Work has started on the 15th (yes 15th!) THI Building project: 27 Eccleston Street (Melissa’s Spa and Nails). Handily it is next door to the second THI building project 29-31 Eccleston Street so in a way it feels like we’ve been full circle with the THI buildings. As is the custom with this blog, with works starting I put together a little run-down of the building’s history.
I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here
25, 27 and 29 Eccleston Street were built as a single symmetrically fronted three storey building sharing a roof and front stone gutter. Its date of construction appears to have been around 1820-1830. The building stands near the middle of a long row of burgage plots on the north side of Eccleston Street. The building is in usual in that it was built across two or three burgage plots by either a single owner or one or more owners working together. By combining plots together, it was possible to erect a building with a very broad, architecturally composed elevation that is almost 18 metres long. This would have made the building stand out in a medieval town like Prescot where buildings occupied plots roughly 5 to 6 metres wide and therefore most buildings of any age would have been no wider than 5 to 6 metres.
You can see how vast the frontage of 25-29 Eccleston Street is (with no.27 ‘Melissa’s Spa and Nails in the middle). It’s so vast I couldn’t completely fit it in a single photo. Compare and contrast with the narrow buildings to the right…
Why might someone have gone to this trouble? My best guess is that we have such a fine building here today because 25, 27, and 29 Eccleston Street stood more or less across the street from Lyme House – built in 1629 and one of the largest and highest status houses in Prescot with one of the biggest gardens too. The house took its name from the Lyme family who built and occupied it until 1716. The Lymes were Prescot merchants since Elizabethan times at least, but it was Oliver Lyme who rose to prominence in the seventeenth century. Oliver Lyme was variously surveyor of the Port of Chester from at least 1665 and then Comptroller of the Port of Chester until 1691, Mayor of Liverpool in 1685, a Justice of the Peace in 1686, Deputy Mayor in 1687 and latterly an Alderman of Liverpool. Before 1700 he was one of the ‘Four Men’ who administered Prescot and founded a charity (the Oliver Lyme Charity) that provided almshouses for poor people of Prescot and Whiston in 1707. This Charity of course survives to this day in Prescot, though the original almshouses were demolished in the 1930s. (Virtually everything I know about Oliver Lyme and the date of construction of Lyme House is from this online book).
With such a grand old house opposite, where better to build a row of three smart new townhouses for three households who were better off than most?
The 1848 Ordnance Survey with 25-29 Eccleston Street shaded green and Lyme House shaded yellow. Lyme House’s large garden, complete with summerhouse, is to the south and at the west end is a greenhouse whose footprint is comparable to most of the nearby houses. In front of 25, 27 and 29 Eccleston Street, the cartographer has drawn the steps leading up to each of the front doors.
It is unclear whether the three were built as just houses, but it is possible that each had a shop occupying a room or two at ground floor with a simple shop window facing onto Eccleston Street. The majority of the original staircase survives in situ at no 27, and this is in the rear left hand corner of the building, which would allow the rooms in the front part of the ground floor to be used as a shop. A further clue on the detailed 1848 Ordnance Survey map is that no.27 appears to have had a central doorway (due to the position of the external steps), this arrangement would be better suited to a shop rather than to have two narrow domestic reception rooms barely more than 6 feet wide squeezed either side of an entrance hallway. Indeed when we were undertaking work at 29-31 Eccleston Street, it appeared that the interior of the building suggested the most important rooms were at first floor, lit by the largest windows.
A glimpse of the elegant original staircase that survives in the upper floors.
There is no certainty over the use and occupiers of 27 Eccleston Street until the 1901 census. By then it was occupied by Robert and Mary Atherton, their two children, plus Robert’s brother Arthur and his wife Lena. Robert was recorded as a butcher, and interestingly, Arthur as a watch movement maker. This raises the question of whether the rear workshop was built for Arthur Atherton or whether it was already there when he moved in?
On the right is the two storey rear workshop. Its wall changes angle to avoid meeting the rear windows of the three storey main part of the building. The wide workshop window at first floor is actually just a normal sash window laid on its side with no lintel!
By 1911 another butcher, John Martindale occupied the building along with his family (including his wife Margaret and son John who both assisted in the business) and a boarder who worked at the cable factory. By 1918 the Martindales had moved two doors down to no.31 but it is unclear who had taken their place at no.27.
