Liverpool’s Ancient Chapel Of Toxteth, Dingle Gaumont Cinema, The Turner Nursing Home & Dingle Overhead Railway Station
One of Liverpool’s most significant and fascinating historic areas is barely known even by the city’s own residents; so Monday Women arranged a visit. The area lies in the heart of Toxteth – Dingle, comprising four adjacent sites: the early seventeenth century Ancient Chapel of Toxteth (the original place of worship of astronomer Jeremiah Horrox or Horrocks), the Turner Nursing Home built by Alfred Waterhouse in 1882-5, Dingle Overhead Railway Station, constructed deep underground and opened in 1896, and the Dingle Gaumont Cinema, erected on the site of the old Picturedrome in 1937.
The general perception is that Liverpool has few really serious historic sites. Interesting architecture, Yes, in abundance; ‘old’ buildings, No. On Saturday 16 November 2006 several dozen members, families and friends of Monday Women and CAMPAM set out on a beautifully sunny afternoon to discover why this perception is not always accurate.
The Ancient Chapel of Toxteth
We congregated first in the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth, opened especially for us by its warden, Annette Butler. She and local historian Christina Clarke (to both of whom we owe enormous thanks) had a remarkable tale to tell about the history of this simple and appealing building, constructed variously at times between 1604 and 1618. The Chapel is now owned, and used, by the Unitarians, but was built and developed by Puritan dissenters from the Church of England.
The site of the Chapel is that of the thirteenth century royal hunting Park in Toxteth, sold late in the sixteenth century to the Earl of Derby. He in turn sold it to Puritan families from around the Lancashire towns of Bolton and Ormskirk who were seeking more freedom of conscience in their religious practices, using a place which had been Crown property and was thus not subject to parish law or to enforcement of regular attendance at the parish church. [See: The History of the Royal and Ancient Park of Toxteth, Lost Villages of Liverpool: Pt. 1, The Diaries of Edward Henry Stanley, 15th Earl of Derby 1826-93 and map Toxteth (Old O.)]
Even with sunshine outside, the inside of the Chapel feels dark and close (perhaps in part because the winters of the seventeenth century were bitter), the pews being closely placed, but with an appealing and open gallery area above them, and an impressively large pulpit at the centre of the south wall. Over the centuries the building itself has been considerably extended, not least to adapt the previous schoolhouse (built in 1611) into the access point for the organ loft.
In contrast to the closeness of Toxteth Chapel itself, our visit to the graveyard found it calm and airy, with dappled light through the mature trees, as we examined the columned arcade and headstones of such local luminaries as Richard Vaughan Yates , who devised Princes Park, and the cartographer Richard Horwood [A to Z of Regency London]. Many other well-known local family names, including the Mellors, are also to be found there.
Jeremiah Horrox or Horrocks (1618 or 1619 – 1641)
Amongst other fascinating plaques inside the Chapel is one commemorating the brief life and momentous work of Jeremiah Horrox (as spelt on this plaque; or Horrocks as often spelt in the reference books). Horrocks was the youthful astronomer who first observed the transit of the planet Venus, on Sunday 4 December – 24 November by reference to the Julian Calendar then in use – 1639. (There is an anecdote, possibly apocryphal, that he calculated this rare occurrence and had to pre-empt much of the Curate’s duties he may have performed in Hoole, Lancashire, that day, in order to observe the transit via a telescope he constructed himself, reflecting the sun’s image onto a piece of card.) [Jeremiah Horrocks,Astonomer (1618? – 1641) and His Times: No.6 (Chorley Civic Society Occasional Papers)]
Dingle’s Gaumont Cinema
Toxteth Chapel is on the north-western corner of Park Road (running parallel to the River Mersey) and Dingle Lane (which goes from Princes Park directly towards the river). On the south-western side of this junction is a cinema now unused for its original purpose, the Gaumont, designed by W. E. Trent FRIBA, FSI (Chief Architect of Gaumont-British) specifically to accommodate the large fan-shaped curve of the roads at this corner, and opened on 29 March 1937.
The Gaumont Cinema, an art deco building erected on the site of the old Dingle Picturedrome (photo in Edwardian A-Z and Directory of Liverpool and Bootle: South Liverpool Part 3; demolished 1931), must have been very impressive in its hey day – there are many features reminiscent of the famous Liverpool Philharmonic Hall on Hope Street. It has (or had?) an orchestra pit and Wurlitzer organ console (again, the Phil has a fine organ, almost unique in rising from the stage). The cinema seated 1,500 people, 615 of them in the balcony.
