Quite a while back, I went over the Knowsley Archives at the ARK in Kirkby to try and find as many plans and drawings of Market Place as I could to help get to the bottom of the problems we were facing with the retaining wall of the churchyard (detailed in an old blog post here). I found just one plan, but found out bits and pieces about how and why Market Place was redeveloped in the 1960s and made notes.
This blog post is a preamble to these snippets of information that will form a ‘Part 2’ post. This ‘Part 1’ post started off as a couple of paragraphs of scene-setting to the events of the 1960s, but has ended up quite long, so it has become a blog post in its own right.
Out With the Old: Court Leet to Urban District Council
Prescot’s local government was carried out by its Court Leet or Manor Court, established in 1447. The civic buildings it gave the town include its courthouse (each of the actual courthouse buildings used from the fifteenth century onwards are long gone), and its Town Hall of 1755.
This photo from around 1910 shows the commercial and civic sides of Market Place as they once were: the Market Hall of 1860 on the far let, and above it, the three storey Town Hall of 1755.
The Court Leet arrangement continued into the second half of the nineteenth century, with some modifications such as the Prescot Poor Law Union (consisting of Prescot township within a legal union with 20 other parishes and townships) administering the welfare of the less fortunate, and the administration of justice for more grave offences via the County Court system.
The importance of the Court Leet diminished significantly with the formation of Prescot Local Board in 1867 to manage and administer the township’s public affairs. As a result many of the functions of the Court Leet were taken away from it and hence its importance to the town waned. The 1848 Public Health Act paved the way for local government across the country through the formation of Local Boards, the fore-runners of modern local government. This Act was put into practice in Prescot in 1867.
From the outset Prescot Local Board was based in offices in a large house at 51 Derby Street rather than in the Town Hall, perhaps to emphasise a break from the town’s manorial past and its Court Leet founded over 400 years earlier. Prescot Local Board was re-incorporated as Prescot Urban District Council in 1894 as a result of the Local Government Act of that same year. This no doubt made the Court Leet and 1755 Town Hall even more marginal and more of a relic of the town’s past in people’s minds.
Curiously, the Market Hall in Market Place was always in private hands. The Prescot Market Hall Company formed in 1858 and in that year purchased the land for a market hall from King’s College (the lord of the manor) and by 1860 had built the Market Hall. This is an unusual situation, as the majority of market halls in the nineteenth century were built by the local municipality, in Prescot (along with a minority of other towns) the market hall was a private enterprise.
A view of the Market Hall from Kemble Street in the 1930s by which time it was no longer in use.
Why am I telling you about all of this in a blog post about Market Place? It explains why the Town Hall was fated to fall out of use and become neglected. Similarly the Market Hall was perhaps treated no differently than any other business in the town – it was simply a commercial venture rather than an expression of the town’s government and people. Both the Town Hall and Market Hall were either never owned by Prescot Urban District Council or if the Town Hall ever was in Urban District Council ownership it was sold off. This created an unusual situation whereby the town’s two most important ‘civic’ buildings were not in public ownership. The Prescot Board and the UDC that superseded it did not use the chamber in the Town Hall, meeting instead at 51 Derby Street or the offices of what is now Tickle Hall Cross Solicitors.
Out With the Old: The Final Decades of the Town Hall and Market Hall
The Prescot Market Hall Company announced in the London Gazette its intention to voluntarily wind up in September 1904. The seemingly did not happen, as there is a surviving balance sheet for the Company from 1912 and the company is believed to have eventually dissolved in 1916. The 1912 balance sheet shows that the Market Hall was owned by shareholders (770 shares sold at £1 each) and administered by a board.
The balance sheet itself makes interesting reading in that the gross yield on the market was under 4% and that the majority of the market income was during the town’s fairs – indeed the fair days generated over three times as much income than the rest of the year’s market days put together. This, if anything, demonstrates that the Market Hall would have struggled as an ongoing economic concern, particularly as modernisations to retailing made fair days less and less important. The Prescot Market Hall Company was dissolved in 1916. It is unclear exactly when the Market Hall itself closed (for example, did the Urban District Council or another business keep it going? Was it closed as a market and used for storage?) but it was for certain closed by 1938 at the absolute latest.
The Town Hall seems to have been dealt a similar fate. Whilst there would have been rental income from its three shops at street level, the rest of the building would have generated little regular income from meetings or events. The need to preserve the ceremonial use of the space by the Court Leet no doubt also limited what could be done with the upper floors. Its use as a place of entertainment no doubt declined with the opening of Prescot’s first cinema and theatre of varieties, the Prescot Picture Palace, on Kemble Street in 1912.
