Victorian Liverpool: prominent properties and their history
In 2002 the then chairman of English Heritage, Sir Neil Cossons, described Liverpool as “England’s finest Victorian city” – a reference, no doubt, to the many fine period buildings that have remained unaltered since the time of Charles Dickens.
Dickens himself was a frequent and enthusiastic visitor to Liverpool and he performed extracts from his own novels here on numerous occasions, including ‘A Christmas Carol’.
With this in mind, and Christmas steadily approaching, what better time to look at some of the historic Victorian buildings the city is home to, providing a snapshot reminder of Liverpool in the 19th Century; an age defined by the rise of a new mercantile elite?
Words by Christine Toner
The Albany is a Grade II*-listed, three-storey brick and granite fronted Old Hall Street building.
It was originally built in 1856 as a cotton trader office using the nearby port and as a meeting place for brokers engaged in Liverpool’s largest and most profitable trade.
With imports and exports of cotton accounting for over half of all of the city’s business by the mid-1850s, and with over 1.5 million bales imported each year from America, Brazil, Egypt and India, cotton truly was king in Liverpool. The influx of wealth that this generated is lavishly reflected in the Albany’s exterior décor, with its elaborately carved friezes, archivolts and other classically styled adornments. There’s also the much-admired courtyard, replete with red granite columns and intricately decorated arches.
It remains one of the earliest examples of Victorian offices in Liverpool and as testimony to a time when the docks stood at the hub of global trade, creating employment for many residents and forging a sense of identity that remains undiminished.
Nowadays, of course, the Albany has more to do with an expanding property sector than world trade, having been converted into 140 apartments during the mid-2000s.
Our round-up of Victorian residential artefacts continues with a house that isn’t actually Victorian.
Originally built in 1530, at the height of Tudor power, Speke Hall survived almost three ensuing centuries of political and social upheaval before being bought by Richard Watt, a Jamaican sugar plantation and slave owner, in 1795. Previous owners had allowed the house to fall into a state of almost total ruin, so from 1856 onwards the family began to renovate the property and estate, slowly adding the distinctive gardens, parlour and grand kitchens that continue to draw visitors.
The hall’s final occupant, Miss Adelaide Watt, was a formidable woman who, in many ways, personifies the prevailing ethos of her class and age – a curious combination of public spirited piety together with a shrewd eye for the business opportunity. She donated £2,000 towards the building of Liverpool Cathedral (including a memorial to her slave owning forebear, Richard Watt, in recognition of the fortune that underpinned her own existence), and took great pains towards developing the farm complex on the estate.
After her death in 1921, the house eventually passed into the ownership of the National Trust and has become one of Liverpool’s premier tourist attractions; not least through its enduringly popular Victorian themed Christmas weekends.
There’s a great irony in which this Tudor house has become so inextricably linked with the Victorians, and yet it tells us much about the single-minded confidence of the merchant classes and of the way in which they imposed themselves on their surroundings.
As Liverpool’s commercial and maritime power continued to flourish throughout the 19th Century, an ever-expanding class of merchants and lawyers began to look for places outside of the city to build their ‘statement’ homes. The greatest concentration of these mansions was to be found in Allerton, a hitherto rural suburb located three miles from the city centre.
One of the first to be built here was Springwood House (1839), a two-storey lodge that might possibly have been designed by John Cunningham, the Scottish architect best known for designing Lime Street station and the original Philharmonic Hall.
It was originally built for William Shand, a plantation owner with interests in the slave trade, before being bought by Sir Thomas Brocklebank in the 1840s.
Brocklebank’s grandfather was the founder of the famous Brocklebank shipping company, one of the oldest merchant shipping firms in the world prior to its collapse in the 1980s. Similar merchant’s houses continued to be built in the area until the end of the century but, with the expansion of the railways and later encroachment of the suburbs, many were demolished in the 20th Century to make way for new housing developments. Springwood still stands but is currently used as a nursing home.
Standing in 30 acres of wooded grounds overlooking the River Mersey, Sudley House was originally built in 1824 for a wealthy corn merchant and former Lord Mayor of Liverpool, Nicholas Robinson.
Robinson was typical of the mercantile junta that grew and flourished in Liverpool during the 18th and 19th centuries and his imposing two-storey, red brick mansion stands as an abiding testament to its prosperity and power – at once benevolent, enlightened, self-absorbed and self-removed.
In 1884 the house was bought by George Holt, a successful shipping line owner, merchant, patron of the local university college and noted art collector. His vast collection of paintings, which remains on view within the hall to this day, features works by Turner, Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, George Romney and the Pre-Raphaelites amongst others – a veritable who’s who of lauded and fashionable status artists. Yet, Holt’s preference for religious themes and representations tapped into a wider Victorian sense of high mindedness that was shared by many among the elite; an undeniably laudable spirit of philanthropy that had the best of intentions, but which did little to mitigate the deprivations of Liverpool’s slum dwellers.
Perhaps in recognition of this fact, Sudley was eventually bequeathed to the city in 1944 by Holt’s only child, Emma, and it remains one of the few period homes to retain many of its original features.