The Royal Liver Building is the most famous building in Liverpool and it is admired and loved by both local people and visitors. It’s located on the Pier Head, overlooking the River Mersey. Its two clock towers, and the two iconic Liver birds standing on top of them, can be seen from all over the city. It was constructed between 1908 and 1911 and is one of the so-called Three Graces. The other two are the Cunard Building, built 1914-1917, and the Port of Liverpool building, 1904-1907.
The Liver Building is one of the most familiar sights in Liverpool and you’ll find plenty of information about it in tourist guides and on websites. But certain facts about the Liver Building are shrouded in mystery, and there are some questions to which I’ve not found any clear answers. I will list them at the end.
This is new and much longer version of an article I wrote in 2015, with new photos, two videos and a review of the Royal Liver 360 clocktower tour. We will get to that later on, but first let’s begin by looking at those hidden facts about the Liver Building, at least, hidden to most people.
1. The Liver Building is made out of reinforced concrete with a granite façade.
You’ll read that the Liver Building is made out of reinforced concrete. Its use of reinforced concrete for the structure of the building was ground-breaking at the time it was built. But it’s also important to know that the exterior is clad – or covered – in granite. The granite has a pale shade of brown, unlike the white Portland stone used on the Cunard and Port of Liverpool buildings. I’ve heard people say this colour is not very attractive but I don’t find that. It’s part of its unique character.
2. The Liver Building is built on one third of a filled-in dock.
I used to wonder, why is it that on Liverpool’s Pier Head, there are three magnificent buildings, rectangular in floor plan, standing side by side? And then I discovered that all three were constructed on what used to be St George’s Dock. It was drained and the site was prepared for new buildings.
Water Street and Brunswick Street were extended across the former dock, dividing it into three. Three buildings then appeared where ships used to moor. And here’s another hidden fact: if you turned the clock back a few centuries, and looked from St Nicholas church, the Three Graces would be out in the river. The entire Pier Head and dock system is built on reclaimed land.
3. The inner courtyard walls have been covered with a modern glass façade.
In 2011, I visited the Liver Building to take photographs for the book ‘Liverpool Then and Now’, and I was shocked to discover that the interior facade has been covered in a glass skin similar to a 1960s office block . I didn’t take a photograph of it, as I didn’t want to spoil the image I had in my mind. Since its completion in 1911 the Liver Building, like most commercial buildings, has been altered and renovated, but I’m not sure when the glass wall was added. That’s another one of my questions at the end.
4. The riverside clock tower has three faces, the landside tower has only one.
I’ve been looking at the Liver Building for many years but had never quite fully noticed that the four clock faces are split between the two clock towers. On the west tower, there are three clock faces looking north, west and south, respectively.
On the east tower, there is only one clock face, looking east over the city centre. And here’s another hidden fact: all four clocks are controlled by the same mechanism. I don’t quite understand how that works, so that’s another question, which I’ve added to the list at the end.
5. The clock faces are bigger than those on the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster in London.
The clock faces of the Liver Building are bigger then the ones on the clock tower of the Houses of Parliament, completed in 1859. These are 23 feet or seven metres wide but the Liver Building clock faces are 25 feet wide or 7.6 m.
One information source stated that the the clock on Shell Mex House, further down the Thames is bigger. But it’s not a proper clock face, just a section of the façade onto which clock hands and hour markers have been fixed. The Liver Building clock faces are proper clock faces made of metal and opaque glass, and they are recognised as the biggest in the UK.
6. It looks similar to some early skyscrapers in the United States.
The Liver Building is said to closely resemble the Allegheny Court House in Pittsburgh, built in 1884 and Adler & Sullivan’s Schiller Theatre in Chicago, built in 1891 and demolished in 1961.
I think it looks very similar to the Wrigley Building in Chicago, but that building dates from 1924. Could the Liver Building have influenced architecture on the other side of the Atlantic, just as Birkenhead Park influenced Central Park in New York?
7. The clock faces are the largest electronically driven clocks in the UK.
The Liver Building clocks are the biggest electronically driven clocks in the UK and this is a reminder that the building brings together both traditional and modern elements. The ornamented clock tower conforms to classic architectural principles you’ll see in world architecture, including Islamic architecture, but the mechanism of the clock is pure 20th century.
8. There are no bells inside the towers of the Liver Building.
There are bell towers on town halls and cathedrals including Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, and you can often hear them ringing. But inside the clock towers of the Liver Building there are no bells. It made no sound at all until 1953, when a chiming mechanism was installed in memory of Royal Liver staff killed during two world wars.
The chimes were made using piano wires hit by hammers and the sound was amplified using a microphone, amplifier and speaker. This device gradually deteriorated and was out of operation for around four years. But in 2016, the chimes returned, thanks to the Cumbrian Clock Company, who are responsible for the maintenance of the clocks. They recorded the old chimes and saved the audio onto a hard drive. This sound is played throughout the day and the evening through a large speaker located under the cupola of the west tower.
