The Museum of Liverpool

We went to have a look around the museum where you can explore how the port, its people and their creative and sporting history have shaped the city.

The museum opened on 19 July 2011 in a purpose-built landmark building on Liverpool’s famous waterfront. The design concept for the building was developed by Danish architect 3XN and Manchester-based architect AEW were later commissioned to deliver the detailed design. It has won many awards, including the Council of Europe Museum Prize for 2013.

The Museum of Liverpool replaced the older Museum of Liverpool Life which closed in 2006. The original museum was housed in the old Pilotage and Salvage Association buildings on Liverpool’s waterfront, in between the Albert Dock and Pier Head. The new modern designed building now houses most of the original museum’s exhibits on a site close by.

National Museums Liverpool (who run seven facilities across Merseyside including the Museum of Liverpool) say that is the largest newly-built national museum in the UK for more than 100 years. The Museum quote a range of interesting facts about the building.

It occupies an area 110 metres long by 60 metres wide and at its tallest point it is 26 metres high and that makes it longer than the pitches at either Anfield or Goodison Park, more than twice as wide as the Titanic, and as tall as five Liver Building Liver birds placed end to end.

The museum’s frame is constructed with 2,100 tonnes of steel – equivalent to 270 double decker buses. The 1,500 square metres of glazing offer striking views of the city, especially from the 8 metres high by 28 metres wide picture windows at each end of the building. The museum is clad in 5,700 square metres of natural Jura stone, which if laid out flat would cover a football pitch. 7,500 cubic metres of concrete and 20 tonnes of bolts have been used in the construction. And 20,000 cubic metres of soil – equivalent to eight Olympic swimming pools – have been excavated from the site.

It is certainly a strikingly modern building.

The Museum displays are divided into four main themes:

  • The Great Port,
  • Global City,
  • People’s Republic, and
  • Wondrous Place

These are located in four large gallery spaces over three floors. On the ground floor, displays look at the city’s urban and technological evolution which includes the Industrial Revolution and the changes in the British Empire, and how these changes have impacted the city’s economic development.

The second floor looks at Liverpool’s strong identity through examining the social history of the city, from settlement in the area from Neolithic times to the present day, migration, and the various communities and cultures which contribute to the city’s diversity.

There are many highlights. I’ve noted some of these below.

Ben Johnson was commissioned to create The Liverpool Cityscape for the Capital of Culture year in 2008. He started the painting in 2005 and completed it during a public residency at the Walker Art Gallery in early 2008. It was originally displayed at the Walker as part of the exhibition ‘Ben Johnson’s Liverpool Cityscape 2008’ before moving to its permanent home in the Museum of Liverpool’s Skylight gallery.

The Liverpool Overhead Railway gallery tells the remarkable story of the first electric elevated railway in the world. The Overhead Railway was built in 1893 to ease congestion along seven miles of Liverpool’s docks. It was known as the ‘dockers’ umbrella’ as it also provided shelter from the rain. In the gallery you can climb into a carriage, which is fixed at the exact height of the original railway at 4.8m (16 feet) above the ground. The railway was eventually pulled down in the late 1950s.

The Liverpool and Manchester Railway ‘Lion’ is an early steam locomotive which is on display in the Great Port exhibition on the ground floor of the Museum. In 2007 Lion, was moved by road from Manchester to Liverpool after being on loan to Manchester while the new museum was under construction. Some conservation work took place prior to it taking pride of place in the new museum. It starred three films the most notable being the 1953 film ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt’.

There is an enormous model of Sir Edwin Lutyens’ 1930’s design for Liverpool’s Catholic Cathedral in the museum. It is one of the most elaborate architectural models ever built in Britain. It represents the ambitious plan to build the world’s second largest cathedral, and it would have had the world’s largest dome, with a diameter of 168 feet (51 m). It was however far too costly and was abandoned with only the crypt complete. Eventually the present more modern Cathedral was designed by Sir Frederick Gibberd with construction starting in 1962 with completion in less than five years in1967.

There are a range of exhibits displaying Liverpool Life over the ages. The social and community history collections include objects of local, national and international importance reflecting the changing history of the city and the diverse stories and experiences of Liverpool people. They include popular culture and entertainment, working life, labour history, politics and public health. The museum also has a large collection of oral history interviews and filmed video histories from local people with stories to tell.

