The Liverpool Memorandum Book of 1753 [A] is a notebook marketed at the merchants of the rapidly expanding port of Liverpool. It opens with a collection of useful information that includes a model diary, suggesting how the user might record his appointments. Although imaginary, this page reveals the mobility of the merchant and the significance of particular sites and buildings for life in the eighteenth-century town. On Sunday, our subject went to church twice. In the morning he went to St George’s Church, a new building in the town centre, consecrated in 1734 and used as the official church of the Mayor and Corporation. In the evening, he went to St Nicholas’, the town’s first church, on the waterfront. From this we can deduce that he was Anglican, as dissenting and Roman Catholic chapels were also available. His meals were often sociable: taken at home with companions, or in others’ houses, or in taverns, including the Talbot, the Golden Lion and the Fleece. Much business was conducted at home, so meals may also have been business meetings. Other business activities were recorded in terms of location: at the Insurance offices, at the newly erected Custom House and at the Corn Market. As the book elsewhere records, several insurance offices were at their proprietors’ houses: at this period, rigid differentiation between public and private, business and leisure in either temporal or spatial terms is unhelpful. Other transactions took place at coffee houses: the Merchant’s Coffee House on Dale Street and Pontack’s on Water Street. The amount of ‘free’ time is also notable: at a period when business often depended on face-to-face meetings, moving between spaces offered the opportunity for useful encounters. It is also clear that the subject was involved in building himself, meeting with a carpenter and a bricklayer. Finally, his ‘leisure’ activities included visiting an exhibition of pictures by William Caddick and (possibly) early works by Joseph Wright of Derby and a concert, whose locations are undefined but were clearly spaces of polite sociability.
As this example reveals, the events of history – both momentous and everyday – happened in particular locations, they ‘took place’. Their spatial and architectural setting mattered, but is often overlooked by historians. This chapter will look both at how to use sources to write about buildings and also how to use buildings (and information about them) as sources for history. It is therefore intended to be useful both for architectural historians and for historians who want to consider the architectural context for historical events. Knowing more about where past events happened can help to throw new light both on specific incidents and on broader historical themes. Buildings also remind us of the embodied nature of experience: through them we feel comfort and discomfort, accessibility and inaccessibility; they are the backdrop to our everyday lives, as they were for actors in the past. Architecture is only one element of the environment, but it is particularly significant because it was consciously designed.
Buildings serve basic functions: humans need shelter from the elements and many activities, from defence to industry, require suitable structures. These structures can therefore tell us much about the activities for which they were erected. Historians also consider the cultural significance of particular architectural forms, deliberately chosen by their creators and thus able to be ‘read’, much like a text.
Construction, including temporary buildings for pageantry and rituals, or for warfare, took up a large amount of the income of both wealthy individuals and societies. It also provided a very significant and wide range of employment, from the production of raw materials (for example, mining and quarrying, or timber farming) and the work involved in physical construction and building maintenance (from general labouring to specialist craftsmanship and the management of these processes), to the more intellectual work involved in the design and transmission of ideas about architecture. All of these left records, which can be used as sources by the historian.
Although history’s so-called ‘spatial turn’ is a relatively new phenomenon (Kumin and Usborne, 2013), buildings have long been of interest to those seeking to reconstruct and interrogate the past, including historical thinkers in our period (1500–1800). The methods developed by these early modern scholars have been analysed by Sweet (2004), and a discussion of the longer-term evolution of architectural history as a field of study can be found in Watkin (1980). A useful collection of key texts on architectural history has been published (Arnold, 2002), and explorations of some key questions and approaches are also available (Arnold, Ergut and Ozkaya, 2006; Leach, 2010; Long, 2009).