It doesn’t sound quite like a real bell, but it’s better than no bell at all. I was intrigued to discover that when the building was under construction, there had been plans to put real bells in the tower and some space was set aside to accommodate them. But in the end, no bells were installed for fear that they would be too heavy for the new style of construction using reinforced concrete.
9. The Liver Birds were designed by a German.
This fact was remained hidden from many many years. It was only in recent years that the identity of the person who created the metal cormorant-like birds was revealed. He was Carl Bernard Bartels, a German emigré artist born in Stuttgart . He came to live in England in 1887 after falling in love with the country. A competition was held to design and build the two birds that would be placed on the roof of the Liver Building, and he won.
A few years after the Liver Building was completed, the First World War began and there was a strong anti-German feeling. Carl Bernard Bartels was interned on the Isle of Man as an enemy alien and deported in 1918. He returned to England in the mid-twenties and spent the rest of his life there. Carl Bernard Bartels created Liverpool’s most famous pair of icons, but this fact was kept hidden until the late 20th century, because he was German. Inside the Liver Building there is now a plaque in his honour.
So, those are what I believe to be the surprising facts – at least, they surprised me when I first found out about them. Let’s continue with more generally known facts.
10. The Liver Building was designed by local architect Walter Aubrey Thomas
The Royal Liver Building was designed by Walter Aubrey Thomas, a Liverpool-based architect who was born in New Brighton, Cheshire in 1864. He designed many buildings in Liverpool city centre. I was interested to discover he designed a listed building on Lord Street which has distinctive stripes and an arch.
I took a picture of the Liver Building from the corner of Water Street, zooming in on the clock tower. There’s another building to the right, a white building. That other building is the Tower Building, which pre-dates the Liver Building by several years. You can see it on old photos. It’s quite similar, with arches and those ‘curled’ motifs. In fact, the Tower Building was also designed by Walter Aubrey Thomas, something that is rarely mentioned, even though it stands directly opposite the Liver Building and could be seen as its precursor.
11. The Liver Building is a listed building, part of the UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Liver Building is a Grade 1 listed building (not Grade 1*, as one person mentioned. There is only Grade II*). A Grade 1 listed building is recognised as being of outstanding architectural merit and of national significance. That’s certainly true of the Liver Building.
It is also recognised as an important part of the UNESCO World Heritage site, the Liverpool Maritime Mercantile City. That puts the area on a par with the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids and Angkor Wat. But on the UNESCO list, it’s marked in red, because its quality and uniqueness are under threat due to proposed construction projects nearby.
12. The clock faces have no numerals.
This may seem of little importance at first sight, but if we look at other historic clock towers, maybe ones that are slightly older, we find that most have numerals, either Arabic or Roman style, like the town halls of Birkenhead, Bradford, Rochdale and the Tower of Westminster (‘Big Ben’). With its plain clock faces, the Liver Building clocks look towards a more modern style.
13. The Liver Building clocks are called the George Clocks.
They’re called the George clocks because they were set in motion at 1.40pm on Thursday, 22 June, 1911, when George Frederick Ernest Albert Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the Prince of Wales, officially became King George V. The clocks were made by Gent & Co of Leicester.
14. One of the clock faces was once used as a dinner table.
There is a photograph of one of the clock faces, which was turned into a huge banqueting table during the construction of the Liver Building. Sitting at the table are senior people from the Liver Assurance Group and Liverpool Corporation. The clock faces were later hauled up to the top of the building.
15. For many years it was the tallest building in Britain.
The Liver Building is said to be the UK’s first skyscraper, though at just 13 storeys, it doesn’t seem like much of a skyscraper. Already buildings in the United States were reaching much greater heights. But it remained the tallest building in Britain for many years. It’s 322 feet or 98.2 m to the top of the spires. It remains one of the tallest buildings in north west England.
16. Each of the two Liver Birds holds something in its beak, but what is it?
The birds on the Liver Building have a wing span of 24 feet or 7.3 metres and are 18 feet 5.5 metres high. If you look closely or zoom in with a camera, you will see that each Liver Bird is carrying something in its beak. It looks like a small twig or branch of a tree. It’s got four leaves. In most descriptions, this is identified as a piece of laver, or seaweed. The name ‘laver’ is a pun on the name ‘Liverpool’.
However, I’ve also read that it’s an olive branch. And the French language Wikipedia page states that the Liver bird holds in its beak a branch of genêt, the French word for broom, a type of bush with a yellow flower that appears in spring. Genêt is said to be a reference to the Plantagenet dynasty, who ruled England in the middle ages. Is this true? That’s another question to add to my list at the end! The Liver bird is a mythical bird, said to date back to 1207, when King John founded the borough of Liverpool by royal charter and used a bird on the seal.
17. It is named after the Royal Liver Assurance Company, but they are no longer in the building.
The building is named after the Royal Liver Assurance Company which was a friendly society. Around the turn of the 20th century they decided to construct a new building for their 6000 staff. It remained the headquarters until Royal Liver Assurance merged with the Royal London Group in 2011. The group subsequently moved out of the building. In 2019 it’s reported to accommodate around 2000 staff working in a range of companies.
