House of Train (Liverpool Road station, Manchester, UK)

Although this week’s example of transport beauty doesn’t necessarily scream its purpose at first glance, it is in fact one of the most important pieces of transport infrastructure anywhere in the world. It’s been Grade I listed since 1963 by statutory heritage body Historic England. Given its modest scale and architectural detailing, that gives you some idea of its esteemed place in transport history.

© Copyright Christopher Hilton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Liverpool Road Station, Manchester. The exterior of the First Class booking hall. © Copyright Christopher Hilton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Railway historians will know it straight away. If you’re not so steeped in railway history, then you’ll want to know that this is Liverpool Road station in Manchester, one of the two termini of the first true intercity passenger railway anywhere in the world, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Liverpool Road station is unique; the first intercity railway terminus in the world, and therefore also the oldest intercity terminus in the world. It’s not the first railway station building – there are other structures that vie for that claim, but Liverpool Road was one end of the railway that definitively showed the world the real potential of this new form of transport.

If it doesn’t conform entirely to expectations about the general look and feel of an intercity railway terminus, or even a railway station at all, that’s because no-one knew what railway stations should look like when Liverpool Road opened in 1830. Although architectural tastes have changed over time, and railway stations have since been built in many different styles, most of them are instantly recognisable as what they are, in an often almost indefinable manner. They have developed an architectural language of their own that marks them out as what they are. Amongst the common features that let you spot a railway station are a long, low building with a larger mass towards the middle where the main ticket hall and/or concourse can be found. Large doors are common, as are arches to allow vehicles into the station. Clock towers, or at least clocks, also make frequent appearances; a manifestation of one of the railway’s greatest gifts, standardised ‘railway time’.

Because it was built before railway architecture developed, Liverpool Road has precisely none of these. At the far western end is a red-brick three-storey Georgian house (built 1808; George III then). This was pre-existing and purchased by the Liverpool and Manchester as accommodation for the ‘station agent’, a job which would eventually metamorphose into the more familiar ‘station master’. Alongside it, immediately to the west, additional buildings for use by passengers were built. There is some disagreement over the identity of the architect. Historic England’s listing citation mentions only the Liverpool and Manchester’s chief engineer George Stephenson as station designer, but others (Lloyd and Insall, 1978: p2) suggest Liverpool architect John Foster the younger.

With typical Georgian proportions, these are elegant structures. Actually, I suppose they’re Georgian by design rather than date. King George IV died in June 1830, and the Liverpool and Manchester opened in the September, during the reign of William IV.

Finished in sandstone ashlar and stucco, they illustrate ingrained social class differences. The first few bays belong to the booking hall for First Class passengers, and present a grand appearance, with panelled pilasters and a rusticated finish on the ground floor. Although there is no railway clock, as railway time had not yet been conceived of, there is an external timepiece in the shape of that charming if woefully inaccurate device, the sundial. This is placed at first floor level above the entrance door, and is therefore of no use whatsoever to passengers. In fact, unless you are standing in the window immediately behind it, it’s hard to imagine getting a decent view of it at all. It appears to be more ornamental than practical; like the panelled pilasters its primary purpose is to emphasis the high status of this part of the building.

Liverpool Manchester Road station. Most of the building seen here is the First Class booking hall. At the far right is the Second Class booking hall. By Pit-yacker (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Liverpool Manchester Road station. Most of the building seen here is the First Class booking hall. At the far right is the Second Class booking hall. By Pit-yacker (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

A couple of doors down is the booking hall for Second Class passengers. The building subtly but definitively puts these lesser mortals in their place. Unlike the symmetrical design of the exterior of the First Class booking hall, the exterior of the Second Class booking hall is asymmetric (oh, the shame). The pilasters either side of the entrance door are plain, not panelled. This is budget train travel, and the building reminds you of it.

