Film Review: Almost Liverpool 8, a portrait of Toxteth in the 21st century

Toxteth. Liverpool 8. Sometimes just running those two phrases together can get people hot under the collar. One thing we learn from Almost Liverpool 8, a new documentary from Dartmouth Films is that the name ‘Toxteth’ was hardly heard before 1981, that watershed in the area’s history. I didn’t know this, having got so used to seeing the word on old maps of Liverpool all the time. It wasn’t the only enlightening part of the film.

It’s easy to see Almost Liverpool 8 as an attempt to reclaim the postcode and the Toxteth name from the news media. Luckily its creators have found a unique angle to do this. This isn’t trying to be a polished tourist information brochure; it’s more real than that. Truth is at the heart of it, and the question of who owns that truth.

The Toxteth Landscape

There are countless talking heads on screen, but the Toxteth’s landscape is the star of the show from the get-go. The opening scenes flick like photographic slides (albeit tiny slices of film) from terraces: Victorian worker and grand Georgian – to the Florrie, to 80s and 90s houses to the rejuvenating Granby. This photo/film montage leads into an introduction to Don McCullin, a photographer and our eyes and ears on 1970s Liverpool.

Don was an ‘outsider’ initially, perhaps a decade or two before the time we’ll come to. He worked on the trains as a young lad in his native London, but his first job took him via Euston to Lime Street and, more significantly, Edge Hill, four times a week.

Young McCullin began to explore Edge Hill alone, on foot, and fell in love with the place, and the wider city. In his later years he became a professional photographer, and was on Merseyside in the 1970s to document the then rapidly changing landscape.

Toxteth People

If the earlier snapshots showed just how varied Liverpool 8 is physically, Almost Liverpool 8 now introduces us to the people of Toxteth. A few are shop owners (newsagents, restaurants), one a photographer, another (Barry Chang) a beekeeper. Plus there’s Joe Farrag (source of the above name-related fact), Ronnie Hughes of A Sense of Place and Roger McGough of… well, Roger McGough (and, of course, The Mersey Sound). There’s the next generation too. A woman who set up two salons, and P3Lz, rapping her Fixed Sights, as well as the afore-mentioned restaurant owner with his young family.

Adam Saleh, newsagent, and Mo

These people give their sense of Toxteth and the way life is there. Farrag reminds us that the great attraction of Toxteth, historically, was that it was close to the south docks. Businesses built up to serve sailors on shore leave (yes, including those types of businesses…), of which the Granby Market might be the inheritor. Today’s market’s affordability, to sellers as well as buyers, is its key feature. You don’t need to make money to have a stall. You can come and chat – it’s part of the glue that holds the community together. Hard-nosed commerce would just get in the way of being here.

What is Toxteth?

The variety of landscapes and voices quickly demonstrate that Toxteth/Liverpool 8 isn’t a thing. It’s many things, a collection of things, a recipe with places and people as its ingredients. It’s certainly tight-knit, and loved. Pride is everywhere. These labels – ancient name and modern postcode – can be used to foster a sense of solidarity as much as they were used to blacklist this part of Liverpool once upon a time.

Liverpool 8 (and by extension Almost Liverpool 8) is also a source of wisdom. Chang the beekeeper compares bees and humans. He acknowledges the crucial role bees play in pollination – without them there is no food. But he also highlights that they (at least those bees in his own hives) would get nowhere if they adopted humanity’s tendency to play every-one-for-themselves. They work for the hive, which is for each other. They’re role models. Perhaps this is how Liverpool 8 functions: a hive of activity.

Back to McCullin: Don’s photography is the thread that runs through the film. He holds forth on how he saw Liverpool in the 70s. Never coming across like a shocked anthropologist, nor patronising the survivability of the natives, he admires the place. He was soon part of it.

