Tag books

The City and the City and the Liverpool Landscape

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.

Book: The City and the City, by China Mieville (Amazon UK)

TV version: The City and the City, BBC iPlayer

The City in the City and the City

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.

Photo of Water Street, Liverpool

Water Street, Liverpool, part of Besźel in The City and the City (note 8 Water Street in top left – the fuzzy right hand side is ‘unseen’ city of Ul Qoma)

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.

Photo of St George's Hall, Liverpool, with CGI enhancements

The distinctive front of St George’s Hall, CGI-enhanced with domes for extra threat, is ‘Cupola Hall’ in The City and the City.

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.

Photo of disused Queensway Tunnel entrance, Rendel Street, Birkenhead

The disused Rendel Street Queensway tunnel as entrance to Cupola Hall

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.

Screenshot from The City and the City

The Victoria Tower at Brunswick Dock – an isolated upstanding monument to contrast with the flat dock landscape

Screen shot of scene from The City and the City

The Kingsway Tunnel ventilator tower provides a suitably oppressive backdrop to dystopian Besźel. The two shots above appear seconds apart in episode 1

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.

Photo of Water Street as Ul Qoma

Water Street, Liverpool, as Beszel

Photo of Water Street as Beszel

Water Street, Liverpool, as Ul Qoma

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.

Other locations

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.

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50 Finds From Manchester and Merseyside: Objects from the Portable Antiquities Scheme

Modern administrative areas have little meaning when we go back even a short time. But they can make all the difference when it comes to modern heritage work. So that’s why we have this book on finds from Manchester and Merseyside, which span the ages, and covers objects discovered through the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS).

The PAS was begun in 1997 to deal with the thorny issue of random finds discovered by metal detectorists, ramblers and anyone else stumbling across historic artefacts outside of a formal archaeological investigation.

Until then, the law surrounding what happened to buried artefacts depended on what they were made of. Things deemed ‘treasure’ were generally those which were judged to have been buried with the intention of the owner coming back for them, and this was generally taken to mean coins and precious metal.

So, for example, the famous Sutton Hoo ship was not treasure, because no one intended to recover it, and it was largely wood and iron. However, there’s no doubt that any chance finds from that feature would have been immensely important to archaeologists!

So today, if you find something of historical interest, you can report it to your local PAS officer who will record it and add it to the database. Merseyside’s officer (as well as being the officer for Cheshire and Greater Manchester) is Vanessa Oakden, who’s based at the Museum of Liverpool, and it’s a new book of her’s I’m looking at here.

50 finds from Manchester and Merseyside

This book is just one in a series covering all the counties where the PAS operates, all published by Amberley Press. It takes some of the best finds from the two counties to display the good work of the Scheme.

The book’s not only here to show off the best finds, however, but also to remind readers of the importance of reporting chance finds, and of making a note of where exactly something was found. This is of particular importance if the find is a piece of flint, as often the exact distribution of a scatter of flint debris is what gives archaeologists the important clues.

And what better way to have another round of rivalry with our Manchester neighbours than to compare impressive finds? 😉 (Turns out there are more prehistoric finds, and better ones, from Merseyside!)

The book is a heavily illustrated volume containing colour photos of all the finds mentioned, from different angles, including similar finds from elsewhere which give a bit of context. The impressive thing is that Vanessa shows a wide ranging knowledge, which must be a requirement for the job, at least to some extent. That must be the best thing about the role – coming into contact with different eras of human history each day!

Where does the landscape interest come in? Well, with a county-wide remit, the distribution maps in this book show that it’s not just the individual finds which bring through the knowledge, but how they’re ranged across the land. A national map of terrets (a type of harness fitting) show that they’re particularly common in the north east of England, and therefore all the more interesting when they turn up in south Lancashire.

The challenge for Liverpool and Manchester, however, is that the built-up areas will have destroyed a lot of early archaeology in the digging of cellars and foundations. The most fruitful areas for finds are rural (that’s where the metal detectors go, as well) but it should be remembered that the absence of a certain find type from the urban part of Liverpool doesn’t mean it wasn’t there once. It’s complicated, this stuff!

