Birkenhead Town Hall

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On a bright St George’s Day I ventured down to see part of Birkenhead’s most impressive architecture around Hamilton Square most particularly the town hall building.

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Birkenhead Town Hall is a Grade II listed building and was built as the main civic building for the former County Borough of Birkenhead.  It continued to be used as council offices by the town’s successor council, the Metropolitan Borough of Wirral, and up until 2010 it housed the Wirral Museum.  It still remains the location of the town’s register office.

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When Hamilton Square was designed in the early 19th century, a plot of land was made available for the erection of a town hall between Hamilton Street and Chester Street. However, it wasn’t until 1887 that the current building was completed after four years of building.  It was designed by local architect Christopher Ellison in 1882 and was constructed using Scottish granite and sandstone from the now filled in local quarry at Storeton which I have written about in earlier blogs.

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The building consisted of a council chamber, offices, with a concert hall and function rooms known as the Assembly Rooms. Birkenhead’s magistrates’ court chambers are located in a separate building of the same design to the rear of the town hall.

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The clock tower is 200 feet in height and consists of four faces. After a fire in 1901, the upper part of the clock tower was rebuilt to a design by Henry Hartley. The rebuilding included the installation of a stained glass window by Gilbert P Gamon representing Edward I’s visit to Birkenhead Priory in 1277.

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The County Borough of Birkenhead was abolished on 1 April 1974 with the creation of the larger Metropolitan Borough of Wirral and nearby Wallasey town hall became the main civic centre for the new combined borough. The Birkenhead building continued to be used as council offices until the early 1990s, when work was undertaken to restore the external stonework and many interior decorations and features, including the former council chamber.

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The Wirral Archives Service was based in the building until 2008, when it transferred to the council’s Cheshire Lines Building nearby.  The service collects and stores all types of historical documents relating to the Wirral area, its people, businesses and institutions.

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Between 2001 and 2010, the Wirral Museum occupied a significant portion of the building.  It featured both themed and permanent exhibits such as the history and development of Wirral, the Cammell Laird collection, the Wirral Silver and Mayoral collections, Della Robbia Pottery and a detailed scale model of the historic Woodside area in 1934.

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Birkenhead town hall continued to house many council staff until the 1990s, but departments were then moved out to other buildings in the area and the town hall was only used as the museum and archives service together with the registry office for births, marriages and deaths.  However the civic building has also continued to be used as a venue for local and national elections and for the celebration of notable occasions as well as the town’s focal point for annual Remembrance Sunday ceremonies.

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In 2009 Wirral Council put the town hall on the market but found there was relatively little interest and the council found no suitable options were put forward.  The Council therefore decided to keep the town hall and it is again being used as offices.  Now there are more than 100 staff based at Birkenhead town hall, mostly transferred from former council offices at Acre Lane which has been closed and is being sold off.  There are plans to bring many more staff to the town hall as the authority sells off unwanted buildings across the borough to save cash.

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The town hall has a rich history in itself.  Throughout the First World War the Mayors and Mayoresses who were in office arranged a number of fundraising events and relief funds. Funds were used such as buying ambulances for the Birkenhead Red Cross. With the vehicles touring the town, starting at the Town Hall then travelling to Birkenhead Park, where at times there were practical demonstrations given to the public by the Borough Fire Brigade and the Voluntary Aid Detachment.

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In September 1914 the Mayoress of Birkenhead started an appeal for Belgian Refugees, who were heading to the area after fleeing from the German invasion.

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The recruitment of the Birkenhead Bantam Brigade started at the Town Hall before moving to Bebington Showground.  Over 1000 men were expected to attend ready to enlist and have a medical examination. Other large recruitment events were also held at the Town Hall.

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From 1915 for the duration of the war a party was held before Christmas and in January for the children of soldiers and sailors who were serving in the HM Forces being paid for by the Mayor’s Annual Relief Fund.

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The first Annual Meeting of the Birkenhead Branch of the National Union of Women Workers was held at the Town Hall. At this meeting the authorities gave permission for patrols of women to be formed, with the support of the police, to maintain order as so many girls appeared to be loitering by the newly formed camps for soldiers.

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In 1916 concerts were held here to raise funds to provide comforts to men serving in the War and in November 1918 a Thanksgiving Supper Dance was held for American soldiers who were billeted in the area.

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The town hall looks out onto Hamilton Square which is surrounded on the other three sides by Georgian terraces. No two sides of the square are identical.

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Hamilton Square was one of the first residential areas for business people and the growing professional classes to be built in the newly formed town of Birkenhead, following the introduction of steam ferries across the River Mersey from Liverpool in the nineteenth century.  Whilst there is still some residential accommodation in the square, many properties are now used as offices and for commercial uses.

