There isn’t a more iconic Merseyside building than the Royal Liver Building. It sits at the Pier Head, the point at which Liverpool’s wealth flowed into the Victorian and Edwardian town. Its sister buildings embody one of the great shipping companies of Liverpool’s heyday and the Port itself, respectively. And it’s crowned with the two most famous representations of Liverpool’s symbolic and legendary avians.
Even if it hadn’t been named the Liver Building when it was built, no doubt we’d be calling it that today anyway.
It has a long and fascinating history, from the beginnings of Royal Liver Assurance as the Liverpool Lyver Burial Society. A group of working class men set up the Society to ensure that none of them suffered the ignominy of a “pauper’s” (i.e. unmarked) grave.
From these humble beginnings, the society outgrew several headquarters before settling on the purpose-built Liver Building, which opened in 1911. As I mention in my book, the secret of the Liver Building was that it was much bigger than Royal Liver Assurance needed. The cost of the huge building was offset by letting out the other floors to other companies.
In the 100-plus years since then, no image to represent Liverpool in its entirety is complete without it. And something that I’ve only recently appreciated is how world famous the building is. It’s made it into at least two computer games: SimCity 3000 (1999) and Horizon Zero Dawn (2017) for a start.
Legend has it that if the liver birds fly from the turrets, then Liverpool will cease to exist. I don’t really know what the hell that means, but put it this way: the liver birds on the Liver Building will survive for as long as Liverpool does.
Royal Liver Building history
A new era began in 2011, a century after the building opened, when Royal Liver Assurance merged with the Royal London Group. The building was put up for sale, for the first time in its history, in 2016. Corestate Capital and Farhad Moshiri (Everton FC’s majority shareholder) bought it for £48 million. It’s now home to 16 tenant companies.
It’s this change of ownership which has led to the creation of a public tour, under the banner of RLB360. The tour opened its doors in April 2019. I was lucky enough to get tickets on one of the most beautiful weather days in May.
The Royal Liver Building was the tallest building in Britain from its opening in 1911 until the Shell Centre opened in 1961. It therefore seems fitting that the focus of RLB360 is the access it gives to the roof. But your ticket also gives you access to a small exhibition in the basement, displaying photos and short history snippets of the building, as well as a wealth of stats and facts.
You can also have your photo taken in front of a green screen, inserting yourself into a handful of historic and modern images. They’re a little pricey to buy prints (as you might expect), but there’s no obligation however much you play with it.
After a short health and safety briefing (no leaning over the edge!) you’re go via lift to the 11th floor, the topmost office storey, and out onto a lower roof level. Here you get your first impressive views of the Mersey, town and the docks. More importantly, as this level you’re closer to the giant clock faces (bigger than those housing Big Ben) than you’ll probably have been before. It really brings home how massive those hands are!
Most of the attraction of this tour is to get close to the clock faces, the architectural details, and those birds. You also get a 10 minute video, projected onto the walls inside the river-front clock tower.
The video starts with the clocks themselves, then transporting you back in time to the construction project of 1911. From here its off through the Blitz raids of 1941, pop psychedelia and Culture Capital fireworks.
It’s a nutshell summary of 100 years of history, but there’s nothing new for anyone who’s heard of World War II and the Beatles. Still, the animated liver birds were pretty cool!
It was a privilege to come so close to the workings of the Liver Building clocks; the mechanisms provided the incessant soundtrack to the film.
After this comes the final flight of spiral stairs onto the upper roof level. Now you’re half way up one of the two Royal Liver Building turrets, above the clocks. Here are the promised 360° views from Snowdonia to the Pennines. This is the first time I’ve seen both sides of the Wirral without being in an aircraft.
You can also see a great deal of the Mersey, from the windfarms in Liverpool Bay, past ferries big and small, and off to Tranmere and Runcorn. You get a new angle on the city centre into bargain too, and the two football stadia to the east.
A new view of Liverpool
This new attraction is going to be of most interest to locals wanting to see inside their most iconic building. You don’t see much of the Royal Liver Building’s innards, except for the lift, stairs and clock room. It’s all about the views (hence the name) and a smattering of history. For those who don’t mind how they get their aerial fix, the big wheel at the King’s Dock is probably just as good (though you can linger longer on the Liver Building roof). But it’s the experience of being in this precise building which is its big draw.
The display in the basement is good, with just enough to keep you entertained while you wait for your tour.
If I have to criticise something, it was the jagged feel of ‘newness’ that should smooth off with time. The tour guides, while very friendly and polite, lacked the easy-going attitude that made the tours of the Old Dock and the Queensway Tunnel so enjoyable. I’m sure they’ll relax into their roles before long, and feel more confident going off-script. There’s some return value in feeling that your tour guide put their own spin on things; that the other guides would give you a different experience. Whether this is something the building’s owners would accept is another matter, but I hope it’s the way things go.
I learned a couple of things. Firstly, the Royal Liver Building is built from reinforced concrete (one of the first buildings in the world). Secondly, there are three clocks on the river side, but only one on the Strand side. Yes, I know you can tell this from just looking, but if you’d asked me I’d probably have said three clocks on both towers! It pays to be more observant…
More information: you can find out more about the tour, and buy tickets, from http://rlb360.com/
Scenes from a tour: Liverpool from the Liver Building roof
My interest in landscape is not just restricted to history and archaeology. I’m just as interested in the modern urban landscape (of Liverpool in the case of this blog), because it’s the product of everything that went before. Archaeologists recognise the ‘layers’ of landscape development as truly as they see the ordered layers in the side of a trench denoting Romans following Iron Age communities following etc etc etc.
And as I’ve researched Liverpool’s historic landscape and the landscapes of urban zones around the world (and as I’ve lived in several very distinct cities myself), I’ve come to realise the role landscape history plays in our day to day lives. This happens whether we think we’re interacting with ‘The Past’ or not.
And so a project that naturally caught my eye started with a van called Ed, and has so far developed into Placed (‘Place Education’), which until Sunday 23rd September 2018 inhabited a slice of the old George Henry Lee building on Houghton Street.
