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The History of Liverpool, Museum

Liverpool’s Museum is the oldest of the museums and galleries operated by National Museums, Liverpool, and is one of the great museums of the British regions. Its story reflects Liverpool’s rise to become one of the world’s great trading cities and an awesome dip in its fortunes during the twentieth century. The museum was born in halcyon days of confidence when the British Empire straddled the globe and Liverpool was a centre of worldwide trade. It suffered massive destruction in the Second World War. After the war, years of increasing desperation were followed by uncertain and painful recovery and nationalisation.

13th Earl of Derby
Thomas John Moore was born in London in 1824 and inherited his father’s interest in natural history. His father introduced him to the Zoological Society of London and the teenage Thomas Moore was employed in their zoo on his father’s recommendation. Opening in 1828, it was the first public zoo in the world, and it carries on today as London Zoo in Regent’s Park. There Moore came to the attention of the 13th Earl of Derby. The Earl of Derby was an enthusiastic natural historian, and was president of the Zoological Society. When he inherited his title on his father’s death in October 1834, he set out on grand plans to create a menagerie and zoological collection at Knowsley Hall, the family seat some eight miles to the east of Liverpool. In 1843, when Moore was still a teenager, Lord Derby invited him to work in the menagerie on his estate at Knowsley. Liverpool Zoological Gardens was open to the public for profit. A guidebook of the time listed some of its attractions:- two beautiful macaws ... a Peruvian Llama ... a playful West Indian goat  ... three fine pelicans ... two American black bears ... two beautiful zebras ...an American tapir ... the gnu, a lively but vicious animal ... two bears ... four

fine eagles ... a large condor ... a couple of porcupines ... a choice collection of the feathered tribe … and three elephants.

14th Earl of Derby
When the 13th Earl of Derby died at the end of June 1851, his son, the 14th Earl, set about clearing his late father’s collection of birds and animals from the family home and the live exotic animals from the park. After the Earl had cleared of his father’s menagerie from the grounds of Knowsley Hall, his father’s collection of some 20,000 natural history specimens still remained in the hall. The settlement of his father’s estate came, and he was anxious to transfer the collections, and, if possible, Thomas Moore, to the council as fast as decently possible. In Liverpool a small band of town councillors led by James Allanson Picton, worked hard to oblige the Earl. The energetic Picton was an architect, historian, and member of Liverpool town council for the Lime Street Ward. In April 1850 Picton had proposed to the town council that a committee was set up to prepare for a new library and museum. The town council set up a Library and Museum Committee with Picton as the chairman. The committee suggested amalgamating the new museum with an existing Royal Institution Museum and Art Gallery on Colquitt Street near the middle of the town.

The Earl made it known that his favoured candidate to become curator was Thomas Moore, who would shortly be one of those ‘seeking further situations’. His powerful recommendation was supported by a batch of testimonials from the British Museum and the Zoological Society. The council responded eventually to the Earl’s desires, and sometime early in 1852 both Thomas Moore and the natural history collections of the 13th Earl of Derby were transferred to the care of the town council of Liverpool. Moore became first curator of the new museum, and, like the town’s new librarian, was paid £150 a year. The 13th Earl’s magnificent natural history collections moved from Knowsley Hall to a hastily constructed brick building behind the new library, on the corner of Slater Street and Parr Street.

The original Museum building on the corner of Slater Street and Parr Street.

Even before it opened the Derby Museum started to receive donations. Though the founding collection was of natural history, model ships and the products of human cultures from around the world started to trickle in. The donation of artefacts into the museum included a collection of nearly 500 ‘weapons, donated by the wife of Captain Savage and in 1856 Joseph Mayer, the owner and proprietor of the Egyptian Museum, offered his collection to the town council. Mayer had evidently heard about the plans that the town council was beginning to hatch for a new larger museum. Even as the Derby Museum was opened, Picton and his fellow campaigners knew that it was too small. Plans began for a larger museum almost as soon as the Derby Museum opened in its hastily-built home on Slater Street. At a council meeting on 21 September 1853, Liverpool’s Mayor, Samuel Holme, announced that William Brown had come forward with an offer of £6,000 to build a library and museum if the council would provide the site for it.

Shaws Brow

The council rapidly found a site for it in the north of the town on Shaw’s Brow. It was a steep difficult road fringed by dilapidated houses and dingy shops, with ‘low’ public houses on every corner. Here the council chose to develop an ambitious group of civic buildings to reflect the growing power and confidence of the town. Near the top of Shaw’s Brow was Lime Street Station where the railway arrived in Liverpool, and opposite the station, the council was building a concert hall, court house and assembly hall all in one – the magnificent St George’s Hall. It took over a decade for St George’s Hall to be built and it opened in September 1854

William Brown laying the foundation stone 
for the new Museum and Library
On 5 April 1857, William Brown laid the foundation stone of the new museum and library. The sloping site necessitated extensive foundations and a huge terrace from the higher part of the street to the entrance of the new museum and library building. (The terrace survived until the early 1900s when it was replaced by the massive set of steps that now lead to the building’s classical portico.) The council had to cover  escalating costs of the site and demolitions, and, as costs of the building itself increased, William Brown guaranteed to pay for the work. By October 1859 the old houses around the site had nearly all been cleared away and the roof was on the new library and museum. The building emerged as a new landmark and was forming a group with Lime Street Station and St George’s Hall. Together they expressed Liverpool’s civic pride and power..

The new Museum and Library Building which was later extended.

Thursday 18 October 1860, the eighth anniversary of the opening of the library in the old building on Duke Street, was declared a public holiday on which William Brown was to present the new Free Public Library and Museum to the Mayor of Liverpool. All shops, banks and markets were closed. Flags were out on buildings and on shipping in the docks. A procession marched round the town from the Town Hall to the new library and museum, and the ceremony of handing over the building took place on a platform in front of the new building. A granite plaque commemorating the event was placed above the building’s entrance.

“This building, containing the Free Public Library, Museum and Gallery of
Arts, including the Museum of Natural History presented by the Earl of
Derby, was erected, on a site provided by the Corporation, at the sole cost
of William Brown of Liverpool, Merchant, and by him presented to his

fellow townsmen, October 18, 1860”.

Properties remaining on Shaws Brow with the 1860 Museum standing on the right

On the night after the formal opening, Friday 19 October, the Mayor held a grand soirĂ©e in the Town Hall for about 1,200 guests and William Brown was the guest of honour.

The museum extension completed the run of civic buildings on the south side of William Brown Street.

An extension to the museum was opened in 1906. It had two great ‘Horseshoe’ galleries, and beneath it were three floors of Liverpool’s Central Technical School.

James Allanson Picton and William Brown.

Library and Museum 2016



Liverpool Museums
Liverpool Central Library
Liverpool Records Office

The National Archives

By Robert F Edwards

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