The THI is in the midst of an extremely busy period – a mix of craft days, events like the Elizabethan Fayre and performances of the Tempest in schools, talks and presentations, full and outline building grant applications, the design competition for Market Place, progress updates to the HLF, a new Historic Environment Intern starting in post, the archaeological trial pits dug in Market Place and building projects starting and progressing on site. This is why we’ve been a bit quiet on the blog front of late!
There will be more on all of the above in future posts. This particular blog post is all about the building that has just disappeared behind a curtain of scaffold and sheeting as it is being brought back to life – 13-15 Atherton Street. The grant application has been hovering around since 2013 so I am particularly delighted that this project is now on site and is a ‘classic’ THI building project in that it is making repairs and alterations to a historic building that simply are not economically viable and need the type of subsidy that THIs can offer.
Live/Work Units – Eighteenth Century style
I have talked about the history in general of Atherton Street in a blog post about the public realm improvements the THI delivered to Atherton Street in 2016 and another bit of history about the street in a much earlier blog post. This entry will focus on just these two buildings, though the previous posts give a wider picture that I hope is helpful.
The terrace containing 13-15 Atherton Street was built around 1770-1790, with the houses being built in pairs or as single units, but the row is unified by the front elevations all being the same height and sharing a stone cornice gutter that is the most decorative detail on the row.
13-15 were built as a pair and it seems that rather than each one having a front door, they shared a central passageway and the main door to each house was accessed off this. This arrangement still exists next door at no.17 where the shopfront is a later (but historic) addition and the ‘front’ door of the house opens onto the passageway shared with no.19.
13-15 Atherton Street whilst the street in front was being repaved in 2016.
The reason for this is probably a combination of the fact that the houses had no back street (there wouldn’t be one until Leyland Street was built in 1908) and the possible use of the houses from the outset as the dwellings and workplaces of watch and tool-makers.
Prescot was famed for its tool-making, particularly files, and this industry was to degree intertwined with watchmaking, which of course required tools, but also someone skilled in toolmaking could probably be well placed to move into watch component making and vice versa.
Work and Non-Work
With materials, finished components, and possibly journeymen and apprentices coming in and out of the work area every day, having the entrance to the house further back (and nearer the workshop) was a more practical arrangement, plus it would mean that the social no-no of having service access through the front door of the house could be avoided. This arrangement would also mean the ‘best’ room on the ground floor at the front of the house could be larger and would be out of the way of the day-to-day comings and goings from the workshop.
Part of me also wonders if the lack of front doors generally on this terrace reflects that they were built for artisans and craftspeople rather than professionals or merchants who would have been better off and perhaps more concerned about their social standing. At the time 13-15 Atherton Street were built the front door would often be the most architecturally ornate part of the building with a fanlight over the door, and a cornice or pediment carried by pilasters or engaged columns. Compared to the brickwork and the flat arches over the windows, this would have been by far the most expensive architectural feature of the house. By not having a formal front door money could be saved, but the size of the house, its tall window openings and the stone cornice gutter would all act as indicators of the relative wealth of the occupier.
These workshops I mentioned earlier? That to no.13 was in the top floor of a two-storey outrigger attached to the back of the building, complete with a trap door between first and ground floor and a broad window opening that maximised the daylight entering the workshop.
At no.15 the workshop was in the back room of the loft, again with a broad window to let in plenty of daylight. It would seem though that materials, journeymen, apprentices etc would all use the main staircase in the domestic part of the house to reach the workshop.
No.13 was slightly better in that the trap door meant materials and finished work would not have to be carried through the house, but any apprentices or journeymen. They were ‘journeymen’ in the sense that they were workers employed on a day-to-day or ‘as and when needed’ basis. The word stems from ‘journee’ – the French for ‘day’. The meaning seems to have shifted over time to mean someone who travels about in search of work or who has moved a lot and has been in employment in different places (the ‘journeyman footballer’ being a good example). The owner of the workshop would be classed as the master, his employees were the journeymen and the young learners (often sons or nephews of the master) were the apprentices.
Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s Mr Hemingway
No.13 seems to fit the mould of being a classic watchmaker’s house and workshop set-up. In 1851 the head of the household was Elizabeth Bullock, a widow, and her two young children. Her late husband, John Bullock was clearly a master watch maker, as the census entry also lists two journeyman watch pinion makers as resident at the house, one of whom was her nephew, the other a lodger at the house.