The Renaissance defined architecture as an art form, creating a distinction between ‘architecture’ and mere ‘building’. Architecture was generally designed by an architect and used recognised signifiers of style, generally the Classical orders (those used in ancient Greece and Rome), although during the eighteenth century more historicist or exotic styles, including Gothic and Chinese, became increasingly fashionable. Building did not involve an architect, employed local materials and architectural forms, and signified less prestigious functions. In historiographical terms, the distinction is between architecture per se and vernacular or industrial architecture, which are often treated very differently. Nevertheless, both prestigious and everyday buildings can be equally valuable for the historian and in the UK, for our period, both are accorded legal protection as ‘heritage’ by being ‘listed’. The basic information about any listed building may be found online at Historic England.
Early histories of architecture tended to focus on prestigious building types and to trace their changing appearance over time as new styles evolved. Explanations for these changes could be metaphysical (the manifestation of the zeitgeist, or spirit of the age), intellectual (the embodiment of changing philosophical ideals) or materialist (the influence of new materials and technologies or new functional requirements). Such scholarship looks for what buildings of a particular type, erected in a defined era or geo-political entity have in common, which can be defined as their ‘style’. Identifying typical features enables increasingly specific classification according to styles: for instance, renaissance, baroque, or neoclassical. Typical of this approach is John Summerson’s Architecture in Britain 1530–1830, first published in 1954 and still in print. While style remains a useful organising model, modern scholarship recognises the plurality of stylistic choice available within our period.
Understanding style in terms of conscious choice puts more emphasis on those responsible for making architectural decisions: that is, the architect and the patron. Again, throughout our period, architects and patrons have been named and celebrated, with buildings interpreted in terms of individual intentionality. Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists used this model in the sixteenth century and it remains a significant approach for scholars today. Most significant architects have been the subject of at least one monograph; their architectural contribution has also been an important feature of biographies of patrons, such as Lady Anne Clifford (Hearn and Hulse, 2009; Spence, 1997). While past scholarship tended to view architecture as being a ‘reflection’ of ideas developed outside the architectural realm (for example, that renaissance buildings reflected attitudes to Antiquity, or that the association of the dining room with men and the drawing room with women reflected gender divisions within society), with a key question being the means by which the architectural manifestations of these ideas were transmitted, more recent scholarship has seen architecture as a means by which such ideas were realised. Thus, Sir Christopher Wren’s scholarly background (as an Oxford graduate and Fellow of the Royal Society) and particular interest in scientific discovery was not merely an influence on his works of architecture, such as St Paul’s Cathedral, but architecture was a means by which his knowledge was developed and demonstrated, through the possibility of realisation in physical form (Bennett, 2002; Geraghty, 2013; Jardine, 2002; Soo, 2007).
At the same time, it is widely recognised that although the careers of architects may be plotted and their artistic development traced through archival sources, especially drawings, each building is the product of many individuals in a complex of relationships, dependent upon and contributing to political and economic circumstances. Another classic by John Summerson, Georgian London (2003), sought to explain the city’s development through reference to differences between the cities of London and Westminster in terms of social and economic circumstances and patterns of land-holding. Likewise, buildings themselves make a contribution to these circumstances and, particularly since the 1970s, new approaches to social history and the emergence of more theoretical approaches to the past and its traces led to re-evaluation of the traditional methods and outputs of architectural history. Architectural historians sought to write social histories of architecture, looking both at how building forms evolved to meet changing functions and how they functioned as symbolic representations for their patrons and users, while historians such as Peter Borsay have used architecture as an index for social and economic changes (Borsay, 1989). There have been a number of studies of buildings as functional types with associated symbolism: churches and chapels (Friedman, 2011); town halls, prisons, and hospitals (Evans, 1982; Stevenson, 2000; Tittler, 1989); mills and factories (Baker, 1991; Calladine and Fricker, 1993; Giles and Goodall, 1992; Williams, 1992); and, in our period, there has been a particular flourishing of ‘country house studies’ following the publication of Mark Girouard’s Life in the English Country House (Girouard, 1978; Arnold, 1998; Dresser and Hann, 2013; Wilson and Mackley, 2000).
