St George’s Hall could have looked very different without HM King Charles III.
St George’s Hall is one of the finest examples of architecture in the world, it’s the first impression for many tourists arriving in the City by train and it’s been a place of celebration and congregation for Liverpool and it’s residents for decades. Inside it offers a magical space to enjoy an evening, with its crystal chandeliers, beautifully grained wooden panelling, and enough gold leaf to cover half a football pitch. It was famously cited as King Charles’s favourite building, but he has also played a major part in its restoration.
As we celebrate King Charles III’s Coronation, our St George’s Hall Visitor Services Officer James O’Keefe reflects on the Kings part in the restoration of the Hall, his visits throughout the years and his continued support.
“St George’s Hall was opened on Monday 19 September 1854 and its opening marked the culmination of a project that had begun 18 years earlier when a public meeting was called to discuss the building of a hall for the performances of the Liverpool musical festival and other public purposes. Although the courts building was planned as a separate neighbouring building to St George’s Hall, the architect who designed both buildings, Harvey Lonsdale Elmes, was invited to create a design that combined both projects into one grand building.
The ambitious design brought the concert hall and Law Courts under one roof to become the ultimate expression of Liverpool’s civic pride in the nineteenth century. It has also over the years, been described as Liverpool’s village hall, a place at the heart of Liverpool life and the backdrop to occasions of great joy and times of great sadness and crisis.
Even before St George’s Hall was completed, the building had many admirers. King Charles III’s great, great, great grandmother Queen Victoria declared the neo-classical building – still unfinished – in 1851 as being ‘worthy of Ancient Athens’. The building’s historical and architectural significance was more formally recognized when it was granted Grade 1 listed status in June 1952 meaning that it is of the highest architectural, or historic interest.
When the law courts of Liverpool transferred from St George’s Hall to the Queen Elizabeth II Law Courts, Derby Square, in 1984, along with the court business which had occupied so much of the building, so too went 97% of the funding that paid for the upkeep of the building. The building was then put solely into the hands of Liverpool City Council. At that time the Council was under a strict rate-capping regime and the priority was not the Hall, but housing and public services.
Before the building could even be used for any new purpose, £1.5 million would be needed to modernise the building to comply with fire and health and safety laws from which it had been exempt due to its use as courts (the building, for example, did not even have a lift despite the many stairs within). Annual maintenance costs were in the region of at least £250,000. Liverpool City Council had no remaining budget for its continued care. After putting the residents of Liverpool first, the hard decision was therefore made to ‘mothball’ the building. Despite this mothballing of St George’s Hall, the cost for minimum heating and maintenance was between £100,000 and £150,000 every year. There was hope that a new purpose could be found for the building. There were lots of ideas such as becoming a museum, an events centre, a music college, a magistrates’ court and even a casino. However, the issue remained the initial cost of £1.5 million: who would pay?
Under these circumstances and with no immediate investment forthcoming, questions about the building’s long-term future began to be raised as early as July 1985. The then Chair of the Council’s Planning Committee, Councillor Tony Hood warned: “If nothing is done within five to ten years it would be a serious risk” of the building deteriorating beyond repair (Liverpool Echo 31 July 1985). By September that year the Liverpool Echo asked the question, “Will the magnificent St George’s Hall become a white elephant in the heart of the city centre? Or should it be flattened, and the site developed for housing or a multi-storey car park?” In September 1986 the Hall was described as “harbouring only pigeons, ghosts and memories of countless grand functions and sensational court hearings over 132 years, St. George’s Hall, Liverpool, today stands empty and silent.” (Liverpool Echo, 13 September 1986).
1987 saw the reopening of St George’s Hall and the return of some activities, including a snooker tournament, a public opening for eight months for exhibitions, tea dances and dinner dances, as well as the filming of a Coca-Cola advertisement but a long-term solution for the future use of the building remained seemingly out of reach.
The Hall continued to welcome a return of conferences and exhibitions and was used for the filming of Sherlock Holmes and The Antiques Roadshow, but the stumbling block: the question of the financing of the needed improvements remained. The building closed its doors once more in 1989 and remained empty.
On 24 May 1988 Prince Charles visited Liverpool to reopen the newly restored Albert Dock, arriving by train he would later recall: “On a visit to Liverpool in 1988 I was reminded of how stunning the neo-classical vision of St George’s Hall was as you emerge from Lime Street Station.” (Liverpool Echo, 30 June 1994). It was perhaps this visit of which Charles would later say “I was shown around [St George’s Hall] some 14 years ago on a private visit and was told then it was due to be demolished. I remember encouraging those I met to do all they could to save it” (Liverpool Echo, 24 April 2007).
