£23m Maritime Knowledge Hub for Wirral Waters

Today, the Hydraulic Tower stands empty and derelict. Quite literally a shell of its former self. Once a provider of power for the movement of lock gates and bridges throughout Birkenhead Docks, this historic tower is now set for a new lease of life – as a centre of international maritime research, development and trade.

The backstory

The Great Float is a body of water formed by the natural tidal inlet, the Wallasey Pool. It was this expanse of 110 acres of water which was identified during the nineteenth century as the ideal place to construct a huge network of docks to support the rapidly industrialising local economy.

The result was the Great Float; two large docks, East and West Float, which run approximately 2 miles inland, dividing the towns of Birkenhead and Wallasey. Designed by James Meadows Rendel, a protégé of Thomas Telford, the docks were built between 1844 and 1860.

The hydraulic tower, pictured before sustaining bomb damage during WWII.
Image credit: Birkenhead in Pictures & Postcards

With multiple swing bridges and lock gates across the vast dock complex, it was deemed necessary to construct a central engine house to power the movement of these bridges and locks. And so, plans for the Hydraulic Tower were hatched.

Jesse Hartley, a noted civil engineer who had been responsible for many of Liverpool’s maritime structures such as Albert Dock was drafted in to design the Hydraulic Tower. In addition to being a highly functional building, Hartley intended it to be highly aesthetic too. As a result, the design of the Hydraulic Tower was based upon the Palazzo Vecchio in Piazza Della Signoria, Florence, Italy.

The 110ft tower with its machicolated embattled parapet and rock-faced stone dressings replete with its three-storey engine house lends an air of Mediterranean grandeur to the heart of what is now Wirral Waters.

On its completion in 1863, the Hydraulic Tower was immediately pressed into service to power what were now bustling, thriving docks. And the Tower continued to play its designated role for the next 90-odd years until, during the Second World War, it sustained serious bomb damage. Repairs were made with utilitarian, rather than aesthetic, considerations at the fore. Thus, distinctive features such as the large lantern which had sat upon the top of the tower, were not replaced.

It was in this somewhat diminished state that the Hydraulic Tower continued to serve by what was at that point the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board (MDHB), until eventually it was retired from service and fell into its current state of disrepair.

A new owner, a new start

In late 2005 the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company (the successor organisation to the MDHB) was acquired by the Peel Group and so the Hydraulic Tower was about to embark upon the next chapter of its storied history.

The hydraulic tower showing the post-WWII ‘utilitarian’ repairs. Image credit: Peel L&P / Wirral Waters

Upon examining a large number of potential development options for the building, Peel L&P in collaboration with a variety of partners took the decision in September 2015 to seek to revive this maritime icon as the Maritime Knowledge Hub, an industry-led international centre of maritime innovation, research, development and trade. An appropriate use for such a building.

A total of £23m will be invested, with Peel L&P working with several partners including Mersey Maritime, Wirral Council and the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority to bring the project to fruition. It’s a project which has garnered international attention and is backed by central Government through the Department of Transport’s Maritime 2050 strategy.

Chris Shirling-Rooke MBE, Chief Executive Officer of Mersey Maritime explains, “Mersey Maritime is 100% committed to seeing the Maritime Knowledge Hub project come to fruition. It is absolutely vital in our view to the future of the maritime industry in the Liverpool City Region and is of significance to the wider regional economy and indeed nationally. We’ve backed it from the outset and are proud to continue to be a significant partner in its delivery.”

“We know that the maritime industry in this area is a significant contributor to the economy, providing highly skilled and excellent quality jobs and employing incredibly productive workers. But it can’t rest on its laurels and must be alive to the opportunities that innovation and technology holds for the sector, not least as we drive forward the ambition of delivering clean and net zero maritime. For us, the Maritime Knowledge Hub sits at the heart of our role in delivering those priorities for the future of the industry.”

Protecting and enhancing heritage

To sensitively and effectively re-develop the Hydraulic Tower, Peel L&P went through a design competition to select a design team. Danish architectural practice Schmidt Hammer Lassen and local firm Ellis Williams Architects were shortlisted to design the Maritime Knowledge Hub.

During the competition Schmidt Hammer Lassen founding partner, Morten Schmidt, described the thoughts behind the subsequent concept design, saying, “Designing a complex that is one of the most transformative new developments in the Liverpool region called for thoughtful architectural design that respects the heritage of the existing building while looking towards the future.”

Main image credit: Peel L&P / Wirral Waters

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