Historic England: Liverpool (Book review)


This illustrated history of Liverpool is a veritable treasure trove in which you’ll find over 150 images – mostly photographs, but also watercolours, drawings and maps. In deciding what to include author Hugh Hollinghurst (who’s written other notable books on the region) has been able to draw on the colossal Historic England archive. Housed in an environmentally controlled storage facility in Swindon this is a collection of over 12 million photographs, drawings, plans and documents covering England’s archaeology, architecture and social history.

The images, accompanied by Hollinghurst’s perceptive and authoritative commentary, are used to tell the story of Liverpool, with a strong focus on the 19th and 20th centuries. Buildings and street views predominate, but there is often an interesting human dimension as well, as in the shots (taken around the beginning of the 20th century) of passenger-filled open-top trams in Derby Square and Church Street.

The book is divided into eight sections, covering topics such as ‘Docks’, ‘Waterfront’, ‘Culture’ and ‘Homes’. Hollinghurst’s approach is often to show how a particular location has changed over time. So we see an 1844 watercolour of the Custom House, followed by a photo from 1907 and then another taken sometime after the wartime blitz, when the building is sadly damaged and near derelict. Finally there’s an aerial shot of the site after the Custom House – which many argue should have been saved – was razed to its foundations in 1947.

In contrast, an 1887 photo in the ‘Waterfront’ section shows St Nicholas’s Church, but the Three Graces are conspicuous by their absence; it’s followed by a 1934 aerial shot, showing the Graces in all their glory. In the same part of the book a particularly interesting photo of the Strand taken in 1919 captures a busy street scene, with horse-drawn carts, cloth capped workers and assorted passers by. As now, the White Star Line building is an impressive architectural presence on one side of the road, with the Royal Liver Building a little way along on the other side. But other elements of the scene are now gone, including large warehouses and the Overhead Railway.

Another building that’s still very much with us is Church Street’s Compton House, seen in a photograph from 1887 and occupied by Marks and Spencer since 1928. But a building on the other side of the road, while still standing, no longer houses Woolworths, which opened in Liverpool in 1923; a photo shows the original shopfront. It’s interesting to read that the city’s prosperity at the time was such that Harrod’s had considered opening a shop on the Woolworths site. Two more fondly remembered department stores, Lewis’s and Blackler’s, are seen – both bomb-damaged – in a photo from 1942.

Apart from the more obvious landmark buildings, there are also photos of pubs, houses and cinemas – the last of these rather sadly including photos of the recently demolished Futurist. And as well as the external shots there are some fine interior photographs. An early 20th century photo shows the Cunard Building’s luxurious restaurant, and there are period shots of the Town Hall’s dining room and the Cotton Exchange trading hall. Aerial photos provide another perspective. A good example is a 1947 shot captioned ‘Industrial Aintree’. A sweeping panoramic view takes in Hartley’s village and factory, Jacob’s Biscuit Factory, the Norris Green estate, Croxteth Park, Everton and West Derby cemeteries, the railway line from Liverpool to Wigan and other lines that once served the docks but are now closed.

You can spend endless hours perusing this book, marvelling one minute at how much the city has changed, the next at how much of it has stayed the same. For anyone interested in the history of Liverpool it could well be an essential purchase.

Historic England: Liverpool by Hugh Hollinghurst is published by Amberley Publishing, priced £14.99.