Founding building: Iconic Littlewoods site set for new lease of life
As one of Liverpool’s most iconic sites gets set for a makeover, we take a look back at what makes the former Littlewoods headquarters one of the city’s founding buildings.
Words by Christine Toner
Few buildings in Liverpool play such a central role to the city’s history as the former Littlewoods building on Edge Lane. While the art deco structure may have stood vacant for many years now, there was a time when it was a bustling home to thousands of employees during the heyday of the Moores brothers’ empire.
Built in 1938, the building was the headquarters of Littlewoods, created by Sir John Moores and his brother Cecil. As is widely documented, the Littlewoods brand included a catalogue firm, chain of department stores and, of course, the Football Pools.
“The chance to bring this building back to life and have it once again contributing to the economy is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Littlewoods was the first company in the UK to launch football pools, back in 1923. The brand became so popular it was named as the first sponsor of the FA Cup and in 1961 merged with Sherman’s Pools, another notable brand, after launching a takeover bid.
The pools business prospered even as other elements of the Littlewoods empire began to struggle. In 2000, however, it was sold on to Rodime along with its online subsidiary Bet247.co.uk.
In 2003 the lease for the Littlewoods building was sold to the North West Development Agency (NWDA) but it has remained empty until the present day.
Rescued from the wrecking ball
With the iconic building left to fall into disrepair, fears grew that demolition might be on the cards. Something the architectural charity SAVE Britain’s Heritage was vehemently against.
In 2013 therefore when Manchester-based developer Capital & Centric Plc announced its intention to buy the building, the move was widely welcomed.
Marcus Binney, president of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, said at the time: “It was the fierce opposition to the demolition of the Art Nouveau Firestone factory in London over a bank holiday weekend in 1980 which prompted the first listing of the great factories of the 1920s and ‘30s. Littlewoods is a spectacular example of the architecture of this golden era and doubly impressive for its enormous size.
“Liverpool has been a pioneer in the restoration of great landmarks of this date, notably with the handsome conversion of Speke Airport and its pair of matching hangars. It is excellent that Littlewoods is to join them and funds are being earmarked for the work.”
Initial plans involved commercial premises as well as a hotel but by April this year when Capital & Centric completed its acquisition of the building those plans had taken an altogether more creative turn.
The developer agreed a 250-year lease with Liverpool City Council to deliver a major hub for film, television and other creative industries.
“There are very few structures in Liverpool that are more iconic than the Littlewoods building, and far fewer still that have been allowed to fall into such disrepair,” says John Moffat, development director at Capital & Centric. “The chance to bring this building back to life and have it once again contributing to the economy is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
“At a more commercial level, the quantum of space and generous floor to ceiling heights on offer are perfect for what we are looking to deliver.
“We have been working with the city council for quite some time and have already successfully delivered the multi award-winning Bunker Building, which is the first phase of the scheme.”
However, Moffat says the building is not only important in Liverpool’s history but also in that of the nation as a whole.
“During the Second World War the building was turned into a factory that produced 12 million shells, six million fuses, five million parachutes, thousands of barrage balloons, and even parts of aeroplanes,” he says. “There is no doubt that this site played a vital part in the war effort. Its importance stretches far beyond the war though, the pools were played by over 10 million people by the 1980s and had become an integral part of the nation’s culture.
“The success of the pools and the rise in popularity of football were very much correlated. At its peak Littlewoods was the largest private company in Europe, and that success was driven in part by being at the forefront of new technologies.
“Littlewoods was a pioneer of computing and, amongst other examples, in 1967 became the first company in the UK to install an optical character reading machine.”
In relation to Liverpool, Moffat says it is difficult to quantify just how important the firm is to the city.
“The company employed over 20,000 people at its peak and the majority of those were in its home city of Liverpool,” he says. “As the city was on its knees after the war, the rapid growth in employment at Littlewoods Pools was a lifeline for the economy.
“There are few people in the city who can’t say they are related to someone who worked in the building. Littlewoods Pools didn’t just create menial work, it was widely renowned as an excellent employer which paid a generous wage.
“There is no doubt that this site played a vital part in the war effort. Its importance stretches far beyond the war though, the pools became an integral part of the nation’s culture.”
“Just from a visual perspective, being 200 ft tall and situated at a high point, the clock face on the west wing tower is a visual landmark from all over the city.”
Looking ahead Moffat says Capital & Centric’s vision for the site is to see it “not just become the heart of Liverpool’s vibrant film and media industry with brand new sound stages at its heart,” but also a draw to companies in this sector both nationally and internationally.
It’s certainly a smart move. The city has already proven to be a hotspot for feature film locations and TV dramas.
Indeed, according to the most recent figures from the Liverpool Film Office, more than 250 films and TV programmes were filmed in Liverpool in 2015, bringing £11.5m to the local economy.
Meanwhile, conservationists need not worry too much about the structure losing its identity.
“We don’t plan to make wholesale changes to the elevations of the building, interventions will be kept to an absolute minimum,” adds Moffat. “Once the stucco is repaired and the elevations redecorated the building will be back to its stunning best.”