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Tapping into the Mersey Beat

Eric Johnson

Eric Johnson on the land he loves, and why he’ll stay

In 1954 my father first took me on the overhead tram from Southport to Liverpool and via the ‘fish and chip’ boat to New Brighton on the Wirral, complete then with its Tower Ballroom. 

It was 130 years earlier in 1824 that Will­iam Laird began the foundry business which would become naval giant Cammell Laird, its industry dominating the Wirral dockland for years to come. The same year he bought the land for Hamilton Square, commissioning arch­itect Graham Gillespie to design an urban set-piece – second only to Trafalgar Square for the most Grade I listed buildings in one place.

When we opened our office off Hamilton Square in 1988, Cammell Laird was already a shadow of its former self and the homes of the wealthy had succumbed to office conversions. Now 25 years later we have long moved on; multi-­coloured wheelie bins line the square’s pavements. Parking spaces lie empty and the grand Town Hall is a sorely underused asset. 

Although the glory days of shipbuilding are unlikely to return, there is light on the hori­zon with contracts for ferries, wind turbines, an aircraft carrier and ship repairs being won, with recent news of 2000 new jobs.

Birkenhead docks is the site for the proposed Wirral Waters development by Peel Holdings. This promises a success akin to that at Salford Quays. It is expected to provide 20,000 jobs and the first phase, a 230,000m2 international trade centre, is due shortly. Perhaps we can see a return to the grandeur of the past. 

In today’s times of austerity and compromise, perhaps what we need is another crazy man with a bath on the roof

In 1885 William Lever began making soap at Port Sunlight and by 1888 was producing 450 tonnes per week. He created the village of Port Sunlight, with 800 houses for the factory’s 3,500 workers and their families. Each house is unique and central boulevards link the Lady Lever Art Gallery, home to an astoundingly eclectic collection, to the village. Greens, squares and bowling greens radiate from here and I look out over one of these from Paddock Johnson’s office, admiring the vision that created it. We have been able to support the area’s new developments and restoration (above).

William Lever had vision and flair. He even installed a bath on the roof of his home, Thornton Hall, which he used until the day he died.  I can’t help but feel that in these times of austerity, cuts and compromise, where architects’ fees get squeezed ever lower, perhaps what we need is another crazy man with a bath on the roof!  

The Wirral has more to recommend it than I have space to write: Birkenhead Park was precursor to Central Park, we have the best views of the world’s iconic waterfront, and the ferry ‘cross the Mersey. Sing it out loud! Who would want to live, work and play anywhere else?

Eric Johnson is a partner of Port Sunlight-based Paddock Johnson