Tag politics

Liverpool’s Radicals

Photograph of the Robert Tressell Banner, made for the Robert Tressell Society in Hastings Taken in June 2005

Robert Tressell Banner, made for the Robert Tressell Society (from Wikimedia)

The theme for 2011 in Liverpool could be said to be a celebration of the city’s heroes. This centres around the anniversary of the death of Robert Tressel, author of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. This ‘socialist novel’ has been described as ‘seminal’, and sought to publicise the author’s criticisms of the greed of capitalism. It was also possibly the first novel about the class war.

Liverpool has a long and proud tradition of philanthropy (and class war…), which are still in evidence today, so although Tressel (born Noonan) had only a fleeting relationship with the city (he died here on his way to Canada in 1911) there is certainly a lot to talk about in this year of Liverpool City of Radicals.

In a couple of future posts I’m going to talk about the radicals, philanthropists and pioneers who have shaped Merseyside’s landscape (in quite broad terms!), but it’s worth starting off with a little round-up of the recent and future events celebrating Liverpool’s influential sons and daughters of all types.

Ragged Trousered Philanthropist

Robert Tressell, who died at the Royal Infirmary and was buried in Walton Cemetery, will be celebrated across February in the city.

A memorial service for the author took place on 3rd February, including a recreation of his funeral. Then, readings from his most famous novel will happen on various days until 15th February.

See the Liverpool City Council Robert Tressell Celebration page for three radical events which happened in 1911, and the plans for this year’s commemorations.

Liverpool Discovers

One thing Liverpool is doing more and more prominently each year is art, and so Liverpool Discovers will be one of the best ways to find out about the great discoveries and inventions which can call Liverpool ‘home’.

Liverpool, the Wirral and St Helens will be the venue for a trail of art installations celebrating the lives of Liverpool’s greats, from Stephenson and his Rocket and Jeremiah Horrocks to suffragette Mary Bamber and Ronald Ross, who discovered malaria’s mode of transmission in the world’s first school of tropical medicine.

There’s now a map for you to download and follow to take in all these artworks, so get your walking shoes on and hit the streets (from 14th February!).

Set in Stone

Slightly less Liverpool-centric, and with a questionable level of focus, is a project which is part of the Central Library redevelopment.

Liverpool City Council wants you to have your say in the selection of works to adorn a ‘Literary Pavement’ leading up to the entrance. Titles from books, cinema and music have been nominated, meaning Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band sits next to The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

As I mentioned, this is less Liverpool-centric, but another element of the project is to have a ‘Literary Liverpool’ display on the rear of the building. This gives all its space to Scousers, including Beryl Bainbridge, the late Brian Jacques, and Robert Tressell himself (ok, so we seem to have fully adopted him as an honorary Scouser).

Your role is to vote for who lands on the Pavement and who sticks to the Wall, so go and vote!

Recommended Reading

Cover of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, by Robert Tressell (Penguin Classics Edition)I must admit I was only vaguely aware of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists before late last year, and had no idea of the Liverpool connection. So I’ve bought the book, and will let you know my thoughts on it if it’s relevant to this blog. I’m certainly looking forward to picking it up, and if you want to buy a copy while supporting this blog, just click on the book cover to the left. If you buy a copy after using that link (even if you choose another edition!) then a small slice of the profits will go into helping this blog break even.

If you do read it (or already have done!) let me know your thoughts! What have philanthropists ever done for Liverpool? Were their gifts to the city just guilt for their own wealthy status (often earned on the backs of the working class)? Or were they truly trying to change Liverpool for the better? Perhaps it was both.

Next time I’ll explore a couple of people who’ve had a ‘radical’ effect on the city. Who should I include?

The British Side of Liverpool Cosmopolitanism

Photograph of the Welsh Presbyterian Church on Princes Road, Toxteth, Liverpool

Welsh Presbyterian Church on Princes Road, Toxteth (Old Liverpool Church, by Exacta2a)

Amongst the many things Liverpool is famous for, its long-held cosmopolitan nature is probably one of those which Scousers are less annoyed at being reminded of.