Going beyond the concept of architecture as a representation, Michel Foucault suggested that buildings contributed to the construction of power, not merely to its manifestation (Foucault, 1979). His analysis of the panopticon, a model of the ideal prison devised by political theorist Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), suggested how spaces can affect behaviour: the prisoners’ awareness that they can be seen at all times causes them to police their own behaviour, whether or not they are actually being watched. The building type has become a powerful and widely used metaphor for the power employed by the State over individual behaviour, as in the ‘Digital Panopticon’, a digital humanities project about crime and punishment. Similarly, houses and workplaces were not neutral stages on which to play ordained roles, but active agents in the creation of human subjects and relationships (Markus, 1993). In this interpretation, architecture does not merely reflect its historical context, but has a significant impact on historical events.
In general, the different approaches to architecture depend more on what questions are being asked than what sources are used, although the latter can influence the former – some questions may be hard, even impossible, to address through lack of evidence. Moreover, although certain materials can enable the historian to answer the ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘who’, and ‘how’ questions, the ‘why’ will depend on theoretical assumptions which lie beyond the evidence immediately presented. Having already explored some of the factors which can inform the ‘why’, this section will address the evidence for the other questions.
There are a number of guides to sources for architectural history, mainly focusing on the writing of house history, which go into more detail than permitted here (Barratt, 2006; Elton, Harrison and Wark, 1992). In general, when searching for archives relating to a building it helps to start with some basic questions.
1. Where was it located?
2. Who had regulatory oversight?
3. Who was responsible for commissioning and designing it?
4. Who paid for it?
5. Who supplied materials and labour?
6. Who were its users?
7. Was it of wider interest and to whom?
The first question is relevant because most archives have a geographical remit, acquiring records from a particular jurisdiction or locality. In terms of books, you can look for information in local history books, including the Victoria County History. A series with a particular architectural focus is the ‘Buildings of England’, often known as ‘Pevsner’, from the name of their originator, the architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner (1902–1983). Moving on to archive sources, your starting point should be the local archive repository for the building’s location. The other questions will help you to trace processes which may have resulted in records, which in turn may have found their way into an archive. Questions 2–5 relate to records produced by the construction process. The people involved may not have lived or worked in the same locality as the building, so their records may be held elsewhere. The sixth and seventh cover materials associated with reception and dissemination. There are also post-production sources (for example about repairs and remodellings) which, although not contemporary with the building’s erection, may still be primary sources which can help us to understand its history and impact.
Until the nineteenth century there was little building legislation, although Anglican church building notionally required a ‘faculty’ from the Bishop and Non-conformist chapels required a licence from Quarter Sessions (i.e. county-level administration). Some towns obtained local Acts of Parliament, both to stimulate improvements and to help prevent fire, which could stipulate aspects of architectural form, while forms of taxation, such as the hearth tax and window tax, might discourage the inclusion of fireplaces and windows.
The commissioning and design process may produce records which help understand the motivations for the building. The person or organisation commissioning a building is often called the ‘patron’, although this word usually applies to buildings which we might consider works of art. There are also circumstances when buildings are commissioned by a speculative developer from profit, or functional buildings commissioned by the owner or leaseholder of the land on which the building stood. Having decided to build, the patron needs to determine the form of the building. This may be done in collaboration with an architect, or the patron can act as architect in his or her own right, or may work with a builder directly or via an agent. Important patrons may have a published biography or appear in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which can also help you to locate any relevant archives, which can also be traced via The National Archives’ Discovery tool, while most architects of our period have an entry in Howard Colvin’s A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600–1840.
Occasionally, letters survive between patron and architect, but much communication was probably oral, sometimes mediated via drawings. Source [B] is a page from a minute book of Liverpool Town Corporation, the town council of the day. They were planning alterations to their Exchange building, which had been erected in 1749–55. The original architect, John Wood of Bath, had died, so they now turned to fashionable London architect James Wyatt. Having met with resistance to his ideas, Wyatt came to Liverpool from London with a set of plans, which evidently won the reluctant patrons over. During our period, however, drawings are rare and generally only survive for the most prestigious projects by celebrated architects (for example, none of the plans for the Liverpool Exchange survive). Their rarity means many have been collected and are now held in institutions such as Sir John Soane’s Museum and the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Drawings Collection. Drawings were used by the architect to work through design elements, to communicate the design to the patron, and as a record of what had been agreed. In contrast to the present, construction drawings, communicating the design to the builder, were relatively rare, most information being conveyed orally or via a specification, a textual document intended to control building quality.
