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Gates to the city


Wednesday, 29 June 2011


The Sailors Home: from Liverpool to Smethwick and back again, via Portmeirion and the ends of the earth...

Like a lot of people I'm made-up that the gates from the old Liverpool Sailors Home are on their way home. After quite a history and, more recently, reams of red tape, they're going to be mounted in a pedestrian space close to their original location at Canning Place, part of today's Liverpool One complex - thanks to the unstinting efforts of the city's World Heritage officer John Hinchcliffe and local historian Phil Griffiths with his Pooley Gates website www.pooleygates.co.uk.

Sailors Home gates

Sailors Home gates

Respect due also to Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council for their long stewardship and co-operation when the Grade II listed gates were dismantled and restored in the summer of 2010 under English Heritage supervision.

The first time I saw the gates, it was early 2006. Towards the end of writing The Little Book of Liver Birds I drove down to the West Midlands on an Easter Monday with a longsuffering partner to get a photograph of this fabled artefact, which had been traced to a Smethwick foundry near Birmingham. In particular I wanted a shot of the centrepiece: a gilded Liver Bird beneath a crown that predated its famous cousins on top of the Royal Liver Building by at least 60 years.

The gates, and the bird, were magnificent. Over 15ft high and decorated with mermaids and sea serpents, oars and rigging, horns and shells, they'd been cast in 1840 by Liverpool foundry Henry Pooley & Son but transferred south when the firm moved premises after the Home was abandoned after the Second World War and demolished in the early 1970s. There they'd remained, largely forgotten but safe at least in a nondescript warren of industrial depots - half-a-mile from where I'd once lived for two years in student digs, unaware of their existence.

Of course I took this as a clear sign that the book had to be finished. Only months before at Canning Place I'd peered down into the original foundations of the Home when it served as a desolate plot for unsightly billboards, just prior to excavation work for Liverpool One.

Amid the rubble about 20ft below street-level were mighty blocks of masonry, one of which turned out to be something very special - another Liver Bird, 4ft tall and sculpted in relief from red sandstone on a circular base. It had stood guard over the Home's mock-Jacobean entrance during Liverpool's zenith as one of the world's great ports then lain facedown for three bleak decades. Like the gates it'll be on display - this time in the new Museum of Liverpool between the Pier Head and Albert Dock, and there's already a replica in the St Thomas' Church memorial garden near Liverpool One.

Sailors Home entablature

Sailors Home entablature

How times change. Less than two centuries ago, this whole area was 'in depravity not to be matched by anything this side of the pit that is bottomless', according to Moby Dick novelist Herman Melville who arrived here as a cabin boy from New York in 1839. His claim is backed up by the memoirs of a late 19th century Liverpool merchant called Sir William Forwood who recalled 'terrible slums' and 'veritable dens of iniquity...not fit places for respectable people after dark...the neighbourhood of the Sailors Home at all times of the day being a place to be avoided.'

There are other relics if you look for them. In the foyer of the Malmaison Hotel at Princes Dock is a cast-iron panel depicting the same stylistic mermaid that appears upon the gates. Thirty more panels, which once lined the six-storey Home's atrium and staircases, can be found in Portmeirion, the Italianate village built by Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis in North Wales from 1925 to 1975.

Sailors Home mermaids at Portmeirion

Sailors Home mermaids at Portmeirion

William-Ellis was an architect and town-planner from a well-to-do family who inherited the site - on a peninsula near Porthmadog off the coast of Snowdonia - and used it to prove how 'the development of a naturally beautiful site need not lead to its defilement.' Over the years he added many architectural features to the village. The Sailors Home panels appear upon a bandstand and gazebo, among other places, and were (says the official Portmeirion guidebook) 'acquired as a job-lot for next to nothing at the time that venerable institution was demolished in 1954' (in fact I reckon it was finally knocked down 20 years later).

As a friend of, and occasional lecturer at, the University of Liverpool's celebrated School of Architecture, Williams-Ellis would've had access to the panels when the Home became obsolete. Also in the village are mermen statues and two large stone urns featuring the Liverpool coat of arms, almost certainly by sculptor Herbert Tyson Smith, a former pupil at the School. But that's another story.


Sailors Home mermaids at Portmeirion

Sailors Home mermaids at Portmeirion

If only...

The Sailors Home isn't the only Liverpool landmark we wish we'd kept. By the time the Overhead Railway or 'Dockers Umbrella' closed in 1956 it was beyond salvation: battered during the Blitz, blighted by rust and rendered obsolete and uncompetitive by trams and technological advances along the docks. Still, what a tourist attraction it would've made today. All that's left of the world's first electric-powered elevated railway is an original carriage on display at the Museum of Liverpool, a few stanchions along the Dock Wall and a bricked-up tunnel portal in the Dingle.

Other originals lost forever: the colonnaded Customs House that stood proudly on the waterfront (fire-bombed during the Blitz but structurally intact, it still came tumbling down); the first St John's Market designed by John Foster, one of Victorian Britain's finest neo-classical architects; the ornate and cloistered Exchange Flags buildings behind the Town Hall; and the former Edwardian frontage to the Cotton Exchange on Old Hall Street (demolished in the 1960s for the sake of today's uninspiring façade).


'The gates, and the bird, were magnificent. Over 15ft high and decorated with mermaids and sea serpents, oars and rigging, horns and shells, they'd been cast in 1840 by Liverpool foundry Henry Pooley & Son but transferred south when the firm moved premises after the Home was abandoned after the Second World War and demolished in the early 1970s'


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