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Josephine Butler House: Liverpool’s Saga Of Civic Shame

March 1, 2009

Josephine Butler House in Liverpool’s Hope Street Quarter is named for the famous social reformer, and has the historical distinction of being the site of the first UK Radium Institute.
Latterly an elegant adjunct to Myrtle Street’s The Symphony apartments, Josephine Butler House sits opposite the Philharmonic Hall. Sadly the area is elegant no longer. Josephine Butler House is to be destroyed.

The intended ambiance of this corner of Hope Street has been ruined by a dismal failure and omission on the part of Liverpool City Council, who have permitted Josephine Butler House to be grimly defaced with little prospect of anything better, or even just intact, taking its place.

The Symphony, previously part of the City of Liverpool College of Further Education portfolio (and before that, the Liverpool Eye, Ear & Throat Infirmary), is a newly restored apartment block immediately opposite Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall. It is elegantly refurbished by Downing Developments and adds an attractive dimension to city centre living in Liverpool’s historic Hope Street Quarter.

But just a year ago this weekend (i.e. in the first few days of March 2008) residents of those apartments saw tarpaulin raised around their neighbouring building, the historic Josephine Butler House, home to the UK’s first Radium Institute (which is celebrated in the Liverpool ‘Suitcases’ Hope Street / Mount Street sculptures) and named after the social pioneer whom Millicent Fawcett described as “the most distinguished woman of the Nineteenth Century”.

Josephine Butler (1828 -1906) was an extraordinarily accomplished British social reformer, who had a major role in improving conditions for women in education and public health. She moved to Liverpool in 1866, when her husband, the academic George Butler, became headmaster of Liverpool College. Much of her work derived its inspiration from the death of their young daughter, and she has a national library, a collection at Liverpool University, an educational institution and a charitable trust named for her. Her life and work is also celebrated locally in the Suitcases (‘A Case Study’) public art installation a block up the road on the Hope Street / Mount Street junction in Liverpool.

So what followed after the Josephine Butler House was swathed in tarpaulin was almost beyond belief – with just days to go before a formal enquiry, Maghull Developments, who had recently acquired Josephine Butler House in partnership with the previous owners, Liverpool John Moores University, took hammers to its entire street-facing facade.

The Liverpool Daily Post reported Maghull Developments in March 2008 as saying, nonetheless, that the work under wraps on the frontage was “specialist restoration work to the stone facade” – a claim which is difficult to reconcile with the still intact stonework of the Stowell Street side of the building, unblemished to this day:

But if the City Council had amended their omission, as many times requested, to include this corner of Hope Street in the Conservation Area, they could have protected the entire historic location at a stroke.
The plans for the Josephine Butler House site had been in considerable contention even before these extraordinary events. There were public meetings and demands that proposals be returned to the drawing board because they were adjudged inappropriate for Hope Street Quarter – Liverpool’s cultural quarter, the home of the city’s two cathedrals, its two largest universities, its internationally recognised orchestra and several theatres, and a critically important gateway into the city centre.

A comment, at the time of the ‘specialist restoration’, from Liverpool City Council’s elected environment portfolio holder, says it all:
Why would they restore the stone facade when they are planning to knock the building down? Don’t treat us like we are dim.
The building is an intrinsic part of what makes Hope Street so special, but there’s very little the council can do short of me sleeping under the scaffolding.

So much for the ‘legacy’ of Liverpool’s status as 2008 European Capital of Culture.
What worries some of us is not even just that the Josephine Butler scaffolding has now long disappeared and the damage surely done.
It’s that, in brutal fact, the prospect of any action on the Josephine Butler site – beyond perhaps demolition to become a car park? – looks itself from where we sit to be exceedingly dim; and that the whole City Council seems still to be asleep on the job.

[PS This sad saga was taken up by Ed Vulliamy in The Observer of 20 March 2009, in an article entitled How dare they do this to my Liverpool.. There is also a prolonged debate about Josephine Butler House on the website SkyscraperCity.
An updated version of this article (here) was published on the Liverpool Confidential website, on 22 April 2009.]

  1. March 1, 2009 18:38

    Yes, there is a planning application in now to replace the building with an extension to the car park. Only for 3 years though until Maghull are ready to rebuild (or give up on their project maybe).
    Regardless of the long term that building needs demolishing or at least made safe NOW!
    You can see how open the front is, one good gust of wind and there could be a load of slates landing on someone’s head.

  2. O.Sykes permalink
    March 2, 2009 13:50

    Ian Jackson raises some valid points. However, one cannot consider this situation without reflecting on how the building came to be in such a parlous state in the first place.
    The building was perfectly sound and no risk to public safety until the ‘work’ by Maghull commenced on it. Surely any Health and Safety concerns that arise from the current situation ought to be rectified at the expense of those who created the problem in the first place?
    Allowing demolition, ostensibly to solve a perceived safety risk, is rewarding those who have committed the causal acts of degradation and neglect, with what they (it now seems apparent) wanted all along.

  3. March 4, 2009 16:03

    Please see:
    (or click nemesisrepublic blog URL)

  4. March 5, 2009 00:13

    This saga illustrates a wider national disgrace, the failure of national government to have any legal protection in place for buildings under consideration for listing. That the developer had so little respect for heritage he hacked off the handsome stone frontage in case the DCMS listed the building is not an isolated case, but speaks volumes about developers and greed.
    Under what legislation anyone can force the repair of the stone front would be an interesting one to know, possibly the MP can enlighten us all?
    This building should have been in a conservation area and the fact it was not given that minimal amount of protection also speaks volumes about the shame of Liverpool, a city ruined by rapacious developers and councillors with no idea at all what is appropriate for such a historic city. Edge Lane anyone? Why is that being demolished for some spurious ‘road widening’ which is not needed?
    The hideous Museum made from egg cartons and that black granite odd shaped lump being built next to the Albert Dock, (see pictures on blocking views of nationally important buildings, are the latest in a line of crass developments. Shame on the council, shame on its planners, shame on English Heritage, which seems not only toothless in the region but positively inept.
    Go see the SAVE Britain’s Heritage exhibition at the milkandsugar gallery, before it’s too late, and weep.

  5. Lisa Holland permalink
    March 11, 2009 20:18

    How horrifc that the memory of such a pivotal figure in the history of British Social Reform should be abused in such a way.

  6. Chris permalink
    March 23, 2009 20:29

    JMU are a disgrace their senior management should be ashamed of themselves for selling these historic building to the likes of Maghull. They didn’t care what happened to the buildings once they sold them. The art school is lucky to have avoided a similar fate. I wish the council would do somthing to protect this city’s heritage from carpet baggers like Maghull, Frenson et al, instead of scratching their heads after the event!
    Having said that I think the council own half the derelict buildings in Liverpool.

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