Duke Street & the Union Newsroom
Liverpool L1

Picture by
Designer: John Foster senior

Dating from 1800, this plain but dignified building was designed by John Foster senior. Originally the Union Newsroom, it housed the Free Public Library and held the important natural history collection bequeathed by the 13th Earl of Derby. All the collections were donated to The William Brown Library on its opening in 1860. Redeveloped in 1990, a modern building occupied by Bibby Distribution lies behind the retained facade.

Duke Street is only now recovering its poise after a decline which started in the early 19th century. At one time it would have housed wealthy merchants but in the Liverpool tradition its former decorum was summarily swept away to make way for contemporary needs, in this case mercantile warehousing. In its own way Duke Street is just as historic as Rodney Street. It was named after The Duke of Cumberland who defeated Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Highlanders at Culloden Field in 1746. The celebrated portrait artist Sarah Biffen (1784-1850) lived at number 8. She was born with no arms and was a little over three feet tall as an adult. Her parents sold her into a freak show at the age of 12 from which she was rescued by the Earl of Morton. Under his patronage she received formal training and became both famous and much honoured. When Morton died she sank into penury but was rescued by William Rathbone and resettled in Liverpool. Frank Hornby, inventor of Meccano, had his first factory at number 12. At number 87, William Roscoe and William Rathbone entertained the American naturalist and wildlife painter James Audubon as he was seeking sponsorship. Felicia Hemans, the Victorian poet was born at No.118. She was the granddaughter of the Venetian Consul in Liverpool and became a published poet at the age of 15. She wrote (amongst much else) The Stately Homes Of England which was parodied more famously by Noel Coward in the 20th Century. Having long ago become unfashionable she is remembered however as the writer of the immortal line 'the boy stood on the burning deck' from Casabianca. Nathaniel Hawthorne, writer of the classic novel The Scarlet Letter was once The American Consul, living at number 186. Also credited with living in Duke Street, at numbers unknown, were Doctor Duncan, the city and the country's first Medical Officer Of Health and briefly, John Bellingham, the man who assassinated the British Prime Minister, Spencer Percival in 1812.

Walks Through History; Liverpool by David Lewis

Alan Maycock 2008

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