied niche with a coffered semi-dome, for the musicians. In the basement are the kitchens, and on the west side there is a brick-vaulted ice house.

SUBSIDIARY FEATURES: C19 iron area railings incorporating Greek Revival lamp standards, by William Bennett of Liverpool.

HISTORY: The present Town Hall, one of the finest surviving town halls of the eighteenth century, replaced a building of 1673 which stood a little to the south; this was a stone structure raised above an arcade which provided space for merchants to conduct their business, or exchange. By the 1740s Liverpool's trade had burgeoned to such an extent that a new town hall was decided upon, both to accommodate the needs of its merchants, and as a demonstration of their prosperity. The architect chosen was John Wood of Bath, who had recently (1743) completed the grand Exchange at Bristol (q.v.). Bristol's pre-eminence as a slave port was then challenged only by London, but Liverpool was catching up, and it was thought that Wood's talents and reputation would admirably reflect the town's growing status. In 1749 Wood's plans were approved, and in 1754 the Exchange, as it then was, opened.

Wood's new building differed considerably from the Town Hall as it stands today. It originally had only the south and east facades, older buildings abutting the west and north sides. At the centre of the building was the Exchange courtyard, surrounded by covered walkways with colonnades; according to contemporary descriptions this was dark and confined, and merchants preferred to transact business in the street outside. A grand stair rose from the east walk to the first floor, where the principal rooms included the Town Hall, in the south range. In 1785 it was resolved that the buildings adjoining the Exchange should be removed, and in 1792 John Foster Senior of Liverpool prepared a new design for the exposed west facade, similar to the existing east front, which was adopted. When it was decided to build a large northern extension for the mayor's office and court, with a new assembly room above, the London architect James Wyatt was consulted. Wyatt's designs for a new northern block, and a new dome to replace the earlier square dome, were accepted, and thereafter Foster supervised the building work, answering to Wyatt. In January 1795 Wood's building was gutted by fire, although the unfinished northern extension remained untouched. The Council decided to rebuild within the walls, the Exchange courtyard being dispensed with (a new Exchange was built to the north of the Town Hall, around Exchange Flags) and Wyatt's internal scheme remains, modified and embellished during the succeeding years. The south portico of 1811 announced the building's political function, the space beneath being intended for election hustings. Feasting was provided for by the kitchens which have been in the basement since the 1820s and remain to this day. Most of the superb furniture in the first-floor reception rooms was made for the Town Hall c1817-c1820. These rooms were recently described as 'probably the grandest such suite of civic rooms in the country, an outstanding and complete example of late Georgian decoration and a powerful demonstration of the wealth of Liverpool at the opening of the nineteenth century.' (Sharples, Liverpool (2004))

Liverpool's maritime business was initially based on trade with Ireland, but during the latter years of the C17 the town's interests reached North America and the West Indies, as well as Madeira and the Canary Islands. Liverpool was well placed for the Atlantic trade, and as well as being an important centre for shipbuilding, Liverpool and its environs produced many goods for export, such as textiles, glass and metalware. From the 1690s onwards, Liverpool's prosperity was increasingly due to its investment in the slave trade. The first recorded slave ship to leave Liverpool was the 'Liverpool Merchant', which in 1700 carried 220 slaves to Barbados. Liverpool's merchants specialised in direct trade with the Spanish empire, selling slaves particularly in Havana and Cartagena de Indias, and were adventurous in scouring the west coast of Africa for new sources of slaves. During the 1750s Liverpool became Britain's leading slave port and retained its position until 1807; overall, Liverpool ships transported half of the three million Africans carried across the Atlantic by British slavers.

Liverpool's mayors were chosen from the most successful of her citizens, so it is not surprising to find that many of those who presided over the new Town Hall were associated with the slave trade. It is said that 20 mayors of Liverpool were directly involved in the trade; of those who held office after the building of the new Town Hall, notable examples include William Gregson, mayor in 1762, and Thomas Staniforth, mayor in 1798 - both men were slave traders and bankers - and the Earle brothers, Ralph and Thomas, members of a family whose wealth from slave ships, plantations, and the products of those plantations gave them influence in Liverpool over several generations. Both Ralph (mayor in 1769) and Thomas (mayor in 1787) traded in the beads which were amongst the commodities used to buy slaves on the African coast. Jonas Bold, a slave trader, sugar merchant and banker, became mayor in 1802; his family's importance in Liverpool outlived the slave trade.

