The latest #LiverpoolLessOrdinary is a bit different. Sure, we’ve focused on women, men, Scousers, émigré’s and many more during our spotlight series, but this time we’re talking about bricks and mortar. But not about just any old bricks and mortar – this is the story of a building with a heartbeat. And it belongs to the city. By Alan O’Hare.

“You instantly fall in love with The Florrie when you come into the building – it’s a fascinating story with the vast history and memories she holds. Everyone who visits her leaves feeling a sense of ownership and protection to ensure we look after the place for future generations. That sounds really cheesy! But, it’s true, you really do fall in love with this place.” Anne Lundon, chief executive oficer of The Florence Institute, is talking about the workplace she calls home. But you can tell the building – situated on Mill Street, Liverpool 8 – means so much more to her than just a job.

“Absolutely,” she says. “The Florrie’s story is more than just the restoration of a building – it was the restoration of community pride, values and spirit – and showed what so-called ordinary people are capable of if their vision is backed by the locals, funders and other friends.” This tale of #LiverpoolLessOrdinary, then, is one of bricks and mortar. It’s a tale that contains inspiration, despair and second chances… and it could be the history of Liverpool itself.

The Florrie’s story takes place in the distance between the dreams we have for our city and the reality we live with every day.

Tell us about The Florrie, Anne…
We call it the ‘Miracle on Mill Street’ – when I first took up my post one of the volunteers told me that I would never hear a more positive and empowering story than the campaign to save and restore The Florrie.

They were right!
The story will hopefully inspire other community groups up and down the land who are struggling to save their own precious heritage assets, too.

Back to the history of the place – what are the facts about The Florrie?
She’s a Grade II listed community building in the heart of Dingle and first opened her doors in 1889, built by local philanthropist, Magistrate and Mayor of Liverpool, Bernard Hall, who named the building in memory of his daughter, Florence, who died tragically at the age of just 22. He wanted to create in her memory a place of recreation and instruction for the poor and working boys of the city – as a local magistrate he knew of the links between poverty and anti-social behaviour and through The Florrie he was able to provide constructive activities.

Some of those activities took hold of some of Liverpool’s most famous children, too, didn’t they?
It went on to become a city-wide hub for many sporting and musical greats, including the late Alan Rudkin MBE, Dick Tiger and Gerry Marsden… Gerry learned to play the guitar here!

Then came the eighties…
The Florrie fell into disrepair during the economic decline of the eighties and closed its doors for almost 23 years. What followed, eventually, was an almighty campaign to save and restore her.

The Liverpool Echo’s ‘Stop The Rot’ campaign being the catalyst?
Being featured in the ‘Stop The Rot’ campaign and its meetings elevated our plight to platforms we couldn’t have reached alone. It gave our project, and plans for a restored Florrie, credibility and instilled confidence in a range of agencies, funders and (more so) the people of Liverpool. The campaign featured and reported on the key achievements of The Florence Institute Trust along our journey and supported us in keeping people’s hopes alive through the many years it took to realise our dreams… and in 2012 we reopened after a £7 million restoration programme.

The inside is looking good now, then?
We’ve got a Grand Hall with a stage, a sports hall/gym, library and our ‘Heritage Resource and Learning Centre’. We have a small community cafe, meeting rooms and managed workspace for ten charities and social enterprises. We also offer a wide variety of participatory activities that are open to all members of the community: music lessons, art class, local history, genealogy, knit and natter group, sewing classes, sit and get fit classes, movie club and much more.

How and when did you get involved?
I was appointed as chief executive officer in May 2015 and was charged with the almighty task of bringing The Florrie to a sustainable position…

So far, so good! Can you describe a typical day for us?
No one hour is ever the same, here, never mind any typical day! We open at 8am and close at 9pm – during those 13 hours absolutely anything can happen: Ricky Tomlinson popping in for a cuppa’, Michael Head having a guitar jam with Timo from The Tea Street Band in our music room, famous DJ’s calling in to have a look around or one of the Florrie old boys turning up to share memories with us! We just don’t know who’ll walk through our doors… and that’s one of the amazing and exciting things about working at The Florrie. We do have a regular programme of activities that take place through our Community Hub Programme, though, which are all free.

