Monthly Archives: July 2020

Lowbridge bus

Ipswich Transport Museum, Suffolk: Eastern Counties LK 374 (KNG 374)
Ipswich Transport Museum, Suffolk: Eastern Counties LK 374 (KNG 374)

Ipswich Transport Museum [https://www.ipswichtransportmuseum.co.uk] has a rich and relevant collection of vehicles and other transport material illustrating public transport and the emergency services from a local perspective.

There is a horse tram from Cambridge (1880), an Ipswich electric tram (1904), Ipswich trolleybuses from 1923 onwards and Eastern Counties motorbuses from 1927, together with emergency-services vehicles and a particularly fine Daimler hearse,– all housed in a well-lit former trolleybus depot at Priory Heath.

The collection covers local tram, trolleybus, motorbus and coach operators and the versatile Ipswich manufacturer Ransomes, Sims & Jeffries,– and features the Ipswich Corporation fleet, distinctive for long, narrow destination indicators and unpainted aluminium body panels. 

One vehicle resonated for me though I’d never before visited Ipswich.  Eastern Counties LK374 (KNG 374), a 1949 Bristol K double-decker, carries a lowbridge body, a feature I had as little to do with as possible in my 1960s travels in the East Midlands.

Double-deck buses up to the 1950s sat much higher on their chassis than later vehicles, because the lower-deck floor had to clear the rear axle and transmission shaft. 

The only practical way of reducing headroom to run a double-decker under bridges of restricted height was to align the upper-deck gangway with the offside windows and sink it into the lower-deck ceiling. 

This meant that the seats upstairs had to be four across, with obvious inconvenience and increased dwell-time when someone by the nearside window needed to alight.  It also meant that anyone seated downstairs against the offside window risked bumping their head when rising from their seat.

My Derbyshire schoolmates who were obliged to ride on these things called them “coffin buses”.

We hated them.

There was, eventually, a solution, but it was a long time coming to many bus operators…

St John’s Beacon

St John’s Beacon, Liverpool

The story of how a chimney gained the incongruous name St John’s Beacon is a saga of unwise planning decisions.

In the days when the town of Liverpool clustered around its seven medieval streets, close to the bank of the Mersey, the rising ground to the east was used for windmills, lime-kilns and the public drying of laundry, until in 1767 an area was enclosed to provide a burial ground with a small mortuary chapel, which was quickly replaced between 1775 and 1784 by St John’s Parish Church, designed in a loosely applied Gothic style by Timothy Lightoller, with a capacity of 1,500 sittings.

Harvey Lonsdale Elmes’ St George’s Hall was begun on the plateau immediately east of St John’s Church in 1841, and its west façade was left plain because it stood uncomfortably close to Lightoller’s undistinguished church.

When the Anglican Diocese of Liverpool was established in 1880 its Pro-Cathedral was the cramped parish church of St Peter, Church Street, which had been consecrated in 1704.   In 1885 the diocese obtained its Liverpool Cathedral Act, authorising construction on the site of St John’s Parish Church, but it became obvious that any of the submitted designs would have come uncomfortably close to St George’s Hall, and the Cathedral Committee, in admission of their misjudgement, quietly abandoned the whole scheme the following year.

St John’s Church was closed in 1898 and immediately demolished, and the churchyard was landscaped as a memorial garden which, with one exception, commemorated recently deceased public figures associated with the city.  St John’s Gardens opened in 1904.

Among the crowded streets south-west of St John’s Church, John Foster Jnr had built the indoor St John’s Market, opened in 1822, for meat, fruit and vegetables, with wholesale and retail fish markets adjacent.  One of the earliest examples of a covered market, it covered nearly two acres – “183 yards long and 45 yards broad” with “136 stone-trimmed classical arched window bays, supported by 116 interior cast-iron pillars” – “the largest of its kind in the kingdom…erected by the corporation at an expense of £35,296”, and lit at night by 144 gas burners.  The American painter John James Audobon described it as “an object worth the attention of all traveller strangers, it is thus far the finest building I have ever seen”.

By the mid-twentieth century, Foster’s market had become grubby and archaic, and without much debate it was replaced by a six-acre development comprising a replacement covered market, two levels of shop units, a hotel and a multi-storey car park, designed by the Birmingham architect, James A Roberts (1922-2019), whose work in his home city includes the Rotunda (1965). 