Football is an important aspect of life in Liverpool. Liverpool Football Club Museum and The Everton Collection have both lent the museum an array of memorabilia. And there are exhibits from Merseyside’s other team Tranmere Rovers.

Whilst ‘The Beatles Story’ museum elsewhere in the Albert Dock has a large display to experience, the Beatles show at the Museum of Liverpool tells part of the story of the Fab Four in Liverpool which was the birthplace of a musical and cultural revolution that swept the globe.

At the time of our visit there was a special exhibition showing local music legends Gerry and the Pacemakers.

I took a number of images from the day, but there is much to see and experience and it will be worth re-visiting the museum to take it all in.

An early morning walk in New Brighton

After seeing Bruce Springsteen in concert this week in Manchester I took the opportunity this bank holiday weekend to go down to Merseyside’s own ‘New Jersey Shore’.  Not quite Atlantic City, but New Brighton is situated at the entrance to the Mersey on the north-eastern tip of the Wirral Peninsula, overlooking the Irish Sea and the Liverpool Bay.

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At its peak in the early 1900’s New Brighton was the most popular resort for Merseyside with its own ferry terminal connecting it to Liverpool across the River Mersey.  Amongst other attractions the resort boasted the New Brighton Tower with its own ballroom and at one time Europe’s largest open air outdoor swimming pool on the main promenade.

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Sadly, neither of these attractions now exists.  For years the town has seen many restoration projects fail such as the plans to transform Victoria Road into a shopping centre to match London’s Covent Gardens.  There were plans to develop the stretch of costal area between New Brighton and Wallasey village into a Disneyland type of venture as well as an ambitious ‘Pleasure Island’ scheme to rival Blackpool but neither of these schemes proved viable.

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But New Brighton has now become a ‘New’ New Brighton with the completion in 2012/13 of a major £60 million redevelopment program.  This has included a replacement of an old worn out theatre with the modern Floral Pavilion and the redevelopment on the promenade with the new Marine Point leisure complex with modern restaurants and bars as well as The Light cinema and a hotel.  But there are still the traditional pleasures of the original funfairs, entrainment arcades, large marine lake, a model boating lake and ten pin bowling alley and Laser Quest adventure centre.

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The final part of the New Brighton redevelopment was the construction in 2014 of ‘The Prom’ apartments which comprises of 24 luxury apartments offering sea views, across Liverpool Bay, and the historic Fort Perch Rock and Light House.

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It’s interesting to hear how New Brighton got its name.  In 1830, a Liverpool merchant, James Atherton, purchased much of the land at what was Rock Point, which enjoyed views out to sea and across the Mersey and had a good sandy beach. His wanted to develop it as a desirable residential and holiday resort for the growing number of well off business people.  His aim was to create a resort similar to Brighton on the south coast, one of the most elegant seaside resorts of that Regency period and hence he called it ‘New Brighton’. Development began soon afterwards, and housing began to spread up the hillside overlooking the estuary.  This was aided with the closure of a former gunpowder magazine in 1851.

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During the latter half of the 19th century, New Brighton developed as a very popular seaside resort serving Liverpool and the Lancashire industrial towns, and many of the large houses were converted to inexpensive hotels. A pier was opened in the 1860s, and the promenade from Seacombe, further down the River Mersey, was built through to New Brighton in the 1890s. This served both as a recreational amenity in its own right, and to link up the developments along the estuary.  It was later extended westwards towards Leasowe, making it the longest in the UK.

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The New Brighton Tower, rivalled the more famous Blackpool Tower.  It was actually the tallest tower in the country, opening in 1900 but it closed in 1919, largely due to lack of maintenance during World War I. Dismantling of the tower was complete by 1921 leaving only the ballroom that was at the foot of the tower.

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However after World War II, the popularity of New Brighton as a seaside resort declined dramatically like many other traditional holiday resorts. The Tower Ballroom located in its own grounds continued as a major venue, hosting numerous concerts in the 1950s and 1960s by local Liverpool groups including The Beatles as well as other international stars. But the Tower Ballroom was destroyed by a fire in 1969.  The site is now grassed over and used as a football pitch.

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Another blow to the resort was when the last Ferries across the Mersey to New Brighton ceased in 1971, after which the ferry pier and landing stage were dismantled.  By 1977, the promenade pier had gone as well.