Other branches of the Bullock family seem to have occupied other houses on Atherton Street (such as no. 6 and no.21) and it seems that after 1851 no.13 was taken on by a place of work and residence by the deceased John’s brother, William Bullock, who is recorded as a watchmaker or watch and chronometer pinion maker from 1841 until 1881 (he died in 1884). Of William’s four children (he was a widower by 1851) the eldest son succeeded his father in watch making, and, once grown up, moved out to Moss Street to continue in this craft. The youngest son became a teacher of music before settling into being a watch pinion maker and organist, again moving to Moss Street. In 1891 William Bullock (who was still recorded as retired), his daughter Sarah and nephew William (an estate agent’s clerk) were resident along with two boarders who worked as engineer fitters, presumably at the cable works, and were both born in Kent. Perhaps the rooms in the house were a source of income for the retired watchmaker?
By 1901 Sarah Bullock, daughter of William, was the only member of the family still living in the house with two boarders who were both grocer’s assistants: one from Cornwall, one from what is now Cumbria – both a long way from home!
By 1911 there were no more members of the Bullock family living in 13 Atherton Street, instead a familiar name (to me at least) suddenly appears: George Hemingway, the retired schoolmaster whose son set up a chemists shop in another THI project building: 44 Eccleston Street. He lived at no.44 with his son in 1901, but had moved on to a larger house around the corner once the chemist’s shop took off. More on the Hemingways (and 44 Eccleston Street) here.
The Prescotts of Prescot
I have pieced together a bit of a history of the occupiers of the building from the information usefully and freely held at prescot.org with additional help from Steve Nulty at Prescot Roll of Honour.
It seems that no.15 was occupied by different generations of the Prescott family from 1841 (if not the previous forty years or more) until at least 1911. It could well be that the Prescotts occupied the house more or less since its construction. The main link during the nineteenth century seems to be Ellen Prescott who possibly lived there her whole life and is recorded in the property in the censuses between 1851 and 1911. She is listed in the 1851 census aged 18 (I couldn’t access the 1841 census) who along with her brother and sister lived with their father, a widower, John Prescott, who worked as a file maker. Perhaps his workshop was the one in the loft?
By 1861 Ellen and her niece Mary shared the house with Ellen’s two older brothers Thomas and David Prescott who are both listed as watch tool dealers. Ten years later, it was just David, Ellen and their nephew John occupying the house. Ellen is listed as a domestic servant and David as a watch tool maker. Another decade on the household is the same, but David was a retired watchmaker (aged 46), Ellen as a housekeeper and their nephew John was an apprentice tailor and draper. By 1901 it is just Ellen and her nephew John (now a fully fledged merchant tailor) and, by 1911 Ellen is the sole occupier of the house, aged 78 and living on her own means.
I wonder if she was good friends with Sarah Bullock next door? They were neighbours for decades and only three years apart in age.
The Twentieth Century: Live/Work Again?!
With the decline in the local watch component and tool making industries in the early twentieth century, it is possible that the whole row of houses and workshops fell on hard times, with its original purpose gone. 13-15 Atherton Street seems to have avoided any decline as the properties were knocked through into a single office that was occupied by Frodsham’s, who occupied the building for much of the twentieth century and are still a going concern, though now based in St Helen’s. Peculiarly, the 1939 census returns record a married couple, Walter and Kate Hewitt as the residents. Walter is recorded as a maintenance electrician at the cable works, while Kate was an office caretaker and domestic… (the rest is obscured). Perhaps the couple lived in a flat in the upper floors of the building and Kate looked after the offices? This might explain why even though the building was a single property, there were still two separate front doors that led to different rooms – that to no.15 leads straight to a staircase – perhaps it once led up to the caretaker’s flat?
The buildings were probably offices for several decades and the offices presumably moved into the caretaker’s flat as times changed. It seems that during this time some of the rooms were knocked through and the kitchen of no.15 made into a ‘board room’ complete with timber panelling.
Frodsham’s vacated the building decades ago and since then it has languished empty, with harm done to its internal structure and fabric by unauthorised works by a one-time owner.
The THI Works: Live/Work Units – 21st Century Style
Our biggest grant offer to date, we will bring this double-fronted three-storey building back to life and into a good state of repair. The upper floors will be two two-bedroomed maisonettes, with one of the bedrooms in no.15 and the kitchen of no.13 in the former workshops. The ground floor is going to be a cafe, with an existing business ready to expand into the premises.
There are loads of things that will be done that people may not necessarily spot from the outside, like repairing the roof structure, and replacing or strengthening the floor structures, and tying the masonry walls, and chimneystacks together. The building won’t look drastically different from the outside, but the cafe at ground floor will open the building up to the public and the maisonettes upstairs will mean people will be living in the building for the first time in most people’s lifetime.