Placed want to know what influences changes in shop occupancy, and the impact of those changes on the use of the surrounding area. In this way it ties in to my own interests.
My encounter with Placed came in the form of a guided tour by Ronnie Hughes, who many readers will recognise as the author of the A Sense of Place blog. He’s also involved in local community initiatives such as Granby 4 Streets and the Mystery Literary Festival (though he’d be the first to tell you he’s just part of a team). And now a PhD in Sociology and History!
Having read Ronnie’s blog for what seems like the best part of a decade, I was very much looking forward to meeting the man in person, especially listening to him talk about a project where our respective interests overlap.
Breathing Spaces, giving the walk its title, are the spaces Ronnie has identified in any given city which let visitors to the centre can use to take a moment to reflect.
Ideal Breathing Spaces should be noticeably quiet – away from the bustle of shoppers, cars, buskers, soap-boxers – sheltered to lesser or greater extent from the elements, and Free. Free has a capital F for me because (taking a cue from the Open Source movement) it should be Free as in ‘Free Speech’ as well as in ‘free beer’. In its Free-ness it should be inviting, in that you should be in no doubt that you can come here, sit down, eat your own food perhaps, without being moved on. A truly communal public space that welcomes.
Do we have any of those in Liverpool? And how well do they match up to these ideals?
I must say now that these ‘ideals’ are ones I felt came across during the walk, and are not necessarily culled from a shopping list that Ronnie has made!
It was a small group on this, the third of three walks. This made it easy to exchange ideas and chat about our own takes on what Ronnie was describing. The youngest member of the group must have been no more than 10 years old, and even she was engaged with the things we were talking about!
Literally Going to Town
We first shared our ideas of what ‘going to town’ means to us. It means (to our group) shopping, socialising, going to work, doing touristy things and a few other things besides.
But this is in some contrast to the landscape of town, which can very easily feel like it’s all about shopping. This is particularly true since the arrival of Liverpool One. Town is a shopping landscape, and so Breathing Spaces might merely be seen as a ‘break from shopping’. But that would be to misunderstand what many people are in town to do.
Ronnie had promised to take us to the best Breathing Space first, before taking us on a tour of other spaces that don’t do such a great job. The walk set out from George Henry Lee’s and headed first to the garden of Bluecoat Chambers. Why is this garden such a good space? Well, it is a secluded space, quiet and green, with seats and benches. Although the gates are locked at the end of the day (and were locked when Ronnie did a reccie earlier that morning!) you can come and go as you like. Even better, some of the tables inside the Bluecoat are free for you to sit without being obliged to buy a coffee from the café there.
In many ways this is the ideal: a Free space where you can come whenever you like, and where you’re not obliged to carry on your purchasing. You can truly take a break.
However, where the Bluecoat falls down is its obscurity. On the other walks Ronnie has taken, many did not know of its existence. And of those who did, they (and this included me until today) assumed that all the seating inside is for customers only. But that’s not the case, so next time you need a moment to yourself, pop into the Bluecoat cafe, head to the tables next to the Children’s Corner, and take the weight off.
Public squares, car parks and through routes
But Bluecoat was a model student compared to the rest of the class, who could learn a thing or two…
I’ll not bore you with a detailed itinerary, suffice to mention a few common themes which our encounters with the other open spaces looked at.
Free to Breathe
The places we visited were dotted across town. We stopped at ‘Mr Seel’s Garden’, just off Hanover Street. We visited a couple of ‘squares’ (often created through the demolition of old houses) in the Ropewalks area, and we inspected the Breathing Space potential of Liverpool One and Derby Square.
We talked about the responsibility for these areas, and the quality of the space there. Most of the spaces had seating in, but in every case this was lacking in quantity, faced away from each other (so you wouldn’t go there with more than, say, one friend in tow), and was definitely doing its best to discourage the homeless from staying too long. In fact, it seemed designed to prevent anyone from getting too comfortable.
The other common theme was wastage of space. The area outside the Court in Derby Square was huge and flat and broken only by electronic bollards and a few intimidating benches to one side. Part of Ropewalks Square off Bold Street was a privately owned rectangle of uneven flagstones. Formerly the site of Christian’s grocer’s, the place is now vacant, empty, and unused, and yet private. Besides the fact that its a shame the grocer’s was moved on by the owner, its a double crime that someone can ‘sit’ on this space and reserve the right to keep people from it. It should be part of a revamped Ropewalks Square plan.
And this square, in common with the other spaces we saw, felt more like a cut through, from one place to another. The paving pattern reflected this, directing walkers straight across. It isn’t a place to stop, to pass the time of day, to people watch. And yet it could be, with a little bit of clever planning.
There are mature trees in these spaces now, and a smattering of seating. With some decent landscaping, people could come to these spots to rest, chat, or spend a moment of quiet contemplation away from the rush. A path that wound around planting would help ‘trap’ people (in the best way possible) and encourage them to stay a while. Not to mention that such a space would be more attractive to everyone, passers-by included!
But with Freedom comes great responsibility. Who would care for these places? Isn’t maintenance and redesign expensive?
Well, is it any more expensive than the street sweeping that must follow a heavy Saturday night in the Ropewalks? Plus, as Ronnie pointed out, an increasing number of people are moving into these areas. You can imagine guerilla gardeners or ‘friends of’ groups attaching themselves to these pockets. You can’t imagine either of these things happening to them in their current ‘bronze throne’ incarnations.
Some of the ‘squares’ are surrounded by bars, who benefit from these public spaces to accommodate bigger crowds and generate that all important footfall. Although they do a sterling job of sweeping up the broken glass and cigarette butts on a (late) Sunday morning, perhaps they should be contributing to the beautification of what also happens to be a space used in the day time.
This clash of daytime economy vs nighttime economy was raised a few times. Couldn’t there be more integration and collaboration?