A few doors down, Miss Annie Johnson is listed in 1918 as a draper in the shop at no.23. By 1924 Annie Johnson had expanded her business into no.27, which she used as a ladies’ outfitters, while her shop at no.23 became a gentlemen’s outfitters. It is believed that Annie Johnson later bought the boot and shoe shop next door at no.29 and moved her gent’s outfitters from no.23 to no.25 meaning she had three separate shops all in a row, all in the same three storey building.
This is a photo of the shop staff in front of the shopfront at 27 Eccleston Street in the 1920s. Could that be Annie Johnson stood on the step? The window displays and text on the glass give a clear idea of what was sold here. While the shop window and doorway are still there today, in this photo the granite pilasters and stallrisers had yet to be added.
Below: the same view in 1980 (with scaffold in the way) and below that the same view today. Believe it or not, the joinery of the shop windows and doors is still there.
It may well have been Annie Johnson who remodelled and modernised nos. 25, 27 and 29 Eccleston Street in the 1920s. The three were given new shopfronts, with polished granite pilasters and deco style glass. The shopfronts were arranged in such a way that they were symmetrical and that of no.27 was slightly taller than the shops to either side. To crown the middle shop off an oriel with leaded and stained glass was built out from the first floor window opening. This oriel might well have been added because the first floor of no.27 was made into part of the shop floor: a new wide staircase with two half-landings was added at the back of the shop and this led into a large showroom lit by the oriel. When this new staircase was built it is probable that the original Georgian staircase was removed between the ground and first floors, freeing up more retails space at ground floor. The top floor of no.27 might well have been Annie Johnson’s office: to this day it retains attractive art deco style wall and ceiling paper in the front room.
How good is this ceiling paper?! Suns and a maze-like arrangements of angular shapes. It catches the sunlight wonderfully.
Historically department stores evolved from shopkeepers (more often than not drapers) who bought the next-door shops and diversified the business into different branches, eventually either knocking the shops through into a fully fledged store or raising the funds to knock down the existing buildings provide a purpose built large store. Annie Johnson seems to have gone part way to doing this with three different stores side by side and one of them extending upstairs up a new broad staircase. The three joined up shopfronts and emphasised the central door (at no.27) which could be taken as a suggestion that she might have had plans to knock through into no.25 and no.29 at ground and first floor levels, with the floors linked by the generous staircase in no.27.
At the back of the shop, between the ground and first floors is this staircase from the 1920s or 30s with a natty balustrade in a modern movement style. My theory is this staircase allowed customers to browse at first floor level.
For whatever reason this ambitious plan, if it existed, never came off, but Johnson’s was a fixture on Eccleston Street, possibly until the early 1960s as there are suggestions that members of the Johnson family continued the business until this period. After the closure of Johnson’s, the shops continued in similar retail uses with no.27 being a draper’s once more until at least the mid-1980s before being a travel agency, a use which continued until 2014.
The THI is grant aiding the complete repair and restoration of the outside of 27 Eccleston Street. It’s a happy coincidence that for a building that might have been built in the 1820s and refurbished in the 1920s will be undergoing significant repair and restoration just before the 2020s. On this basis when we finish the building should be OK until the 2120s!
Unlike most of our projects the vast majority of the historic shopfront is there: it just needs re-exposing by taking away the existing large sign and roller shutter. The shutter will be replaced with an internal one and a new sign will be of the right proportion and style. There are small scale repairs to the shopfront including reinstating the missing piece of granite on the left hand side. The aim will be to return it to its 1920s appearance, when Annie Johnson remodelled the building.
Looking at the shopfront from the inside, it’s clear those little high transom lights in the 1920s photo of Johnson’s (above) are still there and the current ceiling butts up to them. On the outside these transom lights are hidden by the sign and rollershutter.
Upstairs, new sash windows and stone cills and lintels will be inserted , while the brickwork will undergo repair and replacement. The roof, and front stone gutter will be repaired. If it’s possible, we will take the gutter back to be bare stone with a lead lining.
At the back the works are much of the same: replacement doors and windows, minor repairs and a bit of structural repair to the outrigger, which shows obvious signs of movement.