Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Belem Tower, Liverpool

img_4510.jpgIf you go to the corner of Aigburth Drive and Croxteth Drive, on the edge of Liverpool's Sefton Park, and look upwards, you will find a melancholy sight. A derelict 1950s tower block looms above you, its lower windows tinned up and its upper windows smashed or missing. This is one of Liverpool's earliest postwar high rises, completed in 1959. Look closer, and you will see a small green and white sign on the block's lower left-hand wall, which reads 'Belem Tower.' 'Belem' is Portuguese for 'Bethlehem,' and is also the name of a waterfront district of the Portuguese capital, Lisbon.The original Belem Tower, the Torre de Belém is one of Lisbon's most famous landmarks and a UNESCO world heritage site. You might wonder why a derelict 1950s tower block in Liverpool is named after a 15th-century Portuguese landmark. It's a great question, and the answer - believe it or not - is right in front of you. Step closer to the base of the tower block and you will notice, lurching forward at a precarious angle, a red sandstone pillar that also bears the words 'Belem Tower.' This pillar, as you might have guessed, is - or was - a gatepost, like so many others you will see flanking the entrances to the grand villas ranged around Sefton Park. Liverpool's original Belem Tower was a grand mansion. It occupied this site for some eighty years, more than fifty of them in the hands of one family.

Belem Tower and the Adam Family

belem tower gatepost

Liverpool's Belem Tower was constructed between 1871 and 1881 for the family of James and Penelope Adam. James was a fruit broker who, with his family, imported oranges and other fruit from Portugal. Both he and Penelope had lived in Lisbon, where their families had settled - in fact, Penelope was born there - so it seems that the name of their home was chosen to remind them of their adopted city. They married in Lisbon in 1859 and returned to the UK, making their first home in Liverpool's Grove Park , where their only son Arthur de Bels Adam (1860-1870) was born. They would have four more children: Edith (1863-1924), Maud (1864-1867), Beatrice (1867-1959), and Penelope (1870-1915).

We first find James and Penelope at the newly-constructed Belem Tower on the night of the 1881 census, with their three surviving daughters, their cousin Fanny Adam, and five female servants. Unfortunately,they would not enjoy their new home together for long: James died at Belem Tower in 1884 at the age of 57. The following year, the Liverpool Mercury records that the occupants of Belem Tower were selling 'a modern-shaped Landau, by Mulliner, in excellent order and condition' (18 Mar 1885: 3), while five years after that, the same paper published a plea for the return to Belem Tower of 'a pair of Gold SPECTACLES in Case' lost near the Bank of Liverpool (3 Apr. 1890:1).

Belem Tower and gatepost

After James's death, Penelope and her three unmarried daughters would remain at Belem Tower for half a century. We find them on the censuses for 1891, 1901 and 1911, always with three female servants. The younger Penelope died in 1915, aged 45, and her sister Edith in 1924, aged 61. When the elder Penelope died in 1934 at the family's second home (The Cave, Heswall) at the advanced age of 94, it seems that Beatrice left her family home for good, although she marked her attachment to it in a curious way. She spent the last twenty-five years of her life at a smaller property on Croxteth Road with the unusual name of Meleb: that is, Belem, spelled backwards!

I don't yet know exactly what happened to Belem Tower once the Adam family had left in 1934. According to the Ordnance Survey, the house was still standing in 1954, but by 1959 it had gone, replaced by the city's first modern tower block. That tower block is now abandoned, and at the time of writing, the future of the site remains uncertain.

What did Liverpool's original Belem Tower look like?

We haven't yet managed to find a photograph or drawing of Liverpool's original Belem Tower. But the plan on the right, from an 1893 ordnance survey map, gives us an idea of its size and shape. The road you can see curving to the top right of the image is Aigburth Drive; Belem Tower was located at no. 1. The main entrance was at the north east of the plot, which covered some 3000 square metres and was bounded by trees. As you can see, the main driveway swept around to the left as you entered, with space for carriages to turn, while a narrower, service driveway led up the right-hand side of the house to the coachman's cottage at the rear, concealed from the main house by another line of trees. The house itself was oriented more or less east-west, with what looks like a round tower or turret to the right (northern side) of the facade. The 1911 census entry tells us that the main house had thirteen bedrooms and four sitting rooms.



Plan of Belem Tower ©Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2013). All rights reserved. (1893)".