By the end of the tour it would have been possible to feel that Liverpool had a rather sorry selection of lacklustre spaces. But on the contrary, Ronnie was optimistic. Firstly, these spaces are open. They’re not built on, and are not about to be (although who knows about the Christian’s site?). So that’s the first issue rendered moot.
Secondly, through initiatives like those that Ronnie and the Placed team are involved in, there’s a chance that such ideas can have an impact.
Placed is all about increasing the influence of the community on their local environment. It’s also about showing people just how much influence they can have. There is a lot of skepticism over how much say people have over the changing landscape. People either think they have no say, or are not listened to. While this latter issue is unfortunately often the case in practice (two-day ‘consultations’ on a completed Masterplan, for example), it needn’t be the rule.
Ronnie truly feels that this situation can be turned around, and is working actively, with many others, towards this goal.
The potential to create indoor Breathing Spaces is already there in Liverpool too.
We talked about the Bluecoat cafe, which just needs to be publicised more. But there’s also plenty of vacant space all over the shop (if you’ll pardon the pun). George Henry Lee’s is one example, and there are countless empty shop floors – first storey and upward – down Church Street, Bold Street and Lord Street. We also visited Cavern Walks, which has a nice big empty shop which hasn’t had tenants in a couple of years.
Cavern Walks was built to house hundreds of Lloyd’s Bank staff, who were a captive audience for the shops on the bottom two floors. But Lloyd’s left, and Cavern Walks is not in a great position to get much passing trade. Hence the empty lots.
But if a Breathing Space was set up in there – a place where you knew you could bring your own food, sit a while, sit as long as you like – then it becomes a magnet for people at this end of town.
The same thing applies to other places where this might be implemented. The potential for indoor Breathing Spaces is totally untapped.
We talked about a few other factors. Masterplans like Liverpool One are dropped wholesale on an area, and we heard how it necessitates artificial measures like price controls in order to work. It’s a delicate balance, artificially maintained. This is in contrast to how cities built up in the first place, with businesses cropping up in response to need (with the odd Charter, ahem, to seed the first settlement).
We talked about how residential developments must include a minimum percentage of homes in the ‘affordable’ bracket. Ronnie suggests we should demand portion of indoor Free Space too, especially in town centres.
Towns they are a-changing
Modern town centres are highly planned machines for encouraging spending. But as people move back into the towns and cities they fled from in the 70s and 80s it’s going to become more important that we take into account the other aspects of life: relaxation, contemplation, wandering, thinking, and we’ll need to provide for these things too.
By Ronnie’s thinking, the ideal situation would be one where we have a chain of indoor and outdoor spaces across town where we can plan little breaks and retreats from city centre life. Places where we can predict a spot to sit and think. ‘Going to town’ would then become much more varied in meaning. In fact ‘doing nothing’ might be a meaning in itself! Towns would become just that little bit more relaxed, and attractive, to they eyes and to the feet.
Heritage Breathing Spaces
To bring it back to history for a moment (!), it did cross my mind that museums and galleries can play a big part in this, and to a great extent already do. Although their opening hours are set, there are few other places you have such great license to come in for free, sit where you like, and do absolutely nothing, should the feeling take you. These places also come with a great deal of ‘props’ to inspire a bit of thinking, and are generally peaceful without having the strict Quiet rules of libraries.
I wish Ronnie and Placed the best of luck, and will be following their progress. I also hope to see other groups doing similar things, and would like to see these ideas spread.
Meanwhile, I think I will be keeping my eyes open for previously unnoticed Breathing Spaces wherever I go. I’ll collect them in memory for future reference when needing a moment to myself.
Thanks again to Ronnie for the walk, and the sharing of ideas. I’d like him to know that the first thing I did afterwards was to take my home-made packed lunch to Bluecoat to sit inside and eat it at their tables with great relish!
More information on Placed
Placed home page: https://placed.org.uk/
Placed on Twitter: https://twitter.com/placeded
Ronnie on Twitter: https://twitter.com/asenseofplace1
This website is all about the historic landscape. It’s about how the landscape shapes what happens in the city, and it’s about the landscapes that we invent by living in it. Just think of the ‘Knowledge Quarter’ and the ‘Cavern Quarter’. Though they’re sickly marketing-gimmick names they do acknowledge some of the character that certain areas have built naturally, unconsciously over time. And so it was with great excitement that I found that The City and the City, a brilliant book by China Mieville, had been adapted for the small screen by the BBC.
Note: I’m not intending to have too many spoilers in this post, but I will be talking about the big plot concepts which permeate the whole story. If you’d rather come to the story fresh, go and read the book, or watch the show, first, and come back to this later.
This post isn’t going to be a review of the programme. Suffice to say I loved the book when I first read it, and I loved this adaptation. I recommend both.
My article is about how Liverpool is a star of the show, and the city features centrally. Hell, the main character is played by Liverpool’s own David Morrissey. But he’s not the only Merseyside star of the show. The City and the City is a veritable I Spy of Liverpool locations.
The main concept of the book, on the face of it a police procedural, surrounds the two rival cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma. Besźel is the down-at-heel city where Inspector Tyador Borlú (Morrissey) polices the streets. Ul Qoma is the shiny, high-rise, Shanghai-alike sibling that split from Besźel some years ago. The crucial fact is that the two cities occupy the same space on the map.
Citizens of one must not look at (in fact, must learn to ‘unsee’) the buildings and people in the other city, on pain of apprehension by Breach, the government unit who monitor the invisible and intertwined border.
Suffice to say that when Borlú starts the investigation of a woman murdered in Ul Qoma but dumped on his home turf of Besźel, the Kafka-esque complications of the invisible barrier complicate things enormously.
Tale of Two Cities
How do you film such a high-concept story? The characters have been brainwashed into fearing even accidental interaction with the other side. They almost literally cannot see what they are not allowed to. ‘When in Besźel, see Besźel’, as the propaganda posters remind the good citizens.