In recognition of the King’s contribution to the conservation of world architecture, the World Monuments Fund (WMF) invited him to receive the Hadrian Award at a ceremony in London at the Natural History Museum. The WMF is a private non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage of mankind. In his acceptance speech, Charles explained: “When the fund mentioned to me that it was seeking a major British project, it seemed to me to present a marvellous opportunity to do something for this great building which has been called the finest in the world.” The building he was describing was St George’s Hall Liverpool. He declared that it was “one of the greatest public buildings of the last 200 years sitting in the centre of one of Europe’s finest cities” (The Times 8 November 1990). He said the building needed the return of what he called its lost spirit: “It is surrounded by the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside housed in the great civic buildings. It seems the hall is simply waiting for the moment when it can again house great concerts and exhibitions.” (Liverpool Echo, 8 November 1990)
The King’s nomination was significant because it suddenly brought the plight of St George’s Hall to international attention. The WMF would go on to raise funds for the restoration and fund raising for the Hall, that was expected to cost in the region of £20 million. In 1992 after a £2.2 million initial investment, the Hall was brought into more frequent use as a venue for conferences, exhibitions and filming the likes of Brookside and film productions such as In The Name of the Father starring Daniel Day Lewis.
In 1995, St. George’s Hall Charitable Trust was created with the help of WMF. (In 2003 Queen Elizabeth II’s first cousin the Duke of Gloucester became the Trust’s Royal Patron). The Trust’s aim to protect, preserve and enhance the building and through this, St George’s Hall was able to apply for, raise, and access, funds to help complete its restoration.
In 1997 the Trustees planned a bid for funding from the National Lottery and European Union Objective One funding. The cost of the roof repairs alone was £5.6 million.
Over the following ten years and through two phases of renovation the building witnessed a regeneration allowing it to once more be at the heart of Liverpool’s cultural life. The whole building was made structurally sound and waterproof along with lifts to all floors, principal spaces were faithfully restored for their original music and civic functions, court rooms were returned to their nineteenth century layouts, kitchens were upgraded to cater for up to 800 people. New street level entrances were introduced and maybe the most radical change was a new Heritage Centre that allowed members of the public to explore the building like never before; across four storeys incorporating prisoner cells, Court Number 1 and the balcony of the Great Hall.
St George’s Day- 23 April- 2007 will forever remain proud in the pages of the history of the city of Liverpool because that was the culmination of a £23 million project and seventeen years’ work restoring the complete building of St George’s Hall. In 2007 the Hall was fully renovated; its spirit returned.
But who should officially reopen the reborn building? Of course, the then Prince Charles was the natural choice. On seeing the improvements to the building he said: “what a delight it is for me to see it revealed in all its glory.” He had a tour of the whole building with Graham Boxer and heritage and historic environmental manager Eileen Wilshaw acting as guides. King Charles was actually the first person in the twenty-first century to walk on the world-famous Minton tile floor.
After exploring the rest of the building, an Honorary Fellowship from Liverpool John Moores University was then conferred on King Charles, and he delivered a lecture for the University’s Roscoe Lecture series in what is surely the jewel in the crown of St George’s Hall, the Concert Room. Of the whole building, perhaps the Concert Room is the fullest embodiment of the phoenix-like rebirth of the building; it had been drab, dark and tired before the restoration and there had been concerns that it was in such a state of disrepair that while the rest of the building was restored it was potentially lost to history. Fortunately, after the funds were raised the room was brought back to life with the reinstatement of the original decoration scheme including gold leaf. The stunning chandelier was transformed with 2,824 pieces of crystal. Thanks to the acoustics, which are second to none, the room is now used for events, such as weddings, concerts, plays, film and TV productions, and conferences.
The most recent visit to St George’s Hall by HM the King is where the story becomes more personal to me. In 2019 I was working in the building on the day that Prince Charles visited. Then, Prince Charles was welcomed by the Hall Manager Alan Smith who took the Royal guest on a tour of the building including a look behind the scenes in the Hall’s basement which houses the miles of Victorian pipes that were integral to the original pioneering heating and ventilation system. St George’s Hall effectively became the world’s first air-conditioned building when the Courts opened in 1851.
The then Prince Charles walked through the prisoner cell corridor and met a line-up of staff… including me. Me shaking hands with Prince Charles was captured on camera and I still have a copy of the photo!
Just last week His Majesty the King made his first visit to Liverpool as King, accompanied by Her Majesty Queen Consort Camilla. They came to unveil the Eurovision stage at the M&S Bank Arena, and to mark the twinning of Liverpool Central Library and Odesa Regional Scientific Library. Their visit marked the official start of the build-up to the Eurovision Song Contest. As His Majesty stood on William Brown Street he found himself just next to St George’s Hall again, and was perhaps reminded in the days leading up to his coronation of a building with a special personal connection to him: St George’s Hall.
As everyone in Liverpool, and many more people far and wide, already know, St George’s Hall is a building that is fit for a King and it can surely be said that thanks to HM the King, it is a building fit for everyone, secure in the Liverpool landscape for years and years to come.”