Cobbles and cottages on Fisher Street

In early 2020 a Twitter user by the name of PhoenixME (@Phoenix1270) got in touch to ask about the ‘Forgotten Street’ (as they put it).

This led to a very interesting little journey to discover a road that is blocked off at one end by a gate, and at the other by buildings. But Fisher Street, to call it by its official name, once ran all the way from Grafton Street (the gated end) to Caryl Street (the building-blocked end).

It’s particular history has led to it preserving both the cobbled street (in impressive quality) and a couple of cottages. PhoenixME, who works at the site, has seen a fireplace with original hearth tiles, while another Twitter user, OldLiverpoolRailways (@ORailways) showed, through aerial photos, the two cottages themselves.

Old maps of the area also show that Fisher Street itself was once lined with court houses, notoriously small and unsanitary dwellings that thousands of Liverpudlians lived in during Victoria’s reign.

OS 1:500 town plan (left) and the modern aerial view of Fisher Street (click for larger version) eproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

I can see the problem, because there’s little on the street that falls within the usual legal protection. There is no listing law for cobbled streets! And the cottages, while interesting survivors, won’t likely meet the architectural demands of the listing system.

It’s in a part of town which has long had industries around it like the Higson’s brewery building over the road, and the steel manufacturers which front onto Grafton Street on the corner with Fisher Street. As such it might not be there for much longer, and PhoenixME themselves worry that there’s little to protect it. Taller buildings are encroaching on all sides already.

Hopefully it will survive as a small business premises for some time to come!

You can see the layout of the street on my Old Streets of Liverpool map.

My thanks go to PhoenixME for highlighting this fascinating slice of of residences, and for ORailways for contributing too.

Courts and Alleys by Elizabeth J. Stewart

This book is part of the output of the ‘Galkoff’s and the secret life of Pembroke Place’ project. (See my article on a talk by Liz Stewart, this book’s author). It doesn’t cover the court houses archaeological excavations which took place as part of the project, which will come in a later publication.

Court houses and the Victorian city

Court houses were a feature of the very dense residential areas of Victorian cities. They consisted of a set of houses facing onto a courtyard (hence the name), which was accessed at one end through a narrow alley or archway.

They remain notorious for the number of people who were housed in them – sometimes multiple families to a room – and the poor quality of their construction. For many people today, court houses typify the class divisions of Victorian society, but they were also a hot topic for contemporary commentators. Hugh Shimmin, of the satirical Porcupine magazine, was perhaps the most prominent but, as this book shows, plenty of people had much to say on the problems for the people living in them.

History of court houses

Courts and Alleys charts the whole history, from the earliest appearance to the remnants on Pembroke Place. It’s fully referenced, but the tone is very readable and not too academic.

The number of references makes this a useful reference book for research, and I’ve bought at least one book on the back of reading about it here. The long bibliography is a great jumping off point if you want to, for example, research your family history locations more closely.

Photo showing the illustrations in Courts and Alleys
Courts and Alleys is a wonderfully illustrated book

It’s great strength is the level of illustration. It’s a colourful book in any case, but there are dozens of photographs and maps that let you get to the heart of the issue. There are some classics which you might have seen before, but plenty you won’t have, both inside and outside shots, some of which are truly shocking, especially when you take into account their recency. Many are from the Liverpool Record Office, accompanied by quotes from their oral history collection.

There are also potted biographies of the people who played important roles in the history of court housing, such as George Buchanan who went some way to dispelling the myths about Irish laziness and immoral living as root causes of the problems in courts.

Photo of potted biography of Geroge Buchanan, from Courts and Alleys
The book contains biographies of important personalities

Improving living conditions

One of the many fascinating extra snippets of information that the book provides is that some of the courts were built by converting old large houses. Their entrance halls became the archway through which many courts (not just the converted ones) were entered.

The history of courts melds into the introduction to better public services like sewerage, gas lighting and running water. Courts, of course, often provided only one or two standpipes to two dozen people, and were dimly lit.

The night soil men (those who collected and cleared the latrines) were only contracted to wash courts and passages if their was a water hydrant within 30 yards.

But the earliest attempt to keep the town clean came as early as 1748, attesting to the tardiness of attempts to provide decent accommodation to court residents. The list of 19th century Acts which tried to improve housing is 65 years long!

Opposition came from landlords, who benefitted from cheap building costs, the House of Lords had no remit to raise taxes to pay for improvements, and fretting over the perception of government interference resulted in watered-down measures.

Even the sainted Dr. Duncan comes across as critical of the people in courts, edging on xenophobia (against the Irish again) or snobbishness towards the working class.

Here, there and (nearly) everywhere

The book goes on to put Liverpool in the national context. Courts were mainly a feature of the north of England and the Midlands. Cellar dwelling, often seen as the lowest of the low, was a Liverpool ‘speciality’, though not much less common in London and Birmingham.

But the book ranges further, comparing not only the courts of different cities in Britain, but looking across the pond to Manhattan and other US examples.

Photo of Courts and Alleys showing a map of cholera mortality in Liverpool
The landscape of Liverpool was a crucial factor in shaping the lives of its residents

Liverpool’s landscape seems to be part of the issue: the river created a western barrier to development, while at he same time the docks attracted thousands of workers who needed to be housed within walking distance.

Victorian Commentary

I’ve mentioned the Victorian discussions which surrounded the scourge of court houses, and the fates of the people who lived in them. Stewart discusses this too, concluding that the residents were constrained to live in these awful conditions because they simply had no other options.

They couldn’t afford anything better, and there were few other house types – as Marx noted for Manchester – close enough to the mills were they worked.

