The Florence Institute, Liverpool
Winner of the Best Rescue of a Historic Building or Place award, sponsored by Keymer, at the Historic England Angel Awards 2018.
The Florence Institute is a Victorian Grade II venue and the oldest surviving purpose-built boys’ club in Britain. For a century from 1889 it provided safe recreation to boys from poor communities in south Liverpool and it was the same communities that led the long struggle to not only restore the building to splendour but bring it back to life for local people.
Rescuing the “Florrie”, as it is affectionately known in Liverpool, was always about much more than saving a building that had fallen into disrepair. Even after it had been damaged by fire and constant exposure to the elements, the building in the Dingle remained a repository of childhood memories for generations of working-class youth in the area. Its rescue means the building is now a place for people of all ages to create memories too.
The Florence Institute was founded in 1889 by former Liverpool mayor Bernard Hall and named as a tribute to his daughter, Florence, who died at just 22. As a magistrate, Hall knew the importance of engaging youth from deprived areas in constructive activities that kept them off the streets and out of crime. For a century, generations of “old boys” from the disadvantaged dockside area played sports like boxing and took part in workshops at the Florrie.
Boys continued to use the club right up until its closure during Liverpool’s deep economic slump of the late 1980s. The institute was a bastion of working-class pride and the communities for whom it had been a lifeline were not ready to let it go without a fight.
Fire and fortune
The long battle to save the Florrie reflects the strength of local feeling about the building, which became unusable and was put on the at-risk list after money ran out for repairs. It also became a target for vandals and Florrie old boys formed an emergency response team to put out frequent fires. In 1999, however, an arson attack destroyed 90% of the roof, exposing the building to the elements and delivering a huge blow to efforts to rescue it.
A turning point came when the Florrie began to feature in the Liverpool Echo’s “Stop the Rot” campaign to save historic buildings from ruin, raising awareness of its plight and gathering support for the local community’s drive to save it.
In 2005 the Florence Institute Trust Ltd was set up, chaired by the bishop of Liverpool, the Reverend James Jones, to spearhead the campaign to reopen the Florrie as a community training and events venue that would uphold its charitable aims.
A year later the Prince of Wales pledged his support, through the Prince’s Regeneration Trust, after a visit to Merseyside, providing a vital boost to the trust as it began to apply for project development and capital funding to turn the plan to regenerate the Florrie into reality.
The challenges were significant, says Denise Bernard, former chair of the trust: “It was very hard to manage everyone’s differing and diverse expectations – local residents, Florrie old boys, local groups, funders, stakeholders – over what became an enduring campaign over many years through difficult times,” she says.
‘Phoenix from the ashes’
In 2010, almost 22 years after it had closed, building work finally started on the Florrie, largely funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Specialist contractors were brought in to ensure the integrity of the venue was retained as it was developed into a multi-purpose space to serve the city for years to come.
Two years later, on 1 April 2012, the building reopened as a modern community hub that won plaudits including nominations for several awards, with one architect likening its transformation to, “a phoenix from the ashes”.
Denise Bernard says: “Contractors were able to restore so much of the building to its former state with no former plans/blueprints and from just photographs and Florrie old boy memories; in spite of the devastating fire, being open to the elements for decades and, being the largest pigeon loft and unofficial rodent sanctuary in south Liverpool.”
Why this category?
The rescue of the Florence Institute has kept alive its original mission to serve the local community, adapted to the changing needs of modern Liverpool. For Denise Bernard, who moved to the Dingle in 1988, listening to the Florrie old boys talk about how much it meant to them to save the building was the reason she got involved in the project. “The Florrie holds so many dear memories and they entrusted these to us,” she says.
Those who use the Florrie today can take part in activities including classes on computer literacy, or English, or knitting, or keep fit and belly dancing. They can also watch a band or see an exhibition, for example, and there are conference and work spaces for local entrepreneurs and business – as well as a dedicated heritage space.
“Our Heritage Resource Centre boasts a wonderful collection of items all donated, largely by the old boys, proudly on display,” says Bernard. “Seeing the old boys come in with their children and grandchildren pointing to pictures of themselves and their friends is truly heart-warming.”