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‘The Visible Embodiment of Modern Commerce’: Speculative Office Buildings in Liverpool, c. 1780–1870

  • Joseph Sharples

As one of the world's great centres of trade, the port of Liverpool developed a dedicated office district from an early date. In the 1780s, lettable offices were built by the Corporation near the Georgian Exchange (later known as the Town Hall), making possible the separation of home and workplace. The creation of the public square called Exchange Flags, and the erection of the first Exchange Buildings (1803–08), led to the rapid concentration of business activity in the surrounding streets. Early buildings combined offices with warehousing, but changes in the cotton trade resulted in their replacement with offices only. The first major speculative block was India Buildings (1833), and its success heralded a wave of rebuilding from the 1840s to the 1860s. Many office developers were merchants, but banks and insurance companies also incorporated lettable space into their premises. Classical styles predominated, but traditional fenestration was modified to ensure good natural lighting. The result was an exceptionally imposing business district, symbolising the immense commercial importance of Victorian Liverpool.

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1 I'Anson, Edward, ‘Some Notice of Office Buildings in the City of London’, Papers Read at the Royal Institute of British Architects, Session 1864–5 (London, 1865), pp. 2536.

2 Keene, Derek, ‘The Setting of the Royal Exchange: Continuity and Change in the Financial District of the City of London, 1300–1871’, in The Royal Exchange, ed. Saunders, Ann (London, 1997), p. 265; Clarke, Jonathan, Early Structural Steel in London Buildings (Swindon, 2014), pp. 198–99.

3 The present article is a development of themes presented in Sharples, Joseph and Stonard, John, Built on Commerce: Liverpool's Central Business District (Swindon, 2008), chapter 3. Liverpool office buildings are also discussed extensively by F.M. Locker in his pioneering ‘The Evolution of Victorian and Early Twentieth Century Office Buildings in Britain’ (doctoral thesis, University of Edinburgh, 1984).

4 Picton, J.A., Memorials of Liverpool, 2nd edn, 2 vols (London and Liverpool, 1875), II, pp. 269–70.

5 Billinge's Liverpool Advertiser and Marine Intelligencer, 21 January 1799, p. 1, and 7 January 1799, p. 1.

6 Liverpool Record Office [hereafter LRO], 720 KIR 2421, Edmund Kirby papers, plan of John Chorley's premises. Chorley's was one of a pair of houses almost certainly designed by William Baker of Audlem in 1748. See Morrice, Richard, ‘The Payment Book of William Baker of Audlem (1705–71)’, in English Architecture Public and Private: Essays for Kerry Downes, ed. Bold, John and Chaney, Edward (London, 1993), pp. 231–46. Now demolished, the houses are recorded in a watercolour by W.G. Herdman, LRO, Herdman Collection 772A, reproduced in Parrott, Kay, Pictorial Liverpool: The Art of W.G. and William Herdman (Liverpool, 2005), p. 76.

7 LRO, 352 MIN/IMP I 1/1, Select Improvement Committee minutes, pp. 13–55.

8 Sharples, Joseph, Pevsner Architectural Guides: Liverpool (New Haven and London, 2004), pp. 4248. The arcaded courtyards of the Liverpool and Bristol buildings derive from London's Royal Exchange of 1667–69, which in turn derived from its predecessor of 1566–69, and ultimately from the two Antwerp exchanges of 1515 and 1531.

9 LRO, 352 MIN/IMP I 1/1, Select Improvement Committee minutes, 13 April 1786.

10 Ibid., 24 June 1786 and 20 November 1787.

11 LRO, Herdman Collection, 368B and 127.

12 LRO, 352 CLE/CON 3/4, Register of Leases ‘C’, entry 13 under letter D. Gore's Liverpool Directory for 1787 gives Dunbar's address as ‘Dale-street, near the Exchange’.

13 LRO, 352 MIN/IMP I 1/1, Select Improvement Committee minutes, 7 June 1786.

14 Troughton, Thomas, History of Liverpool (Liverpool, 1810), p. 329; Baines, Edward, History of the County Palatine and Duchy of Lancaster, 4 vols (London, 1831–36), IV, p. 173.

15 Touzeau, James, The Rise and Progress of Liverpool from 1551 to 1835 (Liverpool, 1910), p. 643.

16 Gore's Liverpool General Advertiser, 19 March 1795, p. 3; Billinge's Liverpool Advertiser and Marine Intelligencer, 4 May 1801, p. 2.