The Court Leet continued to exist in an increasingly ceremonial form until 1936. Until then it still elected officers and held the annual Court Leet as well as the tradition of ‘perrying’: throwing heated pennies out of the Town Hall windows and into Market Place for children to scramble for and collect.
The Town Hall in the 1930s. On the far right is a YMCA sign, over the doorway that led to the upper floors. I wonder whether the YMCA occupied the upper floors for a time?
A historic photo suggests that the Town Hall was occupied for a time by the YMCA, whether it was a place for YMCA meetings and activities and/or whether it functioned as a dormitory is unclear. The photo may date from the 1920s or 1930s. If it is the latter it could have been taken after the Court Leet was dissolved in 1936.
By this time Prescot Urban District Council was housed in its brand new Town Hall on High Street, dated 1934. This building is today Knowsley Council’s Registry Office. The 1755 Town Hall on Market Place was therefore by this stage very much on borrowed time, given it served no municipal function, was difficult to re-use and its fabric was starting to decay through a lack of maintenance.
In the years during and immediately after (and if not before) the 1939-45 War both the Town Hall and Market Hall were badly neglected. Whether the closure of the Market Hall coincided with the end of the twice-weekly markets in Prescot is unclear, the Prescotians I have met over the years tend to only talk about the Mugg Fair, itself a remnant of the annual fair that was instituted in 1333.
The Last Chance Saloon? A Move to Save the Town Hall in the 1950s
The importance of the Town Hall was recognised locally, not least by Prescot Historic Society (formed in 1942) and its leader, local historian and History Master at Prescot Grammar School, F A Bailey.
In 1953 a proposal was drawn up to use the top floor of the Town Hall as a community hall with seating for up to 125 people, and below this associated offices, kitchen, toilets and a small museum to display items relating to the town’s watchmaking heritage. The top floor room was intended for ‘moderately sized meetings’ for groups such as the town’s Photographic Society, Townswomen’s Guild, the Soroptimists, the Rotary Club and others. The proposal specifically stated ‘it is not intended the Hall should be made available for dancing’. The ground floor shops would remain, though a new extension was proposed at the north end of the building to accommodate a new principal staircase. Elsewhere the proposals indicate a new steel frame being built inside the outer walls and this would carry a new steel roof structure.
National amenity bodies seemed to agree with the Prescot Historic Society with the Ancient Monuments Society, the Georgian Group and Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings all apparently having inspected the building and confirmed its historical and architectural interest according to the Historic Society’s proposal. The 1953 proposal even states that the Town Hall was a Listed Building. When it was Listed and what Grade it was afforded is not clear from what I can find, but we do know that the nearby St Mary’s Church and most of the houses on Vicarage Place were Listed in 1951, so that seems a possible date for the Listing of the Town Hall. Listing would confirm that the building was of national interest for its architectural or historical interest – the same as any Listed Building anywhere in England today.
I like this early 1950s photo of the Town Hall due to its unusual angle and clarity. You can see the upper floors are starting to look a bit neglected through disuse, but at ground floor there are still shops: home décor and butter and eggs.
The same reverence did not apply to the Market Hall. The 1953 proposal states that “the plan should include the demolition of the ruined Victorian Market Hall, paving the Market Place with setts…” It was never the most attractive building, its low mass running against the sloping topography to provide a level but small internal market hall, and its teardrop-shaped footprint must have made the internal layout awkward for its intended use.
Perhaps it was just seen at the time as yet another ‘Victorian monstrosity’ or in the parlance of our times ‘not fit for purpose’ or any other sweeping generalisation you care to use. I can, however, entirely understand that the priority was to save the Town Hall, by far the more important of the two buildings and the one to focus efforts on. The restoration of the Town Hall was estimated in 1954 to cost £28,000 – depending how you calculate it, this would be between £1.8million and £3.3million in 2019. To put it in perspective, the Prescot THI is spending £1.9million on ALL 18 of the building projects that is grant-aiding between 2013 and 2019.
In an era where there were no funders like the National Lottery Heritage Fund, no Historic England, no building preservation trusts or Architectural Heritage Fund, how most funds would have to be raised in a very small catchment (Prescot) and a national focus of resources on building more homes and infrastructure following the Second World War (and food rationing was still in operation until 1954), this £28,000 for a redundant town hall suddenly and understandably looks a tall order, if not impossible.