The person or organisation who commissioned the building normally paid for it, which would result in bills, receipts, and accounts. Records of payments to the building craftsmen (who at this date were usually directly employed) are some of the most common survivals from the building process and many have been published. They can be very useful for identifying artisans’ names, and can be fascinating evidence of contemporary payment practices and architectural terminology – but may be less helpful for reconstructing the appearance of what was built. The business records of building craftsmen rarely survive from this period, although we can sometimes learn something of them from other sources, such as wills and property records.
In many cases, however, the above types of records provide very limited information about what a building looked like or how it was used, which are generally the central questions for the architectural historian. We can use documents such as title deeds and published directories to try to identify who occupied buildings and thus formed their most significant users, but many of the sources for architectural history derive from the reception and representation of buildings in publications [D, E, H, M], as well as unpublished sources such as letters, diaries and sketchbooks. Books dealing directly with architecture have been catalogued by Harris and Savage (1990); topographical and antiquarian texts are more numerous, but a good starting point is Currie and Lewis (1997). The papers of architectural enthusiasts can also be a goldmine for scholars: the published diaries of Sir John Evelyn (Beer, 1955) and the correspondence of Sir Horace Walpole have proved particularly fruitful sources. In all these cases, the motivations of the creator of the record need to be understood: even when an image aimed to represent the building, the artist might have been sponsored by the building’s owner, so had a vested interest in making it appear impressive, or was trying to sell copies of their book by filling it with attractive pictures. Moreover, until scenes of traditional life and even poverty came to have Picturesque associations, there was little interest in recording quotidian buildings.
The final – and arguably the most important – source for a building’s history is the building itself. Whenever possible, you should visit buildings in person and conduct your own careful analysis of their exterior and interior forms. Architectural historians have developed a number of techniques for architectural analysis which will be discussed in the next section.
Selecting and interpreting sources
Architectural historians of the early modern period do not generally have the luxury of choosing between or triangulating sources: the paucity of surviving evidence requires us to make the most of what we can and use every titbit to try to build up the picture. Therefore, our task is not so much one of selection as understanding the context of the different forms of source so that we can understand the nature of their evidence and do not run the risk of ‘over-interpretation’.
This is not to say, however, that different architectural historians do not place different emphasis on which sources they choose to focus on, nor that different methods of analysing the same sources cannot yield different interpretations. It is simply that in order to study and use architectural evidence, we need first to establish a set of parameters which are generally less problematic for historians working with more conventional sources. When historians use records from an archive, although they need to be confident that they are what they purport to be (for instance, that they are not forged), in most instances this is relatively easy to establish and the historian can be confident that a document is an original text from the period in question. Although a building can hardly be said to be ‘forged’ in the documentary sense, there are few buildings which survive to the present day in their original state. Throughout their history, buildings are ‘rebuilt’: to maintain their condition, to change their function or to modify their appearance in line with contemporary taste. Even to keep a building ‘as it was originally built’, which might seem a legitimate heritage aim (as, for example, the Georgian House Museum in Bristol, the Georgian House in Edinburgh or many properties owned by the National Trust) requires an ongoing programme of conservation of existing fabric, replacement of materials which have decayed beyond repair and, perhaps, removal of later work and reconstruction of what are understood, through historical research, to have been the former arrangements. Using architecture as a source therefore requires an iterative process of using historical sources (including the building), to reconstruct the original form of the building, which can then be used to investigate questions which the historical sources already used may not fully answer.
When looking at a building, architectural historians generally start by asking another set of interlinked questions which can be answered by focusing on the building:
7. Is the building in its original form or is there evidence of alterations?
8. What does the building look like? Does it make use of ornamental features? Are there aspects not explained by functional requirements?