17 An Act for Enabling Certain Persons in the Town and Port of Liverpool in the County Palatine of Lancaster, to Erect an Exchange There (28 May 1802), 42 George 3, c. 71; Troughton, History, p. 329; Ellison, Thomas, Gleanings and Reminiscences (Liverpool, 1905), p. 57.

18 Edward Baines, History of the County Palatine, IV, p. 173.

19 The Builder, 23 (1865), p. 193, gives a useful description of the Wyatt–Foster building.

20 Cleary, Richard L., The Place Royale and Urban Design in the Ancien Régime (Cambridge, 1999), pp. 118–20.

21 Yarrington, Alison, ‘Public Sculpture and Civic Pride 1800–1830’, in Patronage & Practice: Sculpture on Merseyside, ed. Curtis, Penelope (Liverpool, 1989), pp. 2231.

22 On the Corporation's approval, see Touzeau, Rise and Progress, p. 643.

23 A cutting from Billinge's Liverpool Advertiser and Marine Intelligencer, 24 March 1817, in the LRO's extra-illustrated copy of Troughton, History, gives the building costs. Annually from 1829, in the last week of January or first week of February, the Liverpool Times and Billinge's Advertiser published the dividend payable on shares. A receipt book for dividends paid in 1815 is in LRO, 380 MD 32.

24 LRO, Hf 942.72 BIN, Binns Collection, vol. 30, p. 165.

25 Times, 13 October 1802, p. 2; Picton, Memorials, II, p. 31.

26 Ellison, Gleanings, pp. 193–95, 199–200, 222–23.

27 Lancashire Illustrated, from Original Drawings, by S. Austin, J. Harwood and G. & C. Pyne. With Descriptions (London, 1831).

28 For Marsden's Buildings, see ‘Correspondence: South John Street’, Albion [Liverpool], 9 November 1829, p. 357, and ‘Correspondence: South John Street’, Albion [Liverpool], 16 November 1829, p. 363. For Bretherton's Buildings, see ‘Coaching King's Masterpiece: Demolition Caused by Tunnel’, Liverpool Post and Mercury, 4 May 1929, p. 7.

29 LRO, 352 CLE/CON 5/22, Charles Okill's street index to registers of leases, vol. B, f. 146.

30 Ellison, Gleanings, p. 208.

31 Views in Modern Liverpool by William Herdman: In Chromo-lithography, by James Orr Marples and the Artist, with an Introduction, and Descriptive Letter-press, by J.A. Picton, Esq., F.S.A. (Liverpool, 1864), pp. 3132. For the Exchange, see Whitty's Guide to Liverpool (Liverpool, 1871), p. 33. An undated view of the rear of the Exchange, showing the taking-in doors, is in LRO, Hf 942.7213 EXC, Liverpool's Three Exchanges, p. 11.

32 ‘Sessions House, Chapel Street’, Lancashire Illustrated, plate accompanying text on p. 38. Preston, Lancashire Record Office [hereafter Lancs. RO], DDX 162/23/38 and DDX 162/23/44–DDX 162/23/48, drawings by William Culshaw for Messrs Rowlinson's premises; Sharples and Stonard, Built on Commerce, p. 44.

33 Ellison, Gleanings, pp. 63–65.

34 Views in Modern Liverpool, pp. 31–32.

35 LRO, 920 DUR 2/16/1–13, correspondence and papers of George Holt relating to the construction of India Buildings.

36 LRO, 920 DUR 2/16/7, draft letter from George Holt to chairman of the Finance Committee, 20 July 1833.

37 Holt, George, A Brief Memoir of George Holt, Esquire, of Liverpool (Liverpool, 1861), pp. 7071; LRO, 352 MIN/COU II 1/3, Council Minutes, 5 July 1843; and Albion [Liverpool], 17 September 1855, supplement.

38 Sharples, Pevsner Architectural Guides: Liverpool, pp. 241–42; Foyle, Andrew, Pevsner Architectural Guides: Bristol (New Haven and London, 2004), p. 226.

39 ‘India Buildings’, Liverpool Mercury and Lancashire General Advertiser, 28 November 1834, p. 392.

40 LRO, 920 DUR 2/16/7.

41 Holt, Brief Memoir, pp. 71–72.

42 London, Bank of England archives, PRE/B565/6, Committee for Building minutes, 30 August 1848.

43 ‘Office Rents in Liverpool’, Albion [Liverpool], 4 August 1856, supplement, p. 2. Provincial News’, The Builder, 14 (1856), p. 437.

44 Editorial, The Builder, 15 (1857), p. 301; The Social Science Association and Liverpool’, The Builder, 16 (1858), p. 705.

