Review: Sefton In 50 Buildings

Hugh Hollinghurst: Sefton In 50 Buildings (Amberley Publishing)

The borough of Sefton is, as this richly rewarding book illustrates, full of buildings and locations of historical interest. However the borough itself is of course not very old at all. It was created in 1973 when local government reorganization merged Southport, Bootle and Crosby. As author Hugh Hollinghurst notes, the three districts could hardly be more varied: a seaside resort, an industrial seaport and a prosperous residential suburb. This variety adds greatly to the appeal of Hollinghurst’s lavishly illustrated book, enabling him to identify fifty buildings of diverse architectural styles and historical significance. Churches, cottages, civic buildings, pubs, houses, schools, docks – they’re all here. The author is the chairman of Crosby and District Historical Society and an excellent guide – knowledgeable and full of interesting asides and observations.

Sefton as a borough may be relatively new, but the tiny village it’s named after certainly isn’t. It was mentioned in the Domesday book and the village church (one of the fifty buildings) has parts that date back to the twelfth century. Other early buildings in the book include Crosby Hall (early 17th century), the library of Merchant Taylors’ Girls School (1620) and Lord Derby’s Hunting Lodge in Bootle (1773). Hollinghurst’s descriptions include many eye-catching incidental details, about both the buildings themselves and the people who occupied them. A small rectangular space above the entrance to the Merchant Taylors’ building was known as the ‘birch room’ because it was where misbehaving boys were punished. Crosby Hall has been the home of the Blundell family for over 750 years, and like several other notable Lancashire families they suffered in the 16th and 17th centuries for their Catholic faith. Richard Blundell died a prisoner in Lancaster Castle in 1592, and his son was similarly imprisoned both there and in London. The hall has a priest’s hiding place and the estate also included a secret Catholic burial ground.

As we read about the buildings, we also learn about the history of the borough’s towns and villages. The Hesketh Arms in Churchtown played a significant part in the birth of Southport. In the late 18th century the landlord of the inn, William Sutton, built a bathing hut nearer to the coast, followed by a hotel. At the celebrations to mark the opening of the hotel one of the guests declared, ‘This place shall be called South Port.’ The Royal Hotel in Waterloo was originally called the Waterloo Hotel and was opened in 1816 to mark the first anniversary of the famous battle. The area around it (which to begin with comprised just six cottages) was given the same name. Later occupants of the district included Bruce Ismay, managing director of the White Star Line, which owned the Titanic, and the Titanic’s captain John Smith.

Hollinghurst has an excellent eye for the architectural glories of the borough. He salutes Albany Buildings in Lord Street as ‘the centerpiece of the finest block of buildings in Southport.’ The beautiful transept windows of St Luke’s Church, Crosby are rightly praised, as are the striking designs of later buildings such as St Monica’s Church, Bootle and the elaborate collection of buildings that make up the First World War memorial in Southport.

More functional buildings are also given their due, including Harland and Wolff’s Foundry and Johnsons Cleaners, both in Bootle. The latter, built in 1910, is now sadly boarded up but once employed hundreds of workers. An entire floor was devoted to renovating hat wear – as Hollinghurst reminds us, ‘These were the days when everyone wore a hat and never threw one away.’

The final entry brings the reader bang up to date with the row of gigantic red and white cranes installed at the Seaforth Container Dock in 2016. There’s a strange beauty about their colour, shape and gargantuan size which attracts curious and admiring glances for miles around (not least from the Wirral shoreline opposite). It’s a fitting end to a fascinating book which takes the reader on an enlightening journey through time.

Sefton In 50 Buildings by Hugh Hollinghurst is published by Amberley Publishing, priced £14.99