The time he was photographing – the 1970s – was a period of ‘slum’ clearance, and you can hear those quotation marks in McCullin’s voice. Mistakes were made, he says, and we’re still suffering the consequences. Future homes were demolished, though he knows the Council believed what they were doing was the right thing. Again, we’re learning lessons and making comparisons. What Would The Bees Have DoneTM?

Perhaps unusually, we don’t hear of the places people ended up when they were moved out of their terraces; this film is laser focussed on L8, and gives us room to let our gaze rest on these streets, both from then and in the now.

Girl and Puddle

A single photo of Don’s does the rounds among the interviewees: that of a girl jumping over a puddle, the grey rain-soaked and cleared streets of Toxteth behind her. I won’t spoil the details of how this pans out; suffice to say that it conjurs all sorts of reminiscences and reflections. Ronnie Hughes brings out the old maps to see if he can locate the spot. It’s taken for granted that the landscape is different now.

Ronnie also notes that ‘middle class areas are never shown in the rain’. This is working class Liverpool. And this observation lies at the heart of Almost Liverpool 8: what gets communicated about a place like this, and how does this rub off? What unconscious biases do photographs, and the choices made when taking them, add to the conversation? Especially in light of later events and media coverage. Who gets to say what Toxteth is? Who gets to form its reputation? Don? P3Lz? The news media? Dartmouth Films? This review(er)?

P3Lz, Fixed Sights. Toxteth’s creativity takes many forms

Ronnie tells us he doesn’t like history (it can devolve into ‘trainspotting’). I get the feeling he’s thinking specifically of how the study of the past risks fossilising it, getting lost in the detail; missing the story, the people. History can prevent a place changing, moving on, just as much as it can give it positive identity and an anchoring history. The trainspotting type of history (“it wasn’t there; it was over here”) can weigh a place down.

As McCullin says, Liverpool (and Toxteth) people have always said “we won’t be judged”. Buster Nugent says Toxteth “always rises from the ashes”. This kind of optimism, that justice can be reclaimed, depends on being able to leave those ashes behind. And what is justice if not truth?

Toxteth is almost Liverpool 8

Eugene Lange, of Urban Griot, perhaps identifies some of the most important facets of living, which the community of Toxteth embodies well. “You’re never just you”, he says, echoing the sentiments of the beekeeper, you’re part of the world, in a relationship with it. Remember, he says, we’re genetically part Neanderthal, the rest of the world is in our very genes.

Granby Street Market – buy, sell or just come along

One thing that struck me is that every person featured in this film has, to some or other extent, a Scouse twang in their accent. That goes for the Barry Chang with his largely West Indian voice, the newsagent from Aden-via-Cardiff and the restauranteur from Norway. You can bring yourself into Liverpool, but Liverpool will insinuate itself into you too!

If anyone needs evidence that Liverpool 8, or Toxteth, is not the place of the 1970s, but is also the place that grew out of the 1970s, and all the history piled up before then, Almost Liverpool 8 is that evidence. Toxteth is ‘almost’ the place we think it is, but so much else, and maybe ultimately indefinable.

Most importantly, if this film holds anything like the truth, it’s a great place to live and work.

The film is a loving portrait, locally made with pride, that’ll make you smile, laugh out loud, maybe even well up. It’s a letter to the wider world about the truth, the present, of the place. It’s a message from the people in it, like the actor Brodie Arthur, saying: “We’re here; we exist; and we’re fuckin’ shit hot.”

More info

Almost Liverpool 8 will be showing at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic on Wednesday September 1st 2021 at 7:30pm.

To find out more, and book tickets, go to the Almost Liverpool 8 trailer web page.

Liverpool Loses its World Heritage Status

Image: EPW003061 ENGLAND (1920). Canada Dock, Huskisson Dock and the Sandon Half Tide Dock, Liverpool, from the south-west, 1920, from Britain from Above


After a long wait, the seemingly inevitable has happened: Liverpool Maritime Mercantile City has been removed from UNESCO’s list of sites of ‘outstanding cultural and natural heritage value’.

