Martins Bank always bucks the trend, so it comes as no surprise to find that this British bank has its Head Office not in London, but in Liverpool at extravagant purpose built premises in Water Street.  This is no cosmetic exercise, the building is a lavish but permanent statement of the intent of Martins to be inextricably linked to the City of Liverpool.  The main London office of the Bank at 68 LOMBARD STREET is also impressive – being the site of Thomas Gresham’s goldsmith’s business dating back to 1563 -  but to the end of Martins’ days, 68 Lombard Street remains simply the home of London City Office branch, and a number of administrative departments.  The real centre of Martins’ universe is No 4 Water Street close to Liverpool’s sea-faring history, and as impressive a site as anyone could wish for. Head Office opens for business in its new premises on 24 October 1932.  It took people’s breath away then, and it does the same today, although sadly, the building no longer houses a bank.


For a detailed look at some of the fantasy-filled architecture and interior design work, see our feature THE LIVER BIRDS.  In 1982, and again in 1992 (to commemorate the fiftieth and sixtieth anniversaries of the building), BARCLAYS produces a booklet describing how and by whom it was built, and at what cost. That story is reproduced here, amongst pictures of Martins’ magnificent HEAD OFFICE


Image © 1932 Stewart Bale Collection – displayed under licence from Liverpool Museums

One of the great bank buildings…

In 1925, the old Bank of Liverpool building in Water Street was proving quite inadequate to cope with the increasing business and the Directors acquired two properties on a large island site opposite for £220,000.  The site, roughly rectangular in shape, is about 180 ft. in length and over 140 ft. in width. It fronts on to Water Street, the principal thoroughfare leading up from the river; while the east side faces Exchange Flags and overlooks the Town Hall. On the other two sides, the site is bounded by comparatively narrow streets, Rumford Street and Exchange Passage West. Designed on classical Roman lines by Herbert J. Rowse, it forms a striking block with its facade reaching 150 ft. above ground level. The design was the result of a limited competition between three London and three Liverpool architects. There were many difficulties to overcome, including the problem of 'ancient lights', which Mr. Rowse surmounted in such a way as to contribute greatly to the beauty of the building by setting it back in successive planes at the levels of neighbouring roofs.

1960 Interior View of Horseshoe Area from publicity booklet PA.jpg

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The façade of 4 Water Street

onto Exchange Flags

The opulence of the banking hall has long been a talking point.

Every effort has been made to preserve its magnificence.

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There are nine floors above ground level, plus a mezzanine and three below, with foundations 50 ft. under the building. It is of fireproof, steel-frame construction, with reinforced concrete floors and stairs. The external walls are brick lined with hollow tiles and faced with Portland stone from the St. Paul's and Wakeham quarries. Notable for its beauty and for the fact that exposure to the atmosphere increases its whiteness, the stone was stored and cut at William Moss's masonry works in Liverpool.


Central Lighting Court


The new bank premises were designed around a large central open-lighting court, which provides internal lighting to the various upper floors. This well has received as much care as the exterior elevations, and is faced with ivory glazed bricks decorated with terracotta and Lombardic tile cornicing. At the base of the lighting court is the glazed roof that provides light to the banking hall below through an ornamental lay-light. This lay-light is at the level of the second floor and at a height of about 40 ft. above the banking hall floor.


To all intents and purposes, the ground floor is one large room with the high central portion, 90 x 56 ft., devoted to the main banking activities. This fine lofty hall, unobstructed by columns, was made possible by carrying the walls of the light well on a system of cantilevers. It is surrounded by double-vaulted, Italian-style, colonnades of great beauty and through which other halls are visible.

Carol Concert 2

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Such is the sheer size and grandeur of the main banking hall, that it is used by Martins Bank

for its annual carol concert.  These images are from the concert held in December 1960

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In the centre of the hall is the main public counter designed from purple Leventine, vert antico and black marbles. The ornamental grille and other metalwork is of gold bronze. Steps lead up to the banking hall from the main entrance at the top of which is a war memorial comprising a wall inscription and a Roll of Honour in volume form, a fresh page of which is turned each day. At the four corners of the hall are finely proportioned rotundas out of which run the main staircases and lifts serving the upper part of the building.


The principal areas on the ground floor are highly finished with decorative stones. Travertine marble is employed as a wall lining in the rotundas, the main vestibule and banking hall, while the supporting columns are made from travertine drums threaded onto solid steel cores. The plaster work in the ceiling has been picked out in brilliant colours of gold, emerald green and Indian red and the marble floor is patterned with similar stones to those used for the banking counter.

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Boardroom Suite


The first floor was occupied by the bank's administration offices and along the Water Street side were the offices of the Chairman, the general manager and his assistant and secretaries and the conference room. The remainder of the floors up to the eighth were designed as tenantable office accommodation. The boardroom suite, dining rooms and kitchen are located on the eighth, and a flat, originally designed for the Chairman, on the ninth, commanding a fine view over the city and the river. The remaining portions of the roof were laid out as gar­den enclosed by colonnades which have the added benefit of hiding the lift-machinery penthouses from view and actually improving the silhouette of the building.


