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St George's big enigma; St George's Hall has many mysteries - and one of the greatest is its missing stone faiade. Laura Davis investigates.

Byline: Laura Davis

THERE are many mysteries surrounding the Greco-Roman edifice that stands on a plateau in Liverpool city centre.

Was the husband of poisoner Florence Maybrick, who was tried for his murder there, really Jack the Ripper?

Was it accidentally built back-to-front with its stepped entrance now facing Lime Street Station instead of the gardens behind it?

But one of the greatest conundrums of St George's Hall's 150-year history centres on a piece of carved stone that once embellished its southern faiade.

Since its disappearance in the 1950s, many eminent names - among them politicians, sculptors and architects - have inquired as to its whereabouts, calling for it to be returned to its rightful place overlooking St John's Road below.

Just two months ago, Cllr Tom Marshall asked at a Liverpool City Council committee meeting whether the pediment would be replaced as part of the current programme of restoration work.

According to the minutes, heritage manager Graham Boxer's response was that it "was not included in the restoration works, mainly due to the fact that it cannot be located, however it is believed that due to the conditions in the basement of St George's Hall (where it once may have been stored) it no longer exists."

After a lengthy search through the Daily Post archives and with the help of some of Liverpool's cultural experts, we can at last reveal its unfortunate fate.

"If Jeremy Isaacs and the Capital of Culture judges had known what happened to it when they came to look around the city it would have put the kibosh on giving us the title," claims Fred O'Brien, trustee of the Merseyside Forum for Sculpture, Painting & Allied Crafts "St George's Hall is simply incomplete without it."

The pediment, or tympanum as it was referred to in records from the 1950s, showed Britannia seated with a lion at her side and the Mersey at her feet.

She was surrounded by figures symbolising America, Europe, Africa andthe gods Mercury, Bacchus and Apollo. It bore a Latin inscription meaning: "Freemen have established a place for arts, laws and councils."

The sculpted characters stood above the south entrance until one summer's afternoon in August, 1950, when large chunks of stone, some weighing around 50lb, fell more than 100ft to the ground below. Fortunately nobody was hurt and steeplejacks were called in from other work across the city to make the area safe.

But it was the beginning of the end for the pediment, despite reports in the Daily Post on September 5, 1950, claiming it would be replaced in time for the Festival of Britain the following year.

Before another month was up, an architecture expert from the Building Research Station in Watford had climbed the steel scaffolding constructed along the south side of St George's Hall and declared the frieze "decayed and defaced". As the Liverpool Echo's Listener column described it at the time - "Lamentable luck!"

Since then there have been several attempts to replace the pediment, designed by Prof Charles Cockerell, although these have all failed, mainly for financial reasons.

However, shortly after the frieze was first damaged, the council's finance committee chairman, Alderman A Ernest Shennan, claimed it was unlikely to be replaced for other motives - aesthetic rather than fiscal.

He concluded that the hall's designer, Harvey Lonsdale Elmes, had never intended the tympanum space to be filled. He personally inspected the finishings of the stonework and declared that, like the similar space on the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, they were never meant to be hidden.

In the 1980s, a suggestion to recreate it in stone-faced, reinforced plastic was dismissed due to the "city's present economic climate" in times of recession.

The early 1990s saw Lord David Alton, then MP for Mossley Hill, calling for an investigation into the lost stonework. His demand went in vain as a council spokesman said the sculpture was "no longer in the council's possession".

But perhaps the most controversial reason for preventing a replacement came later the same decade, when political correctness foiled plans by a group of sculptors to recreate the frieze.

Anti-racist groups claimed the black figure kneeling before Britannia symbolised the slave trade and felt Liverpool's black community would be offended by its recreation.

At the time, John Haymes Hogg, one of three members of the Merseyside Sculptors Guild who wanted to replace the pediment, argued that the frieze actually represented the abolition of slavery. He said: "The figure is on his knees is giving thanks to Britannia for his liberty because of the decision by Britain to abolish the horror of the slave trade."

The most recent campaign to recreate the tympanum has taken these concerns into consideration. Terry McGunigle, executive manager of the Merseyside Forum for Sculpture, Painting & Allied Crafts, has consulted Liverpool's black community to design a replacement figure.

"He is more like a chieftain, more like a king. Instead of kneeling down he is sitting in a more regal manner," he explains. Mr McGunigle, along with other members of the Forum, his brother Leonard, Paul Green and Ray Leary, is now trying to raise pounds 3m to realise the plans in marble, instead of the original Caen stone.

"We're in discussions with the council about it but we're all ready to go. The design is finished and my team is ready to get started on it," explains Mr McGunigle.

If the fundraising is successful, he and his three apprentices, Daniel Forrest, 23, Joseph Forrest, 20, and Tom McMahon, 17, will travel to Italy to prepare the frieze with a company in Corola. They will then ship it back to Liverpool and place it within the tympanum space.

With Liverpool's 800th birthday and its Capital of Culture year approaching, this would be an appropriate occasion to add a replica sculpture to the tympanum. But the mystery of what happened to the original still remains.

Sadly, Mr O'Brien believes it is yet another example of institutional vandalism.

"It was broken up and used as hardcore, which in my opinion is equal to the Taliban blowing up all the statues of Buddha in Afghanistan

CAPTION(S):

St George's Hall at the turn of the century; Terry McGunigle with a model of Britannia from the St George's Hall pediment Picture: EDDIE BARFORD; An inspection of the pediment taking place in 1950 Picture: DAILY POST ARCHIVE
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Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Dec 15, 2005
Words:1057
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