Local action: How a Victorian gem was saved by local residents

A community's refusal to give up on a much-loved building inspired a rescue mission, writes Andy Hillier

The restored hall
The restored hall

Tom Calderbank recalls, with a twinkle in his eye, how he and his friends used to break into The Florrie, a disused boys club in Dingle, Liverpool, for a drink and a smoke. The ornate Victorian building had closed in the late 1980s because of a lack of funding, so he and his pals used it as an informal hangout.

The Florrie - or the Florence Institute for Boys, to give it its full name - opened in 1889 and was built by former Lord Mayor and city merchant Bernard Hall in memory of his daughter, Florence, who had died at the age of 22. A host of well-known local names later attended the club, including the musician Gerry Marsden (of Gerry and the Pacemakers) - who, it is believed, played his first guitar chords on its steps.

Various attempts were made by the local community to reopen the building, but in 1999 a fire destroyed its roof and much of the interior, and it looked increasingly likely that it would be demolished. But the fire helped to galvanise the local community, which mounted a campaign, forming a charitable trust dedicated to saving The Florrie. It raised £6.5m, of which the Heritage Lottery Fund provided £4.2m, and the building was restored and reopened in April 2012.

Calderbank, a community activist who has helped to save a number of local buildings, says: "All the people in power in the city said that it couldn't be done and we should go away - but we refused."

Saving the building took a herculean effort by the community. Calderbank recalls how he and group of locals cleared 22 skips full of rubble and debris from the building after the fire, risking their own safety in the process. "One of my friends almost fell from the upper floor," he recalls. "A whole corner of the building also collapsed because it was in such a poor state. There were so many moments when we thought we could have lost the building."

Now, though, The Florrie has been totally transformed. The ornate carvings that adorn the outside have been carefully restored and the dome rebuilt on the top of the polygonal corner tower. On the ground floor, the old gym has been restored, a small cafe has been added and a heritage room has been created, displaying memorabilia largely donated by former club members. On the first floor, the imposing grand hall has been refurbished, complete with vaulted ceiling. Workspaces and meeting rooms have also been created and can be hired by businesses and the community.

The Florrie's chief executive, Anne Lundon, says the building has become a hub for local people, with residents of all ages using it. "We have elderly residents who come here, and it's the only time they come out all week," she says.

Yet its future remains uncertain. When it reopened, it received three years' funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, but this is due to end in January 2016. Calderbank says: "We might have saved the building, but The Florrie is in no way saved. The hard part is running the building."

The Florrie is located in one of the most deprived areas of the country, which limits the amount it can charge businesses to rent workspaces and community groups to use its facilities. But Lundon says it is exploring a range of funding possibilities to help achieve its target of bringing in at least £250,000 a year. "We're hoping to reopen our kitchen as a training kitchen and to start offering in-house catering for weddings and events," she says. "We hope that providing catering will double the number of weddings held here each year.

"We have also secured a contract from the city council to run Christmas parties for 1,300 pensioners."

The Florrie has published an article on the difficulty of sustaining a community asset Read the article at www.theflorrie.org

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