I don’t have many problems with the book. It’s a good overview of highlights from the PAS in this region, and is a fantastic advert for the scheme (along with the other books in the series). Hopefully it will encourage someone to bring in finds they might otherwise have kept to themselves.

If I had to say anything against it, it might be that the maps could have been a little more consistent. They came from different sources, but could easily have been standardised to help comparisons. There were also a couple of terms I didn’t understand, such as ‘rowells’, mentioned in an entry on a find of broken spurs from Bebington (they’re the spiky wheels on the heel of the spur).

Still, that doesn’t take away much from what is a handy archaeological overview of the counties covered, and finds-centred books are rare on the popular bookshelf.

You can buy 50 Finds from Manchester and Merseyside from Amazon UK

Related book: 50 Objects from Lancashire

If you’ve got a book that you’d like me to review, please get in touch via the Contact page.

The Liverpool History Geek’s Gift Guide

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?

Read more

Liverpool: A landscape history (or Historic Liverpool: the book)

I can’t deny it – I’ve waited a long time to be able to say this: I have written a book, and someone has agreed to publish it.

At the time of writing, Liverpool: A landscape history is due in shops imminently, although I’ve not had confirmation of the exact date yet. There’s only 1000 to be printed, so get yours as soon as you can! Read more

Liverpool Ghost Signs and Along the Mersey

I’ve got another two books for you today. This time they are Liverpool Ghost Signs by Caroline and Phil Bunford, and Along the Mersey by Jan Dobrzynski. The first pair of names are familiar through their presence on Twitter and with the Liverpool Ghost Signs Project, whereas Dobrzynski is a new name to me. A quick look at Amazon shows Jan has written a lot of books like this, from all over the country (Severn, Conwy, Cotwolds…). They’re two very ‘landscapey’ books, but let’s see how the two volumes fare against each other… Read more

The Liverpool Book of Days by Steven Horton

This is a simple book with a simple premise: 365 historical stories of Liverpool, attached to their dates. The whole thing is presented in an attractive hardback, and is just the thing for flicking through when you’re waiting for the kettle to boil. The format and title almost give it the look of a compact Bible, though it clearly aims to conjure up the Chambers’ Book of Days, which had a very similar, if wider ranging, remit. Read more

Not a Guide to Liverpool & Merseyside War Years by Daniel K. Longman

There are two new books out by journalist and historian Daniel K. Longman. Both are short books, and part of larger series, but take two different views of the city of Liverpool. They both cover history, but are they both for you? Read more

Hoylake Then & Now, by Jim O’Neil

The premise of the Then and Now series is to pair up historic photos of a town with modern shots taken from as close to the position of the original as possible. Hoylake Then & Now is Jim O’Neil’s contribution to the format. Read more

Little Book of Liverpool, and Bloody British History: Liverpool

The two books here, both published by the History Press, have been written by authors with previous well-known Liverpool books under their belts. Alexander Tulloch wrote the general history The Story of Liverpool, while Ken Pye is best known for his coffee-table book Discover Liverpool. Read more

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?

Our Liverpool, by J.P. Dudgeon

Cover of the book Our Liverpool, by J.P. Dudgeon

Our Liverpool, by J.P. Dudgeon

Our Liverpool (subtitled Memories of Life in Disappearing Britain) is part of the Disappearing Britain series from Headline Publishing, and the third oral history volume from author J.P. Dudgeon, whose previous include Our Glasgow and Our East End.

When I first picked up this book I wondered how an outsider would portray the city, and how they’d get into the community. I also wondered whether it would have much to say about the landscape of Liverpool, as that’s what this website is all about. I have to say I was very pleasantly surprised. Although it takes some time to settle down, Dudgeon pulls together interviews new and old (as well as some written sources) to paint the landscapes of Liverpool in vivid strokes. This book has added a new layer to what I think of as the landscape of Liverpool.

