Background

Bluecoat is one of Liverpool’s most iconic buildings. Located right in the heart of the city, it is the oldest building in the UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in 2017 it celebrated its 300th birthday. Founded as a charity school for orphans, close to the Old Dock, it was strongly connected to 18th century Liverpool’s maritime mercantile growth. It was also the first significant expression of philanthropy in the town.

In 1907, after nearly 200 years, the Blue Coat School moved to new, larger suburban premises. The vacant School Lane building then became home to an enterprising group of artists and their supporters, the Sandon Studios Society. They were instrumental in transforming Bluecoat into the UK’s first arts centre, with art, music, theatre and literature all under one roof. Formally constituted in 1927 as the Bluecoat Society of Arts, the centre has continued to be at the forefront of the arts in Liverpool, with an impact felt far beyond. 

My Bluecoat was established, with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, to engage with and reveal the building’s progress, from charity school to contemporary arts centre. It did this through a year-long programme of exhibitions, events, a publication, and participation activities. Central to the project has been digitising our archive, and this now forms the basis of this website.

The site has been developed in partnership with Liverpool Record Office, which holds substantial material relating to Bluecoat, both as a school and a centre for the arts, including a collection from the Sandon Studios Society; and with Liverpool Blue Coat School, whose archive is housed at both Liverpool Record Office and its home in Wavertree. Together, this material paints a vivid picture of a building that has been at the heart of Liverpool’s culture for three centuries.

2017 demonstrated a public appetite for the heritage of our building, both its history as a school and its contribution to the arts. This website is a legacy of that year, enabling us to continue researching our history, while maintaining an active resource for sharing information and stories.

What’s on the My Bluecoat website?

As a charitable trust that has owned the Bluecoat since 1927, we are custodians, not just of the building and its Grade One Listed architecture, but of its history. So, we were keen to open up as much of the archive as possible, making it accessible on line. We therefore scanned documents from the three sites, as well as at the Lancashire Record Office in Preston, and ordered this material into several collections. You can Explore our Collections, which are arranged around themes, such as the school, our performance and exhibition histories, and participation. All of our programme brochures since the early 1980s are available in a collection, as are 200 posters from exhibitions and performances.

In addition to the items in the collections, there are many more that can be searched for, and there are even more that are in the process of being digitised. All of these will eventually be available on the site.

Also on the menu are 300 Facts about Bluecoat, which were compiled and released as daily tweets during a 300-day period in 2017, part of the tercentenary programme. These are snippets of information that reveal facts - often unexpected - from Bluecoat’s history, relating to the school, the architecture, Second World War bomb damage, or the musicians, artists, writers and performers we have hosted.

We have developed packs for primary school teachers, linked to the curriculum and exploring themes such as Transatlantic slavery, child labour and art in society. These can be downloaded from Learning Resources and used in the classroom, and will hopefully encourage schools to visit the building.

During 2017, we commissioned Soup Collective to create over 20 short films, in which people told their own Bluecoat stories. Featuring artists, retailers, visitors, staff and board members, these films – My Bluecoat Stories – can be viewed on this site. There are others documenting Bluecoat performances and events, and more recent interviews with artists. An audio recording from 1965 – an interview with Sandon stalwart and Liverpool sculptor, Herbert Tyson Smith – has been digitised for the site, and we are identifying other archival recordings to add. You will be able to send us your story too (see below).

My Bluecoat News keeps you abreast of what’s happening in heritage at Bluecoat, including open days, talks, building tours, artists’ projects and publications, with links to news from our partner organisations. We’ll announce new collections here too, as they are added to the website, including ones curated by invited artists and other guests.

Who is the website for?

We hope there is something for everyone who visits the website, which has been designed to appeal to a wide audience. This includes those interested in local history, artists and school teachers. We hope that it will be a useful tool too for researchers, both academics and those with a personal interest, who are looking at 18th century or Liverpool history, education, cultural policy, arts participation, architecture and contemporary arts practice.

The season brochures, for instance, which start in the early 1980s, illustrate how different art forms developed over four decades, and how Bluecoat reflected this in its programming. As well as seeing what was on in the gallery or the performance space in a particular month, the brochures, posters and publications also reflect changes in graphic design, and how the arts were marketed in the days before digital and social media.

Images of the gallery indicate how the documenting of exhibitions changed over this period. Architectural changes too, from the original Queen Anne style formation to the modern arts wing designed by Biq, are tracked through images of, for example, the early school building, the wartime bomb damage and landscaping of the garden, which reveal major developments.

The website also contains behind-the-scenes images, revealing some of the activity in the arts centre that has less visibility, such as our long-running programme with learning disabled people, Blue Room. Its members have selected a collection, through which to tell their story.

How to use the website

The menu in the top left corner of the home page directs you to the various parts of the website and there is a function for searching, not just the highlighted collections, but the whole site. To Search the Archive, use key words and dates. If there is something you are looking for that does not appear – from the arts programme history or the school period - please get in touch. Remember, however, that the website focuses on the Bluecoat building in School Lane, so you are unlikely to find anything relating to the Blue Coat School, post-1906 (when it moved to another building).

As a result of My Bluecoat, material from the arts centre archive is being deposited at Liverpool Record Office, where there are already substantial arts- and school-related archives. To see any original documents you have come across on the website that are housed at the Record Office, you will be able to book an appointment to see them.

How you can contribute

Alongside our own narratives about Bluecoat’s history, we are building up a collection of stories from a wide range of perspectives. If you have something you would like to share with us about Bluecoat – e.g. as a visitor, an artist who has worked here, a workshop participant, or a former tenant – please get in touch via the My Bluecoat Stories page. You may even have an anecdote about a relative who studied at the school, or have a poster, photograph or other material that is not in our archive.

Thanks

The website could not have happened without the support and advice of many people. We are particularly grateful to our volunteers, working both at Bluecoat and at Liverpool Record Office, who have scanned material and helped in other ways, especially the The Arts Society, Liverpool, who did much of the scanning work. We would like to thank those who have donated items or given permission to include material on the site, especially our project partners, Liverpool Record Office and Liverpool Blue Coat School, Lancashire Record Office, and the Blundell family – direct descendants of Bryan Blundell, who founded the school in 1708. We are also grateful to our heritage advisory group for helping us develop the My Bluecoat idea, and various departments at the University of Liverpool. My Bluecoat has been funded by Heritage Lottery Fund. The educational element of My Bluecoat was funded by The PH Holt Foundation, The Hemby Trust and The Michael Marks Charitable Trust. Bluecoat is funded by Arts Council England and Liverpool City Council.

 

HLF and FoylePH Holt Foundation and Hemby Charitable Trust