9. How does it compare with other buildings by the same architect, of the same date and/or for the same function?
10. How is the building constructed? What materials and processes are
11. Where is the building situated and how does it relate to its
12. How is the interior of the building set out? What are its internal spaces and how do they interrelate?
These questions help us to analyse the building itself, evidence which can be triangulated with other sources, both to corroborate findings and to stimulate more analytical questions.
To demonstrate how such questions might inform research in practice, we’ll take as an example the building now known as Liverpool Town Hall [C]. This is a surviving public building, which is therefore relatively well documented.
Where was it located? Liverpool – so books on Liverpool might contain relevant information (Sharples, 2004), and the Liverpool Record Office would be an obvious location for archival records.
Who had regulatory oversight? Erected from 1749, Liverpool Town Hall is too early for any planning legislation, but involved Acts of Parliament enabling its function as a local law court and for its later alteration. These Acts were ‘private’ Acts of Parliament, because they were obtained at the behest of a group of private individuals. Such Acts are usually held in the local studies library, part of the reference library service of most local authorities, and may also be held in the special collections of the local university library.
Who was responsible for commissioning and designing it? It was originally commissioned by the Corporation of Liverpool from John Wood of Bath, with later alterations designed by James Wyatt. The Corporation’s records are held at Liverpool Record Office and have been heavily used by local historians. Both Wood and Wyatt have modern biographies (Mowl and Earnshaw, 1988; Robinson, 2012)
Who paid for it? It was paid for by the Corporation [see source B], by agreements with the individual professionals and tradesmen involved. On 17 November 1756 the Corporation’s minute book, known as the ‘Town Book’ (microfilm in the Liverpool Record Office) records that William Stevenson, the sculptor of the pediment, had petitioned for an additional payment of £20 which had been left to the discretion of the Corporation. However, the response was curt: they ‘Gave him for answer that the work is ill executed and they think he is already paid more than it deserves being paid Eighty pounds and therefore they’ll pay him no more.’
Who supplied materials and labour? The original building works were managed by Ralph Holland; however, on 15 April 1752 the Town Book records that he was discharged ‘for his great neglect of duty’. The same source shows that the reconstruction project was managed by John Foster senior, a local builder and architect who designed many of Liverpool’s public buildings.
Who were its users? As well as being used as the seat of town government (which included judicial functions), the Town Hall was also erected as an exchange for commercial transactions between merchants (many of whom were also members of the Corporation, so their interests were both internal and external). At the same time, Liverpool’s oligarchy also intended their building to represent their town to the outside world, demonstrating its wealth and significance on the national and even international stage. If their strategy worked, we might expect to find comments about the building in the national press, in publications about the town and in accounts produced by visitors. Source [D] is an illustration from William Enfield’s An Essay Towards the History of Leverpool of 1773. We might also look for evidence of how the building was perceived, both by its users and others. This might not always be positively: in both 1774 and 1775, the local sailors rioted and, with red flag flying, bombarded the Exchange with cannon as a sign of their grievances with the town’s authorities (Picton, I, 1875, 212; Rose, 1958).
This section will use textual and visual sources and the evidence of the building itself to suggest how these might be used when writing an essay. Let us return to our second set of questions.
Is the building in its original form, or is there evidence of alterations? In order to use the building as a source for the eighteenth century, we need to discount its later alterations and try to visualise its original state. Comparing the eighteenth-century image [D] with the modern building [C] reveals significant differences: in particular, it is obvious that the dome has been raised and given a different form. The Liverpool Town Books and committee minutes tell us that the original building was extended from 1787, then remodelled following a fire in 1795. Looking at an early nineteenth-century engraving of the building [E], the distinction between the original square block and the taller extension to the north is readily apparent. Nevertheless, alterations to buildings also represent an interesting moment in their history to analyse as they are evidence that something has changed, making the original building no longer fit for purpose. At Liverpool, one of the most significant changes was the filling in of the central courtyard to provide a grand ceremonial staircase. This marks the point at which the building became purely a ‘town hall’ and no longer served the purpose of an exchange. A new exchange building was started in 1803 and marked the separation between town governance and mercantile affairs in terms of architecture, if not in terms of personnel. The buildings may have become separate but their users remained largely identical: at different times of day, the same men could be found trading in the Exchange, making orders in the Council Room, and dancing in the ballroom above.
