This blog post is a ‘Part 2’ continuation of the previous blog post ‘Part 1’.
In Part 1 I set the scene of how and why the 1755 Town Hall and Market Hall at Prescot Market Place over the course of several decades eventually became candidates for demolition in the 1960s.
In this blog post, Part 2, I have pulled together my notes from the files of Prescot Urban District Council held at the ARK in Kirkby concerning the demolition of the Town Hall and Market Hall and the creation of the open space at Market Place that we are now redeveloping 50 years later as the single biggest project of the THI.
The following snippets are in chronological order and were all obtained from the Archive Resource for Knowsley. The snippets are taken from correspondence between 1964-68 held by Prescot Urban District Council (UDC) concerning the redevelopment of Market Place. Fortunately these records provide a lot of background information predating 1964-8:
- In December 1914 a covenant was entered between Robena Hughes and Prescot Public Charities whereby the stone Prescot crest, and lead downspouts of the Town Hall could not be sold, removed from Prescot or erected as part of another building without her prior agreement. ‘Prescot Public Charities’ was presumably an organisation created to look after the Town Hall and possibly other endowments in Prescot; information about this organisation is at Lancashire County Archive. Who was Robena Hughes and why was she interested in the Town Hall? Robena and Leonard Hughes are listed in the 1901 census as pawnbrokers and house furnishers at 21 Kemble Street, perhaps the covenant was a way of raising funds (by pawning) or a means of giving the Hughes’s business first refusal on these important architectural features?
- Prescot UDC purchased and cleared 16 Market Place (a cottage next to the churchyard gates) and 26 Market Place (a house with garden probably on the southwest side of Market Place – now Greenall Court) in 1937.
The first building to be demolished in the row containing the Town Hall was the boot and shoe shop directly next to the churchyard gates.
- Prescot UDC had purchased the Market Hall in 1938 with the sole intention of demolishing it. To this end it was not used to hold markets, although it was doubtlessly used as storage or garaging or similar in support of the war effort between 1939-45. The UDC’s letters suggest there was no intention to hold a weekly market ever again at Market Place, although the Fair, held on alternate Tuesdays between Shrove Tuesday and Whit, would still be held.
- In 1958 the Prescot UDC purchased 40 Market Place ‘and the former almshouses to rear’ as part of the planned ‘Market Place Area of Redevelopment’. 40 Market Place and the almshouses were on the southeast side of Market Place and were probably bought in order for them to be cleared for the widening of Snig Lane. The former almshouses were probably the ones built between 1830 and 1850 Samuel Sewell, the former Vicar of Prescot who provided £700 for six almshouses in 1815. The widened Snig Lane was of course renamed Sewell Street.
- The plans for the redevelopment of Market Place seemed to have been fluid to a degree: in 1960 it was decided that the Town Hall was not required to be part of the land to be assembled to construct the preferred highway realignment. However, the Market Hall was definitely to form part of the scheme: its demolition would allow for road widening and smoother radii for the corners and bends.
- In 1960 the application to re-align Church Street (road widening and associated demolition) was made.
The next two steps are possibly the most interesting ones in this entire timeline:
- Up until 1960 it seems that Lancashire County Council was designing the road widening and realignment in Prescot town centre and then seeking comments from Prescot UDC. The County Council’s proposal seems to have been a wider Snig Lane / Sewell Street with a wider, smoother junction with Market Place. The road would then proceed straight up the hill, through the site of the Market Hall, behind the Town Hall, through the churchyard and past the east window of St Mary’s Church before joining the widened and re-aligned Church Street and thence to the junction with High Street and Derby Street.
My estimate of what Lancashire County Council’s proposal for road widening at Market Place would look like on a map. I have drawn their proposal as I understand it in red on the 1955 Ordnance Survey. The new road would have gone straight across the churchyard and squeezed between the east window of St Mary’s Church and the rear of the Town Hall, which would be retained. The new road would link up with the widened sections of Church Street and Sewell Street to give a direct north-south route through the town centre.
- However, it was Prescot UDC’s own Surveyor who suggested that instead of the above route, the highway at Market Place should be widened, and rather than it running straight up from Sewell Street to Church Street it should swing in front of 1-21 Market Place (i.e. the row of buildings on the east side of Market Place) and then curve back to join Church Street. In this configuration the wider, curving road would require the demolition of the Town Hall. In other words it was Prescot UDC rather than the County Council that suggested the Town Hall should be demolished. In the words of the UDC’s Surveyor the building was in a dilapidated condition and it was therefore “undesirable for it to remain”. Incidentally, Prescot UDC’s Surveyor did not in his letter point out the obvious advantages of his suggested route: it would avoid excavating (and losing) a large share of a 1,000 year old churchyard and would avoid the highway being uncomfortably close to the east end of the Church. I can only conclude these were not important issues to the District Surveyor in 1960!
Assuming Prescot UDC’s proposed route was what was actually built, this is how it looked (in yellow) superimposed over the 1955 Ordnance Survey. The Church and Churchyard are avoided, but both the Town Hall and Market Hall would have to be demolished. I may be biased, but a slightly narrower road could have allowed for the Town Hall to be retained.
- On 15th August 1960 the County Council wrote to Prescot UDC, agreeing to re-align the highway at Market Place in accordance with the suggestion of Prescot UDC’s surveyor. This would occasion the removal of the Town Hall and 2-6 Market Place, further uphill. The letter suggests that it should be possible to obtain a grant from the Ministry of Transport to make this scheme a reality.
- The above scheme is what was actually constructed to make the course of Market Place between its junctions with Sewell Street and Church Street as it is today. A 75-foot (23-metre) wide highway was considered and then dismissed. If the street was this wide, its width would be the distance between the flat elevation of the former HSBC Bank and the Green Flag flagpost by the Church! It would have been a huge road!