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One of the more peculiar sights is Fort Perch Rock which is a former defence installation situated at the mouth of Liverpool Bay. It was built in the 1820s soon after the Napoleonic Wars to defend the Port of Liverpool.  It was proposed as a fortified lighthouse to replace the old Perch Rock Light, however a separate lighthouse was subsequently built.  The fort was built on an area known as Black Rock, and was cut off at high tide but with coastal reclamation it is now fully accessible. At one point the Fort was armed with 18 guns, of which 16 were 32-pounders, mounted on platforms. It was nicknamed the ‘Little Gibraltar of the Mersey’.  It is now a tourist attraction and museum. It has been, and is still used as a venue for musical concerts and has been listed as a Grade II building.

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Right next to Fort Perch is what is now known as New Brighton Lighthouse originally known as Perch Rock Lighthouse.  Construction of the present structure began in 1827 though a light had been maintained on the rock since 1683. It was designed on the lines of the Eddystone lighthouse by Mr. Foster and built of marble rock from Anglesey by Tomkinson & Company.

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New Brighton has two churches dominating the skyline and which can be seen from the River Mersey. On Victoria Road is the Anglican St James Church by Sir George Gilbert Scott notable for its thin broach spire and a polygonal apse. It now incorporates the New Brighton Visitors Centre.

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The second is St Peter and Paul’s Roman Catholic Church is at the top of Atherton Street, completed in 1935.  This is a very prominent Grade II listed building in the Roman Gesu style, featuring a large dome on a drum. Nicknamed the “Dome from Home” by returning sailors, the church was closed in 2008, but after a public outcry it subsequently reopened in 2011.

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Just as sad as the demise of the tower was the closure of the open air swimming pool in1990.  The old pool is now the site of the new Marine Point development with a Morrison’s supermarket and car park taking up much of the original bathing pool foot print.  The story started in June 1934 when Lord Leverhulme declared open the finest and largest aquatic stadium in the World.  The popularity of this once magnificent and eye catching bathing pool was shown by the fact that 100,000 people passed through the turnstiles in the first week.  It was built on sand, covering an area of approximately 1.8 hectares (4.5 acres) and cost £103,240 being constructed of mass concrete covered with a rendering of white Portland cement.

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The pool was designed to obtain as much sunshine as possible and facing south; it was sheltered from the north winds. Lights which lit up under water were placed at the deep end for night bathing and a 10 metre regulation standard, high diving stage was provided suitable for international diving competitions.  The pool was built also to allow for Championship swimming events and it held some 2,000 spectators for events.  The Pool contained 1,376,000 gallons of pure sea water, filled through the ornamented cascade with the water constantly changed being fed from the adjoining Marine Lake, which acted as a huge storage tank.

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In the 1950s through to the late 1970s ‘bathing beauty contests’ had mass appeal and were popular as they were seen to bring a little bit of ‘glamour’ to the post-war seaside resorts.  The outdoor pool was used extensively during this period with the first Miss New Brighton Bathing Girl contest starting at the Pool in 1949 with the last event in 1989.

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The pool was used for other events such as firework displays and pop concerts including in May 1984 ‘New Brighton Rock’ when Granada Television staged a £100,000 Pop Spectacular at the pool.

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However on 26th and 27th February 1990, hurricane force winds measuring more than 100 mph caused severe damage to the New Brighton bathing pool. With estimated costs of over £4 million to repair the damage it was decided to demolish the building. The then Merseyside Development Corporation (MDC) which had taken over responsibility for the sea front area cleared the open air baths in the summer of 1990 and it lay grassed over until the Marine Point major redevelopment scheme started some twenty odd years later.

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A happier tale has been the Floral Pavilion theatre.  Up until World War II there were seven theatres in the wider Wallasey area including the Palace Theatre, the Pier Pavilion, the Tower Theatre, the Irving Theatre, the Winter Gardens, the Tivoli and the Floral Pavilion.  Whilst the other theatres closed during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s with the advent and growing popularity of television, the Floral Pavilion carried on.  It was opened in May 1913 by the Rt. Hon the Earl of Derby as an open air theatre with a pavilion called ‘The New Victoria Gardens’.  In May 1965 when the glass structure of the theatre was replaced it re-opened as ‘The Floral Pavilion Theatre’. Since then theatre has staged many one-night shows with a variety of artistes.