Well, of course you need a city with shiny high rises, an ageing red-brick airport, a smattering of Brutalist towers, and some ornate Victorian architecture to give a sense of faded glamour. And you need all this on top of each other, preferably over a network of strange underground arched caverns.
Oh, and of course you need a colossal columned building to act as the central bureaucratic Soviet edifice.
While watching it, what started out as an exciting game of spot-the-landmark soon became an interesting thought process: why was Liverpool a good place to film this programme?
Two cities in one
Liverpool is a complex arrangement of buildings which have grown up over the years. The same goes for the streets of the city.
There are wide boulevards and open plazas. There are narrow streets, Art Deco tunnel entrances on both sides of the river.
There are glass-fronted towers and there are concrete monstrosities (that we love all the same). There are older, sturdier bright white stone office buildings. There are mysterious obelisk-like monuments standing proud, but of uncertain origin.
Liverpool, city of contrasts
Water Street typifies the potential that those working on The City and the City saw for portraying two different cities in the same place.
The north side of the street is a hotch-potch collection of different architectural styles. The groundbreaking Victorian Oriel Chambers sit next to some 1960s egg-box building which is clearly inspired by it. The Town Hall peers round the corner, sticking out beyond the general street line.
The south side of the street, by contrast, is a catalogue of massive yet clean Neolclassical lines. The square bulks of India Buildings and 7 Water Street (an old bank) make a imposing business face that doubles as the wealthy Ul Qoma landscape.
Liverpool Heritage, old and new
What’s often lost in discussion of ‘heritage vs progress’ is this wonderful variety. We can argue til we’re blue in the face whether the old Midland Bank on Dale Street is in keeping with the other offices, or if the Echo really did complain about the ugly pile of stones – the Liver Building – when it was built blocking their view of the Mersey.
But any true heritage campaigner fights for all types of quality building. The idea is that additions to the landscape should improve it, not just boost the ego of the architect. Even more importantly, removals should not be to the detriment of the urban environment, and certainly shouldn’t be pointless demolition.
The City and the City reminds us of this variety by deliberately separating it out. In the story, Tyador Borlú can only see the old and higgledy piggledly world of Besźel, while Ul Qoma is modern and foreign. But the plot inevitably leads him to break that barrier, and discover how the other half live. In his world, the two sides can never be reconciled, but in our world, in our city, they are.
Filming in Liverpool
Using Liverpool as a film set is nothing new. We’ve seen Harry Potter and Captain America gracing the streets of the city, because it can fill in for 1920s-40s New York. Foyles War used it to depict London, Poland, Southampton and France.
But the case of The City and the City is even more impressive. Liverpool stands in for two cities at the same time, in the same place, a city uniquely conceived and arguably unfilmable, except for in this, the City of Cities.
I hear that the interior (bar and club) shots were all filmed in Manchester. But I’d be interested in knowing where other exteriors were filmed. There are a few bonus screenshots below, where I’ve noticed a Merseyside building or streetscape. But let me know if you’ve watched this programme and have noticed any more.
The thing which inspired this website from the outset was the huge number of historic features in Liverpool that we take for granted every day. The Queensway Tunnel is one of them. Thousands of people use it every day to commute between Liverpool and Birkenhead. It’s part of the furniture. And yet it’s easy to forget that this tunnel is nearly 100 years old, and was a pioneer.
It’s even easier to forget just how attractive it is, under Churchill flyover and the mass of toll booths on the Wirral side. Some of the best bits have disappeared forever, such as the beacon which once stood proud at the Liverpool entrance. Birkenhead have kept theirs, yet these are just part of the wonderful design which demonstrates the care paid to civil projects such as this back in those days.
One way of getting to know the Queensway Tunnel better is to take a tour. Merseytravel run tours on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays (5pm) and Saturdays (10am) (more details on the Merseytravel website). The tours start at Georges Dock Building, and show you around the whole of that edifice as well as parts of the tunnel underground.
Our guides were Ryan and Billy, and like the best Scouse tour guides, they were a bit of a double act! They must have done that tour hundreds of times, and yet they presented the tour like two people still in love with their work. They reminded me of the guides on the Old Dock tour, and just as knowledgeable on their specialist subject.
Tour of the Queensway Tunnel
There’s something that always strikes me about George’s Dock Building. Even though I know this ‘fact’, the tour really made it hit home: the whole thing is a ventilation shaft. Fresh air comes in through the ‘shoulder’ of the building, sucked down by massive fans into the bowels of the building. At the same time, air from the roadway is pushed back out of the top of the building.
The offices and control rooms which make up the rest of the the building are cleverly built in around this primary function. The almost unnerving truth is that, when you’re half way around the tour, you’re inside the ventilation system. That’s right: when the fans are spinning round you feel the air being drawn past you as it makes its way out of the tunnel.
But before you cancel your tour tickets, the guides reassure you that the air quality inside the tunnel itself (let alone in the ventilation shafts) is clean. So clean, in fact, that it beats some central Liverpool streets for low pollution levels. That wasn’t always the case, of course. From the 1930s to the 1960s and beyond, the time someone was allowed to work inside the system was restricted to minutes at a time!
Architecture and engineering together in the tunnel
For fear of spoiling it for those who want to go on the tour, I’m not going to give away too many details. Suffice to say that the highlight for me were the original fans (or impellers). They are still used every day to move the air around. They’re huge: so huge that the building was constructed around them, and they won’t be leaving until the building is pulled down!
Other wonderful features are the little details that only a tiny minority would have been expected to see. The lifts are beautifully decorated in art nouveau styles. There are mouldings around the ceiling in the stairwell and on the roof windows in the control room (see gallery below). To increase light levels the interior of the largest chambers are covered in white glazed tile. Even those tiles, though functional, are attractive.
How the general engineering works hand in hand with the architecture is something that you rarely see nowadays done in such a beautiful manner. This was brought home to me as we left at the end of the tour. A Cornish family had just arrived in town and were having a wander around. When we told them what was inside they asked ‘But what was it originally?’ Nope, it’s always been a ventilation shaft! Just a ventilation shaft like they don’t make any more.