Of course, there’s no shortage of opinions on whether this was unfair, ‘incomprehensible’, or whether Liverpool needed it at all. For me, it’s raised some interesting points that should make us take stock of what heritage means to us in an ever-changing urban environment.

Reactions

The Mayor of Liverpool, Joanne Anderson, called the decision ‘incompresensible’, pointing out that millions of pounds have been poured into conserving historic buildings. The number of buildings on English Heritage’s At Risk Register fell from 17% to 2.5%. So how could the Site have possibly ‘deteriorated’?

There has been more than one suggestion that UNESCO would rather see derelict docks than a new Everton stadium. No doubt this is all hot-blooded reaction on the day, but it points to some misunderstandings about what constitutes a World Heritage Site (especially this one).

Mercantile City

Liverpool was designated a World Heritage Site in 2004 because of its role in the development of trade, transport and industry during the Industrial Revolution. This role, as I hope this very website gets across, is imprinted in the very landscape of the Victorian city. In addition to this, much of the physical fabric of these pioneering days – canals, railways, warehouses, docks – were and are still in existence, albeit some in much need of conservation work.

There were six areas that made up the WHS, from the Pier Head, to St George’s Plateau, to Stanley Dock. It was the integrity of this collection that formed the physical city, and the WHS City.

Buildings vs landscape preservation

I believe the very nature of this designation doomed Liverpool’s WHS status from the start. Few other WHSs will have the geographical spread of Liverpool’s, or the variety. The Pyramids, the Taj Mahal and the Great Barrier Reef don’t have a living conurbation in the middle of them – intertwined with them – requiring such a balancing act for those in power. Add to that the location of the north docks close to an area of economic disadvantage, and you have a recipe for disaster.

In fact, the economic decline of Kirkdale and Bootle can in part be attributed to their close relationship with the declining importance of those very docks. The deprivation is part of the historic chronology of the World Heritage Site. But no one’s proposing we preserve that too.

Joanne Anderson’s (and others’) appeals to UNESCO that Liverpool has made great strides in preserving individual buildings all over the WHS is addressing only part of the problem. Liverpool Maritime Mercantile City is a landscape, not just a collection of nice old buildings. The docklands are a system, not a disconnected series of piers, quays and warehouses. You can’t fill in a dock and say ‘well, we have dozens more’, any more than you can remove the Liver Birds from their perches and say ‘well, 98% of the building is still there, what’s the problem?’.

If you think this is a prelude to saying that Liverpool deserved to lose its World Heritage Status, then you’re right, and you’re wrong.

Still historic

Liverpool’s importance to global history is in many ways abstract: trade, movement, philanthropy, economics. These things are embodied in the historic buildings, and the buildings are essential to that history too, and Liverpool as a place will always be ‘historic’. But it is also very hard to capture that in boundaries drawn on a map. That goes doubly for the city’s impact on the world of music and sport. Are the Beatles any less influential today because the Cavern was demolished back in the 1970s?

Liverpool’s World Heritage Site boundaries: how do you manage this?

We will, hopefully, always be able to enjoy Liverpool’s built legacy: the Stanley Dock warehouse, the dock wall, the Leeds Liverpool Canal, the Three Graces, St George’s Hall. The Old Dock was never so accessible a heritage site until Liverpool ONE was completed. And local campaigners continue their sterling work to promote re-use instead of redevelopment of old buildings. That’s the success that Mayor Anderson is talking about, and rightly so. But it misses so much.

UNESCO and heritage

Liverpool’s World Heritage Site was put right in the middle of not only a modern and ever-changing city but a geography that needed and needs development and change. See the aforementioned deprivation of north Liverpool.

UNESCO doesn’t need, and can’t be expected, to take into account the economic needs of the places it designates. It just decides whether a place is ‘significant’. It’s a similar case on the national level for English Heritage. Many condemned EH’s statement that Everton’s new stadium would destroy heritage, in the form of Bramley Moore dock. But what else could EH do? It wasn’t their job to weigh up the pros and cons of the development – that’s for the planning system. EH are purely advisors. Don’t shoot the messenger.