The external decoration of Wood's Exchange building proudly celebrates the source of much of Liverpool's wealth, in luxuriant carved panels representing Liverpool's international trade. These were described by a late-C18 observer as 'Busts of Blackamoors & Elephants with the Teeth of the Latter, with such like emblematical Figures, representing the African Trade & Commerce.' The carvings are very similar to those produced for Wood's Bristol Exchange; in Liverpool, the frieze displays the heads of an African and an American Indian, both with feathered head-dresses, together with outlandish animals, lavishly framed with exotic fruits and flowers, and barrels. By the time the west elevation was built, c1792, the slave trade was increasingly a subject of controversy in Liverpool; the Reverend William Bagshaw declared in 1787 that 'throughout this large-built Town every Brick is cemented to its fellow Brick by the blood and sweat of Negroes'. Though the new carvings continued the theme of maritime commerce - with marine horses and cornucopias, packages, ropes and anchors - no direct reference to Africa is made.

Fortunes had been made by Liverpool merchants in business related to the slave trade, but greater prosperity was to come in the years following its abolition. The foundations of Liverpool's position as Britain's prime Atlantic port had been laid during its years as a slave port, and Liverpool continued to develop many of the trading connections that had been established by the slave trade, in America and Africa. Liverpool imported the cotton for the Lancashire mills, most of it produced, until the American Civil War and subsequent Emancipation, by slaves in the American South. In the 1840s steamships began regular liner services, carrying passengers and cargo from Liverpool to America; as had been predicted by William Roscoe, Liverpool made more money taking willing passengers to America, than she had done taking slaves there by force. In 1851 Queen Victoria stood on the north balcony of the Town Hall, to greet the merchants assembled in Exchange Flags; she remarked that she had never before seen together so large a number of well-dressed gentlemen.

Liverpool Town Hall stands at the centre of the mercantile district built during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The area displays the city's tremendous wealth in a dramatic variety of major commercial buildings. In the immediate vicinity of the Town Hall are the buildings of the Liverpool & London Insurance Co. of 1856-8; the Queen Insurance Buildings of c1837-8 (originally for the Royal Bank); the Bank of England of 1845-6; the India Buildings completed 1930; and Martins Bank of 1927-32. All of these are listed. Exchange Flags, in front of the Town Hall's north facade, was the commercial heart of Liverpool. The present Exchange Buildings of 1939-55 are on the site of two earlier Exchanges: the first of 1803-8 by Foster, possibly with Wyatt; the second of 1864-7 by T. H. Wyatt. At the centre of Exchange Flags stands the Nelson Monument of 1813 by Matthew Cotes Wyatt, James Wyatt's son, and Richard Westmacott Senior; a listed bronze sculpture of a strikingly maritime flavour.

The story of Liverpool's progress as a trading power stretches back beyond 1207, when the town was granted its first 'charter' - the 700th anniversary of this event was celebrated by the murals painted for the Town Hall Vestibule in the early C20. 2007, which marked the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, and a significant moment in the city's mercantile history, was therefore doubly significant for Liverpool.

J. Sharples, 'Liverpool' (Pevsner Architectural Guides, 2004)
R. Pollard and N. Pevsner, 'Buildings of England, Lancashire: Liverpool and the South-West' (2006);
http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ accessed on 15 January 2008
L. Westgaph, 'Read the Signs: street names with a connection to the transatlantic slave trade and abolition in Liverpool', (booklet produced by English Heritage, 2007)
H. Thomas, 'The Slave Trade' (1997);
'Liverpool's Historic Town Hall' (leaflet produced by the City of Liverpool [2007])
R. Anstey and P.E.H. Hair eds, Liverpool, the African Slave Trade, and Abolition (1976, 1989)
T. Mowl and B. Earnshaw, 'John Wood. Architecture of Obsession'(1988)

The Town Hall, Liverpool, is designated at Grade I for the following principal reasons:
* It is one of the finest surviving town halls of the C18; John Wood's original work confidently developed by James Wyatt
* It has a suite of civic rooms providing an outstanding and complete example of late Georgian decoration
* It has strong connections with the slave trade, through Liverpool's mercantile community, adds to historical interest of building.
* It has group value with the Nelson Monument, and numerous grand commercial buildings, demonstrating Liverpool's continuing prosperity in the C19 and early C20
* The exceptionally rich external carving is unusual subject matter reflecting the international bias of Liverpool's C18 trade.

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