Memories, Maps and personal histories

The main body of the book consists of interviews with local residents. Some were conducted by the author for this book while others were found in the archives of Liverpool Record Office. The book opens with a Beatles anecdote (perhaps inevitably) from a chap in a town centre pub. After that it takes in stories from dozens of other Scousers, including professional historians like Eric Lynch and Mike Royden. These experts give both historical detail as well as personal accounts, and add a variety and sheen that might otherwise be missing from an ordinary oral history.

The first thing that surprised me was just how far back this history goes. There’s a sketch map of Liverpool in the 13th Century, and discussion surrounds the older important places such as Toxteth and West Derby, as well as the Vikings and the Norman invasion. These early book chapters take the reader through to the end of the nineteenth century, the call of the sea (a recurrent theme) and the horrors of the slave trade.

Unfortunately, I found a couple of odd bits of history in these pages. This is George Lund’s take on the origins of the name Toxteth:

“The first settler was a Viking man called Tokey, and “teth” means “settlement”, or “landing place”. Well, they couldn’t call it Tokeyteth, so they substituted an “x” and called it Toxteth.”

I’m not sure who ‘they’ are, but their scientific approach to name creation seems a little out of place (perhaps I’ll let him off as this is a quote in an oral history after all!). Another odd one is the Toxteth riots, briefly introduced on p8:

“Toxteth, at its zenith, marked out Liverpool-born black people as being at the forefront of change on a world scale, a fact that so troubled the then recklessly conservative Establishment that they brought the whole scene to a violent close, triggering the infamous riots of 1981”

This summary of the causes of these riots seem to have lost something in the editing process. The origins of the riots are discussed in more detail later on, but finding this near the beginning of the book worried me as to the extent of Dudgeon’s historical knowledge.

The first few chapters suffer a bit from this over-keenness to buy into the spirit of the town, and the odd skipping around topics (Williamson’s Tunnels are tossed in just after slavery, perhaps just to maintain chronological order), but once the book gets going, it settles into a pacey, emotional, passionate and compelling story of the city told through the eyes of its inhabitants.

Liverpool through the ages

Our Liverpool is a people’s history of the city. While not consisting of landmarks (as such) or maps, what comes out is exactly what historians of pre-writing periods have been trying for years to achieve: a psychological landscape of the region.

What are the landmarks, boundaries and territories in people’s minds? These are of huge importance to local people (as the book successfully shows); they are shared and they help bind and separate communities. Where prehistorians are completely lacking in this type evidence, Our Liverpool ensures that we will never wonder what it felt like to live in Liverpool up to the 21st Century.

For me the book depicts ‘landscapes’ like Scottie Road, the Seamans’ Home, even the Pier Head and the sea herself as stages on which life takes place. The sea especially takes a starring role: it pulls young lads to the navy, it bounds the city on one side, it brings in people and steals them away and it is the lifeblood of trade.

The chapters covering the 1930s, 40s and 50s are coloured with some nostalgia. The 1940s especially seem to have been a golden age in Liverpool. Maybe this is because certain interviewees have particularly fond (childhood) memories of this time, or perhaps because this was just before communities were ripped apart and shipped to the four corners of Merseyside in the following decades. As you can see, location (landscape) is everything to society in tough times.

Chapter 11, ‘Sixties Transformation’, is the longest chapter, as the decade was perhaps the one which most shaped the people of Liverpool for years afterwards. Whereas earlier chapters show the importance of large areas, suddenly ‘territories’ are the clubs you go to, the pubs you drink in and the community centres you frequent. Race and religion become increasingly divisive (and inclusive) as area-based community solidarity was broken up by the Council wrecking ball.

This theme carries through to the end of the book. Scotland Road is turned into a sterile dual carriageway devoid of housing. People move away and where you live seems to become less important as family ties to an area are broken. It’s implied that this is a major contribution to the breakdown of society, and I for one wouldn’t argue against it being a factor.

It may be through rose-tinted spectacles, but people paint a picture of a lost time where violence was honest, short lived and bare-fisted, and no grudges were held. These days, it seems, knives, guns and drugs put a new edge on gangland rivalries which the community cannot absorb, as there is no community left.