Liverpool’s long history of being a world port, along with its notorious role in the African slave trade have perhaps more than any other factors stamped their effects on the city’s image as a – cliche alert – ‘melting pot’.

But what I’ve only recently come to appreciate is just how influential incomers from our own isles have contributed to the landscape and character – the atmosphere – of Liverpool. As a landscape archaeologist this has usually been of little interest to me (except where it affects road names and ‘territories’. But since reading Our Liverpool, and now finally making headway with the giant Liverpool 800 book I’ve come to realise just what ‘Liverpool Cosmopolitanism’ can really mean.

I also feel a greater understanding of the way people from all over Britain (the ‘Celtic’ states) come together to make Liverpool the individualistic town it is.

The British in Liverpool

I can’t judge as an expert, but Liverpool 800 draws the lines between the characters of Irish, Scottish and Welsh immigrants fairly clearly

The Liverpool-Irish

The Irish are some of the most famous of Liverpool’s incomers. Both sides of my family (the Crilleys and the Greaneys) came over from Ireland in the 19th Century, and I can guess that a large proportion of Liverpudlians reading this could trace a similar lineage of their own.

A huge number of Irish migrants came over fleeing the potato famine in the middle of the 19th Century. Their numbers rose quickly and they were often stuffed into tiny and unclean court houses. They arrived poor, lived in squalid conditions and had a reputation for harbouring diseases in their communities, and conflicts often arose out of this with their neighbours (see below).

On the other side of the coin, yet still probably due to their great numbers, the Irish community contributed more than other groups to politics. The sectarian troubles of their homeland were brought across the Irish Sea, but in addition to the differences between Protestant and Catholics the Irish community took part in electoral politics. Irish Catholic clergy were elected to School Boards. Pub landlords like Hugh McAnulty and Jack Langan lent their premises to meetings of various activist groups. Austin Harford, a successful cloth merchant, led the Irish Party from 1903 to 1923, and became the first Catholic mayor in 1943.

As Liverpool 800 has it, ‘Liverpool-Irish’ was a distinct ‘hypenated identity’. Even as some sought to distance themselves from their roots as a way to “effect the quickest way out of the Liverpool ‘ghetto'”, it seems that as a distinct group the Irish were very active in all parts of Liverpool life (William Brown, funder of the Museum which sits on the road named after him, was an Ulsterman).

Cymry Lerpwl

The Welsh, in contrast to the Irish, appear at first to have kept themselves to themselves (or “looked after their own”, Liverpool 800, p.345). Having not come as far as the Scottish and Irish, many only stayed as long as it took to make their fortune and move back home. Others came seasonally to work, travelling along the coastal trade routes of north Wales.

This insularity was exaggerated by the language barrier that the Irish never found trouble overcoming. The Welsh were known for their building skills, and the various groups of ‘Welsh Streets’ of ‘Welsh Houses’ became a hallmark. In addition Liverpool became dotted with the Welsh chapels which can still be seen across the city today. In a way these were enclaves which may have helped isolate the Welsh from wider involvement in, for example, politics.

However, in later years there were movements to end this isolation. One of the problems was seen to be the lack of education which Welsh migrants had. Many were labourers and it was felt that this lack of further skills prevented the Welsh from becoming something more than admired builders and architects.

Even as the Eisteddfod and St David’s Day celebrations took place on Merseyside there were encouragements to “Amalgamate … with Anglo-Saxons – in other words, the English”. Though “they loved their language [and] they loved their country” they also “loved their Queen”.

However, perhaps due to their lower numbers, although they took part in electoral politics they never left the mark in the way the Liverpool-Irish did.