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As part of redevelopment on the New Brighton promenade the Floral Pavilion was demolished in 2006 and a new £12 million 800 plus seat Floral Pavilion and Conference Centre was built. The theatre was the first phase of the redevelopment scheme and the new complex opened on 13th December 2008 featuring the nationally famous comedian but local legend Ken Dodd who has had a long association with the Floral Pavilion, making his first appearance there in 1940.  The Floral Pavilion’s architect Ken Martin said he had designed the new building to be “theatrical on the inside and outside”, with a wave-shaped roof, bandstands and lighting colonnades. This design captures and is a celebration of the spirit of the old Floral Pavilion.

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The new Floral Pavilion theatre and conference centre continues to attract a number of touring plays and musicians and ending on the Bruce Springsteen theme where I started this post, Nils Lofgren part of the East Street band has played the theatre on a couple of tours, the first time in its old form and his last appearance earlier this year in the new completely rejuvenated venue.

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Birkenhead Priory

It was a sunny morning and I was an early visitor to Birkenhead Priory.

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The Priory is the oldest building in the whole of Merseyside.  It was founded around 1150 by Hamon de Masci, who was the 3rd Baron of Dunham Massey as a monastery for the Benedictine Order.  As well as being the oldest inhabited building in the area it has a rich and varied history to tell very closely linked to its position on the banks of the River Mersey adjacent to Cammel Laird’s shipbuilders.

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The site has recently fully re-opened following extensive restoration work taking place from 2012 to 2015.  The local newspaper the Liverpool Echo have only this month published their ‘Wirral bucket list: 75 things to do in Wirral before you die’ and Birkenhead Priory is listed at number one – they say take in the view from Birkenhead Priory!!  More of that view later.

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The monks looked after travellers for nearly 400 years operating the first regulated ferries across the River Mersey from the ‘headland of the birches’ when at this time the whole of Wirral was covered in dense hunting forest.  ‘Birchen head’ was to become what we now know as modern day Birkenhead.

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The Priory was visited twice by King Edward I due to its strategic importance being close to the borders of Wales and the Irish Sea.  In 1318 the monks were granted ferry rights by King Edward II. This allowed them to build a house in what is now Water Street to store their corn. The house was also used by travellers for shelter if the weather was too bad for the ferry to cross the River Mersey.

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The tower of St Mary’s is all that remains of what was the first parish church of the town which opened in 1821 in the grounds of the priory.  Redevelopment of the area from 1925 resulted in a large amount of housing within the parish being cleared to make way for the construction of the Queensway Tunnel.  At the adjacent Cammell Laird shipyard an expansion of the Number 5 dry dock and the construction of the Princes dock which opened in 1962 resulted in the church losing a significant portion of its graveyard.

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Subsequent redevelopment of the approach roads to the Mersey Tunnel effectively cut off the church from most of what remained of its parish, further dwindling its congregation. In 1971 St Mary’s church was closed with most of the church being demolished in 1975 for safety reasons.  Only the former church tower and parts of the outer walls remain. The tower has since been refurbished and is dedicated to those who died on HMS Thetis.  The remaining walls to the church, which would have been its internal walls, catch the early autumn sunlight with their white painted exterior.

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The site is dedicated as a memorial to those lost in the 1939 disaster aboard the Cammel Laird’s built submarine HMS Thetis. This was the Royal Navy’s worst peacetime tragedy when an accident happened during sea trials for the new vessel which had sailed out to the Irish Sea off Llandudno from Birkenhead.  There were 103 men on board on 1 June 1939, twice the usual number, with the Royal Navy crew swelled by engineers from ship builders Cammell Laird.  Due to a combination of unfortunate circumstances, sea water flooded in and the boat nosedived and was unable to resurface.  The sinking of the submarine resulted in the loss of 99 lives.  It happened three months before World War II.  The Thetis actually grounded on Anglesey on the day war was declared.

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Climbing the 101 steps to the top of St Mary’s tower affords you tremendous views down the river and across to Liverpool and you really do get a ‘bird’s eye’ view of Cammel Lairds shipyard next door.