45 LRO, 920 DUR 1/2, Holt family diary, 3 September 1854, and 920 DUR 1/3, Holt family diary, 5 April 1857.

46 ‘The Liverpool Exchange Company: The Exchange to Be Rebuilt’, Liverpool Courier, 19 November 1862, p. 6.

47 For Bailey, who left £600,000 on his death in 1858, see Crook, J. Mordaunt, The Rise of the Nouveaux Riches (London, 1999), pp. 213–14. Brown left under £900,000 in 1864, including real estate valued at almost £300,000 (London, The National Archives, IR26/2359, Will Register, surnames A–B, 1864, f. 505).

48 Lancs. RO, DDX 162/56/20–DDX 162/56/24, drawings by William Culshaw for Messrs McGregor's premises, Brunswick Street.

49 ‘Alarming & Destructive Fire in Liverpool’, Daily Post [Liverpool], 4 July 1863, p. 5.

50 The buildings destroyed were insured for £4000. See Ainsworth, R. and Jones, G., In the Footsteps of Peter Ellis (Liverpool, 2013), p. 136.

51 ‘Liverpool Exchange Buildings’, Liverpool Times, 31 January 1850, p. 5; ‘Liverpool Exchange’, Liverpool Times and Billinge's Advertiser, 28 January 1840, p. 1.

52 Ellison, Gleanings, pp. 297–98.

53 The Liverpool Exchange’, The Builder, 23 (1865), p. 193.

54 Liverpool Exchange Buildings Competition’, The Builder, 21 (1863), pp. 381–82.

55 Picton, Memorials, II, p. 32.

56 Hope, E.W., Handbook Compiled for the Congress of the Royal Institute of Public Health (Liverpool, 1903), pp. 4144.

57 A Lounge in Liverpool’, The Builder, 23 (1865), p. 776. ‘Patricius Walker’ (William Allingham) took a different view, describing the new Exchange as pretentiously mean — true cork-cutter's Renaissance’: Patricius Walker, Rambles (London, 1873), pp. 236–37.

58 Sharples, Joseph, ‘William Culshaw (1807–74) and Henry Sumners (1825–95): Rebuilding Victorian Liverpool’, in The Practice of Architecture: Eight Architects, 1830–1930, ed. Webster, Christopher (Reading, 2012), pp. 4878.

59 The Social Science Association in Liverpool’, The Builder, 16 (1858), pp. 705–06 (p. 705).

60 ‘Empty Offices’, The Porcupine, 10 (1868–69), p. 60.

61 Liverpool Exchange Company’, The Architect, 5 (1871), p. 118.

62 York Buildings, Liverpool’, Building News, 3 (1857), pp. 582–83 (p. 582).

63 The Social Science Association and Liverpool’, The Builder, 16 (1858), pp. 705–06 (p. 705).

64 Ellison, Gleanings, pp. 202, 237.

65 Liverpool Exchange Buildings Competition’, The Builder, 21 (1863), pp. 381–82 (p. 381).

66 Orchard, Benjamin Guinness, Liverpool's Legion of Honour (Birkenhead, 1893), p. 214.

67 Ellison, Gleanings, p. 200.

68 Dumbell, Stanley, The Centenary Book of the Liverpool Stock Exchange 1836–1936 (Liverpool, 1936), p. 35.

69 I'Anson, ‘Office Buildings’, p. 27; Summerson, John, The Unromantic Castle and Other Essays (London, 1990), pp. 196202.

70 Editorial, The Builder, 6 (1848), pp. 613–14; Whitty's Guide, p. 38.

71 I'Anson, ‘Office Buildings’, p. 25; Summerson, Unromantic Castle, pp. 208–09.

72 ‘Castle Street: A Century Ago and To-day’, Liverpool Review, 25 February 1888, p. 11; ‘Brother Sam in Lord Street’, Liverpool Review, 1 January 1887, p. 11.

73 LRO, Hf 942 721.3 IND contains a memorandum of association of the India Buildings Company Limited, 10 April 1872; Liverpool, Merseyside Maritime Museum and Archives, B/LHPC 1/3, Liverpool Hydraulic Power Company records, report 242 names the owners of Brown's Buildings in 1896 as the ‘Brown's Buildings Co.’ and report 274 names the owners of Drury Buildings in 1897 as the ‘Drury Buildings Co.’.

74 LRO, 352 CLE/CON 3/9, lease dated 22 January 1853.

75 An exception was Parana Buildings in Tithebarn Street, designed by William Culshaw in 1864 (Lancs. RO, DDX 162/52/73–DDX 162/52/80). It had five storeys above the basement.