By this point in the book Dudgeon seems to know his subjects much more closely. He becomes a passionate neo-Scouser giving voice to the people he found in Liverpool, a voice often lost or ignored. Perhaps his initial outsider status helped him gain the trust of the people he spoke to.

Conclusion

So is this a book for the local historian, or a nostalgia-fest for the armchair sociologist? I was a bit sceptical at the start, and was worried by the strange historical details in early chapters. But having read through the trials and tribulations of these Liverpudlians, and seen how the roads, streets and lanes of their city create the psychological landscapes which shape every aspect of their lives, it’s like a new layer has been added to the maps found in the archives. The territories walked by these people are just as real and clear cut as the boundaries on a ward map, as enabling and constricting a feature as was the Pool itself which lent life to the young town.

It’s a book which will be of interest to those who enjoyed the Lost Tribes of Everton, and is a document which will be of invaluable help to present and future historians wanting to know how people used the landscape, how they crossed it during their daily movements, and how it shaped the people they are.

New book on Liverpool’s buildings, and how cities make us

Looking up at the interior of the Roman Catholic Cathedral, Liverpool

Liverpool Metropolitan RC Cathedral, by Jonathan Gill via Flickr

A new book is released this month by Stephen Bayley, and published by RIBA.

Liverpool: Shaping the City is a large and colourful exploration of the city’s built history. It includes development, old and new and brings in photographs from the early 20th Century when some of Merseyside’s most iconic buildings were being constructed.

We learn in the Foreword by RIBA’s president Ruth Reed that Liverpool can lay claim to three world firsts in architecture: the first building to use skyscraper technology (Oriel Chambers in Water Street), the first wet dock (no prizes for guessing) and the first hydraulic cargo-handling system.

Perhaps I’ll come back to a full review of this book once I’ve read it (it only arrived this morning!), but suffice to say it looks to include good coverage of how Liverpool has developed as a city, and how it does and will continue to change as the years progress.

Meanwhile, you can read a column in the Times by Stephen Bayley, How Liverpool returned from the dead which introduces some ideas from the book. His main point is that you can ‘design your way out of a depression’ by building cities which bring joy to people. From a personal point of view, I whole-heartedly agree (though my cynicism would reword it as ‘design yourself towards the end of a depression), which is why I – and others – get so animated when an ugly construction is plonked down in a beloved vista.

My favourite quote from the article, and one which almost single-handedly justifies this blog and my interests in Liverpool’s buildings, is “We make our environments and then our environments make us”. He suggests putting it on a T-shirt, and I just might.

Local History on the Ground and The English Semi-detached House

I’d like to review two books recently added to the NMR’s Library, which both have use for the local historian, and yet which are very different approaches to explaining their field. The first is Local History on the Ground by Tom Welsh (The History Press, 2009). I picked up this book hoping to recommend a good starting point for learning how to approach local history research. Instead, it’s a much more informative lesson on how not to approach the study of your local area.

Local History on the Ground, by Tom Welsh

Local History on the Ground, by Tom Welsh

Tom Welsh is a senior lecturer in Geography at the University of Nottingham. This shows in his clear writing style, good structure and approachable tone. He also has a number of good tips to help the amateur landscape historian gain access to places often difficult to see. However, the man has a bee in his bonnet, and over the course of the book this bee gets in the way of his point, and it becomes increasingly obvious over time just what the problem is.

The clues come early on with Welsh’s keenness to separate ‘archaeology’ from ‘local history’. To Welsh, archaeology is sytematic, scientific and prescriptive to the point of boredom. Local history is emotional, following-your-nose and instinctive, to the point of passion. Archaeologists get bogged down in the minutiae of sites and objects, and ignore the wider landscape, and are obsessed with the “scare story” that is stratigraphy. Another issue is their insistence of walking in straight lines over the ground (“systematic survey”) which is done to remove any biases and ensure objectivity when identifying features (“Why does ecology not get bogged down with this?”). He’s clearly unaware that the specific technique of field walking has the aim of identifying finds on recently-ploughed land, and has little concern with features. Systematic survey is something different altogether.