Liverpool Caledonians

As Belchem and MacRaild admit in their chapter ‘Cosmopolitan Liverpool’, the Scots are relatively unstudied in their roles within Liverpool history. But the journal Porcupine suggested in 1877 that “had it not been for the enterprise of the Scotchmen, Liverpool would not have emerged from its early obscurity”.

What surprised me therefore was that it was individual Scottish men, rather than communities, which seem to have made their mark on Liverpool. Sir John Gladstone, father of a future Prime Minister, moved to the city from Leith. He was a commercial man, as were many of his fellow Scots, including Samuel Smith, the ‘Cotton King of Liverpool’.

The professional contribution of Scotland was not confined to commerce. Dr. Duncan, the first Medical Officer for Health, was just one of the leading lights in medicine of Scottish origin.

The skilled Scots tended to cluster further from the docks than their Irish contemporaries, right on the outskirts of the north end of the city. This, Belchem and MacRaild tell us, was partly due to no love being lost between the Scottish and Irish. Indeed the reputation of the Irish for living in filthy and overcrowded courts was not confined to the Scots, though perhaps the records left us by those such as Dr Duncan mean we are left in no doubt as to the Scottish opinion.

British Liverpool

As I’ve said, as someone more usually interested in the bricks and mortar of the city, and the landscapes of roads and fields, the topic of people has always played second fiddle to the built environment. But this chapter in Liverpool 800 has give me a glimpse into the roles into which the ‘Celtic’ nations fitted in Victorian Liverpool.

Having said that, one of the things which struck me were the well-defined lines between what the Irish immigrant could expect to find when he arrived from Belfast compared to the life of the Welsh builder or the Scottish shipwright.

Was the truth of the matter so clear cut? I’m sure it wan’t, but what impressions do you get of the Irish, Scots and Welsh in historic Liverpool? Was it the numerous and politicised Irish? The skilled or highly educated middle and upper class Scotsman? And the quiet, insular Welsh communities with their occasional outbursts of Eisteddfod extravaganzas?

Or none of these things?

Heritage in a tough climate – what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?

Photo of University of Liverpool and the Cathlic Cathedral, by Neill Shenton

This and That, by neill.shenton via Flickr

I can’t help feeling mixed emotions about recent developments for Liverpool’s heritage.

Yesterday the first object – a carriage from the Overhead Railway – was due to move in to the new Museum of Liverpool (although it was delayed by the weather). But then today we hear that the ever-present ‘current economic climate’ (my, am I getting more sick of that phrase every day) means that the National Conservation Centre, a favourite of mine, and Sudley House are at risk from closure.

The shutting down of the North West Development Agency isn’t looking like good news for our museums and other cultural institutions either. Though they plan to continue their previously NWDA-funded projects.

What is your point of view? Will our heritage projects be nipped in the bud? Or can the museums, galleries and theatres come out of this stronger?

What are the long term implications?

Leave! Before it’s too late!

Although according to one report, it already is too late. Policy Exchange, a ‘right-of-centre’ Think Tank have branded Liverpool (among others) as beyond help. All the regeneration efforts are wasting money – this city on the north west coast will never be as rich as London, so what’s the point? Well, rather than telling us Merseysiders to do ourselves a favour and take a long run off the Pier Head, Tim Leunig and James Swaffield suggest we pack our bags for London. They go on to say that Liverpool has lost the very reason for its existence now that the port is no longer in its Victorian heyday.

Messrs Leunig and Swaffield have concluded that there is no other reason for continuing the rich adventure of life if you are not making as much money as possible. Now that the port of Liverpool is not what is was, Liverpool should just bite the bullet, and shut up shop. Then we can all move to London and start raking in the cash. Of course, Mr. Leunig is London based, but did come to Liverpool once, when researching “cotton towns”, so clearly he knows what he’s talking about…

The Liverpool Echo details the story, as I’m sure will many other sites who object to Bradford, Newcastle, Manchester and Sunderland being dismissed so easily. They also publish his email address: t.leunig@lse.ac.uk. Let him know what you think.

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