Thomas Steers and the Blue Coat School

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Front view of the original school building of 1717

I was interested to discover through the tercentenary history exhibition in the Bluecoat Arts Centre in Liverpool that Thomas Steers is now credited as one of those responsible for the construction of this very fine building. There can be little of importance in the city in the early eighteenth century that Thomas Steers didn’t have a hand in. The school (correctly termed the Blue Coat School) was founded in 1708 but the building not completed on School Lane until 1717. For nearly two hundred years the building was the home of the school until it moved to new premises in Wavertree. In the decades after 1906 the Bluecoat became the location for an innovative arts centre in the oldest building in the city. Thomas Steers’s involvement in the building appears to have only recently come to light. The exhibition in the Bluecoat states that:

Recent research confirms that Liverpool’s dock engineer Thomas Steers, together with mason Thomas Litherland, were responsible for the construction of the building. Both received considerable payments, recorded in the school’s meticulous accounts books by Bryan Blundell, the master mariner who founded the Blue Coat School and was its first treasurer.

[A page of the accounts] from 1719, records fees to Steers and Litherland, who had previously worked together on Old Dock nearby (completed 1715), the world’s first commercial wet dock which was instrumental in Liverpool’s rapid growth as a global trading port.

Blue Coat front pediment

Liver Bird above main entrance

The Old Dock has now been excavated and is open to visitors. It’s fascinating to see the brickwork exposed to view after years lying hidden beneath the surface, but here was laid the maritime prosperity of Liverpool, thanks to the engineering skills and technical vision of Thomas Steers.

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Inside the Old Dock, picture taken in 2016

Thomas Steers was a notable public servant of the city, serving as water bailiff, town councillor and mayor, and designed other docks as well as private and public buildings and local canals. His reputation also brought him to Ireland where he worked as a consultant on the Newry Canal, spending a number of years working on the project. It wasn’t his first visit to Ireland since he is said to have been commissioned in the 4th regiment of foot and served at the battle of the Boyne in 1690.

The Bluecoat building was badly damaged during the blitz of 1941 but was saved and has been restored a number of times over the last century. The Latin inscription across the front of the façade has been removed and restored at different times. It reads:

CHRISTIANAE CHARITATI PROMOVENDAE INOPIQUE PUERITIAE ECCLESIAE ANGLICANAE PRINCIPIIS IMBUENDAE SACRUM. ANNO SALUTIS MDCCXVII

which is translated on the Bluecoat website as: ‘Dedicated to the promotion of Christian charity and the training of poor boys in the principles of the Anglican church. Founded in the year of salvation 1717.’

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Part of the inscription can be seen below the clock

This is an interesting text because based on little more than this assertion, almost three hundred years after the school was founded, the Church of England attempted to gain control of the school. Since it was always open to anyone and was completely free of any sectarian basis most people thought the twenty-first century C of E was going a bit far and the Bishops seem quietly to have withdrawn from the fray. At the time this controversy was underway I wrote to the Liverpool Echo pointing out that a local dissenting minister, the Rev John Brekell, preached a charity sermon in 1769 and told his hearers that no less a person than Bryan Blundell himself had told him that this inscription had been had been forced on him against his will by “some zealous Churchmen”. There is no doubt that the school enjoyed financial support from the wealthy Presbyterian community and in turn did not restrict its benefits to members of the established church. Neither as a charity school in its first centuries nor as a state school in the twentieth century had it displayed the characteristics of a ‘church school’. William Roscoe, poet, historian, abolitionist and dissenter refers to the school in his poem ‘Mount Pleasant’, first published in 1777. ‘The Blue-Coat Hospital’ is:

Yon calm retreat, where screen’d from every ill,

The helpless orphan’s throbbing heart lies still;

And finds delighted, in the peaceful dome,

A better parent, and a happier home.

The exhibition in the Bluecoat includes a lithograph of the picture Recollections of the Blue-Coat Hospital, Liverpool, St George’s Day, 1843 by Henry Travis. The original used to hang in the school boardroom when I was there, and most probably still does. Most pupils would rarely have seen it but when I was at the school I had regularly to attend in the boardroom for clarinet lessons. Not being much of a musician I frequently found the painting with its crowds and banners and marching pupils rather more absorbing.

Travis, Henry; Recollections of Liverpool Blue Coat Hospital, St George's Day

‘Recollections of the Blue-Coat Hospital, Liverpool, St George’s Day, 1843’ by Henry Travis (Picture: Liverpool Blue Coat School)