Charity, Piety and Commerce: The Liverpool Blue Coat School and Pragmatic Politeness, 1708–1796

An analysis of Liverpool’s eighteenth-century Blue Coat School

Partner overview

Bluecoat is Liverpool’s contemporary arts centre, the first of its kind in the UK. It offers a dynamic programme of public exhibitions, performances and participation activities, often informed by the Grade I listed former charity school building’s intricate connections to Liverpool’s eighteenth-century commercial prosperity and colonial legacies.

Project background

As Liverpool’s oldest building in the former UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bluecoat offers a rare insight into the city’s eighteenth-century urban and commercial expansion, civic-mindedness and humanitarian impulse. Nevertheless, despite Bluecoat’s historical significance, the meticulous records of the Blue Coat School remain relatively untouched.  This project thus aims to:

  • shed light on the institution’s early architectural and spatial development, as well as its sense of place through its exploration of Liverpool’s social, cultural, political and religious environment; 
  • demonstrate the significance of horizontal and vertical networks of family, commerce, religion, patronage and clientage operating through Blue Coat and eighteenth-century Liverpool more broadly;
  • reinterpret the motivation for Georgian Liverpool’s associational charity and its education of the poor;
  • offer new perspectives on women’s patronage and childhood experience in one of the period’s fashionable charity schools; 
  • re-contextualise the building’s complex relationship with global trade, forced migration and colonialism.

Research team

  • Lead Researcher: Michelle Girvan, PhD Researcher in History, School of Histories, Languages and Cultures, University of Liverpool. 
  • Academic Supervisor: Professor Elaine Chalus, Professor of British History, School of Histories, Languages and Cultures, University of Liverpool. 
  • Industry supervisor: Bryan Biggs, Director of Cultural Legacies at Bluecoat. 

Research approach

This project will facilitate interdisciplinary methodological and theoretical approaches, as well as extensive archival research. It will use the Grade I listed building as a live resource and aims to specifically focus on papers left by the institution, the Church and Liverpool Corporation to highlight the site’s national, local, cultural and historical significance, and to provide a more comprehensive understanding and appreciation of the building’s architectural heritage. The project will contribute towards Bluecoat’s Echoes and Origins project and wider knowledge exchange via the arts centre’s website, digital archive, public exhibitions, and participation activities

Expected outcomes

This project will provide original research and a more nuanced insight into Bluecoat’s early history, allowing the arts centre greater transparency when addressing the building’s complex legacies. Further, this research will underpin Bluecoat’s National Lottery Heritage Fund supported Echoes and Origins project. It will additionally help realise two key objectives of the Bluecoat Conservation Plan (2002): protection and preservation of the building’s cultural, historical and ecological significance; and successful presentation and interpretation of the site’s historic assets to ensure its future enjoyment, appreciation and understanding by the public. This project will also prove valuable to the University of Liverpool’s History Department and the wider historical world. It will:

  • add original knowledge about the development of eighteenth-century Liverpool through the lens of the Blue Coat School;
  • contribute to the education of the university’s students through lectures, workshops and seminars;
  • expand the range of expertise in the university’s history department;
  • complement the research of the academic team.

The Researcher will gain from the excellent opportunity of being an active member of the Bluecoat and wider Liverpool community, as well as of research and CDA networks. Michelle is now a member of Bluecoat’s Colonial Legacies & Contemporary Art network, and its specialist Think Tank for Echoes and Origins. She has also contributed to Bluecoat’s website and digital archive development as a professional social media manager and engaged with University of Liverpool’s postgraduate research community as well as Blue Coat pupils.