Just for a laugh, here is what a 75-foot wide highway at Market Place would look like in terms of size. I’ve indicated it in red over a modern day aerial photo (source: Google Maps). Perhaps a road this wide would also have served as a bus station? Or could be used for the Mug(g) Fair?
- Although the Town Hall would be demolished as part of the scheme, in reality very little of its footprint actually became part of the highway (which opens the argument: could it have been kept for the sake of making the street slightly narrower?). So this led to the County Council suggesting a land-swap to Prescot UDC. If the UDC would give the part of the Market Hall site needed for road widening to the County Council, the County Council would give the part of the Town Hall site not used for the road widening to Prescot UDC. Once the idea of having a 75-foot wide highway was dismissed, it was suggested the left-over land between the highway and churchyard would be landscaped. This of course is how we ended up with the strange bit of landscaping with a toilet block in one corner that we are now redeveloping via the THI.
- In 1961 the Town Hall was purchased by the UDC from a Mrs Vera Labourche Willmer of 77 Church Road, Moseley, Birmingham. I am not sure of Mrs Willmer’s connection to Prescot was, but her semi-detached two and a half storey house still stands in a spacious, leafy suburb east of Birmingham (thanks Google Maps!). At the time of sale the Council Chamber and third floor of the Town Hall were described as ‘vacant possession’. The three tenants of the ground floor shops of the Town Hall were protected from eviction via the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954. The three tenants were described as no.8 ‘Twist’, no.10 ‘Flowers’ and no.12 ‘Tongue’. I do not know who ‘Twist’ or what their business was, but historic photos suggest Flowers was a florist’s and Tongue was a butcher who by the 1970s had moved his business across the street to 17 Market Place.
This circa 1963 photo of the Town Hall clearly shows the shop sign of one of the last businesses in the building, the aptly named G Flower Florist’s. The Urban District Council clearly could not wait to partially the building to the right, leaving the purlins and rafters of the roof structure suspended in the air!
- A loan of £5,050 was made by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government to Prescot UDC to purchase 2, 4, 6 Market Place (the dwellings and shops adjoining the Town Hall) and 8-12 Market Place (the Town Hall itself).
- The architects Gornall, Kelly and Partners of 155 The Albany, Old Hall Street, Liverpool were appointed to design the new public open space and toilet block, and to oversee construction (contract administration). By the time the works were on site, the firm was renamed Gornall, Cross and Partners and was based in Wolverhampton House, Church Street, St Helens.
- A long-running dispute with Mary Durkin whose ladies’ clothing shop had occupied 4 Market Place since 1950 was ended in 1963 when the Prescot UDC bought her out of the remainder of her lease for £550, somewhat lower than the initial compensation sought: £1,500. For a time the correspondence from the UDC suggested it was investigating the option of demolishing the Town Hall and nos. 2 and 6, and leaving no.4 standing!
Another 1963 photo of the Town Hall, but on the far right you can see Mary Durkin’s ladies’ clothing shop.
- The tender to demolish the existing buildings and redevelop Market Place was awarded to N Astbury of Jubbits Lane, Sutton Manor, St Helens. The winning tender (of 12 submitted) was for £25,252 (or £1million to £1.5million depending on how you calculate it to 2019 prices). In real terms, this is roughly half the price estimated to save the Town Hall in 1954 (between £1.8million and £3.3million in 2019’s prices).
- The demolition of the Market Hall commenced on 24 August 1964.
- The demolition of the Town Hall commenced on 31 August 1964. Gornall, Cross and Partners instructed N Astbury that the following items had to be salvaged from the demolition of the Town Hall:
- Two wrought iron balustrades leading up to the doorway from Market Place
- The coat-of-arms above the doorway (this is of course the stone bearing the Prescot Coat of Arms)
- Three moulded rainwater heads in lead (these were each decorated with a griffin, a feature of the Bold coat-of-arms)
- The bronze bell (from the cupola on the roof)
- A curved stone at the south end of the building reading ‘Samuel Balmer 1804’.
- The stone head over the doorway on the south elevation carved with the alphabet
- The foundation stone or stones (there was no location or description of the foundation stone(s) in the salvage instructions, so perhaps there was doubt over whether these existed; the contractor was to make every effort to locate them).
- A pencil-written note on the salvage instructions states that the ‘stone carving & Prescot Arms, Lead Heading & downspout, Corner Stones’ were ‘in conveyance’. No mention of the balustrades, bell or alphabet stone! The latter was of course saved and is in Prescot Museum. The Coat of Arms is at 8 Vicarage Place. As for the other items, who knows?
- The Market Place public open space, landscaping and toilet block were constructed during 1965/66. There does not appear to have been any grand opening or otherwise when works completed.
A view towards the end of Eccleston Street over where the Market Hall and Town Hall once stood. The Town Hall stood for over 200 years, but all of this landscaping has gone in less than 60.
- In 1966 over a dozen residents of Greenall Court submitted a joint letter of complaint to Prescot UDC over the way the new landscaped space was overrun with children playing and causing a nuisance to residents, particularly the playing of football. Incidentally, more than one person that I have spoken to in Prescot who grew up in a house near Market Place in the 1960s and 70s referred to this landscaped space as ‘the plateau’ and it being the best place to play football. I guess the letter or any action taken by Prescot UDC had no real effect!
- In 1966 railings were erected behind the toilet block to prevent children and youths from walking onto the roof of the toilet block and throwing or dropping things onto the paving below. Yes, really! There was nothing to stop anyone from walking onto that roof.
That concludes the notes I made. From memory, the files in the archive also revealed that the demolition and construction both took longer and cost more than predicted in 1964 (some things never change!) and N Astbury, the builders, had folded a couple of years after completing Market Place.