What does the building look like? Does it make use of ornamental features? Are there aspects not explained by functional requirements? The Town Hall is classical in style, by which we mean that it copied features found in Greek and Roman architecture, such as the triangular pediments supported by Corinthian columns, which recall the facades of antique temples. One of the reasons for choosing John Wood as designer may have been his extensive knowledge of Classical architecture. By building their Exchange in a fashionable classical style, the Liverpool elite wanted to demonstrate their cultivated taste. Although few may have been on the aristocratic Grand Tour to Italy themselves, they could have studied the forms of classical architecture in books and their use made the Exchange an adornment to the town. It could therefore be used as evidence to support Borsay’s identification of an English urban renaissance in the eighteenth century (Borsay, 1989).
It is clear that the south and east ranges depicted in print [D] were designed to be viewed: they were symmetrically planned, giving them a grandly formal appearance, and included decorative sculpture. The central ‘hexastyle’ (six-columned) pediments are flanked by wings of three bays with pilasters (flattened columns attached to the wall). A ‘bay’ is a vertical compartment, often encompassing more than one story, or horizontal layer. Here, each bay contains three windows, one for each floor. The size of the windows signifies the importance of the rooms they lit: the largest windows are on the middle floor, which housed the ceremonial spaces, while the smallest windows lit attic rooms which would have been used for more menial functions. Textual evidence tells us some more about how the spaces were used: there was a lower ‘record room’, which contained the town charters, minute books, and title deeds (in other words, the Corporation’s archives); and an upper record room, destroyed in the fire, which contained less-significant papers, such as surrendered title deeds and counterpart leases. The windows on the south or main facade have arched heads; those of the east side are square-headed, each with its own pediment. The frieze at the top of the facade [F] is adorned with carvings representing Liverpool’s trade, including on the south and east sides the heads of Black Africans, signifying trading links with Africa (the slave trade). Scholars are interested in identifying how the slave trade affected Liverpool and such iconography could be used to qualify the building as belonging to an ‘architecture of slavery’, insidiously present even though the physical bodies of enslaved Africans were largely absent from the streets and buildings. By the 1790s, when the west facade was added, although the frieze continued the same theme of maritime commerce, with anchors, seahorses, and horns of plenty, there were no direct references to Africa. This evidence could be used to suggest that the town’s rulers were aware of the controversial nature of the trade that had brought such wealth and sought to play down its significance, even while many were still active participants and campaigned against abolition.
The main pediment on the south facade originally included the figurative sculpture carved by Stevenson which, according to The Stranger in Liverpool [E], had a central figure of Liverpool, represented as a woman, holding a shield decorated with a liver bird and flaming sword. To her left was the god Neptune carrying a trident, next to whom was an overflowing urn, representing the source of the river Mersey. To her right was the figure of Commerce, embracing a liver bird, accompanied by the figure of Liberty, carrying a Phrygian cap on a stick (the symbol of Liberty – we should note that this sculpture was carved before French Revolutionaries made this symbolism politically suspect in Britain), and resting on the fasces, the ancient symbol of justice, showing freedom supported by the law. Liverpool thus links the genius of Commerce and the god of the sea. However, it is apparent that the author of the guidebook had some difficulty in interpreting the iconography, adding in a footnote ‘Other interpretations have been offered of this recondite sculptural ornament, so that it is to be wished, for the benefit of future antiquarians, and the prevention of any violent controversy on so important a subject, that the artist had deposited an explanatory schedule among the archives of the town for occasional reference.’ We cannot assume that past viewers were any more adept than us at reading iconographical programmes. The mention of violence as a response to architectural iconography is also telling: for the author, memories of revolutionary iconoclasm in France might still have been fresh. The attacks on the Town Hall in 1774 and 1775 have already been mentioned and in 1807, the Town Hall was the backdrop to a riot, when William Roscoe, the local MP, having voted in favour of the abolition of the slave trade, returned to Liverpool. He made a triumphal entry, but when he reached Castle Street, sailors who feared that their jobs were now at risk attacked him and his party with knives and bludgeons. The contrast between the iconography of the pediment and the scenes playing out beneath it could hardly be stronger.