The new St John’s Market obliterated a complex pattern of small streets, leaving the much-altered former Star Theatre, now Liverpool Playhouse (Edward Davies, 1866;  Harry Percival, 1898;  Stanley D Adshead, 1911;  extended by Hall, O’Donohue & Wilson 1968), on Williamson Square, and the Royal Court Theatre (1881;  James Bushell Hutchins 1938) as outliers. 

Joseph Sharples, in the Pevsner Architectural Guide Liverpool (Yale University Press 2004) is scathing about the entire precinct – “…a bleak and brutal affair, monolithic, inward looking and awkwardly related to the different levels of the adjoining streets”.  He dismisses the early 1990s refurbishment by Bradshaw, Rowse & Harker as “prettification”. 

The one redeeming feature, rivalling Jim Roberts’ Birmingham Rotunda as a civic icon, is the St John’s Beacon, 450 feet high, the chimney to the centre’s heating system, distinguished by a revolving restaurant, closed in the 1970s and converted into a radio station c1999. The observation platform of St John’s Beacon offers one of the three best views of Merseyside, the other two being the Vestey Tower of the Anglican Cathedral and the tower of Birkenhead Priory, looking back to Liverpool from across the Mersey:  https://www.visitliverpool.com/things-to-do/st-johns-beacon-radio-city-tower-viewing-gallery-experience-p7513.

The planned programme of the rescheduled Unexpected Liverpool (June 7th-11th 2021) tour includes a visit to St John’s BeaconFor further details please click here.

Steps to learning

Central Library, Sheffield

Architects and designers between the wars paid less attention to health and safety than we nowadays expect, as I discovered when I missed a step at the entrance to Sheffield’s Central Library and ruptured a tendon.

I’ve examined the architecture of this splendid building from the cold pavement while waiting for an ambulance to arrive.  Descriptions of its style vary – beaux-arts, Art Deco, neo-Georgian:  from the ground it’s clearly eclectic, with fine crisp Classical and Egyptian details in Portland stone.

The Central Library, which includes the separately funded Graves Art Gallery on the top floor, was designed in 1929 by the City Architect, W G Davies, in collaboration with the City Librarian, Joseph Lamb.  It’s obvious that an extension was intended:  the glazed brick east wall would have formed an internal light-well but for the construction of the 1960s Arundel Gate dual carriageway.

The Library was intended as a keynote building in a civic square as part of Sir Patrick Abercrombie’s 1924 development plan for the city centre.  In fact, it was the only part of this scheme to be completed, like Birmingham’s incomplete Civic Centre on Broad Street, where the Hall of Memory (1923-24) and the hurriedly completed Baskerville House (1938-39) have been absorbed into later planning schemes.

There was doubt that Sheffield City Council could scrape together the funds to replace the previous lamentable library building on the same site, until the mail-order pioneer and civic benefactor John George Graves (1866-1945) offered £30,000 to lay out the top floor as an art gallery, to which he donated part of his personal art collection.

The exterior is embellished with carvings by the ubiquitous Sheffield firm Frank Tory & Sons – in this case Frank’s identical twin sons, Alfred (1881-1971) and William (1881-1968).

Within, despite years of neglect, much of the marble flooring, coffered ceilings, wood panelling and door furniture and the magnificent marble staircase rising through the building remain intact, waiting for sympathetic restoration:  https://manchesterhistory.net/architecture/1930/library.html.

The completed building was opened in July 1934 by HRH the Duchess of York, later HM Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.  Her husband, then known as Prince Albert, was ill at the time, and the Duchess took his place.

The Central Library came into its own during the Blitz.  It was relatively unscathed in comparison with buildings in the surrounding streets, and was quickly deployed as a refuge providing information and support for the tens of thousands of Sheffield citizens who were rendered homeless by the bombing. 

After the War Sheffield City Libraries gained a high reputation for innovation and for the breadth of the collections and the generosity of provision.

In recent decades services, staffing and opening times have been repeatedly cut, yet the Library still offers users facilities that are simply unavailable online.

It’s sad to see Mr Davies’ splendid rooms defaced by peeling plaster and faded paintwork, and I for one would approve of a recent scheme to turn the Central Library into a five-star hotel. 

The admirably-timed Library of Birmingham (2013), opened in a more favourable financial climate and so far surviving subsequent cuts, is an example of the physical information resource that a modern city needs.

And when Sheffield removes its library from the 1934 building, I hope they’ll provide safer entrance steps in the new location.

Central Library, Sheffield: entrance