76 York Buildings, Liverpool’, Building News, 3 (1857), pp. 582–83 (p. 582).

77 Ainsworth and Jones, Peter Ellis, pp. 175–78.

78 Improvements in Liverpool — Advance of Architecture’, Civil Engineer and Architect's Journal, 5 (1842), p. 278. The Social Science Association and Liverpool’, The Builder, 16 (1858), pp. 705–06 (p. 705). Watkin, David, The Life and Work of C.R. Cockerell (London, 1974), pp. 230–31, pl. 144.

79 Locker, Evolution of Victorian Office Buildings, pp. 41, 95–96.

80 ‘Improvements in Liverpool: Architectural’, The Porcupine, 10 (1868–69), p. 349.

81 Sharples and Stonard, Built on Commerce, pp. 51–60.

82 York Buildings, Liverpool’, Building News, 3 (1857), pp. 582–83 (p. 582). See also ‘Opening of Brown's Buildings’, Liverpool Courier, 7 January 1863, p. 6, for similar comments on that building. For Peters’ Buildings, see New Buildings in Liverpool’, Building News, 15 (1868), p. 90. T. Mellard Reade, however, thought that J.K. Colling had achieved remarkable ‘breadth and solidity’ at his Albany Building in Old Hall Street, despite the small amount of solid wall between the large windows: [T. Mellard Reade], The Architecture of Liverpool: Article VI’, The Porcupine, 7 (1865–66), pp. 380–81.

83 Sharples, ‘William Culshaw & Henry Sumners’, pp. 53–54.

84 Lancs. RO, DDX 162/39/36-DDX 162/39/41, drawings by William Culshaw for Adelaide Buildings; DDX 162/10/20–DDX 162/10/21, drawings by William Culshaw for Canton Buildings.

85 For example, New Buildings in Liverpool’, Building News, 15 (1868), pp. 9091.

86 The Exchange Buildings, Liverpool’, The Builder, 28 (1870), pp. 119–20 (p. 119).

87 The Companion to the Almanac; or Year-Book of General Information for 1843 (London, 1843), p. 254; The Social Science Association and Liverpool’, The Builder, 16 (1858), pp. 705–06 (p. 705).

88 See Sharples, Joseph, ‘Secular Gothic Revival Architecture in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Liverpool’, in The Making of the Middle Ages: Liverpool Essays, ed. Costambeys, Marios, Hamer, Andrew and Heale, Martin (Liverpool, 2007), pp. 206–33.

89 Liverpool Exchange Buildings Competition’, The Builder, 21 (1863), pp. 381–82 (p. 381).

90 ‘The Liverpool Exchange Company: The Exchange to Be Rebuilt’, Liverpool Courier and Commercial Advertiser, 19 November 1862, p. 6.

91 ‘Opening of Brown's Buildings’, Liverpool Courier and Commercial Advertiser, 7 January 1863, p. 6.

92 Fraser's Guide to Liverpool (London and Liverpool, 1861), pp. 211–12.

93 Picton, Memorials, II, p. 25.

94 For example, Provincial News’, The Builder, 15 (1857), pp. 4142 (p. 41); The Social Science Association and Liverpool’, The Builder, 16 (1858), pp. 705–06 (p. 705); and Brown's Buildings, Liverpool’, The Builder, 21 (1863), p. 35.

95 Liverpool Architecture: Brown's Buildings’, The Builder, 19 (1861), pp. 178–79 (p. 178); LRO, 720 KIR 2839, Edmund Kirby papers, drawings of Borough Buildings by W. Culshaw, 1863.

96 The Melvilles, by the Author of ‘John Drayton’, 3 vols (London, 1852), I, pp. 34–35.

97 The Growth of Liverpool’, The Builder, 26 (1868), p. 296. But this unity of effect was not to everyone's taste. The Liverpool architect T. Mellard Reade saw a lack of imagination in the streets around the Exchange: ‘First, Mr. A. puts up a building with a handsome stone front. Then, Mr. B.’s clients, not to be outdone, put up another handsome building, with another handsome stone front, alongside, and the process is repeated from street to street, from year to year, in the most unvarying manner. […] There is no life — no break — no skyline — no roof to be seen; nothing but a dull, level uniformity’: [Reade, T. Mellard], ‘The Architecture of Liverpool: Article IX’, The Porcupine, 7 (1865–66), p. 416.

98 Views in Modern Liverpool, p. vii.

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