Riain Egan, Department of English and Cultural History, Liverpool John Moores University
The factual information in this blog has been drawn from Steve Binns’s informative tour of St George’s Hall and his series of podcasts which are available online here
Liverpool has always been, and continues to be, synonymous with great feats of architecture from ‘The Three Graces’ that line the Pier Head to the neo-classical St George’s Hall. Opened in 1842, and built on the site of the old infirmary, medical library and lunatic asylum (which were all abandoned in 1820), St George’s Hall faced many challenges from the start of its construction to its full completion in September 1854; the courts were opened prior to the main hall in the autumn of 1851. The earlier opening of the courts was a result of the Government’s demand for Liverpool to have its own court house, as they would no longer accept the criminals of Liverpool being sent to trial in Lancaster.
In 1838, Liverpool threw a party to celebrate the laying of the foundation stone.This was on Queen Victoria’s coronation day, and its intention was to remind people of the project and to help raise the funds lost due to the banking crisis. Archdeacon Rev Jonathon Brookes, whose statue still stands in St George’s hall today, and who, at the time, was one of the most senior members of Anglicanism in the city made an announcement proclaiming that: ‘surely, Liverpool should be able to build, in this 19th century Christian era, better buildings than the pagans of ancient Greece and Rome’.
The architect, Harvey Lonsdale Elmes, died as a result of tuberculosis in mid-1846 at the age of thirty three and the hall’s construction almost stopped after his death. But thanks to Charles Robert Cockerell the building was saved. Cockerell was older and wiser than Elmes, and although he originally didn’t apply for the job, he was actually Elmes’s choice for second architect. It would be Cockerel who would drag the project through its precarious vicissitudes to its opening ceremony. He also built the concert room that the original 1836 music committee had wanted, but its completion had arrived too late for most of them to witness it. Before the opening ceremony of the hall in 1854, Queen Victoria, during her visit in 1851, said that the building was worthy of ancient Athens, an accolade I am sure Elmes would have been proud of.
Even though the hall had suffered many setbacks, it was seen, on its completion, as an indication of what Liverpool was and what it intended to be, and as Liverpool was referred to as the second city of the empire, it seemed to be finally living up to its name.
Our guide, Steve Binns, movingly talked about how St George’s Hall brought together in one building two sides of Liverpool life that resided in close quarters but rarely met: the fashionable concert-goers and the prisoners, most of whom were desperately poor, who were brought before the court. Occasionally rich and poor will have seen each other at the Hall. When Charles Dickens gave a public reading there, paying diners enjoyed a lavish reception served in the Concert Hall. The less privileged audience members watched them eat from the gallery above. Perhaps some of them had read Oliver Twist, or like some of the juvenile offenders interviewed by a Parliamentary enquiry in 1852, had watched one of the many popular theatrical dramatizations of Dickens’s novel.[i] What did Charles Dickens make of the occasion? Certainly he had fond memories of St George’s Hall, remarking that it was his favorite building in the city and referring to it as Liverpool’s front office and reception room.
Figure Three: The front of St George’s Hall
[i] 1852 (515) Report from the Select Committee on Criminal and Destitute Juveniles; together with the proceedings of the committee, minutes of evidence, appendix and index, House of Commons Parliamentary Papers Online