Liverpool Waterfront
Image by Chowells under Creative Commons License.

England, Liverpool Guide (A): Liverpool Waterfront

In Liverpool’s waterfront architecture, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is written the experience of the Atlantic shipping trade; the tragedy of Slavery; the grandeur of the British Empire; the teeming migrations from East and West and finally the arrival of the GI’s in World War II. We will read the stories of these events in a grand display of neo-Classical buildings that make a tour of Liverpool a short course in the history of the world.
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Walk Route

Guide Name: Liverpool Waterfront
Guide Location: England » Liverpool
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Article (A))
# of Attractions: 11
Tour Duration: 1.0 hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.2 km
Sight(s) featured in this guide: Liverpool Town Hall   The Hargreaves Building   Our Lady & St Nicholas Parish Church   Floating Roadway & WWII Inscription to GI's   Marine Engineers' Monument   Leeds-Liverpool Canal & Canada Boulevard   The Liver Building   Cunard Building   Port of Liverpool Building   St Georges Dock Ventilation & Control Station   Albert Dock & Old Dock Traffic Office  
Author: David Franklin
Author Bio: A Liverpudlian, born & bred in the city, married with two grown-up children, I have worked for local firms such as Littlewoods, BICC Cables, Crawfords Computing, and also John Moores University. Having a knowledge of architecture, economics & history has helped me understand how cities develop the personality that we encounter when we visit, and which makes us want to return.
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Liverpool Town Hall

1) Liverpool Town Hall

Built by John Wood the Elder in 1754 and a Grade I listed building, it is recognised as one the great town halls of England and shows that Liverpool began its commercial success early in the Georgian period, well before the Victorian age had arrived. It was commissioned to demonstrate the neo-classical tastes of the wealthy patrons who sought to reproduce the great landmarks of Renaissance Europe in their own city. Now overshadowed perhaps by the scale of later structures along Castle Street from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Town Hall seems to hint at a more refined sensibility in architecture that has been lost as the city has developed its subsequent Victorian identity. On this tour we will be able to see many neo-classical features, such as columns, domes and pediments that trace the development of architecture in Liverpool. With its first-floor porticos at front and back, the Town Hall is inspired by the Palladian style of sixteenth-century Italy. Go right up to the railings and look down at the moat below and you will see the roughly-carved stone facings of the basement floor, apparently unfinished. This signature, ‘rustic’ style will be seen on many of the buildings on this tour. The statue on the dome is of the Roman goddess Minerva, who can be seen looking down, protecting the city with helmet, lance and shield, reminiscent of Britannia, who used to appear on the old Penny coin.
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The Hargreaves Building

2) The Hargreaves Building

This was built in 1859, by Sir James Picton, for Sir William Brown, a Liverpool merchant, born in Ballymena, Ireland, who started business in Baltimore. The building summarises all the neo-classical and Italianate aspirations of the prosperous merchant class of the day, who used a nobility of style to demonstrate their wealth and success. Each floor is horizontally symmetrical, slightly different from the floor below, and with a pronounced overhang of the roof-eaves in tell-tale Italian style. The impressive outer gates, gilded with Lions’ heads, are at street level, but the main entrance is raised to the top of a flight of steps within the porch, reminiscent of a Venetian palace: it is easy to imagine the canal water lapping at the bottom of the steps and the Gondolas delivering visitors right into the porch itself. Each level of the building is slightly different, but always in proportion, giving the characteristic ‘wedding cake’ feeling that is so common in Venice itself. A huge volume of British trade with North America and the Caribbean was carried by William Brown’s Liverpool ships and this is reflected in the frieze around the first floor, which shows the heads of Isabella of Spain, who sponsored Christopher Columbus' voyages, Columbus himself, Bermejo, a Spanish adventurer, Amerigo Vespucci, Cortez, conqueror of Mexico, Queen Anacoana of Cuba, and Francisco Pizarro, governor of Peru. The building housed naval officers in World War II, who nicknamed the bar inside the ‘Dry Dock’.
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Our Lady & St Nicholas Parish Church

3) Our Lady & St Nicholas Parish Church

This has been a site of worship since the twelfth century, when fishermen and traders from Ireland would have worshipped at the St Mary del Key chapel (from which nearby Chapel Street takes its name). A new chapel was built in 1361 on land granted by the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt, and dedicated to St Nicholas, the patron saint of mariners. This church was developed gradually over many years and in 1746 a spire was added. Right up to 1767, when the shore was reclaimed, high tides would reach up to the garden walls of the churchyard, where the main road and pedestrian crossing is now. In 1810 the tower and spire were rebuilt after it collapsed, but in so doing the original chapel of St Mary del Key was demolished. During World War II the church was virtually destroyed by an incendiary bomb and again it was rebuilt, being consecrated in 1952, and this is the church that we see today, overlooking the Three Graces and taking its place at the heart of the business of the port and the river, with a ship as its weather-vane. Make your way into the church gardens and enjoy two striking views: firstly, looking back to the church are the new commercial developments that tower above it, making a very modern pattern of geometric shapes; secondly, looking west, we can see the imposing bulk of the Liver Building.
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Floating Roadway & WWII Inscription to GI's

