Text and all photos: Eddy Rhead
Even its most staunch supporter would be hard pressed to claim that the town of Widnes, on the banks of the River Mersey, is a beautiful place. It is literally dominated by the huge Fiddlers Ferry power station and is home to some of the dirtier remnants of Britain’s manufacturing industry. It is not awash with attractive architecture, and with the exception of the majestic bridge that crosses the Mersey and connects it with its sibling Runcorn, good examples of twentieth century architecture are rarer than Rugby Union supporters in these parts.
So it makes the discovery of the Kingsway Health Centre, from 1939 by the joyfully named Austen T Parrott, an even more rewarding experience.
Opened just three weeks before the outbreak of war, Kingsway Health Centre replaced an inadequate array of rooms and buildings that previously provided medical facilities throughout the town.
Some of its stylistic exuberance can perhaps be attributed to the youthfulness of Austen T Parrott, who was just 29 when he designed the Health Centre.
Parrott was born in Luton in 1910 and was articled to the family firm; the Luton based Brown and Parrott. One of the more prestigious commissions carried out by the firm at this time was for the Luton and Dunstable Hospital. By 1933 Parrott, after a brief spell in Newcastle upon Tyne, was working in the Luton Borough Engineers’ Department. This appointment was short lived because in 1934 he arrived at Widnes Borough Engineers’ Department. Parrott did not qualify as an architect until 1939 but he was soon busy and in the same year he designed the Health Centre.
The height of modernity, the Health Centre cost a modest £18,000. It was the showpiece of the Borough. The Mayor and assorted dignitaries attending its opening, announcing it to be a ‘Great Blessing’ and praising the beautiful building and first rate facilities. Built by the Warrington firm of Atlas, there is high quality work throughout, much of it thankfully still surviving. One can see many of the features one would expect from a building of the day: long horizontal bands of windows, a symmetrical front elevation, curvaceous ironwork pseudo-balconies and cubist lighting brackets. The railings surrounding the building may well have been added after the war but are attractive enough in their own right to be worthy of mention.
There have been some alterations internally but the area of most interest is the staircase with a lovely nickel silver handrail and green Vitrolite lining the walls, all bathed in light from the double height window. The adjoining door to the waiting room has a characteristic semi-circular window giving just a whiff of Deco mixed in with the whiff of disinfectant.
Kingsway Health Centre, as well as being an attractive period building, has certain historical significance. Built in a time before the National Health Service it must surely have been a rarity, providing as it did a wide range of health care provision for the surrounding community in one purpose built building. Reports and plans from the time show a variety of different uses for rooms; chiropody, dentistry, a variety of consulting rooms and even a pram store providing a truly ‘cradle to grave’ service.
As for the architect, Parrott became an Associate of RIBA in 1941 and after war service moved to Wolverhampton. By 1949 he was the Chief Architect at Walsall, later promoted to Borough Architect, a post he held until his death at 60 in 1970.
The building is currently unlisted but sits within a conservation area. It was in use as an NHS Trust facility up until late 2006 but has been lying empty since then and is now owned by the local borough council, Halton. Thankfully the building has a few friends in the Borough and the local conservation officer has made sure the building is well secured so vandals and arsonists are deterred. Kingsway Health Centre’s future is still unsure but it would be nice to think a listing would add a certain level of protection to this important and attractive building, especially in area with such a dearth of good twentieth century architecture.
Eddy Rhead is a Trustee of The Twentieth Century Society and Secretary of the North West Group. A freelance writer and photographer and represents the Society on Manchester’s Historic Buildings and Conservation Area Panel and is a member of the casework committee of Manchester’s Civic Society
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