Luxembourg-based investment group, Corestate Capital, bought the building for £48 million in February 2017 along with Everton F.C. majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri. So, Liverpool’s most potent and best-loved symbol is a privately-owned office building. That’s an interesting fact. There must be very few other commercial office buildings with such an exalted status. Perhaps it’s symbolic, because Liverpool is a mercantile city whose wealth is built on business and trade (including, sadly, the slave trade).
18. The Liver Building was renovated in 2019 and also in the past.
In 2019, the Liver Building was renovated to bring it up to the standards required by today’s companies. Looking on the royalliverbuilding.com website, I see many changes have been carried out. There’s a photo of empty floor space with those semi-circular windows. But the building has not been preserved in its original state. That’s the way it is with working buildings, they have to be adapted for changing times, though seen from the outside, it looks as it did when it was first built.
And now we move from facts to popular legends.
19. The birds are called Bella and Bertie and if they fly away, Liverpool will cease to exist.
I’ve read from many sources, that the birds are called Bella and Bertie, but who exactly called them that? We are told that if they break away from their shackles and fly away, that will be the end of Liverpool. This story sounds like it was inspired by the ravens of the Tower of London. It’s said that if they leave the tower, the kingdom and the Tower of London will fall.
The difference is that the ravens are real birds, whereas the Liver Birds are copper sculptures weighing several tons and they’re tied down with cables. The birds face in opposite directions. It’s said that if they were facing each other, they might mate and break their moorings, causing the downfall of the city. According to another account, Bella watches over the ships and their crews while Bertie watches over the city and its people.
A variant of this is that Bella is on the lookout for handsome sailors on the arriving ships, while Bertie is checking that the pubs are open. What must he have been thinking during the 2020 Coronavirus crisis! A typically Scouse piece of humour is that the Liver Birds flap their wings every time a virgin walks along the Pier Head.
20. The views from the top of the Liver Building are fantastic!
There is no doubt that the views from the roof of the Liver Building are fantastic. When I wrote the previous version of this article in 2015, it wasn’t possible for the general public to enter the building and go up to the tower. Now it is! Read my review below to find out what I thought of the Royal Liver 360 visitor experience and why I was a little bit disappointed.
Personal observations and reminiscences.
The Liver Building was begun in same year my father was born, 1908. He was christened Bertie, presumably after the popular name of George, who became King in 1911.
I remember visiting the Pier Head with my mother in the 1960s, and taking the ferry to Woodside. I was captivated by the Cunard Building and the Port of Liverpool building. They had just been cleaned and looked as if they were made out of icing sugar. They seemed to ‘sing’, I can’t quite explain it. At that time, all the buildings in Manchester were still covered in black soot from the factories. I can’t remember much about the Liver Building, except that there were rows of green Liverpool Corporation buses parked in front of it.
Another memory from the sixties is the opening credits of the Liver Birds tv series, starring Nerys Hughes and Polly James. The grimy Liver Building can be seen from the ferry. There is an iconic shot looking up at the glamorous Nerys Hughes standing on the back of a bus, with the tower of the Liver Building behind.
In recent years I’ve followed all the changes on the Pier Head, I’ve taken photos and video of many festivals, including the Giants, I took ‘now’ shot of the building for the book ‘Liverpool Then and Now’ and went inside to capture the view of where the Liverpool Overhead Railway used to be. That’s when I saw the glass interior wall for the first time.
I’ve done some drawings too, which I am featuring on this page.
I love the Liver Building, its design, its location, the Liver Birds that stand on top of it, and all the associations it has with the history of Liverpool. I will go on admiring it and taking photos of it, like every local person and every visitor to the city. I hope to find out even more hidden facts about the Liver Building, which I will add to this page.
- But I have some unanswered questions, some facts about the Liver Building that remain hidden, or at least not 100% clear. Can you provide any information?
- Who exactly named the Liver Birds Bella and Bertie?
- How are the four clocks, including one in a separate tower, controlled by one mechanism?
- Exactly what type of branch are the Liver Birds holding in their beaks?
- Which clock face was the one used as a dinner table?
- Since when clock tower had an amber coloured light? I seem to remember that in the past, the light was white. Was it?
- When was the earlier renovation carried out, during which the glass interior façade was added?
- In what year were the Three Graces first cleaned? Was it in 1968?
- What is the exact weight of each Liver Bird?
And here’s one extra fact: At around 11pm on the evening of Friday 26 June, 2020, while crowds celebrated Liverpool FC’s Premier League win, someone threw a firework at the Liver Building and it started a fire on the front of the building. Mobile phone images show a blaze in front of the semi-circular window below the west tower. The fire was put out by Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service. Comment: Setting fire to Liverpool’s most iconic building is not the best way to celebrate Liverpool FC’s win.