With sash windows and panelled doors complete with rectangular overlights, there’s a charming domesticity in the design of Liverpool Road station. The exterior could pass for a row of (quite grand) houses, helped by the fact that the station agent’s house actually was a house in the first place, but also because the booking hall exteriors were designed to look like houses. The railways were a new and terrifying technology in the 1830s, and using them was akin to signing up for a ride on a tourist space flight today, not something to be undertaken without seeking considerable reassurance. Domestic architecture was part of that reassurance process, and passengers were intended to feel that, “the railway was safe and reassuring – just like home – and not dangerous or frightening.” (Parissien, 2014, p4) The days of massive Gothic Revival station hotels and fearsome trainshed roofs were years away; formal and comforting (if not exactly comfortable) Neoclassical would be the order of the day for a few years to come.

The interior of the station was also of a very domestic scale and sensibility, as you can see:

Booking hall interior of Liverpool Road station. By Vera de Kok (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Booking hall interior of Liverpool Road station. By Vera de Kok (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The First and Second Class booking halls were completely separated internally, each with its own staircase upstairs to platform level. The Liverpool and Manchester reached Liverpool Road station on a viaduct over the River Irwell, so its tracks are at first-floor level behind the station building. A typical railway station platform (except it’s not really a platform because it’s at ground level) with a canopy can be found there. Terminal design was so much in its infancy though that the placing of the canopy’s supporting pillars meant it was impossible to fully open some of the doors on train carriages (says Wikipedia, here, as usual without a citation so, you know, it might or might not be true).

In case you’re wondering, the remainder of the eastern part of the building is formed of a range of shops added later. They finish at a rather lovely curved corner which wouldn’t disgrace a good inter-war Modernist building.

By now you’ll be asking the obvious question, which is, what about the terminus at the other end of the line? The Liverpool terminus was at a station called Crown Street, which had a considerably more impressive building than Liverpool Road’s, in a Neoclassical style by John Foster (the same one as possibly the architect of Liverpool Road). It lasted just six years before being replaced by Lime Street station, which was much more convenient for Liverpool city centre. It’s the same Lime Street station which is still in use; my station, as I tend to think of it – my father, sister and I used to eat lunch on the steps of St George’s Hall and look across at it when I was very young. It was the very first big railway station I ever saw and used, and it left an indelible impression. There is an awful lot of history on that railway line, and you can feel it, too.

Crown Street survived until 1972 as a goods station but lost its station building sometime soon after closure to passengers in 1836. Virtually all evidence of the site has now been swept away and the area landscaped as a park, leaving Manchester to capitalise on the survival of Liverpool Road (bah!). Even that was a close run thing. The station closed to passengers in 1844 and like Crown Street became a goods depot (eventually closing in 1975), but it retained its original buildings. Not, however, that their historic importance was exactly cherished. Here’s a picture of Liverpool Road station in 1980, with the station agent’s house crudely converted into a shop which by that time had itself become derelict, while the rest of the station buildings had fallen into a state of considerable disrepair:

Liverpool Road station in 1980 © Copyright Peter Whatley and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Liverpool Road station in 1980 © Copyright Peter Whatley and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Fortunately, the building was saved through its incorporation into Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry, and has been lovingly restored. Until recently it even retained a direct connection to the national railway network. This was, however, recently severed by the construction of the Ordsall Chord. This is a Network Rail scheme designed to provide a new connection between Manchester’s two largest stations, Piccadilly and Victoria, and address some serious capacity problems which have plagued Manchester’s rail network for years. There is not a little degree of irony in the construction of a new piece of railway line cutting off Liverpool Road station from the railway network it helped to give life to, and the Museum of Science and Industry initially objected to the scheme until it received adequate compensation from Network Rail. The severing of Liverpool Road’s rail connection caused absolute outrage elsewhere (see a news report here). But I’m not absolutely sure that George Stephenson would be too upset. He was an engineer through and through, not a sentimentalist, and the Ordsall Chord is a fine railway engineering solution to a real problem. I sort of suspect if he’d had the brief that Network Rail was working to, he might have come up with exactly the same solution.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Lloyd, David and Insall, Donald (1978): Railway Station Architecture. Newton Abbot: David & Charles

Parissien, Steven (2014): The English Railway Station. Swindon: English Heritage

Historic England’s listing record for Liverpool Road station, here

Disused Stations’ page on Liverpool Crown Street station, here

Network Rail’s Ordsall Chord project page, here

…and anything else linked to in the text above.

How to find Liverpool Road station

Click here for The Beauty of Transport‘s map

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