I am delighted to say that the second-ever Prescot THI building project has started on site – and it’s one of the biggest! Work is progressing to the interior of the upper floors at the mo so it might not look like much is happening – but it is! The scaffold and THI banner will be in front of the building in due course.
Although the existing business of Millican Opticians has been serving the needs near- and long-sighted Prescotians for decades, the upper floors of the building have not had a financially viable use for many years and so have stood vacant.
The THI is bridging the gap with a grant that will see this long-term empty floor space turned into four affordable flats. To the exterior of the building a comprehensive programme of repairs will shortly begin, and the shopfront will be restored to a traditional style that reflects the separate histories of nos. 29 and 31 Eccleston Street.
And what are these separate histories of 29 and 31 Eccleston Street?
The site occupies two of the narrow mediaeval burgage plots that line Eccleston Street. Burgages are the narrow strips of land that were rented from the lord of the manor – the narrowness of the strips meant more tenants could fit along Eccleston Street (and hence helping the lord of the manor to lever out more rent from the land). This gives each plot a very narrow frontage, but (historically) plenty of space at the back.
No.31 is the earlier of the two, as it appears to date from the late eighteenth century and is what they call a typical ‘urban vernacular’ building from the Georgian era in that it dates from the time of George III (probably!) and while clearly Georgian in scale and appearance, is of no particular architectural style. It’s a classic burgage plot building, being much deeper than it is wide due to the shape of the burgage plot.
31 Eccleston Street is the shorter of the two halves of Millicans. It is Georgian in character (and date) but is of no particular architectural style.
No.29 on the other hand is rather different. It seems that at some point in the early nineteenth century (I would say circa 1820-30, in that ballpark) two or three neighbouring burgage plots were in the same ownership, or possibly the different owners of two or three different burgage plots were working together. Whatever the ownership was, it seems that two of three frontage buildings were demolished at the same time and replaced with the single large building that still stands today: 25-29 Eccleston Street. If you consider how narrow the other pre-1850 historic buildings are along Eccleston Street, you’ll get what I mean – this single building has been built across two or three of the traditional burgage plots.
25-29 Eccleston Street: one big building from c.1820-30 that straddles three burgage plots.
A Dedicated Follower of Fashion: Regency Design in a South Lancashire Town
Whoever designed and built 25-29 Eccleston Street wanted to make a statement. The building has a very orderly frontage with large, evenly spaced window openings and a full width moulded stone gutter along the top. When you consider that when this building was erected Eccleston Street would have been lined in the main by a jumble of timber framed and low brick buildings squeezed into narrow plots (the big exceptions being Atherton Hall and Lyme House which are believed to have been large timber framed mansions). 25-29 Eccleston Street would have stuck out like a sore thumb due to its consistent height and large scale. The large windows would have been another distinguishing feature. The big first floor windows with timber mullions became fashionable after 1800 (during the Regency), first cropping up in fashionable resorts like Brighton and Cheltenham where some of the finest Regency buildings were erected, and finding its way to the North West.
A wobbly THI Officer’s estimate of what 25-31 Eccleston Street looked like around 1830 (top) and around 1900 (bottom). The shopfronts appear to have been put in some time after the buildings were built. I’ve based the 1900 sketch on what can be seen in historic photos, including the sash window to Martindales Butchers at no.31. I haven’t put much detail on the shopfronts of 25-29 due to a lack of clear historic photos, so it’s a bit of a guess.
We can tell from the highly detailed 1840 Ordnance Survey Map where the front doors to 25, 27, 29 and 31 Eccleston Street were. They might well have been built as houses – the ground floor being used for shops might well have come about later on. The positions of the doorsteps on the 1840 map suggest that the doors and windows of 25-29 Eccleston Street were arranged to give an ordered, near-symmetrical front elevation – again giving the building a neat and balanced elevation among the diverse building styles and types along Eccleston Street. I guess you could say the frontage provided ‘order’ and composure amongst the ‘chaos’ of smaller medieval and post-medieval buildings.