Tell us about some of the things that have happened since you reopened…
The Florrie reopened in 2012 with a large community celebration and we had a royal visit to officially reopen the place, in January 2013, by HRH The Prince of Wales… this was following an initial visit from him, in 2007, when the building was derelict. We’d had over 30,000 visits by the end of the first year and throughout 2013 we ran themed exhibitions, with the likes of boxer Tony Bellew opening events and Alan Rudkin’s son and grandson opening a ‘Florrie Packs a Punch’ exhibition. More recent highlights have included Ricky Tomlinson shows, a snooker evening with Steve Davis, The Anfield Wrap’s event with John Barnes, hosting hip hop artist and poet Black Ice, Jimmy Cauty’s ‘ADP Riot’ tour and now Jamie Reid’s exhibition.

‘Casting Seeds’, the Jamie Reid exhibition, is capturing attentions…
Having Jamie exhibit such a vast amount of his work here is a major event for us and, alongside Jimmy Cauty’s tour, is one of our highlights this year. He’s a genius in how he has used different parts of the building to display his work – including the original Sex Pistol mural that was shipped in from Milan. Even more special is the additional stuff Jamie has done for The Florrie, including an exclusive reprint of his ‘God Save The Queen’ print, redesigned as ‘God Save The Florrie’. That’s helping us raise funds. Jamie and Jimmy have put us on the arts’ map as a credible venue to display in and an alternative gallery space in the heart of a local community.

Giving back is what it’s all about, hey?
The biggest highlight for us is both Jimmy and Jamie agreeing to be patrons for our community arts and music programme, alongside DJ Janice Long and Violette Records.

We’ve all noticed The Florrie in 2016. Where does the place currently stand?
I say to people that the easy job was raising £7 million to restore the place – the hard work is sustaining it. As a charity, we rely on grant funding to continue the free activities we deliver and support our overheads. We also generate income from our commercial arm of the charity through events, room bookings and rental income from our managed workspace. We were further supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund earlier this year, in our transition to make a step change and generate additional income through new activity – specifically music and arts. We know The Florrie has to better position itself to become self-sustainable and the ‘God Save The Florrie’ t-shirts are just one way in which we know we can generate unrestricted income.

That t-shirt and its slogan have provided a lifeline. Tell us how it happened?
Few people know this, but Jamie Reid was involved in the original campaign to save The Florrie in the nineties and produced a one-off ‘God Save The Florrie’ print. Jump forward to December 2015 and Michael Head played a gig here to raise awareness of us as a possible music venue – and it was Mick’s idea to use the print and put it on a t-shirt. Mick wore it at that gig and we got so many requests following it, that it’s become an iconic fundraiser for us. They are very much in demand…

That’s great, it really is. But what’s needed to help secure progression into the future for The Florrie?
In no particular order, full sponsorship of our existing and an enhanced community programme, enabling us to really reposition ourselves to ensure financial sustainability and enable us to support and develop our volunteer programme, train local people and create employment and training opportunities for local young people. A full calendar of music and arts events/gigs in which the building is used to its full capacity, too, and to maximise commercial income to protect our heritage.

We need to find a genie to grant three wishes or a benevolent millionaire!
Do you know any?!

I’ll keep my eye out. Can you put your finger on what is so special about the place?
The people. It’s no easy feat sustaining The Florrie – nor was it to save her – but there’s so much credit due to all involved and we shouldn’t forget that. Blood, sweat and tears have been shed over the years and many a sleepless night… with more to come I’m sure. But The Florrie always has been, and always will be, a labour of love.

Pic by John Johnson