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The land on which the square was developed was purchased in 1824 by Scottish shipbuilder William Laird (1780–1841).and he commissioned Edinburgh architect Gillespie Graham, to lay out a square and surrounding streets, in a similar style to Edinburgh New Town.  Gillespie Graham envisaged vistas of long, straight and wide avenues lined by elegant houses. Hamilton Square, named after Laird’s wife’s family, was built piecemeal over the next twenty years as the focus of the regular street layout.  Nearby Hamilton Square railway station opened in 1886.

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The private gardens within the square were acquired by the local council in 1903 and were subsequently opened to the public. Features of the square include the town’s cenotaph immediately in front of the town hall, a large Queen Victoria Monument at the centre of the gardens and a statue of John Laird, the first Member of Parliament for Birkenhead and the son of William Laird. Laird’s house, at 63 Hamilton Square, is a Grade I listed building.

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Between 1995 and 2002 Wirral Council had access to around £80m of public funding through the then government’s ‘Single Regeneration Budget’ to rejuvenate the area around Hamilton Square in what became known as the Hamilton Quarter initiative.  This saw shop front renewals, conservation and landscaping works which included the installation of the ornate ‘moon and stars’ lamp posts which are found all around the square.  The Hamilton Quarter intiative also funded initially the Wirral International Guitar Festival which still goes on today.

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It may be a surprising statistic but Hamilton Square is second only to Trafalgar Square in London for having the most Grade I listed buildings in one place in England.

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Poppies Weeping Window

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Weeping Window is part of the installation ‘Blood Swept Lands of Seas of Red’ which was originally shown at the Tower of London in November and December 2014.  The original display captured the British public’s imagination – it is estimated that the Tower of London was visited by over five million people whilst the Poppies were on display.  It was named Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red after a line written by a Derbyshire soldier who died in Belgium.

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Weeping window has now been installed on St George’s Hall in the heart of Liverpool.  It is on display from 7 November through to 17 January 2016.  It was the centre piece of the Remembrance Sunday ceremony in Liverpool on 8 November.  It is a cascade of several thousand handmade ceramic poppies which pour out from high up in St George’s Hall to the ground below.  The thousands of ceramic flowers represent the lives of the many military fatalities lost in the First World War.  World War 1 style sandbags cordon off the poppies from the public viewing them.

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I went along to try and capture some images in the rain. Some shots have been affected by the very heavy rain that fell this weekend.

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The sculptures are by artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper and they take elements of their installation from the Tower of London to create another work of art here in Liverpool.  The event is part of the UK wide 14-18 NOW WW1 Centenary Art Commission’s aim to commemorate, across the country, the hundred years since the First World War.

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Over the period the original installation was housed at the Tower of London poppies were added each day until there were 888,246 poppies representing each one of the deaths in the British and Colonial forces between 1914 and 1918.  The last poppy was planted at the Tower of London on Remembrance Day 2014.

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The Backstage Trust bought the Weeping Window section of the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red artwork following the closure of the event at the Tower of London last autumn.  The Clore Duffield Foundation secured the Wave section of the installation.  Both works, together totalling more than 10,000 ceramic poppies, are being showcased at locations around the country between now and 2018, before finding permanent homes at the Imperial War Museum in London and Manchester.  Most of the poppies were sold to the public, raising about £9m for military charities.

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Weeping Window spent two months on show at the Woodhorn Museum in Northumberland before moving to Liverpool for Remembrance Sunday.  The Wave was installed in September at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

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St George’s Hall was built in 1854 and is regarded as one the finest examples of neo classical architecture in the world.  The plateau outside the front of the hall is meeting place for great celebrations and commemorations in the city.  During World War 1 St George’s Hall was the rallying point for the famous Liverpool PALs, when Lord Derby and Lord Kitchener appealed for 100,000 local men to form a new army battalion.

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Thousands of men travelled to these rallies and they signed their attestation papers in St George’s Hall.

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Lord Kitchener was Secretary of State for War and he organised the largest volunteer army that both Britain and the world had ever seen.  His commanding image appeared on recruiting posters demanding “Your country needs you!” across the land.

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By September 1914, more than 30,000 men had enlisted at St George’s Hall.  In 1915 Lord Kitchener returned to Liverpool to inspect nine battalions on the plateau outside the great hall.  However, by the end of the war more than 13,000 men from Merseyside had died in the conflict.  The plateau now features the Liverpool cenotaph, established in 1927 as a memorial to those who fell in WW1.

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