Regional Mayor Steve Rotherham said, about the World Heritage Site: “Places like Liverpool should not be faced with the binary choice between maintaining heritage status or regenerating left-behind communities and the wealth of jobs and opportunities that come with it”. I think he misunderstands the situation. When the existing heritage-status building stock can be re-used to benefit the left-behind communities, then there is no binary choice. But if the existing landscape and its buildings cannot do this job, then there has to be this binary choice, and you have to make the difficult decision. In Liverpool, these two situations were too knottily bound together, given the hige area covered.

And so the problem that UNESCO unwittingly created was that the Liverpool WHS was in an impossible bind. Compare it to something like Edinburgh city centre, also a WHS. It’s a coherent landscape of the New and Old Towns, much more coherent than Liverpool’s, and one in which it is much easier to say no to development: it’s unlikely that you’d want to erect a new skyscraper or stadium in the middle of the Georgian landscape.

Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site boundaries: manageable, if not quite preserved in aspic

Likewise in Bath, in the Stonehenge landscape, or the town of Ironbridge. ‘Preservation in aspic’ is a frequently used derisive comment on heritage preservation, but these other WHSs can afford such an approach much more readily than Liverpool.

Liverpool and preservation

So where does that leave us today, with this decision?

I think it should remind us all – UNESCO included – that a World Heritage Site designation brings with it a certain set of responsibilities. If a landscape is ‘historically important’ then great changes to it will naturally reduce that importance, especially given that modern developments are unlikely to be part and parcel of that historic story.

In a tight-knit and consistent landscape like Edinburgh, or a deeply rural one like Stonehenge, development, and the demands of the people there, are of a vastly different nature to that in a city like Liverpool. These are places that we are very likely to decide that we want to keep much as they are.

But Liverpool is another kettle of fish: there are gaps (or very narrow bridges) in the WHS, and kinks in its boundaries. It stretches for miles and miles, across derelict docks and unused and crumbling buildings. This can’t be approached in the same way as would, say, Blenheim Palace. As the mayor’s World Heritage Taskforce put it: “Liverpool is not a monument or a museum but a rapidly changing city”. Exactly.

Landscape history

As with many things on this site, landscape is crucial, and a landscape is much more than a collection of places or buildings or streets.

I feel that Liverpool’s economic needs were, from the start, fated to lock horns with the demands of heritage preservation. I’m glad the designation was given, and that 17 years were enjoyed under its umbrella. But I’m starting to think that the Maritime Mercantile City should act as a note of caution to UNESCO – and those bidding for a place on the list – about the consequences of designating a landscape like Merseyside.

For bidders: would a designation fit well with the landscape as it is? Will it inferfere with other processes? Have you chosen the most suitable boundaries for the bid? Could you improve them?

There’s no doubt that Liverpool’s north docks were instrumental in the Industrial Revolution, but they are never going to be in-use docks again – was there ever a way that heritage status of any kind was going to sit well with them and their future?

Should Liverpool be a World Heritage Site?

The loss of World Heritage Status felt a little inevitable, and was the end of a long string of conflicts between UNESCO and the city. Gaining the status brought attention, investment and business to the area. It also highlighted the responsibilities that must come with it, and brought to light the opportunities that must be given up, or curtailed.

Losing the status offers the opportunity to do those things we want and need, but felt we couldn’t. Let’s hope that those who propose the next steps of the development in Liverpool City Centre do the right thing, and create a city of the 21st century we can all be proud of, WHS or not.

Photograph of Prince's Dock, Liverpool, looking north

Postcards from Edwardian Liverpool

Recently, I was contacted by Monica Lewis who had found a collection of postcards belonging to her grandfather. He was in the Navy in the First World War, and Monica thinks these postcards (amongst many from other parts of the world) were accumulated over the course of his career.

