By the 1890s, the George’s Dock, where the Pier Head now is, was essentially redundant. Built in 1771, it was the third dock built in Liverpool, and was too small and too shallow in depth for the commercial ships of the late 19th century.
Most of the site was owned by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, set up by Parliament in 1857; a small part of the site still was still held by the Corporation of the City of Liverpool. The board and the corporation had differing priorities, and the former were not inclined to forgo any commercial advantage for the benefit of the latter.
In January 1896, the two bodies began discussions, with the Corporation’s team headed by Frederick, Lord Derby (who was then the city’s Lord Mayor), and the Board’s representatives led by Robert Gladstone, a member of the Liverpool family of which W.E. Gladstone was the best-known. The Corporation sought to persuade the Board to accept its offer to buy the site, reserving a portion of it for new Board offices. After two years of negotiation, this was agreed upon, and Parliamentary authority was obtained for the deal. The Corporation paid £277,399 for the site, from which the Board reserved about 13,500 square yards for its own building.
The board pressed ahead with its new headquarters and announced a competition, restricted to local architects, to be adjudicated by Alfred Waterhouse. Despite some protests in national architectural journals about the exclusion of architects from beyond Liverpool, the local firm of Briggs, Wolstenholme, Hobbs and Thornley was appointed. A neo-baroque design was approved, with a central dome added at the last minute before the final plans were adopted in time for the start of building work in March 1903. The building was opened in the summer of 1907.
When it acquired the site, the corporation had been confident of finding tenants for the two remaining plots suitable for large-scale buildings, but no such prospective tenants came forward, and it was decided to offer the freehold of the sites for sale. However, at an auction of the sites in 1905 there were no bidders. The following year, the Royal Liver Friendly Society made an approach through Walter Aubrey Thomas, a local architect, successfully offering considerably less for a site than the corporation had hoped for: £70,000 instead of £95,000. Gladstone and the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board expressed consternation at the height of the Royal Liver Society’s proposed new headquarters, sometimes described as “England’s first skyscraper”, but after much debate the corporation approved the plans.
The last of the three Pier Head sites between the Liver Building and the Docks and Harbour Board offices was for some time intended to be developed on behalf of the corporation, partly to replace a nearby public baths and partly as offices for the city’s new tram network. This scheme fell through, and in the early years of the 20th century, a combined public baths and customs house was proposed. After several years that scheme, too, came to nothing, and in 1913 the Cunard shipping line announced its intention to build a new headquarters in Liverpool. The Cunard Building was built of reinforced concrete, clad in Portland Stone, in a style intended to recall grand Italian palaces, described by the architectural historian Peter De Figueiredo as “a match for its more ostentatious neighbours in expressive power but greatly superior in refinement of detail and proportion.”