Above the pediment on the south facade was a dome topped by a cupola, which would have held a bell to announce meetings and court sessions. On the front of the dome was a clock, a rare and expensive item, which would have been a public amenity. Only the most wealthy could afford to carry a watch, so public clocks, visibly displayed on tall buildings, were essential for ensuring that urban life could follow a regular, coordinated pattern, when assignations could be met, meetings attended, and working hours calculated.
How does it compare with other buildings for the same function and/or by the same architect? The use of an arcaded lower storey and enclosed upper storey topped by a cupola were standard features of exchange buildings, making them an easily recognisable building type for contemporaries. In their earliest form, the ground floor was entirely open, for merchants to trade under cover but in direct contact with the surrounding streets. Because of the later alterations, we can gain a better idea of the original appearance of Liverpool’s Exchange by looking at the Exchange in Bristol [G], also designed by John Wood and built in 1741–43. We can see that they have many similarities in terms of the facades: both are three storeys, with the ground floor constructed of ‘rusticated’ masonry, but the inclusion of an unprecedented dome could be used as evidence that Liverpool was trying to outdo its mercantile rival. Wyatt exhibited a model of his proposed design to the Corporation (Aikin, 1795, 360). Its unusual squared form recalls French architecture, originating with the Pavillon de l’Horloge at the Louvre but revived in the eighteenth century at the Hotel-Dieu at Lyon (architect: Soufflot) and the Ecole Militaire in Paris (architect: Gabriel).
How is the building constructed? What materials and processes are used? The building is a stone structure, at a time when most of Liverpool’s buildings were still built from wood. Materials were a very clear indication of status in the eighteenth-century town. Some years before the Exchange was started, the traveller Daniel Defoe toured Britain. His description of Liverpool [H] refers to the use of freestone (cut stone, or ashlar, as opposed to rubble) and brick as an indicator of the town’s beauty, a trope found in many other travellers’ accounts.
The dome was clearly covered with a different material from the rest of the roof, and would have demanded technical knowledge to construct. While it can be difficult to gain access to hidden parts of a building, such as the basements and roof spaces, these can tell us a lot about contemporary technical knowledge.
Where is the building situated and how does it relate to its environment? Contemporary town plans, such as John Eyes’ [I], show that the Town Hall was situated at the heart of the original medieval town, at one end of Castle Street, a prominent and resonant location. The medieval castle had been ruinated in the seventeenth century and was replaced by St George’s Church, already mentioned. This made Castle Street the town’s main ceremonial route, linking the seat of government with the Councillors’ official place of worship. England remained a confessional state, in which public officials were required to adhere – at least outwardly – to the Church of England. Civic ceremony was very significant to the early modern town, with architecture forming the stage upon which such rituals were performed. The Liverpool Town Books have many references to seating in St George’s Church, as who had rights to sit where was an important indicator of social hierarchy.
The eighteenth-century images of the Exchange present it as an isolated building: what they do not show, but the map does, is that on the other two sides, the building was hemmed in by its neighbours and had no architectural features. The site was restricted and the corporation evidently decided against clearing the area to provide a more impressive free-standing building in a piazza, suggesting that practicality outweighed prestige. By the 1780s, this decision was being reviewed and the immediate surroundings were cleared for a new western facade and the extension to the north. Nevertheless, a similar debate played out in the 1790s after the fire destroyed the building’s interior, as can be seen in the minutes of the Corporation’s Committee on the project [J]. Seeking to make ‘a uniform regular pile of building’, Wyatt thought that all the walls should be taken down so he could rebuild anew. The Corporation commissioned a report by surveyors, who disagreed. Wyatt responded that he was convinced the south and east walls were stable, but wanted them taken down anyway in order to pursue his own plans more fully. The evidence of the building, however, suggests that Wyatt lost this argument, because the outer walls remain substantially Wood’s, although the south portico was extended outwards and the interior was completely remodelled. This could be used suggest that despite their wish for a grand statement building, the members of the Corporation remained parsimonious, unwilling to sanction unnecessary expenditure. It also reveals that even when working with a celebrated architect, the Town fathers retained the upper hand.