The Boardroom is of exceptional interest and, though the beamed walnut ceiling and marble chimney piece are in character reminiscent of Renaissance Italy, the design and decorations are most original. The ceiling is carved and painted in various motifs redolent of the sea including Neptunes, dolphins, ships and mermaids, with reds, greens and blues as the predominant colours. These alternate with symbols of the LIVER BIRD and Grasshopper which together formed the COAT OF ARMS of Martins Bank. A carpet measuring 49 ft. x 19 ft. was specially woven repeating the design on the floor and furnishings include a fine horseshoe table made from solid walnut. At one end is a smaller chamber designed as a committee room.


The sculpture and decoration of the building generally are intended to be indicative of the fact that Liverpool derived her wealth largely from her association with the sea. Friezes of crabs and lobsters, dolphins, sea shells and legendary sea characters are displayed with coins and bills alongside the Bank's own heraldry.

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Boarding Up

From Bombs to Beatles, a Day in the Life…

1939 (left) Mr Charles Carter, a visiting inspector was one of the many volunteers who filled sandbags to protect the Head Office building on the outbreak of war.


1964 (right) Mr Jack Jones, the bank’s joiner, protecting windows against possible damage by crowds who welcomed the Beatles on arrival at Liverpool Town Hall for their Civic Reception

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Below Ground Level


The bank vaults are in the basement directly below the banking hall. It was here that a portion of the gold of the Bank of England was transferred shortly after the outbreak of war in 1939 when the threat of air attack and invasion made Liverpool seem a safer place than London. Later on it was shipped to Canada. Below, in the sub-basement, which has been excavated out of sandstone, are situated extensive storerooms for the use of tenants renting offices in the building, and great oil tanks for the central heating system, each holding 7,000 gallons. The boiler house is under the sub-basement.


The building contains many original features. For example: the reinforced concrete floors have been modified to house an under-floor duct system concealing power and telephone cables. Heating is automatically controlled by a system of thermostatically-operated panels embodied in the ceilings. Special consideration has also been given to the arrangement of plumbing and there are no visible pipes — even to the walls of the central lighting court.

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A rotunda to the right of the main entrance

Five Years to Build


William Moss, who were then based at Roscoe Street, Liverpool were the general contractors for the building and, in addition to carrying out all the important aspects of that undertaking, they were responsible for the foundations, Portland stone and granite masonry, brickwork, reinforced concrete floors, strong rooms and the standard joinery. It took nearly five years for this work to be completed.


In submitting his programme to the Bank's building committee in April, 1927, the architect put forward eight tenders for demolition work on site. William Moss were not awarded this contract since it was placed with the lowest tender of £16,777 while Moss quoted £17,750. However, they were successful in gaining the next three contracts as, in each case. Moss offered the lowest tender. They were also very competitive on timing, another important factor since Mr. Rowse was working to a strict schedule.


The contracts for the foundation work and stone masonry were both given to Moss at a meeting on 11 September, 1928, for £13,897 and £17,451 10s respectively. Their tender of £476,402 for the main superstructure was accepted on 22 January, 1929, although it was the second lowest submitted to the Board.


Savings Made


As a matter of interest, when the final accounts were produced, there was a saving on two of the contracts awarded to Moss. Namely, £131 16s for the foundations and £5,367 Os 5d for the structural steel. There was an additional charge of £426 2s 11d on the excavation work.

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1959 Exterior shot of building before cleaning MBM-Wi1960P32.jpg

1960 Exterior shot of building following cleaning  Original Photo MBA

Before and After

1960 The building undergoes its first major clean since being built

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Since Completion


A number of alterations have, of necessity, had to be made to the building since it was completed. However, all the work that has been carried out has been to the same high standard as the original and, wherever possible, matching materials have been used. Major alterations have included changing the boilers to gas fired operations (retaining the ability to use oil in an emergency), the strengthening of some of the underground strong room areas prior to the last war and, with the need to improve security, the ornamental gold/bronze grille surrounding the counter in the Banking Hall has been replaced by a glass bandit screen. Externally, the walls were washed down in the 1970's to remove the accumulated grime.

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Acknowledgements: Barclays and The William Moss Group

2022: Ninety years, and still going?

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Ninety years on, and in 2022, some fifteen years after serving the last customer at the counter, the future for Martins’ magnificent Head Office seems no longer to be in the balance. Thanks to the efforts of Kinrise to bring the building back to life and good use, positive developments are expected in 2024.  In the meantime, the internal time-warp of 1930s England had meant that 4 water Street has been in demand like never before for inclusion in film and television productions. From playing herself in “The Bullion Boys” (1993), transforming into a post war London Hotel for BBC TV’s “Close to the Enemy” (2016), to a Harry Potter-like bank in J K Rowling’s  Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” (2016), 4 Water Street has brought a high degree of reality to productions, that re-creation by film set alone simply could not do!