4) Floating Roadway & WWII Inscription to GI's

Cut into the Pier Head is a long slipway that once stretched further towards the main road and St. Nicholas’ church. In here was suspended a much longer floating roadway, which allowed heavy motorised traffic to move freely up to the plaza. In 1943 the US Army disembarked here from their troop ships, streaming up the roadway to their bases in Liverpool and Lancashire; and then on to the Normandy landings, and finally, to victory. To the right of the gangway, set into the wall, can be seen this grateful inscription to the US contribution to WW2:

HERE IN THE DARK DAYS OF WAR AND IN THE DAWN OF VICTORY

AMERICAN TROOPS AND CARGOES MOVED THROUGH THIS PORT

FURTHERED BY BRITISH AND AMERICANS WORKING TOGETHER

THIS STONE RECORDS THEIR UNITY IN ACCOMPLISHING THEIR MISSION

Ironically, American forces had been here before: the Confederate States Ship Alabama was built in the Cammel Laird shipyards on the opposite shore of the Mersey in 1862 and sailed with a Liverpool crew. In 1865 the CSS Shenandoah, under Captain Waddel and flying the Palmetto of South Carolina, was surrendered to HMS Donegal on the Mersey in the very last action of the American Civil War. The crew were paroled and allowed ashore in peace, after being informed that the war was over and that the South had lost.
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Marine Engineers' Monument

5) Marine Engineers' Monument

Crossing the footbridge, which gives another view of the floating roadway, can be seen an obelisk with carved figures and symbols. Designed by Sir William Goscombe-John, it was erected by the Cunard line in 1916 following the sinking of the Titanic; and serves as a memorial to merchant engineers who have perished at sea. It does not explicitly refer to the Titanic, but is the only monument associated with that disaster. It is sited here because the ship was registered by the White Star line in the city, and so had the words “TITANIC, LIVERPOOL” across its stern.
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Leeds-Liverpool Canal & Canada Boulevard

6) Leeds-Liverpool Canal & Canada Boulevard

Directly in front of the Three Graces are two interesting features: an extension to the Leeds-Liverpool canal and a memorial to the Canadian sacrifice in World War Two. The names of the Canadian vessels lost in that war are set into an avenue of maples (a national symbol of Canada) that runs the full length of the Three Graces. The first plaque we see is for 404 SQD Royal Canadian Air Force, and the HMCS Esquimat. If you turn and face the river, you can see where the canal route from Leeds has been extended from the north docks to pass across the front of the Three Graces. It was opened in April 2009 to narrow boats, who can now make their way as far as the Salthouse and Albert Docks, using tunnels under the new Liverpool Museum of Life. It is finished in fine, salmon-coloured granite and is a good place to pause and take in the views of the newly developed Pier Head and the river Mersey beyond. The statue is of King Edward VII (1841- 1910). By strange coincidence, at the south end of the Canada Boulevard is Mann Island, where excavations for the new buildings recently uncovered a lost settlement of houses and workshops, dating from the early 1700’s. This district was called ‘Nova Scotia’, perhaps named after the Canadian province which of course has its own port of Liverpool on its own Mersey River.
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The Liver Building

7) The Liver Building

This is the much-loved and iconic building of Liverpool, with the mythical Liver birds perched on top, one facing east, one facing west, wings outstretched and almost ready to take flight. In fact the bird of King Johns’ coat of arms for the city was an eagle (after the eagle of Saint John) but this creature has been transformed over the centuries: perhaps in memory of the cormorants that would have been a common sight along the shores and sandbanks of the River Mersey from earliest times and which were regarded by sailors as bringing good luck.. The architectural style is twentieth century and monumental, with none of the refinements of its two close neighbours. But it was Britain’s first ‘skyscraper’ and its innovative reinforced concrete frame allowed it to tower above the buildings of its day. Even its clock face is larger than Big Ben. Immediately recognisable by people from all over the world, it has a dramatic claim to be the true heart of Liverpool, standing upon land reclaimed from the earliest dock that was formed from the shore directly in front of the ancient parish church. The river is quiet now and in the evening, perched on the edge of the River Mersey, the Liver Birds seem to look out with nostalgia across to the west and the setting sun, recalling the turbulent events, the armadas of ships, and the hordes of migrants, armies and passengers that they have seen come and go.
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Cunard Building