How is the interior of the building set out? What are its internal spaces and how do they interrelate? Here again, Bristol’s Exchange [K] offers a better idea of the original layout of the Liverpool Exchange. It is arranged around a courtyard, where merchants were expected to do their business. Architectural intentions and real-life practice, however, do not always correspond, and in the northern environment of Liverpool, the internal colonnades were deemed too dark for practicality and the merchants preferred to do their business in the streets outside.
Because the Town Hall was such a significant building, guides to the town and other topographical publications took an interest in its architecture. Manchester author John Aikin quoted from the local newspaper, the Liverpool Advertizer, which described the proposals for the new town hall. The operational parts of the building occupied the basement and ground floor, containing rooms dedicated to local government and the upper level held the ceremonial rooms, which formed a suite through which councillors and guests could circulate [L, M]. Although the text does not describe the upper rooms in order, from comparison with domestic plans, we may identify the circuit as follows. On entering from Castle Street, the visitor encountered a rather dark room, from which the stairwell could be reached. Climbing the stairs, top-lit by the fenestrated dome, was thus literally enlightening, after which the visitor emerged into the Saloon, the central room on the south front, with balcony onto Castle Street. This provided a view across the city, although without the broad straight avenues of European baroque planning, the sense of all-surveying mastery was probably reduced. Nevertheless, anyone standing on the balcony would have been framed by the town hall, giving gravitas to their appearance. The Saloon was a reception room, the central space from which the processional route commenced. To the west is the Drawing Room, through which is accessed the Eating Room. These two rooms are usually in close proximity so that ladies could ‘withdraw’ after dinner, leaving the men to drink port and smoke. A set of stairs at the rear of the dining room provided access for bringing food up from the kitchens. The rear of the building holds the new, enlarged ballroom, with the second ballroom or music room to the east, through which the tea room to the rear of the staircase could be accessed for refreshment. The circuit concludes with the card room, providing an alternative amusement. The distinct functions of the various spaces reveal the character of civic entertainments: the town hall in Liverpool was intended as assembly rooms as well as the seat of government and the layout had much in common with grand residences.
Apart from servants, the upper floor of the rebuilt Town Hall was only accessible to Liverpool’s elites, women as well as men. The Town Book records that on 1 September 1754 the wealthy women of the town had successfully petitioned that they might use the new Exchange for ‘the Dancing and Card Assemblies’ of which they were the managers, presided over by a woman chosen as ‘the Queen’ (Picton, I, 1875, 196). Although there are no specifically ‘gendered’ rooms, the drawing room was associated in particular with female use, while older users might favour card-playing over dancing.
Because the lower floors operated as a court house, these spaces were accessed by all levels of society, although in the absence of historical evidence, we can only imagine the experiences of poorer inhabitants called to account in these imposing surroundings. Likewise, while some of the other public buildings which might have been used by Liverpool’s late eighteenth-century elites have survived, along with some of their residences, we have no survivals of the more humble buildings occupied and used solely by the lower classes.
As suggested, architecture is an important consideration for the historian because it is ubiquitous: the fictional merchant whose appointment diary opened our account was surrounded by buildings which shaped his daily experience. Its ubiquity also makes architecture a useful source, for there are few towns in Britain which do not contain edifices of the early modern period and many owe their modern form to developments of that era. Buildings can also be one of the most affecting ways of accessing the past, a feature exploited by the heritage industry which invites us to ‘experience life in the past’ by visiting its architectural remains. Historians need to view such claims critically but, as this chapter has argued, if used carefully, the buildings of the past nevertheless offer a rewarding topic for the historian.
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