It is said that the projection room was the first in Britain to have the Gaumont ‘projectomatic’ system which automatically changed the reels during projection of films, as well as controlling the houselights and stage curtains. There was also a Western Electric Mirrorphonic sound system.
Sadly, the Gaumont lost its originally intended function in September 1966, to become a Top Rank Bingo Club which opened in January 1967. We were not therefore able to go into the building to see more as we passed on to the south-eastern corner of this ‘site visit’ and the next venue of our Monday Women trip in November.
The Turner Nursing (or Memorial) Home
The story behind the Turner Nursing Home is very sad, but the outcome is a testament to the positive thinking of Mrs Charles Turner, wife of the Liverpool Member of Parliament who was also first Chairman of the Liverpool Docks and Harbour Board – the tale of which Board we shall continue at the next and final stop of our Dingle-Toxteth ‘tour’. The entire Turner Memorial Home project commemorates Anne Turner’s husband Charles Turner MP (13 June 1803 – 15 October 1875) and their son Charles William (16 October 1845 – 13 September 1880), who died tragically.
In memory of her husband and son Mrs Turner commissioned the architect Alfred Whitehouse to build a strikingly asymmetric and strangely attractive ‘home’ for retired and ‘distressed’ gentlemen – a function which it still has. In the entrance lobby there is a lovely marble statue of the two male Turners, father and son, created for the opening of the Home in 1885 by the London-based sculptor Sir William Hamo Thorneycroft R.A. (1850 – 1925). This sculpture seemed to fascinate our younger companions on this visit, perhaps because it is actually so sympathetic and life-like.
The red ashlar, turreted Home has a chapel, almost church-sized, with an arcade of octagonal columns and stained glass windows (by Heaton, Butler and Bayne); and beyond the spacious communal living areas we saw wide lawns sweeping down towards the River Mersey. This is a gracious reminder of times gone by, still of great value to the community, which shows us just how elegant Dingle and Toxteth must have been a century or more ago.
Dingle Overhead Railway Station
Finally on this special afternoon, as the light drew in, we retraced our steps to Kedlestone Street, the road opposite the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth, and to what appeared to be a short side-alley leading to a mechanics’ garage. Few of us had any idea what would come next…. As we approached, the owner, Nigel, opened the doors and we were led down an alarmingly steep slope to another world – the world of the legendary Liverpool Overhead Railway designed by leading engineers of the time, Sir Douglas Fox and James Henry Greathead…. a return to the time of the ‘Dockers’ Umbrella’ and Liverpool’s great era of engineering and transport.
This was the site of Dingle Station, the final stop of the Overhead Railway route from Southport, Seaforth, Litherland and Aintree, via the city centre and the frantically busy docks, to the south end of the city. Interestingly, especially in the light of current-day debates elsewhere in Liverpool, the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board had on a number of occasions from 1852 onwards had travel route proposals rejected or returned for modification in the light of the increasing demands for public transport to and from the city centre.
Eventually however, in 1888, a group of prominent businessmen formed the Liverpool Overheard Railway Company and obtained the powers of the Dock Board by an Act of Transfer. Work on the elevated railway therefore began in October 1889. [See: Seventeen Stations to Dingle: Liverpool Overhead Railway Remembered; Liverpool Overhead Railway.]
Dingle Station opened for passengers on 21 December 1896 and closed to the public fifty years ago, on 30 December 1956. The station platform (a full 170 feet by 28 feet) has now been demolished, but the tunnel and entrance subway remain in use as a car repair business, Roscoe Engineering. There is also an astonishing extension to the station – a kilometer long passage from this point to an opening on the Herculaneum Dock ‘down by the river’, and thence to the docks via the factory site of the Herculaneum Pottery which, though the company closed in1840, must have triggered a lot of local industry.
Some of us, hugely curious, then made our wary unlit way down to the Herculaneum tunnel entrance and back, and others, less nimble, used the time to learn more from our host Nigel about the remaining features of the station (the red buffer hidden behind mechanics’ equipment; the sturdy hooks and notices…). And finally we returned to Park Road as the day ended, much enlighted by our visit and debating energetically how future generations would see the places we had visited – places which (as evidenced by the enormously ambitious commissions in Toxteth – Dingle a century or so ago, engaging the most prestigious architects, designers and engineers the nation had to offer) had in times past witnessed great wealth and opportunity and then, nearer to the present day, distressing poverty and huge challenges.
‘Which way now?’ was the question on everyone’s lips as we hit the road for home.
See also: History of Liverpool
Sudley House: Victorian Home Of A Mayor Of Liverpool
Read the discussion of this article which follows the book ‘E-store’…..