She’d like me to share these postcards with you, so I’m putting them here along with a few words about each. Some views might be familar, having been popular postcard views at the time, while others are less typical. I’m not sure how many postcards sent these days include views of working docks! It goes to show how industry was of interest to the general (proud) public in those days, and it’s a treasure trove for us!

Note: all the images have been uploaded in their original high resolution versions, so you can click on them for larger versions, and save them in the usual way.

Bold Street, Liverpool

Photo of Bold Street, Liverpool, looking south east
Bold Street, Liverpool

This is an oft-repeated view of Liverpool’s most fashionable shopping street at the time (and it’s still one of the best today). There’s a horse and cart pulled up next to the Lyceum, and three or four very early motor cars are parked or travelling up and down the road.

As well as the smart neoclassical Lyceum, there is a wonderful set of shop frontages on the right, starting with Faraday’s at the bottom, and including a clock projecting from an upper storey further on. And of course at the top of the street is St. Luke’s not-yet-bombed-out church.

I’m no expect but it looks like this is a very early scene, perhaps 1905-1915.

Canning Dock, Liverpool

Photograph of Canning Dock and two Graces, looking north
Canning Dock Liverpool

Canning Dock is one of the oldest central docks in Liverpool, built in 1797. This image shows masted ships on the three visible sides, and warehouses all around.

This image is another classic Liverpool photo scene, with perhaps one minor difference. The view points towards the Three Graces, but on closer inspection it seems that Cunard Building is missing! This makes the photo easy to date, as the Cunard Building was constructed between 1914 and 1917. As the Liver Building was completed in 1911, this image must come from the period 1911 – 1917 (as it’s possible the Cunard Building is half-built in this photo).

Docks and River, Liverpool

Photograph of Prince's Dock, Liverpool, looking north
Docks and River, Liverpool

This is a much more unusual view. Here we see a view looking northwards over Prince’ Dock. What struck me is just how neat it all is! There are pies of wood, a ship in dry dock on the right, and a neat house next door – the Marine Surveyor’s office. On the left is Liverpool’s Riverside Station, linking ship passengers with the city centre and the rest of the country. A motor car and working horses complete the picture at the bottom. Quite a transport hub in action here!

It looks like this photograph was taken from an upper floor of the Liver Building, and the raised view shows a couple of interesting details further afield.  We can see chimneys and warehouses to the north east, and over to the west is the outline of New Brighton Tower, reminding us of the aspirations of Wirral as a destination of leisure!

Landing Stage and Docks, Liverpool

Photograph of Prince's Dock, Liverpool, lookg across the Mersey to Wirral
Landing Stage and Docks Liverpool

This is a similar view to the others, looking north west towards Wirral across the roof of the Riverside Station. The New Brighton Tower is visible in this view too, though in less detail. It’s much easier to see the ships on the Mersey (though there aren’t many), including one docked at the landing stage. We can see the clock tower and the adjacent Dock Master’s Office at Prince’s Half Tide Dock.

Prince’s Parade and Royal Liver Buildings, Liverpool

Photograph of the north west side of the Liver Building, Liverpool
Princes Parade and Royal Liver Buildings

I’m not sure whether it’s a typo, or if this building was once known in the plural, but this photograph gives a great view of the new Liver Building context. The Tower Buildings (1906-10) peer out from behind, with the Liverpool Overhead Railway running between down the Strand. The much older St Nicholas’ Church is also visible.

What’s striking here is the neat green plantings around the approach to the landing stage. Bushes and lawn line the road at which a cart is parked. We can also see the offices surrounding the churchyard.

St George’s Hall, Liverpool

Photograph of the north west side of St George's Hall, Liverpool
St George’s Hall Liverpool

It’s the little details in this picture that I like the most. Of course, front and centre is St George’s Hall itself, dark from the air pollution of Victorian Liverpool, but none the less grand for all that. But look around the scene, and a lot more shows itself worth looking at.