“There is a lot of mumbo-jumbo in archaeology” – Welsh, 2009.

After distancing himself from archaeology (the study of the past through interpretation of material remains and environmental data, including architecture, artifacts, features, biofacts, and landscapes (Wikipedia)) he soon begins to reveal just how much vitriol he has for the profession. Archaeologists are defensive of their data, and of the historic environment in general (“a lot of heritage goes unnoticed as a result”). Amateurs are a nuisance to them, and they never (ever) let an amateur contribute to, say, the Historic Environment Record. By Page 91 it has been revealed that archaeologists seem to have snubbed Welsh’s own attempted contributions over the last 30 years. In one example of his work, he suggests that a hilltop site at Auchingoul is not a quarry, as the archaeologists suggest, but a Roman camp (an interpretation dismissed by OGS Crawford 60 years ago). He has done the fieldwork to prove it, and his neat little sketch shows a series of ponds, more ponds, a double pond, and an ‘access to pond’ track. Not sure where the Romans where meant to actually live, or why the famously standardised Roman camp template was abandoned. Perhaps because this site was 150 miles from the edge of the Roman empire.

So having never heard of landscape archaeology, or possessing any understanding of archaeological stratigraphy (he should realise it’s not just between sites, but within sites, and within features!) or fieldwalking, or geoarchaeology (archaeologists ignore geology, apparently), what has Welsh brought to the table in terms of technique? He clearly realises that landscape is the key to interpreting sites, but it seems that houses, tarmac and recent buildings get in the way of this. Despite his great contributions to the field of landscape history, W.G. Hoskins also made the mistake of seeing modern development as a muddying of the archaeological record, rather than an intrinsic part of it. And perhaps some archaeology is too concerned with classification (it certainly was when the majority of Welsh’s sources were written, in the 60s and 70s). But when you are working at a national scale, such similarities between far-flung settlements are actually informative, and help take the researcher further.

Tom Welsh has clearly had a lot of trouble over the years trying to convince archaeologists that his interpretations of sites are superior to the ‘official’ one. However, that is no reason to let your problems get in the way of your book, and in this case it really does. Another author, Margaret Gelling, writes in a similar way when looking at place-name research. While her books are excellent, invaluable texts, her insistence on constantly reminding us that we should keep such research in the hands of the professionals is almost the equal and opposite of Welsh’s idea. It spoils the readability of her work, and should be left out.

History on the Ground is a useful book. It has many great ideas on how to overcome barriers to research in your local area (get on the top deck of a bus for a better look), and goes systematically through the various elements of the landscape which you should examine in local history fieldwork. However, don’t let it put you off doing your own research. What we know today has benefited from the input of amateur researchers, and will continue to do so for as long as the past is of wider interest. But it will continue to be subject to peer-review, from other amateurs as well as professionals , as how else can quality be maintained? And contrary to what Welsh implies, do join your local archaeology society, and learn from people who have been doing it for years, rather than making it up as you go along and moaning when others suggest you might be in error. And certainly don’t criticise techniques of a practice that you clearly know little about, and have no intention of learning from.

The English Semi-detached House, by Finn Jensen

The English Semi-detached House, by Finn Jensen

In complete contrast to this style is The English semi-detached house: how and why the semi became Britain’s most popular house type by Finn Jensen (Ovolo Publishing Ltd, 2007). Jensen has written a survey of the developments of the semi-detached house in England over the last 500 years, starting from the large urban villas of the elite, and the country cottages of the working class, and brings the history right up to date with the housing developments in large estates during the 20th Century. Thankfully he neglects to criticise others in his field, and concentrates on producing a systematic yet readable history of these much-loved buildings through the years.