8) Cunard Building

Built on a reclaimed dock between 1914 and 1917, this was the Headquarters and passenger terminal for the greatest shipping line of its day, The Cunard Steamship Company. Here, the shipping line was administered, passengers and crew were accommodated, and ships were designed. During the era of the great Atlantic crossings, provisions for the voyage were held in the cellars and passengers rested in the grand restaurants, salons and waiting rooms (first, second and third class). An elegant Italianate palace, it borrows from the architecture of Renaissance Europe and quietly balances the confidence and grandeur of its two neighbours, the Liver and Port Authority buildings (although all three were built in the twentieth century). Neo-classical features can be seen in the horizontal repetition and symmetry; and in the logical development of each floor as it rises above the one below. As in the basement of the Town Hall that we saw earlier, the clue to its Italian nature can be seen in the uncut, rustic stone finish of the ground floor. This is an echo of a fortified palazzo of 15th century Florence, where this style was introduced. The dramatic statue of “Victory” standing directly in front of the main entrance was erected in 1921 as a memorial to Cunard employees who gave their lives in the Great War. The Greek physicality of the figure, the Doric column and the prows of a Roman ship, all reinforce the neo-classical character of the monument, although the fig-leaf is definitely Victorian!
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Port of Liverpool Building

9) Port of Liverpool Building

Also constructed on the site of reclaimed docks in 1907, this building was the first of the Three Graces to be completed. It was the home of the Merseyside Docks and Harbour Board until 1994. (The initials ‘M.D.H.B.’ can still be seen on the wrought-iron gates.) It is built in Edwardian Baroque, a style that takes some features from the true Baroque period of 16th & 17th centuries; exaggerating them in a triumphant celebration of the British Empire. A characteristic of this architecture is the surface decoration: and naturally enough on this building these are of a maritime nature, including a sailing ship in a cornucopia that can be seen in a pair above the main entrance. The four corner domed pavilions and the central dome are an extravagant feature of this style, along with Tuscan columns, which are smooth not fluted, found in pairs, and which are purely decorative. You may be able to spot several groups of paired columns on this building. Also, compare the smoothly-finished stone on the ground floor to the unfinished, rustic blocks of the Cunard Building. The lively architectural debates of the time can be traced in these differences of style. This structure is meant to impress: at the time of its construction Liverpool, as the second port of the British Empire, was perhaps at its peak, and the Port Authority wanted to demonstrate with this building how shipping had contributed to the city’s wealth and importance.
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St Georges Dock Ventilation & Control Station

10) St Georges Dock Ventilation & Control Station

This is the ventilation shaft for Queensway, the Birkenhead Tunnel under the Mersey, which of course passes directly below where you are standing. Designed by Herbert James Rowse in 1932 it serves as the offices and control room for the fresh-air supply to the tunnel. Despite its purely functional purpose it is finished in Portland stone and has many architectural flourishes, such as an elegant tower. This is almost ecclesiastical, with fluted vents at the top, as if it had a peal of bells. The art-deco bas-relief sculpture above the main door is by Edmund Thomson and George Capstick and represents Speed. Below, in black basalt are Night (on the left) and Day (on the right) which express the ever-open nature of the tunnel. Two more pairs of bas-relief can be seen on the South face corners and the North face corners of the block, representing Construction, Civil Engineering, Architecture and Decoration. Incidentally, directly ahead and across the Strand on the corner of James Street, is the old White Star Line Headquarters, built in 1898 with distinctive red and white horizontal layers of Portland stone and brick. The Titanic belonged to this line, which merged with Cunard in 1834.
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Albert Dock & Old Dock Traffic Office

11) Albert Dock & Old Dock Traffic Office

Finally we come to the cornerstone of the Albert Dock, the Old Traffic Office. Built in 1846 by Philip Hardwicke, this confident and well-defined building is perfectly in proportion to its surroundings and is recognisable from some distance. The architect had made the customary tour of European antiquities in his youth and had absorbed the Greek and Roman treasures of Paris and Rome. Its restoration began in 1981 and marked the beginning of a period of regeneration that is still underway across the city, the latest stage being LiverpoolONE, which can be seen directly behind you on the other side of the main road. From the Traffic Office the incoming and outgoing cargo of the dock was managed, but the purity of its design make it feel like a classical temple to sea trade. The massive cast-iron Tuscan columns and triangular pediment draw the eye immediately. Here, these features have a structural purpose in supporting the roof, in true neo-classical style, unlike the same features that we saw in the Port of Liverpool building, which were purely decorative. This is the end of the Waterfront Tour, so it is time to relax in the Albert Dock itself, where there are shops, cafes, galleries and also many places to sit and enjoy the views of the river. An information point can be found nearby which will help you to get back to this point after you have finished.

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