Photos of the tunnel
I’ll get out of the way now and let you look at the photos. These are just a few that I took on the Queensway Tunnel tour. All the details are in the captions – click for larger versions!
The town grew up around a ‘dark pool’, from which is took its name. The pool flowed into a wide river which would one day be famous across the globe, almost synonymous with the town. The river in turn empties into the Irish Sea, for a long time an important trading route both east-west and north-south.
As technology moved on, the river’s banks became crowded with masts, and docks to hold those masts. Eventually, the ancient pool was lost beneath the city’s streets – the land was simply more valuable – but it is known that the stream which fed the pool still flows underground, buried not lost, along with remains of the medieval castle.
To the east and south of the city centre, a gridiron of Georgian streets with smartly coloured front doors attest to one of the city’s most affluent periods. These days, their neat uniformity is face to solicitors, dentists and ‘aesthetic’ clinics.
The Victorian parks – gifts from the city’s richest sons and daughters – throng with the distinctive accent of the locals, along with a host of dialects and languages brought here from all over the globe by students and others. This is the legacy of a time when the place claimed to be ‘Second City of Empire’.
The Vikings once landed here too, but the evidence of their stay is as ephemeral as King John’s castle. A placename here and there; something in the genes perhaps.
A greater impact came out of the generations of writers, musicians and actors who grew up here, exporting portraits of the locals, and changing the face of global culture permanently. It is to find the home of these portraits that the tourists flock.
There has been trouble along the way, to be sure, and no little violent upheaval. National headlines have been written in the streets of this fiercely independent town.
But you can’t keep this place down (there are more cathedrals, and more universities, than the average), and now the city, once again, finds itself resurgent. Cranes march across the skyline, and the old is – almost carelessly – cleared to make way for the brand new, for the future. Only time will tell if that future belongs to the people who call this place home, or to the people who bring their business here from elsewhere.
This is a city which won’t be held back. This a city of music, of poets, of sport, of life. Your forebears may have trodden the docks and piers here, on their way out, to a new life across the water, to America, or Britain.
This is Dublin, your long lost twin, your neighbour across the sea.
Image: The corner of Fitzwilliam Street Upper and Baggot Street, Dublin, by the author.
This post was inspired by a recent visit to Dublin, and the amazing city I found there.
Ever had that feeling where you wish someone at the time had taken photos? Imagine the Victorian wealth of knowledge we’d have if even more people had hopped on the photography bandwagon! And sometimes, don’t you wish you’d taken more photos?
This local history lark, perhaps without me realising it, has become centred around collecting fresh memories now so that future-me can rest assured that someone did take photos and someone did write it down. For that reason I really enjoyed Gerry’s post on his blog That’s How the Light Gets In, called ‘Liverpool 1984: looking back’. It was a crucial time in Liverpool’s history: the Toxteth riots were recent history, and the Militant Tendency were on the rise. With the benefit of hindsight it’s easy to see this time as a tumultuous period before the gradual and hard-won development of Merseyside into the cultural and business centre that it is today.
I try to avoid the danger of viewing history from this privileged point of view – one where everything looks inevitable. In 1984 Liverpool’s prospects were far from rosy, whether or not you knew of some people’s plans for the place.
Gerry’s blog post is a create cross-section of cultural Liverpool from that year. He takes in politics, the International Garden Festival, Liverpool Football Club’s successes on the European stage and music, in the form of Probe Records (and Pete Burns legendary cantankerousness!). There are photos too, of all this plus pre-redevelopment Clayton Square, theatre posters and street scenes.
If you could distil what makes Liverpool so… Liverpool, then 1984 seemed to have it all: political and social upheaval, and popular culture which hit international heights. ‘Liverpool 1984: looking back’ is a perfect time capsule of a fascinating period, and one I (at an extremely young age) lived through.
I’ve got another bunch of links for you today. I’m still catching up with my saved sites, so some of these pages have been around a while. Even if you’ve seen them before, I hope you enjoy revisiting them again now!
Map of Williamson Tunnels
The Williamson Tunnels team are local history heroes. The bunch of self-starters have excavated tonnes (literally, tonnes) of spoil from Joseph Williamson’s underground labyrinth, and navigated all manner of legal and other issues. Hats off to them!
The one crucial source they never had to help them was a map by Williamson himself. The tunnels feel pretty improvised, and I doubt there was ever an overall plan.
But there are a couple of post-Williamson plans, by the historian James Stonehouse and, later the Territorial Army, who used the tunnels for bridge building practice (of all things!). Those sources, combined with knowledge from the modern excavations, has allowed the Friends of Williamson’s Tunnels to create a detailed map of known (and potential) features.
I try not to link to every one of Colin Wilkinson’s posts on Streets of Liverpool (really, you should just go and follow it), but there was a post a few months ago which struck a chord with me. He talks about how Bold Street is such a great place partly because it’s not changed all that much since it’s hey-day. And while no one would argue that things should always stay the same for continuity’s sake, the thing about Bold Street is that it is at such a perfect scale. Lord Street and Church Street are larger, and can easily play host to large department stores, but Bold Street is smaller, more intimate, and is home to more varied, small and interesting shops.
You might not want a Bold Street in every corner of Liverpool, but it’s a gem in the city, especially since so much else has been lost.
Bold Street is a great showcase for how ‘old’ streets can have extended lives without being stuck in the past. Bold Street is a modern street, but shows that we can’t just demolish because things are of a certain age, which seems to be the argument in too many cases.
Liverpool is rightly proud of its historic buildings. It’s said (with some dissenting voices) that there are more listed buildings in the city than anywhere else outside London. Our St. George’s Hall is world famous, and has acted as New York and Birmingham in recent film and TV productions. But where is ‘one of the purest monuments of Greek revival in England’? It’s a little thing that sits in the shadow – literally and figuratively – of its big brother.
