Liverpool’s first Town Hall - 'The House of the Virgin Mary'

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Liverpool's Town Hall, old line drawing Liverpool's current Town Hall, opened in 1754.
"The pride which it inspired in our ancestors still lives in the veneration with which it is regarded by the citizens to-day." Ramsay Muir, 1913

As we noted at the start of the year, Liverpool has a number of significant anniversaries in 2015. Jen McCarthy, Deputy Director of the Museum of Liverpool, takes a fascinating look at one of them:

"This year our Town Hall marks its 500th year on the city’s civic landscape. That’s 200 years older than Liverpool’s first commercial wet dock.

The Town Hall we use today is actually the third one, built in 1754 and extensively remodelled at the beginning of the 19th century. It replaced the second Town Hall, which was built in 1673 and located just in front of the present site.

That takes us all the way back to the original Town Hall

and 'Gilde' which was a small thatched house on the High Street bequeathed to the town by John Crosse in 1515. Although we’re not sure exactly what it looked like, we do know that it had a variety of uses; it was a custom house, warehouse, prison and meeting place for the Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses. Important documents, like the town charters, were stored in the enormous town chest as well as fines and tolls collected by the Bailiffs. It had a chapel where mass was said at 6am daily and every evening at 8pm the curfew bell was rung to signal that all respectable people should be at home. According to Picton, a local historian, it was known as ‘The House of the Virgin Mary’; a place where church and state met.

It was the place where Liverpool’s merchants and business men would do deals and plan the future development of the town. Liverpool wasn’t a particularly large or wealthy town at the time, but trade with Ireland was beginning to grow and custom fees were lower here making it an attractive port for textile merchants.

The Mayor in 1515 was a Welshman named Dafydd ap Gruffyd (Griffith), a business man whose family could afford to lease the Lordship of Liverpool and sub-let property around the town, including mills and the ferry. He had been elected from a group of two Bailiffs, twelve Aldermen and Burgesses - people who owned businesses or property and had citizenship rights. It was his job to ensure that bye-laws and court orders were carried out. It also appears that he had to pay for any repairs to the Town Hall out of his own pocket!

So, a small thatched house was once one of the town’s most important buildings! Whilst it reflected Liverpool’s status 500 years ago, the money invested in its rebuilding shows growing confidence in a place that was experiencing a massive increase in population and trade. By 1740 Liverpool needed a new 'front door' for fashionable assemblies, civic occasions and its extensive council business. Only a building "not to be paralleled in Europe" would do with a new Exchange 'the largest in England, if not in Europe' sitting in the 'backyard'.

References:

  • Memorials of Liverpool Vol 1 (1873) by JA Picton
  • The Rise & Progress of Liverpool (1910) by J Touzeau
  • Bygone Liverpool (1913) by Ramsay Muir
  • The Changing Face of Liverpool 1207 -1727 (1982) by Merseyside Archaeological Survey"