Not all court houses were created equal. Build quality, standards of maintenance and the living conditions experienced by people living in them all varied. But even at the time the press tarred them all with the same brush: uniformly bad, and generally the fault of the residents.

There was a heavy anti-Irish slant to commentary back then too. Our modern ideas of court houses suffer the same generalising principles; more nuance is needed, and this book attempts to introduce that to us.

After the courts

Of course, things did eventually improve. The first council houses, St. Martin’s Cottages, were built in 1869. Other ‘enlightened’ settlements were built at Port Sunlight and Bournville.

The two Liverpool examples embodied the controversy over whether housing was a public or private concern, a local or a central one. The housing by-laws can be seen as a compromise, where government set the standards that private developers had to adhere to. Hence when we refer to ‘by-law houses’ we mean those which were built in accordance with these pieces of legislation.

Photo of Courts and Alleys showing illustration of Duke's Terrace
The history of houses is brought right up to date

What impresses about this book is that it covers the period right through to the post-war clearances of ‘slum’ houses, linking the issues of the courts with more recent worries about approaches to housing thousands of people in suitable places.

Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not just the Pembroke Place courts which survive from this class of small dwelling. There are still back-to-backs in Liverpool, as illustrated by a modern photo of Duke’s Terrace, off Duke Street. These houses have, as you might expect, been converted into modern dwellings, by knocking them through so the building has two ‘fronts’. If nothing else, this proves that not all these small houses were poorly constructed.

As this book demonstrates, it was the factors surrounding living conditions – the number of people in each house, the lack of amenities, and social attitudes to the working class – that shaped these places.

Buy the book

The book is available now for £7.99. There are two good places to get it from:

(Disclosure: if you buy via Hive, this website gets a small commission to help keep it running).

Map of Pembroke Place, Liverpool

The ‘dark’ heritage of Pembroke Place from documents and archaeology

This is part of a series of posts based on the talks given at the Recent Developments in Merseyside Archaeology conference. It was held on the 13th October 2018, and took place at the Museum of Liverpool. Liz Stewart spoke about Pembroke Place, and the different projects which have been going on there. Galkoff’s Place featured prominently, as did court housing and the area’s ‘darker’ history.

The Pembroke Place project

Liz began her talk with an overview of the project she ran at Pembroke Place. Liverpool’s famous School of Tropical Medicine are landowners in the area, and have been a partner in the project. The centre of the project has been Galkoff’s butcher’s shop and Watkinson Terrace – a court house next door.

In 1835 a map by Gage documented the high density of residents in the area. Before this time the area had been a place of ‘goodly mansions’, but the owners of those had started moving out to the more salubrious outskirts of Liverpool. Their large houses were disappearing, slowly replaced with much smaller dwellings. However, some of these larger villas still stood to the east of Daulby Place when the smaller buildings appeared on the map.

Map of Pembroke Place, Liverpool
First Edition Ordnance Survey map of Pembroke Place, Liverpool, showing the court houses in the centre and the larger villas to the right, bordering on Daulby Street

Liverpool’s population in the 19th century

In the early 19th century 40% of the people of Liverpool lived in cellar dwellings. Even at the time, these conditions were known to be too poor for living, and enquiries were run at the time. In the early 20th century slum clearances finally began.

Pembroke Place once consisted of eight houses on it, around two courtyards. Today, only two of those eight houses remain, as back rooms to the shops fronting the street.

Archaeology at Pembroke Place

The Museum of Liverpool wrote a report on these houses, and collected information about the social context of the street. Social context drew on newspaper articles, which often referenced ‘Little Hell’, the area’s nickname. Anson Street was the centre of Little Hell, which had a reputation for high numbers of murders and brothels. This reputation was no doubt fuelled by the newspaper’s need to sell copies. Liz mentioned that the articles were misleading with their exaggerations.

The archaeologists, including Mark Adams, found structures belonging to the court houses. There was a light well as street level, letting sunlight into the lowest dwellings. There is evidence of the buildings’  alteration and adjustment, including around the light well. The finds were of surprisingly high quality, with bowls, a domino and a ceramic egg dug up. These show that, despite the conditions, people felt it important to surround themselves with ‘non-essentials’.

‘Dark’ heritage

Court housing may be a familiar topic for Liverpudlians. But the evidence from the newspapers, and even the excavations, brought to light disturbing details of life in the courts. Even the census records tell of the living conditions.

There were indeed murders, including those of children, as well as other social ills. Should a museum talk about these? Is there a danger of treating the information like those Victorian newspapers did? Does a museum run the risk of accusations of exploitation?

The Museum of Liverpool conducted a survey, and 100% of people thought that a museum was an appropriate place to talk openly about ‘dark’ and troubling history. However, 90% thought that child murder was something to leave out, even from museums. This is likely related to the family audience museums attract.

The future of Pembroke Place

The court houses, now part of the shops which front on to Pembroke Place, are safe from deterioration for now. (They are listed buildings.) The tiles which fronted Galkoff’s butcher’s have been removed, conserved, and are on display in the Museum of Liverpool for the next five years.

The census reports show that, although court houses, these buildings did not house the poorest people. Residents had steady jobs, for example. But Liz admitted that there’s more work to do to establish anything for certain.

In answer to a question from the audience, Liz told us that there were several Jewish businesses in the area, as well as Galkoff’s, until the 1950s. At that point many of them moved into south Liverpool, around Wavertree and Childwall.

Image: Ordnance Survey of 1850, via

Here’s 5 views of Google’s 3D Liverpool you might not have seen

It’s been all over the news lately: Liverpool is one of the first British cities to be rendered in three full dimensions on Google Earth. There was, as a crazy extra, a rumour going around that it was in preparation for a new Google office which was opening in the city.

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