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Liverpool Philharmonic Hall

The Liverpool Philharmonic Society was founded in 1840 but initially did not have a permanent concert hall. In 1844 the Liverpool architect John Cunningham was appointed to prepare plans for a hall. The initial requirement was for a "concert room" holding an audience of 1,500 which would cost at least £4,000 (£320 thousand as of 2013). However, later that year the requirement was increased to a "new concert hall" to accommodate an audience of 2,100 and an orchestra of 250, plus "refreshment and retiring rooms". Subscribers were invited to both buy shares and to purchase seats along the sides of the hall. The foundation stone was laid in 1846 and plans were made for Mendelssohn to write a cantata to be played in his presence at the opening of the hall. However Mendelssohn did not live long enough to write this work. The hall cost £30,000 (£2.45 million as of 2012) and was opened on 27 August 1849 The Times correspondent reported that it was "one of the finest and best adapted to music that I ever entered". An organ was installed in the hall in 1930 at a cost of £2,000 (£90 thousand as of 2012). The concert hall continued to be the home of the society until a fire broke out during the evening of 5 July 1933. As a result the hall was damaged beyond repair. The hall was insured and the insurers paid £84,000 (£4.42 million as of 2012) for the hall itself, £9,503 (£500 thousand as of 2012) for other assets, and £6,000 (£320 thousand as of 2012) for the loss of two years rental.

Originally published in the Manchester Guardian on 6 July 1933

The Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, one of the finest concert halls in England, was destroyed by fire which broke out early last evening. Only the shell was left standing, and the fire is still burning at 12 30 this morning.

A workman on the roof of the new extension to the Liverpool Radium Institute, across the roadway, saw flames coming from the roof about seven o'clock. About the same time the caretaker of a neighbouring Unitarian Church noticed smoke coming up from the roof, and, realising that the hall would not be heated in summer, he summoned the Fire Brigade.

Almost as soon as the brigade arrived the roof fell in. Sheets of flame were clearly visible from a great distance. Many thousands of people filled the streets, and hundreds came in from the suburbs and from Wirral to watch the fire. The heat was so intense that firemen were busy playing hoses on the lamp standards in the streets in front of the hall. Within a short time 12 engines and over a hundred firemen were on the scene. The Liverpool Salvage Corps, a private body maintained by the insurance companies to protect their interests by saving as many valuables as possible, was there almost as soon as the fire brigade.

The Philharmonic Hall is in the middle of the hospital quarter, and in one of Liverpool's two danger zones. At the city end is the School for the Blind, and opposite is the Radium Institute. At one time the police thought that there was a danger to the hospitals from a threatened fall of the walls, and the patients were warned and dressed, so that they might be ready to leave at a moment's notice. The walls seemed to lean forward and women in the crowd shrieked in terror. Nearby a party of St. John Ambulance Brigade was drilling. They turned out with their stretchers and first-aid equipment within ten minutes of the alarm being given. When the roof collapsed several firemen and salvage men had narrow escapes from death. The only casualties were two slight cases of burning.

It is believed that the value of the building and contents was in the neighbourhood of £100,000. Several treasures in the building were saved by the salvage men, notably a tablet to the memory of the musicians on the Titanic, erected by the Philharmonic Society out of the proceeds of a special concert. The greater part of the extensive collection of music was also salvaged. It is believed, however, that Ted Stansfield's double bass has been burned. Stansfield is the Halle Orchestra double-bass player, and this instrument, which he made himself, has an inscription from Sir Hamilton Harty.

Sheets of flame were clearly visible from a great distance.
The view looking up Hardman Street
Interior of the Philharmonic after the fire in 1933

This building replaced the original Philharmonic Hall,
which burnt down in 1933
Herbert J. Rowse was commissioned to design a new hall on the site of the previous hall. Rowse's design was in Streamline Modern style. It incorporated an organ built by the Liverpool firm of Rushworth and Dreaper with a console which could be lowered from the stage. The hall was officially opened on 19th June 1939 with a concert conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. The final cost of the hall was a little over £120,000 (£5.51 million as of 2012) and the architect was paid £6,869 (£320 thousand as of 2012). An extension was added to the rear of the hall which was completed in 1992, designed by Brock Carmichael Associates. A major refurbishment of the hall was carried out in 1995 at a cost of £10.3 million This included the complete replacement of the fibrous plaster interior with concrete, carried out again by Brock Carmichael, working with the acoustic consultant firm Lawrence Kirkegaard Associates. Local violinist, John Frederick Clarke who was part of the famed RMS Titanic orchestra alongside the other band members who died during the ships 1912 sinking are all commemorated on a memorial plaque within Philharmonic Hall.

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic as it turns 180 today 12th March 2020.


The Original Liverpool Sound: The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Story charts the history of the Phil from its foundation by a group of Liverpool music lovers in 1840 through to the present day, where it remains very much at the heart of Liverpool's cultural life. Written by Darren Henley, Managing Director of Classic FM, and the Phil's former archivist, Vincent McKernan, the book tells the story of the Liverpool Phil and the stories and secrets of the people and events that have been associated with the organisation throughout its illustrious history including the distinguished line of principal conductors including Max Bruch, Sir Charles Halle, Sir Henry Wood, Sir Malcolm Sargent, Sir Charles Groves and Libor Pesek KBE and today, the talismanic Vasily Petrenko; the opening of the first Philharmonic Hall in 1849 (which was completely gutted by fire in 1933) and the building of the existing Hall on the same site and opened in 1939; and the premieres of music by many distinguished composers including Rachmaninov, Tippett, Britten, Walton, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, Sir John Tavener, Karl Jenkins and Michael Nyman. Thoroughly researched using the Phil's complete archive, and featuring seldom seen historical illustrations and specially commissioned full colour photographs, The Original Liverpool Sound will be compulsory reading for aficionados of classical music and anyone interested in the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.

About the author:

Darren Henley is Managing Director of Classic FM and the theJazz. He has written 15 books about music and musicians; the latest is The Classic FM Friendly Guide to Music (Hodder Arnold) Vincent McKernan is the former Royal Liverpool Philharmonic archivist.

By Robert F Edwards

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