Lime Street Station and the shops fronting it can be seen to the right, while on the left we can see the Wellington Column at the top of William Brown Street. St John’s Gardens look newly laid out (they opened in 1904), and the large trees which surround it and look stunning lit up at night have not grown up yet. In the foreground are the steps and translucent tiles indicating the toilets on Old Haymarket, along with the kiosk (tram (driver) shelter?).

William Brown Street, Liverpool

Photograph of William Brown Street, Liverpool, looking west
William Brown Street Liverpool

This is another early view of a tidy St John’s Gardens, looking out over William Brown Street and its wonderfully elaborate street lamps, which also hold the overhead tram cables. The ‘Free Museum and Library’ and the ‘Technical School’ (as they are marked on contemporary maps) are easy to see, nearly cheek-by-jowl with the industrial chimneys behind Old Haymarket and further into town.

Update: RMS Lusitania at Landing Stage

Since sending me the original set of postcards, Monica has discovered this great picture of the RMS Lusitania at the landing stage. The Lusitania was famously sunk by a German U-boat off the south coast of Ireland in May 1915, bringing the US into the First World War. So that backs up the idea that these postcards are from around 1910 – the Lusitania’s maiden voyage was in 1907.

Photograph of the ship Lusitania at Liverpool landing stage

Pictures of Edwardian Liverpool

I’d like to thank Monica again for sending me these postcards. It looks like she was correct in thinking they’re early 20th century. Judging by the buildings and fashions it looks to me like they’re from around 1910. That makes them a fascinating insight into a point in time in the city. Having all the photos taken at a single time helps give us an overall feel for the landscape across the city.

I hope you enjoy them!

Book cover of Liverpool, by Hugh Hollinghurst

Liverpool: unique images from the archive of Historic England

Historic England are the government’s adviser on the historic environment, so they have a duty to encourage the enjoyment of England’s history. Part of this remit is to manage the Historic England Archive, from which a new series of books takes its content. The volume I review here is, you’ll be shocked to learn, Liverpool.

The Historic England Archive holds over 12 million photographs, documents, plans and drawings covering the whole country. They run a public service where you can contact them to find out what they have, and get copies made for you.

But you don’t need to do that right now, as Hugh Hollinghurst has put together a neat little collection published by Amberley.

Old photographs of Liverpool

There are literally a billion books containing archive photographs of Liverpool. I’ve reviewed some of the best (and some of the worst) on here. I judge the books by their cover, and also by their content, and most importantly by the captions on the images.

Many books are content to give you about 15 words on the old photo, giving very little context or detail, and often getting things wrong. It’s not that this book is entirely error free (there’s one big blooper in there) but the length of the captions and the lack of nostalgic rose-tinted spectacles mean they’re not an issue.

Photograph of St George's Hall, Liverpool, from the historic England Archive
A ‘salted paper print’ of St George’s Hall, thought to date from 1854. This might be the oldest photographic image of Liverpool

The book is 95 pages long and has photos and also paintings from a wide gamut of Liverpool’s history. The earliest photograph is possibly the earliest photograph of Liverpool – St. George’s Hall, in 1855. (What we would recognise as photography had barely been around for a decade and a half by this point).

The book includes brand new photography, as well as images from the 1980s and 90s to give context. (And because, it pains me to say, those are now decades themselves part of history…)

Landscape history in archive photographs

It’s no secret that old photographs are a great reminder of the layout of the former city. It’s fascinating to see places like the Pier Head without its Three Graces. George’s Dock was divided into three and filled in around the turn of the 20th century, and Liverpool’s three gems erected over the next two decades.

The photos are in batches, so we see a couple charting the development of the Pier Head from the 1990s to today. We also see the Goree Piazzas from different angles, revealing the changing waterfront. There are explicit links between the captions, so this is much more than a scattershot ‘photo album’ approach.