Time is Money! The Watch-component making Phase
Both 29 and 31 Eccleston Street appear to have been part of Prescot’s watchmaking industry. Either around the time of 25-29 Eccleston Street being built (or shortly after), but certainly by 1840 two storey workshop buildings had been built onto the backs of 25, 27, 29 and 31 Eccleston Street (putting those deep burgage plots to full use!). The outrigger behind 29-31 is particularly large and stretches almost the full width of the back of no.31 and across part of the back of no.29. The footprint of the outrigger / former workshop is almost as big as the main house at no.29 and is far bigger than those at 25 and 27. I wonder if it was shared by the two properties? One on the ground floor, one on the upper floor, sharing the big chimney?
A survey from 1983 confirmed that this two storey outrigger behind 29-31 Eccleston Street was indeed a watch-making workshop for a time. I haven’t been able to find out anything more than this. The blocked window openings were made during the abandoned 1998 conversion of the upper floors.
Ker-ching! The Retail Phase
It seems that watch component making ceased at both 29 and 31 Eccleston Street by 1880. All I can find at present is that the workshop at no.31 was used by a watchwheel maker. We do know that no.31 was occupied in the late nineteenth century by John and Catherine Fairhurst, nail makers and ironmongers (perhaps using the workshop for nailmaking with a shop fronting Eccleston Street?).
Nothing is evident in the outrigger to confirm any of its past uses, but it was clearly used as a workshop judging by its location, scale, form, openings and chimney. In time no.31 became Martindale’s Butcher’s and the shopfront had a characteristic butcher’s sash window for displaying meat in the open, with at least two generations of the Martindale family running the business in the decades following 1900.
It appears that the shopfronts of nos. 25-29 formed a continuous group, with the middle shopfront (at no.27) slightly taller than those of nos. 25 and 29. This appears to be because they were in the early twentieth century all part of the same business, Johnson’s, who had a boot and shoe maker’s, outfitters and draper’s in adjacent units. A sort of ‘mini-department store’ spread across three neighbouring shops, something that was not uncommon, many traditional department stores grew from one shop to a few shops before consolidating in one big shop.
Eccleston Street in 1924. 31 Eccleston Street is on the far right – the big sash window to Martindale Butcher’s is nice and clear. I’m guessing that 25, 27 and 29 were all trading as Johnson’s at this point. It looks like 25 and 29 have similar (or identical?) shopfronts either side of the slightly taller shopfront of no.27.
In the early photos of Prescot, all three shopfronts at 25-29 Eccleston Street had strongly projecting cornices, fascias and consoles, with each shop having an awning. It seems that the three shopfronts were replaced as a group in the 1930s. The stepped heights of the shopfronts were retained, but the detailing was vaguely art deco in style with unusual consoles, shallow fascias and etched geometrical designs on the glass.
These deco details are still visible on a photo of the building taken in 1979. The shopfronts to nos. 29-31 were completely removed by the installation of the present shopfront around 1998, but its consoles echo the unusual deco details that previously existed. Johnson’s dissolved in the mid-twentieth century and since then its three shops have had various occupiers.
This newspaper photo was taken in 1979 when the stone gutter cornice was in danger of falling onto Eccleston Street(!) A close look at the shopfronts of 25-29 Eccleston Street shows surviving bits of the circa 1930s shopfronts: thin frames, lots of glass, and a deco-style corbel (to the left of the ‘Bowlers’ sign). You can even just about make out deco-style engraved glass below the ‘Bowlers’ sign.
I can see clearly now.
By the 1970s (if not earlier) no.31 was an optician’s that became part of the locally owned and run Millican’s group of opticians. In around 1998 Millican’s extended into no.29 in order to enhance and extend their services. For the first time in over 150 years, the frontage buildings at no.29 and no.31 became used as a single building. It is around this time that a conversion scheme of the upper floors of both buildings to four flats was started but abandoned. Fast forward to the THI and we’re picking up the loose threads of the abandoned conversion and using the site’s history to inform its restoration.
Setting out the history of anything is full of pitfalls and this potted history is as comprehensive and accurate as I can make it with the time I have and the information I have to hand. If someone out there would like to compile a detailed history of Prescot – get cracking! We need one and the town deserves chronicling!
With thanks to Prescot Historical Society and Prescot Museum for use of their historic photos.