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The priory’s chapter house was built in the 1150’s as a meeting place for the monks.  After King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries around 1540 it was adapted for use as a chapel where it was the place of worship until St Mary’s church was opened in 1821.  Following restoration work the chapel was rededicated as a chapel in 1919 it is currently consecrated as an Anglican church, and is still used for services today. The chapter house is a Grade II listed building containing items of Norman architecture; it was fully restored in 2005.

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The Scriptorium was built above the chapter house in 1375.  The original use is uncertain but was probably a place where the monks could read and write on their own.  It was restored in 1919 and was repaired after bomb damage during World War II.

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It has a chapel dedicated to the training ship HMS Conway where services are held two or three times a year.  The Scriptorium is the home of the ‘Friends of HMS Conway’.  HMS Conway was founded as a naval training school in 1859 and housed for most of its life aboard a 19th-century wooden battleship which stood in the River Mersey off Rock Ferry.  The ship was moved from the Mersey to the Menai Straits during World War II.

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However whilst she was being towed back to Birkenhead for a refit in 1953, she ran aground and was wrecked.  Training of the naval cadets continued in a new camp in the grounds of the Marquess of Anglesey’s residence at Plas Newydd, using his private dock for seamanship and small boat handling.  In 1964 the new HMS Conway, a purpose designed college close to Plas Newydd, was opened however with the running down of the British Merchant Navy and the emphasis being placed on university style nautical training, it was decided to finally close HMS Conway in 1974.  The ‘Friends of HMS Conway’ was established in 1996 to safeguard the many items of memorabilia from the training school and they were allowed to use the Scriptorium as a museum.

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New stained glass windows have now been installed commissioned by ‘Old Conways’ (former cadets of HMS Conway) and designed by the late David Hillhouse the former curator of Wirral Museums. The furniture and memorabilia were moved from the Conway Centre in Angelsey together with many items donated by ‘Old Conways’ worldwide.

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The Frater Range is the second surviving building off the cloisters next to the Chapter House.  A museum detailing the history of the site is housed in the former undercroft.  Undercrofts were storage cellars but this one was very carefully finished which experts believe means it may have been used as a dining room.

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The museum has an interesting interpretation corner, a small exhibit by Kate White showing a medieval mason at work.  Stone Masons were paid by each brick they carved so they would mark each stone with their own unique symbol and some of these marks can be seen on the Chapter House.  Before the Twelfth century most buildings were of timber construction; the Priory’s stone design is typical of Anglo-Norman monastic buildings.  However the undercofts vaulted ceilings and pointed arches were a new technique and were early elements of the emerging ‘gothic’ style.

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The Refractory above the undercroft on the first floor is a venue space used for craft fairs and the like; it has a modern roof which was installed in 1993.

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You actually enter the site through the Western Range and through it into the cloisters area.  It is still intact but has no roof.  The two storey building was built after 1250.  It contained a number of rooms: the prior’s living room and bedroom, a monks’ parlour, guest hall and guest rooms.  The Western range and Frater Range were the first buildings to be restored when Birkenhead Corporation acquired the site in 1896.

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The churchyard contains the burial vault of the Laird family, which includes John Laird (1805–74), Birkenhead’s mayor and first Member of Parliament and co-founder of the adjacent Cammell Laird shipbuilding company.

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It is an interesting location for Merseyside’s oldest building sandwiched between Cammel Lairds ship yard, small scale industrial units and a more modern development of offices on the banks of the river.  Next to the ancient sandstone walls are the towering cranes of the shipyard next door.  Some of the older industrial units have not aged as well as the priory.

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It is interesting to me how we have treated historic buildings in the past.  Since the priory was first built it has been left to ruin for much of the time but has had periods of active restoration.  During the Eighteenth century it was in ruins but it was still a popular visitor attraction.  The industrialisation from the Nineteenth saw the Priory come under more threat but during 1896 to 1898 the Priory saw the Victorian restoration period.  During the 1960s and 1970s the encroachment of the shipyard and the construction of the Mersey Tunnel saw further threat and the Priory falling once again into disrepair.  Some work was undertaken in the 1990s to patch up the priory buildings.  But more recently from 2012 modern day stonemasons have undertaken major restoration works.  The small team from the local council together with local volunteers continue to ensure the site continues to have life for the future.

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All in all it was a very interesting day exploring almost 900 years of Wirral’s history in one day.