There’s a fascinating panorama in the new book which shows a golden skyline, almost completely uniform in height. The only things that venture above the general roofline are the Customs House and St. Nicholas’s church. The age of the photograph and this uniformity lend it the appearance of Venice.

Photograph of Liverpool waterfront from 1887, from the Historic England Archive
The SS America anchored on the Mersey with the Liverpool skyline beyond

It’s a post-Blitz image which opens the book, and the first section, ‘Docks’. An aerial image, the most surprising thing about it is the neatness of it. It’s much like you’d expect a post-nuclear city to look. No life, no rubble, just clean squares where buildings once stood and the Customs House’s foundations like an I-beam embedded in the Earth.

Changing Liverpool landscape

Both the Customs House and the Sailor’s Home are some of Liverpool’s most famous and regretted losses. Hollinghurst talks about these demolitions with admirable neutrality. The Customs House had been identified as a difficult building to use or re-use as early as 1910, and the ‘prison-like’ interior of the Sailor’s Home condemned it once it required telegraph poles to shore up its frontage (see page 8 for that striking image). No doubt counter-arguments can and will continue to be made, but its interesting to hear the evidence.

Historic England’s Aerofilms archive has a wealth of aerial shots of the docks, and a couple are in this book. Here we’re treated to some of the less well-known docks, like Bramley Moore and Huskisson in the north. We see handsome liners and hefty cargo ships coming and going. We’d do well to remember that it isn’t just the Albert Dock that Liverpool’s wealth rested on.

Historic details

As well as the wide shots of historic landscapes, Liverpool includes interiors and details. There are high quality shots of windows in the Port of Liverpool Building, and carvings on the Cunard Building. Photos show lavish Edwardian interiors of the Cunard and White Star Buildings, including an office in the latter, beautifully neat with gorgeous brass lamps and elaborate ceiling mouldings.

Archive photograph of view over Liverpool from Adelphi Hotel
Looking out from the fifth floor of the second Adelphi Hotel, towards Birkenhead

A favourite of mine was the view out of the fifth floor of the second Adelphi Hotel. It looks south west down Ranelagh Street and you can make out Central Station. There’s the faint outline of the Customs House (that place again!) and, according to the caption, Birkenhead. (Perhaps that’s easier to see on the full size negative.)

Which of the great and good of previous centuries might have looked out on this vista, waiting for their ship to come in?

Trams and railways in old Liverpool

As well as buildings and docks, the old photos take in stations and rails. The Overhead Railway features on an impressive aerial shot, snaking like a giant Scalextric past Herculaneum and the other northern docks.

Other photos show ground-based scenes. There’s a busy intersection on the Strand in one. Little more than the stanchions which held the rails up remaining in another. (This allows Hollinghurst to date that particular image to 1957).

History of Liverpool in eight chapters

Hollinghurst divides the book into eight chapters (amongst them Transport, Docks, Leisure and Homes), but it’s clear to see the connections between them. Even the Homes chapter includes archive images of Goodison Park and the industrial landscape of Aintree (with its Hartley’s Village).

The book brilliantly captures the intertwining elements of Liverpool’s history. The amount of information in the captions makes them almost more than mere captions. Some of the photos are rarities or otherwise unusual.

As someone who has seen hundreds of old images of the city over the years it’s getting harder to find something new. I think the depths of the Historic England Archive have yet to be fully plumbed! My only real gripe is that it’s not easy to cross-reference this book with the archive itself. The images from Historic England are labelled as such, but the reference numbers are not here. You’ll have to do an intelligent search on the Historic England Archive website to find them.

Get the book

Book cover of Liverpool, by Hugh HollinghurstLiverpool: unique images from the archives of Historic England is written by Hugh Hollinghurst with Historic England. It was published in 2018 by Amberley Press.

You can get it from Amazon UK (affiliate link) or direct from Amberley’s website.

