The scaffolders are busily erecting a scaffold around the latest THI grant aided building project at the Flat Iron Building aka 72 Eccleston Street.
These auspicious occasions always prompt me to publish a blog about the historical and architectural interest of the building itself, but in this case my thunder has been stolen by a recent article in the Liverpool Echo – complete with photos and video! It is worth a read and the videos simply cannot be achieved on this humble blog.
You know what? I’ll post a blog about the building anyway. One probably full of mistakes and gaps (hint hint: historians needed!). Here it is:
The Pre-Flat Iron Age
In the sixteenth century, before this eastern end of Eccleston Street and Ackers Street and Warrington Road existed, it seems that Eccleston Street petered out from its junction with Chapel Street into tracks that led out into the fields.
In the eighteenth century (or possibly early nineteenth – I’m hedging my bets) ‘New Road’ was laid out. This is today the section of Warrington Road from the junction with St Helen’s Road and High Street down the hill to the junction with Kemble Street and the rest of Warrington Road. The route of Eccleston Street was extended eastward beyond Chapel Street to join up with ‘New Road’ and this section of road was given the un-exciting name ‘Little New Road’.
The 1848 Map show the footprint of the buildings that stood on the site before the modern-day Flat Iron Building. The buildings occupy the nook between Little New Road (now Eccleston Street) and Acres Row (now Ackers Street). Just to add to the confusion ‘New Road’ is now known as Warrington Road, and ‘Short Street’ is now known as Chapel Street, named after the Methodist Chapel that stood alongside it.
Ackers Street probably came into being as a back street behind the building facing ‘New Road’ and Little New Road’. On older maps it is called Acres Row, which perhaps gives an explanation for the origin of the street’s name: the old field names at this end of Prescot included ‘Fells Acre’, ‘Churchley Field Acre’ and ‘Sparrow Lane Acre’. Acres Row led to the different ‘acres’ or fields and the modern day ‘Ackers’ is perhaps a corruption of ‘Acres’?
Why am I telling you all of this? With the establishment of Little New Road and Ackers Street / Acres Row the little fork in the road where the modern day Flat Iron Building stands was created and is the cause of the building’s distinctive shape. It might well have existed as a fork in the tracks out into the fields, but it became and still is part of the road layout.
Flat Iron Cottage
As happened with the roadside fields all over Prescot, the land in between Little New Road and Acres Row was filled up with buildings. The 1848 Ordnance survey suggests there were at least five back-to-back cottages occupying the same footprint as the modern day Flat Iron Building. There is a tradition that there was a ‘Flat Iron Cottage’ in Prescot and this may have been the cottage standing right in the fork of the junction and had an irregular footprint, comparable to a ‘flat iron’.
A ‘flat iron’ is the solid iron precursor to our modern day steam irons. A flat iron would be heated up by standing it on a fire hobplate (or simply putting it in front of the fire) and, once it is warm enough, using it to iron out the creases from clothes and textiles. They were often used in pairs: one was warmed up while the other was being used.
The name ‘flat iron’ has been informally given to narrow or wedge-shaped buildings that are squeezed in between roads or have taken on an odd footprint and shape due to the dimensions of the plot of land they stand on. There are examples all over England of buildings nicknamed ‘Flat Iron’ and of course there is a world famous example in New York City.
Building the Flat Iron
Neither flat, nor iron, the Flat Iron Building aka 72 Eccleston Street in 2019.
The Flat Iron Building was constructed in 1890 as a warehouse and specialised workshop for the Lancashire Watch Company, whose main factory was a quarter of a mile away. The Flat Iron Building consists of an open plan room on each floor, linked by a cantilevered stone staircase by the corner entrance doors. The exception is at first floor where there is a small south facing office with its own fireplace and an internal window that provides a clear view of the main staircase and doorway from the office.
The beautiful cantilevered staircase that connects all three storeys of the building in a dramatic fashion.
