Street Furniture

Spring has sprung offering more chances to get out and about to discover the interesting histories and buildings of the many villages and towns of the region.  But have you ever given any thought to the street furniture that adorn these places?  In fact, what do we mean by street furniture?

There are three broad categories identified by Historic England; those related to highways, related to public utilities and related to communications and you will no doubt have seen many of these at some point.  They are often overlooked when we think about the historic environment, but they can make a significant contribution to the sense of character and identity of a place. So, what should you look for in each category?

Highways

How many streets and areas retain cobblestones as the main road surface?  Cobblestones were used across Europe since before Roman times, many collected from riverbeds, smoothed down by the water passing over them for thousands of years.  They retain a lot of strength and so when set in sand or mortar, were a good way to ensure that roads would last longer.  Different areas might use rounded cobbles, squared stones, pebbles and some would use patterned bricks.  Cobbled streets were gradually replaced by asphalt roads but still evoke thoughts of the past when you come across them.

Granite bollards and iron railings, used to control access to areas, were common from early 18 Century onwards, though many were lost over the years.  Bollards with inscriptions or manufacturers names are of interest and any made of repurposed cannons are very interesting.  Equally, railings that incorporated things like foot scrapers or light holders (before electricity) would be quite a rare find nowadays.  The Merseyside local list is interested in gate piers and railings that adorned the frontage of large houses in the area, and although some are already listed, many are not.

One recent nomination for local listing was for a Webb Patent Sewer Gas Destructor, which provided light by burning off methane that built up in the sewer system.  There are very few of these in the country, but Southport has 4 which still retain the maker’s mark.

Old milestones, mileposts and guideposts although widespread can be very old and sometimes very ornate, and often represent the area in the materials and styling used.  Signposts which are intact and predate the County Councils Act 1888 are very special and could be considered appropriate for national listing.

Early bus shelters that retain their original features and particularly, benches are also interesting and in some cases, listed.

The Merseyside local list is also interested in historic original walls that bounded properties such as the red sandstone ones in parts of Wirral or the stone slab walls in parts of Knowsley, which really capture historic use of local materials.

Public Utilities

This category includes things like drinking fountains, introduced in the mid-19th century after village pumps were largely closed on sanitary grounds.  Equally, drinking troughs for horses, dogs and cattle, often provided by charitable associations were introduced around the same time.  Earlier troughs made of iron or wood are very rare and often replaced by granite ones in the late 19th century.  Pumps and hydrants, introduced as the provision of water expanded, comprised of lead pipes and wooden boxes but eventually were made of elaborate cast iron.  Where they survive in reasonable condition and mostly complete, they are quite unusual to find.

Communications

This includes post boxes and telephone boxes.  Historic England with Royal Mail agreed in 2002 that all post boxes in operational use would remain in place and of course there are thousands around the country.  However, any examples of hexagonal boxes (the earliest examples) or pillar-type post boxes dating 1852-79 are quite scarce so of interest.  Telephone kiosks although common, may require a closer inspection to identify if they are some of the earliest examples, such as Gilbert Giles Scott’s K2 which is neo-classical design in cast iron with a segmentally vaulted roof.  The K8 design 1968-83) is not common so could be considered on rarity value. Often decisions to locally or nationally list occur if there is a strong visual relationship with an existing listed building.

If you think you know of some historic or unusual street furniture, why not take a picture, note the location and nominate it for local listing, so you can be part of capturing the local history.

Historic England has produced some guidance on street furniture that may be considered for listing.  It can be found at: https://historicengland.org.uk/images-books/publications/dlsg-street-furniture/

The Merseyside region has a rich and varied past, from small rural settlements to the evolution of one of the most important mercantile cities in the world, Liverpool.  This history is reflected in the range of interesting and important buildings that are acknowledged as being significant through statutory listing.  Liverpool alone has around 2,000, the greatest concentration of listed buildings outside London.  This is no different for the three authorities involved in the Merseyside Local Heritage Listing project; Knowsley borough has over 100, Sefton borough has over 800 and Wirral borough has over 1900.  Listed buildings reflect a range of uses, styles, ages, designs but all contribute positively to the local area.  Some will be grand, such as the numerous country houses and halls throughout the region, whereas others will be small and modest, such as the simple thatched cottages in places like Churchtown.  Despite their differences in scale they have something in common; they connect us to the past through their form, the materials used, their design and their contribution to the character and sense of a place and are deemed important enough to retain for current and future generations to appreciate.

With local listing the same ideas apply for those assets in the historic environment that do not currently meet the stringent requirements of statutory listing, but which are important to help us understand the past and which are valued locally.  So, what sort of assets could be considered?

In October 2021 was the inaugural Liverpool Architecture Festival where one of the sessions was around future listing.  The idea was that local Architects and Heritage Professionals put forward examples of buildings that they felt should be considered for Listing whether locally or on the national list.  The range of buildings and built structures proposed was interesting and varied (see the candidates below) and all presenters put forward convincing arguments for their inclusion.  These were based on such things as; being the earliest example of a type of use or building in the area, design and architectural qualities (both traditional and modern), their function, uniqueness, or their value as an asset or landmark in the community.  Most examples were in Liverpool itself and so not currently suitable for inclusion on the Merseyside list.  However, they do provide good examples of the types of assets that could be considered. 

For some of the proposals, alternative uses from those originally intended for the buildings and structures were considered, thus ensuring the asset remains relevant and has purpose into the future.  In a time when climate change is in focus, the re-use of buildings and spaces will become increasingly important as renovation and adaptation usually requires and generates considerably less CO2 than new builds.  Add to this the communal value of these sites that will feature strongly in the collective memory of some people and it all points to these assets being important.

So, when you are next walking around your local area, think about what buildings really stand out for you and why.  Is it the way it looks, the quality of design, the history it evokes or was it the centre of community life as a major employer or a loved meeting place?  Not everyone will agree on what should be included on a local heritage list, certainly the votes cast for the candidates at the Festival showed the range of preferences.  However, local lists should reflect the best examples of a wide range of buildings and built structures, just like the communities within which they sit.

Oh, and if you want to know who won the vote (which was just for fun!) it was the Façade Installation.  What would you have picked?