Two disclaimers: I used to work for the Historic England Archive (when it was the National Monuments Record, part of the then English Heritage), and also I was honoured to see my own book, Liverpool: a landscape history recommended in its opening pages, next to my favourite Liverpool volumes. Still, I think this book is worth checking out, even if you think you’ve see every old photograph of Liverpool.

A traveller to the Pool

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.

Photo of the dock railway at Hartley Quay

Hartley Quay Dock Railway

The dock railway was built in Liverpool to solve a challenge which other cities did not face. With dock expansion, ships were docking further and further from the central business district. Places like Manchester and Bristol stood astride their rivers, and twice the mileage of docks fit in each mile of river than in Liverpool.

Therefore, much more than other places, railway transport became important to transporting goods. This could be from the outlying docks into town. Some went further, carrying on their journeys further into Britain, or onto new ships going elsewhere.

Dock railway remains

The remains of the dock railway are still embedded in parts of the docklands, even though the roads are now dedicated to other vehicles. It’s interesting to note that at one time the roads would have been shared between the locomotives on the one hand, and vehicles like trucks and horse-drawn carts on the other.

Even in the early 1960s steam engines could still be seen following a man with a flag near the Pier Head. But by then the increasing pressure from the motorcar was becoming too much. The main roads along the docklands – e.g. the Strand – were in need of modernisation to deal with the increased traffic.

Today, you can see the rails outside the Maritime Museum entrance, bounded by two sets of buffers. The rails run into a large iron-banded door to the north east side.

More information

The Dock Railway, 1962, Streets of Liverpool, Colin Wilkinson

Road sign labelled George's Dock Gates

George’s Dock Gates road sign

Liverpool, as a city, is master of reinventing itself. It re-uses parts of its landscape when priorities (and economics) change. The Pier Head area in general has seen many, many changes. The filling of the Pool, and the creation of the first wet dock, is perhaps the most significant. The road sign declaring George’s Dock Gates is another clue to these changes.

The disappearing George’s Dock Gates

Old Ordnance Survey maps (like the 1893 edition below) show a large open square area just to the river side of St Nicholas’s Church. This is labelled as George’s Dock Gates. It lay over the filled in form of George’s Dock Basin (which led into both George’s Dock and Prince’s Dock).

Map showing George's Dock Gates in 1893
George’s Dock Gates 1893

The street sign is not attached to an old section of the wall of George’s Dock Basin, contrary to what some other websites will tell you. Rather, it refers to this area, which acted as a sort of entry way into the central dock system. George’s Dock still held water when the walls of the churchyard were erected. The George’s Dock Gates name was already in use.

The name is marked on maps right through until the Three Graces replaced the dock basins behind the Pier Head. This map from the middle of the 20th Century still displays the name.

Map of George's Dock Gates in the 20th century
George’s Dock Gates 1959-72

For the city today, it’s a reminder that the busy dual carriageway area of the waterfront was once central to Liverpool’s central activity: trade and exchange.

Bootle: seaside village

Today’s map is taken from a detailed one that I picked up recently, from the Illustrated Globe Encyclopedia printed in 1878.

The point of interest I’m drawing your attention to is Bootle. In 1878, and also visible on the First Edition Ordnance Survey map of the area, the village of Bootle sits alone to the north of Liverpool. The docks to the west have stretched this far north, but Bootle’s strong links with the port were still a little way in the future. Continue reading

An 1885 map showing Liverpool's north docks

Liverpool at the forefront of dock technology: Waterloo, Victoria and Trafalgar Docks

I’ve been obsessed with Liverpool’s docklands this week. I’ve been reading a lot about them while writing the 19th century chapter of my book. Although the book’s focus will be on the changing historic landscape of Liverpool and its docks, you can’t help but be drawn into the technological advances. These too helped create the dock landscape we see today. Continue reading

Photograph of the Blue Plaque dedicated to Jesse Hartley

Liverpool Heroes 4: Jesse Hartley

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.

Continue reading