The precise purpose of this building a short distance from the main factory is unclear. I can only suggest that with Aspinall Street / Station Road providing a direct route to the town’s railway station from circa 1870, and being close to the terminus of tramlines from Liverpool and St Helens from 1881 and 1902, there was a flurry of new building at this end of Eccleston Street, due to there being more footfall from tram and train passengers coming into and out of the town centre.
Given its architecture, size and location, the Flat Iron Building might have been where bespoke watch cases incorporating precious metals or jewels were ordered, made and inspected prior to purchase. The building had until recently a very thick-walled strong room at first floor near the office and this might explain the attractive staircase leading to a well-appointed and heated office: this must have been where customers might have been received by the manager.
Step into my office… the well-appointed office where I think people who ordered bespoke cases for their Lancashire Watch Company watches met with the manager.
The building’s location provided a more convenient destination for clients than the factory itself, which would not have been predisposed for this type of high-end service – a nicer, more accessible building would be needed. A lot of Prescot’s watches or watch movements were sent to specialists in London or Coventry to be encased or otherwise be sent directly to individual high street jewellers who would undertake the encasing and bejewelling before selling on the finished product. Perhaps this small warehouse and workspace was a way of the Watch Company providing these profitable services in-house?
Flat Iron Mechanism Company
With the folding of the Lancashire Watch Company in 1911, the original purpose of the building ceased. It was soon taken over by Alfred Huckle whose Prescot Clock and Mechanism Company occupied the whole building with wall clocks being made on the ground floor and watch finishing on the top floor. Huckle was from Kent and had been in Prescot since at least 1891 when he lodged with the watchmaker William Bullock at 13 Atherton Street (a blog on that building’s history is here). He set up in business with a loan from his brother-in-law, Dr S M Green, a physician and surgeon who lived in Prescot.
The new business produced an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 watches between 1911 and 1914. The focus on the business then turned from watches to clocks and small mechanisms. This included ships’ clocks and compasses and rifle extractors during the First World War, 20 to 30 wall clocks per week, and in the 1930s an order for 3,000 ticket punching machines for use in trams. By the Second World War Alfred Huckle was succeeded by his son Morris and the company changed to Prescot Mechanism Company, focussing on small parts for specialist instruments before closing in 1969 with the retirement of Morris Huckle.
The building has subsequently been a clothes shop ‘Top Quality Seconds’ and latterly a warehouse for spectacles (Continental Eyewear) and has been owned by the present owner since 1975.
Seconds Count: the Flat Iron Building in 1980 when it was a clothes shop called Top Quality Seconds.
Flat Iron, the Building
Architecturally, the building is little changed since its late Victorian construction. The rounded corner of the building contains the main entrance and is like a prow of a ship (or indeed the front of an iron). This rounded corner contains a double doorway topped by an ashlar pediment and above this is a tall first floor window with a shaped cast iron mullion. This doorway and window face onto the principal staircase, an unexpectedly elegant cantilevered type with a sweeping continuous hardwood handrail carried on iron balusters.
The roof is more or less concealed by a brick parapet, and the roof is sliced in to by a projecting brick fire wall that separates the staircase from the rest of the building, protecting the only means of escape. The rest of the elevations area mix of individual and mullioned sash window openings and common brickwork with ashlar sandstone dressings. At ground floor facing Ackers Street are 1970s aluminium shop windows from the building’s days as ‘Top Quality Seconds’. The building that retains much of its traditional character and appearance.
The southern side of the Flat Iron Building – it retains much of its character and the need to reinstate traditional windows at ground floor is obvious.
The THI-funded Works
The THI grant will enable the complete re-roofing of the Flat Iron in natural slate and replacing all of the leadwork, including the gutters that are hidden behind the parapet. All of the massive down pipes will be replaced in cast iron. There will be small scale stone and brick repairs here and there while nearly 40 original windows on the upper floors will be repaired and overhauled before redecoration. At ground floor all of the 1970s windows and doors will be replaced with new ones that are more sympathetic to the building’s traditional character and appearance.
The inside of the building has been repaired by the owners at their own expense and the owners will continue to make improvements to it. The building is currently vacant, so if you’re reading this and fancy occupying a wedge of Prescot’s watchmaking heritage and an icon within the town, get in touch!