The Oratory of Liverpool Cathedral is as old as the cemetery, and older than the cathedral itself. It was designed by John Foster, who had a hand in some other Liverpool classics, and is considered by some to be his best. The building’s familiar from going past it, but the Liverpool Hidden History blog has got a great overview of the site, plus a bit on the cemetery and its famous ‘inhabitants’.
This website is all about the landscape: how do geography and topography influence everything from the founding of Liverpool to the food we eat? The Scouse accent has the same influences. Scouse, as many of you will already know, it a heady mix of Welsh, Irish, Lancashire and more. Some of the influences are clearer than others, but I’ve come across a little online game which lays it all out before you, and gives you an aural demonstration!
Listen as Dr Dialect takes you on a quiz of the whys and wherefores surrounding the accent, from the time it first emerged on Merseyside, where it came from, and maybe where it’s going. The usual suspects are present, but you might discover a couple of things you didn’t know, like!
And finally, something a little out of left field. In 1977, a man named Paul (Brown, I’d guess) made a film called the Earth Probe. It’s a documentary on the Liverpool Gyratory (as it then was – now Queen’s Square Bus Station), made up of bits of film, sound and digital effects (yes, digital effects in 1977!). At first it might seem a little arty for most tastes, but as you watch it you find it’s building up an impressionistic feel of that part of town over the course of 24 hours, and of course there’s plenty of footage of your everyday Liverpudlians going about their shopping 40 years ago.
Last week was one of my history-indulgent weeks on Merseyside. One where I catch up on the ever-changing town centre (it’s still changing), check that my book’s still on the shelves of Waterstone’s (it’s not 🙁 ) and book myself on a tour or two (I did).
First up, on Sunday, I was lucky enough to catch one of the Williamson Tunnels member’s tours courtesy of the Friends of Williamson’s Tunnels (FoWT). Despite a little mix-up on my part, which revealed the existence of two societies concerned with the Tunnels, we were well taken care of by the energetic volunteers who make up the Friends. A special thank you to Chris, who booked us in, and Jamie and Tom, who, along with Chris, were our guides for the three parts of the tour. Read more
Anglesey and North Wales are very close to Liverpool hearts. Countless Welsh builders helped create some of our inner suburbs in distinctive yellow brick, and the red bricks of the University are Welsh too. More recently, there can’t be many Scousers who haven’t had a day trip or two to Llandudno, Conwy or Beaumaris.
On the weekend of 13th to 15th May 2016 I joined a Neolithic Studies Group tour to Anglesey, or Ynys Môn, to have a look at much older remains of Wales’s inhabitants, and inevitably ponder on how old the links to Merseyside could be. You’re probably two steps ahead of me already, but I’ll catch up with you in good time. Read more
There’s nothing like a gathering of like minds to get the keyboard fingers itching to put down a few words! And this past Saturday (2nd April, 2016), the Spirits of Place symposium held at the Calderstones Mansion was just one of those gatherings.
It’s that time of the year again, so what better way to beat the winter blues than to treat yourself to the stuff below. Of course, you could also buy something for the historian in your life, but who’s gonna know?
Heritage Protection is a controversial field at the best of times. There are almost as many different opinions on a given listing, say, as there are people offering said opinions. It’s difficult for the likes of English Heritage to decide what to protect and what to let go, and it’s certainly not a scientific process. But should we stop getting confused between the things we should be saving, and the events they merely represent?
As you’ll no doubt be aware, the planning application for Peel Waters was recently waved through by Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and there will be no public enquiry. Regular readers will remember previous posts, where I’ve come down against the scheme. But now that it looks like going ahead, it’s time to move on and consider how the development will unfold. Read more
This morning, the funeral of Mr. John Dewsnap took place. He was my teacher in year 6 of primary school at Blackmoor Park in West Derby (c.1992-3), and was an inspiration. It might not be too far fetched to say that, if not for him, you might not be reading these words on this website, because he was one of the biggest influences on my love of history. Read more
This article was inspired by Celia Heritage’s recent article on parish churches. Her love of churches, in terms of history, began through researching family history and looking for ancestors’ gravestones.
What to look out for in a parish church
What to Look Out For in a Parish Church is the first article on the revamped Celia’s Blog. The article is a really interesting run-through of the oft-missed aspects of church architecture and archaeology and those features which any observant onlooker can spot. Read more
But just as the Museum of Liverpool will capture the city in a nutshell, the city beyond is a museum in itself. For starters, it contains objects that have survived from the past into a new use in the present, but unlike the museum, they’re not on here for display’s sake.
But, in a sense, Liverpool is the Museum of Liverpool: Read more
Continuing our look at the men and women who have had the greatest impact on the Liverpool landscape, this time we examine the work of Jesse Hartley, dock engineer.
Jesse Hartley (1780-1860) is best known as the architect of the Albert Dock. But this was just one of his achievements as Civil Engineer and Superintendent of the Concerns of the Dock Estate in Liverpool from 1824 to 1860, and his career was one which changed the face of Liverpool. It’s a landscape we can still see today, and his buildings continue to affect how we move through and how we deal with the built environment of the city.
OK, so perhaps the Norse are as far from the ‘Liverpool Radicals’ we have in mind in 2011 as it’s possible to get.
They’re distant in time, left little visible trace in our city, and went about changing society through the delicate application of pointy-horned helmets.
But of course none of that is strictly true. There are traces of the Norse presence on our doorstep, and may have paved the way for Liverpool itself to be settled half a millennium after they first arrived. Read more
Today is International Women’s Day, and to mark the occasion this edition of the ‘Liverpool Heroes’ series (see the last post’s coverage of J.A. Brodie) discusses a remarkable women whose effects on Liverpool were felt for decades after her death.
Kitty Wilkinson’s story is classic Victorian Liverpool: born in Londonderry in 1786, Wilkinson moved to Liverpool with her parents when she was just 8 years old. Tragically her father and sister were drowned at the end of the crossing when their ferry hit the Hoyle Bank.