As this blog post has become too long already, and is really more concerned with technique than book content, suffice to say that The English Semi-detached House is an excellent resource, particularly for those readers who are researching Liverpool, and perhaps their own house, themselves. Jensen is a researcher at Liverpool John Moores University, and along with areas of London and Chester, Liverpool suburbs feature heavily throughout the book in many of the 150 illustrations which fill its pages. Fig 1.1 is itself a pair of aerial photographs of West Derby, marking its 20th Century expansion, and the sheer number of semis in the area. Many more West Derby photographs appear, in addition to photos of Runcorn, Birkenhead and south Liverpool suburbs, so the Scouse reader is left with an extensive survey of his or her home turf!

Jensen was born in Denmark, yet grew up in an English semi, and his knowledge of the house form is detailed and wide-ranging. However, there is never the impression of his opinions getting in the way of the description, and the book is well referenced with a separate bibliography for each chapter.

I would heartily recommend this book to anyone researching the modern suburban landscape, in addition to those looking at the older, and often larger semis more often seen in wealthy London suburbs built in (for example) the Georgian period. Welsh’s book, on the other hand, should be approached with caution, lest you be distracted by his attacks on the profession which has clearly offended him. Read Local History on the Ground for it’s investigative technique, but not for its interpretative advice!

If you’ve any more books you’d recommend (or avoid!), then do let me know in the comments.

Liverpool Gangs, by Michael Macilwee

Sadly not a British indie version of Scorsese’s grand piece, Gangs of New York (though this book does reference the other), Gangs of Liverpool is the 2006 book by Michael Macilwee that looks into the slums of late 19th Century Liverpool to reveal the criminal gangs that ‘terrorized’ the city. Although this is mostly a great social history of the time, it gives a fascinating glimpse into the way the landscape of Liverpool has changed in the intervening century.
The majority of the ‘action’ takes place in the north of Liverpool, and the opening chapter relates the events of the ‘Tithebarn Street outrage’ – the murder of Richard Morgan in August 1874. This acts almost as the spark that ignites an explosion of violent attacks over the next 20 or so years. The book then takes us through the development of more organised gang activity – from the informal gathering of ‘Cornermen’ to the infamous ‘High Rip’ gang whose notoriety spread to the national press.

As the Liverpool Landscapes website itself hopes to show, at the end of the 19th Century the Tithebarn Street/ Scotland Road area (View Larger Google Map) consisted of a mass of courts, narrow streets, dark alleys, and a pub on every corner. The photographs which dot the book, especially the generous number in the first two chapters, show how the main streets looked much more like Paradise Street or Castle Street, compared to the large office buildings which dominate today.

Another thing revealed in the landscape, and one which the Liverpudlians of the time were often only too aware, was the concentration of certain nationalities and religions in different areas. As might be expected, the Scotland Road area was often known as the Scotland Quarter, but it was the Irish community, many employed on ships or in the docks, that suffered much from sectarian violence. The Catholic community concentrated in the north of the area, while the Protestants (and Orangemen) were more likely to be found further south. This often led to conflict, with and without provocation, and at one point Macilwee relates the startling vision of 200 Irish navvies marching down the Leeds Liverpool Canal in the direction of Bootle village, with the intention of causing trouble with the Orangemen in Scotland Road. Just over 30 brave police constables managed to turn them around, but as they were being escorted back north, the numbers increased to around 1000. You’ll have to get your own copy to find out what happened next…

However, as with any study of the urban landscape, it’s easy to overstate the influence the physical city has on society. Many streets of course had members of both Protestant and Catholic congregations, and indeed the two intermarried. But the book sheds very interesting light on how the Victorian city looked, as well as the wider politics of defining the gangs, and the reactions of a police force often unable to properly deal with the problem.

The book is a scholarly, well-written with an eye for tense narrative. It reveals an often neglected contributor to Liverpool’s reputation for lawlessness and violence, including a great glossary of ‘Underworld Slang’, which I’m certainly going to make use of in everyday life. I’d certainly recommend it for anyone looking for an engaging peek into a violent past, and a bit of an eye opener for those who think the kids are getting worse.

Now, me donah’s grabbed the rasher wagon, so I’m off for a tightener…

Mapping the History of Liverpool

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Recommended Reading

These are some of my favourite books on Liverpool history. They're what I'd recommend to someone who wants great coverage of the whole history of the port and city.

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