Book review: The Passenger’s Palace (Cunard Building)


The Passenger’s Palace – 100 Years of Cunard Building Liverpool by Michael Gallagher and Tony Storey (Published by Trinity Mirror, £9.99)

Shanghai is the number one port in the world with regard to the amount of containers handled, according to 2015 statistics, yet a recent walk along its Bund reminded me of what was once dubbed the “Second City of Empire”. I am not the first Merseysider (nor will I be the last) to point this out since situated near its promenade stand buildings that closely resemble two of Liverpool’s iconic Three Graces: HSBC Building and Custom House. As unsurprising as it is to see hackneyed versions of the Port of Liverpool and Liver buildings overlooking the Huangpu River, housed at numbers 12 and 13 on the Bund respectively, it is surprising to see that No. 14 – Former Bank of Communications – bears an uncanny resemblance to Tower Buildings on Water Street!

Despite there being no record architects in Shanghai drew inspiration from two of our Three Graces (which were built approximately a decade-and-a-half before their eastern doppelgängers), I could not help feeling rejected that they were insufficiently inspired to imitate what I believe is our Greatest Grace: the Cunard Building. Flanked on either side by what are indubitably prettier-looking sisters, she continues to be casually – perhaps callously? – referred to as “the middle one”. Yet, as co-authors Michael Gallagher and Tony Storey illustrate in their book The Passenger’s Palace – 100 Years of Cunard Building Liverpool, there is nothing middle-of-the-road about her. She might not, to paraphrase Building Manager Joe Garnett, be as ‘pleasing on the eye’ as the Port of Liverpool or receive the ‘publicity’ that the Liver does (courtesy of its Liver Birds), ‘but Cunard has all the history and heritage associated with a world-renowned company.’

Having first opened her doors in 1916 ‘without formality or fuss,’ the co-authors inform readers, it was only right and proper that she was fussed over during formalities in and around the Pier Head on Saturday (2 July). Arguably the centrepiece of the centenary celebrations was the unveiling of a stone bench that runs the full length of the building’s Strand side and which charts the history of Cunard, founded 176 years ago. This giant (160ft) granite artwork should whet the appetite of those interested in learning about the Cunard Line, to be sure, and there are now available a number of worthy titles given its recent landmark birthday. Yet those wanting to know more about the Cunard Building – the third of the Three Graces to join the “100 Club” – should look no further than The Passenger’s Palace.

I say this less so for the general history it provides about the design and construction of the building on what used to be George’s Dock (1771-1899), however, and more for the specific histories of various (post-WWII) workers interviewed. These featured interviews, together with rarely seen 100-year-old floorplans reproduced in full, will prove invaluable inclusions for amateur and professional historians alike. Yet it soon becomes evident that this lavishly illustrated brochure-like paperback is not exclusively aimed at them. Ever since the idea of converting the building into a cruise liner terminal collapsed in 2014, the owners have sought – much like Cunard Steamship Company during its period of ownership (1916-1969) – prospective tenants, which explains the space dedicated to detailing its modest yet magnificent architectural style. But this should not detract readers from purchasing a copy since in amongst all the facts and figures pertaining to this Greek Revival and Italian Renaissance-inspired Grade II listed edifice is a treasure trove of images (122).

I personally find the (four) photographs of a post-Two, pre-Three-Graces waterfront unsettling, for some strange reason, although the lack of a copycat Cunard might explain why I could not settle in Shanghai despite its otherwise strangely familiar waterfront.