Despite being faced with the terrible hardships of the time, she was known for opening her house to anyone who needed help. One of the services this entrepreneurial woman took on was to allow people to use her house and yard to wash their clothes for a penny a time. During a cholera outbreak in 1832 she offered her scullery boiler to all who wished to wash their clothes and linen.
This proved so popular that her cellar gradually evolved into a wash house. None of those who worked here became infected by cholera, so effective were her disinfection efforts (e.g. the use of bleach to help clean clothes), and Kitty’s efforts led directly to the opening of the first public wash house. This was in Upper Frederick Street, and opened in 1914.
Given support by the District Provident Society and William Rathbone, Wilkinson was made superintendent of bath, and through the newspapers was crowned ‘Saint of the Slums’.
In 2010 it was announced that a statue was to be erected in her honour, and would be placed in St Georges Hall. As councillor Flo Clucas, who campaigned for the statue, said: “Through rising from abject poverty to achieve lasting reforms in public health Kitty Wilkinson is a real inspiration for every woman in this city.”
So how did Kitty Wilkinson shape the landscape? She pioneered the public wash house movement, and the last wash house closed only around a decade ago. The Upper Frederick Street building was a monument to her efforts, and in a sense the rest of the wash houses were also. In less concrete terms she also affected the human landscape of Liverpool. For the first time there was a place to go to clean your clothes properly, and the effects on stemming the spread of disease through the city are a legacy of Kitty Wilkinson’s generosity and hard work. This woman was a testament to fact that even those born into the poorest levels of society can make a massive difference to the built and experienced landscape.
For a detailed look at the achievements of Kitty Wilkinson, see Michael Kelly’s 2007 book The Life and Times of Kitty Wilkinson.
For an overview of the history of personal hygiene read Clean: An Unsanitised History of Washing by Katherine Ashenburg.
In writing about the historic landscape of Liverpool, it’s often the case that the people get mislaid, or hidden from the narrative. This post is the first in a series which aims to redress the balance, and ties in (rather loosely) with Liverpool’s Year of Radicals. These people weren’t radical in a left-wing sense (some far from it) but they were the pioneers, the bringers of change. They certainly left their mark on the landscape, some in subtle ways. A couple of these people are obvious choices, and some less so. Either way I hope you learn something new and interesting.
And so without further ado, and in no particular order, we begin with…
J.A. Brodie (1858 – 1934)
J.A. Brodie was the Liverpool city engineer from 1898 and due to his achievements was the first local authority engineer to be made President of the Institution of Civil Engineers. The list of accomplishements is impressive, as is the effect he had on the shape of the city.
Brodie was one of the first to suggest an electric tram system for Liverpool. The city’s electric trams ran from 1898 to 1957, and even today the tracks pop up from time to time during roadworks. The central reservations where the trams often ran along main roads are still to be seen in Queens Drive and Prescot Road.
He proposed the development of a ring road, the aforementioned Queens Drive. Roads such as Black Horse Lane in Old Swan were diverted or straightened and widened in the 1920s and 30s. At this time the suburban sprawl of West Derby, Tue Brook and Childwall were yet to be realised, but even today Queens Drive holds up well with the volume of traffic which couldn’t have been foreseen 90 years ago.
In 1905 the first pre-fab concrete tenements were built in Eldon Street. Brodie had been experimenting with concrete as a solution to the housing shortage, and in 1905 he exhibited a pre-fab cottage at the Cheap Cottages Exhibition in Letchworth. There’s probably little need to elaborate on the use of pre-fab concrete in Liverpool buildings in later years, but for better or worse (and despite trade union opposition to Liverpool’s production of concrete prefab parts) J.A. Brodie was a pioneer here.
As if being responsible for one of Liverpool’s major thoroughfairs, and a pioneer in building technology we still live with wasn’t enough, Brodie also put forward the idea for the East Lancs road, so that we can more quickly get to our neighbours in Manchester. And finally, of course, he invented the goal net, an invention of which he was particularly proud.
So: J.A. Brodie: engineer, architect, footy dispute preventer. And a man who’s effect on the landscape of Liverpool can be seen almost a century after he died.
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.
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!
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?
This year sees another census taking place across the United Kingdom. Censuses have been carried out in the UK every ten years since 1801 (with the exception of 1941 – the Second World War) and are therefore are amazing sources of information for family historians. Alongside other sources they can also be useful to the local historian, and it’s becoming increasingly easy to get your hands on them.
A History of Censuses
The first census in England produced perhaps the defining document of the medieval country: the Domesday Book.
The Book was produced as a way of measuring the wealth, and therefore taxability, of the whole of England, and was perhaps the natural thing for a new, invading, king to administer. Some unconquered parts of England were not included in the survey (notably parts of Cumberland and Westmorland), but for the majority of the country, Domesday Book continues to be an important primary source of information, including as it does the size of land divisions, industry, animal holdings and land owners’ names.
It’s probably well known that Liverpool, having yet to be founded, does not appear at all in Domesday. But many places on Merseyside do, including West Derby, Toxteth, Aigburth, Croxteth and Garston.
The Domesday Book has been an invaluable resource for local historians for years, and is these days available in modern published versions (such as the Penguin Classics translated version). Also, you’ll find the Victoria County History (if you can get your hands on one) bases its organisation on the Book. In turn, I based Historic Liverpool on the VCH, which is why this history of Liverpool is is divided into the townships found in these Victorian volumes.
The first modern UK Census took place in 1801, and the exercise was repeated every 10 years after that (along with some at the five year point in between).
For family history purposes, 1841 marked an important change: whereas the first four surveys had simply collected head counts in all regions, this one included the names of all people living in each household.
The next census will take place this year, on 27th March. There’s a £1000 fine for not filling it in, but also remember the legacy you’re leaving for future family historians (one you’ve enjoyed yourself as a researcher, perhaps). Liverpool City Council is launching a campaign to encourage people to register as central government money is allocated based on population. So current and future censuses still play the role they did back in 1801.
