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The Liver Birds… A Brief History

In 1207, the City of Liverpool, which was previously just a small fishing village, was founded by King John, who needed a port on the West coast for his dealings with Ireland.

As a city, Liverpool was entitled to a City Seal for signing all official documents. As so few people could read in those days, the seal had to be a pictorial image – for the city of King John, the main image had to be an Eagle, the emblem of Saint John the Evangelist.

The seal served the city well until the English Civil War, during which it was lost, probably while Prince Rupert was besieging the city from Everton Heights. An engraver was commissioned to produce the new seal, but he had never seen an eagle. He was told it was a big bird, maybe something like a cormorant. This is why our Liver Bird looks the way it does; halfway between an eagle and a cormorant, a bird which had never really existed, and which passed into our local mythology.

Today, when we think of the Liver Bird, our first image is of the Liver Building Birds, but the story of these birds is remarkable and shameful. The Liver Company held a competition to design a pair of Birds, which was won in 1908 by Carl Bernard Bartels, a wood-carver from Stuttgart, Germany. He came to London, married an English girl of German family, and became an English citizen. His Birds were built by the Bromsgrove Guild, and installed in 1911, when the building was opened.

But a few years later, the Great War broke out. Suddenly, there was great anger and resentment towards every German, and the City felt its iconic birds would be considered the work of hated Germans. So, they rewrote history.

For almost 100 years, we were told that the Birds were designed by Aubrey Thomas, the architect of the whole building. Carl Bernard Bartels was declared an enemy alien, and imprisoned in an internment camp on the Isle of Man. In 1918, he was forcibly repatriated to Germany, and could not return to England for many years.

It is only a few years since Tim Olden, a great-grandson of Carl Bernard Bartels, managed to get his name restored in the history of Liverpool; in 2011, he was made a Citizen of Honour, and his life celebrated in the Museum Of Liverpool and the Liver Building.

by Gerry Jones

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