Research using censuses
If you’re a family historian you probably already know the many ins and outs of research with censuses. Many of the older ones are available online (with newer ones becoming available gradually under the 100 year rule). So what can you do with the census data as a local (as opposed to family) historian?
For city historians the censuses can be used in a similar to Gore’s Directory: if you’re studying a small area then cross reference the addresses with the professions mentioned, and you have a good idea of the character of an area. Was it a residential area full of dock workers? Were there corner shops in the area? Or pubs? Was it a richer area full of merchants, factory owners and diplomats?
Landscape change over time: following on from the above point, perhaps you want to know how a residential area changed over time. In Liverpool, Everton, Toxteth and Kirkdale were the first suburbs, expanding to cater to the rich who wanted to escape the city. Later these areas were covered with terraces for dockworkers. Later still the slums were cleared and modern housing erected in its place. While old maps can show direct evidence for this change, the census adds an extra layer of detail.
Immigration: for Liverpool as much as other cities, many events and the tale of expansion are related to the areas in which incoming migrants lived. In our city (‘our’ in the most inclusive sense!) Welsh communities could be found in the north and east, the Scottish in the north and centre, Jews first around Brownlow Hill and then in the southern suburbs (Childwall, Allerton and Gatacre), the Chinese in… well, Chinatown, and the Scandinavians in Liverpool’s ‘Sailortown’ (Park Lane area). Censuses fit in here as they contain information on religion and language, and therefore the culture of different communities.
Perhaps you have other suggestions for uses of census data in local history; feel free to share them with us in the comments!
If you’re interested in finding out more about your ancestors (as is the most usual role for the census!) then there’s no better place to start than Tracing Your Liverpool Ancestors: A guide for family historians, by noted Liverpool historian Mike Royden. Mike is the man behind the Local History Pages, and has also appeared on TV and local radio. The book also contains a lot of local history too, as historical context is ever important when researching your family tree!
It’s the end of 2010. It’s been an… interesting year politically – a coalition government for the first time in my lifetime; frequent use of the word ‘swingeing’ in many and varied ways; the Conservation Centre is shutting its doors to the public; and snow is keeping you indoors reading this.
But what else has happened this year? Anything to warm our annual nostalgia cockles?
2010 started on an optimistic note – it was the World Museum’s 250th anniversary, though this was somewhat overshadowed with the closure of the Conservation Centre.
In July the first object – a carriage from the Overhead Railway – moved into the museum, but at the same time the North West Development Agency closed its doors. Another funding source for culture had disappeared.
Phew! Liverpool and its heritage have had their ups and downs this year. We’ve celebrated the old, welcomed in the new (mostly) and commemorated the highs and lows of Liverpool’s past and imminent future.
Any predictions for the coming 12 months? Or is that an impossible task? And as for 2011, what kind of posts would you like to see here? More about researching Liverpool local history? Should I keep to the news and concentrate the history on Historic Liverpool? Or something completely different?
This week the developer Merepark unveiled a slick video showing the world what the new Liverpool Central Village will look like. Central Village is the name given to the array of shops and flats which is to be built to the north of Bold Street, and which will take in the vacant Lewis’s building on Ranelagh Street.
The thing which struck me was how similar Central Village will look to Liverpool One. The architecture is modern but not brutalist (much). Random colour schemes and harsh corners, but no 60s Piggery nightmare. The brands are all familiar too, with Odeon Cinemas being the most prominent.
But the question raised by the video is ‘Does Liverpool need another (mini) Liverpool One?’ Joe Anderson rightly hails the thousands of new jobs which this development will create (during and after construction), but what can history tell us about how this may pan out?
The last great wave of investment
During the Second World War Liverpool was seen as a great place to site Royal Ordnance Factories (ROF), where munitions were produced for the war effort. It was away from the dangers of bombing which London suffered from, and out of town sites like Speke, Aintree and Kirkby were away from the bombs falling on the docks, yet well connected to those docks by rail, so easing the transport of raw materials coming into the port.
When the War was over the ROF sites adapted to become part of the new economy of the mid 20th Century. Tax incentives encouraged large companies to site factories in these areas which were unrestricted in their growth – there were few neighbours in the area and the land was flat.
There was also a ready-made labour force in the form of the thousands of people who were being moved out of central slums into new council houses, maisonettes and high-rise flats.
There were many problems with these out-of-town estates, and none more famous than the layoffs during the 1970s and 80s. Even then Liverpool was starting to develop its reputation as a city of strikers and protesters, and of a self-pity growing from a feeling of victimisation. Liverpool often asked itself: ‘Why always us?’
Part of the answer presents an interesting dilemma to those who are championing this new development. The problem with the closing factories was that they were branches of multinational corporations. These corporations ‘always’ chose Liverpool because it was the easy choice. There were no vested interests in the city, no love for the place or its people. They were here for the money, and when that left, so did they.
I don’t blame Joe Anderson for celebrating the continued surge in development in the city he loves (and this blog isn’t going to turn into an anti-Anderson moan despite the tone of recent posts!). You certainly can’t take the jobs away from the people who will definitely be employed to build the Village, and who will be staffing the shops and shiny cinemas once it’s complete.
But if history can tell us anything about our own time (and this is what this blog is about) then it’s that investment in an area is strongest when the investors have a stake in the place they’re coming to.
Having lived in places as diverse in beauty as Oxford and Swindon I’m well aware of the standard arguments against the effects of ‘clone towns’ on the quality of life in a place. One of the Liverpool’s strengths has always been its range of independent – and locally based – shops which make a trip into town an often rewarding one (think News from Nowhere, Hairy Records, Quiggins and even Wade Smith). The area around Bold Street is one of the best areas for this.
But the appearance and choice in clone towns is not the only issue, and the architecture is not in question here. The experience of those protesters at the gates of the automotive plants brings home the fact that, for long term success, a local economy must not be reliant on the continued interest of outside money.
What do you think? Will the new developments be unparalleled successes? Or is history doomed to repeat itself as Liverpool continues its transformation into a modern shopping destination?
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 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).
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.
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.
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?