May, 2010 Archives

John Alexander Brodie (1858-1934) deserves a chapter to himself in the story of Liverpool’s growth as a city. The City Engineer, he had a creative mind – responsible for ‘inventing’ goal nets to stop the disputes that broke out when there were just goalposts and a crossbar – he was also the man who created a modern road network in Liverpool that is the envy of cities across the country. A visionary, he foresaw the need to accommodate the motorcar at a time when car ownership was restricted to a few wealthy enthusiasts (Brodie included). Through a cunning strategy of buying up outlying plots of greenfield land, he was able to steer through the construction of Queen’s Drive and the radial roads into the city centre. The magnificent dual carriageways, many now tree-lined, are part of his legacy, along with such initiatives as creating a photographic record of his department’s work (now in the Liverpool Records Office) and the use of pre-cast concrete as a building material.

Historically, he should be better recognised, He realised that the need to provide low-cost housing to replace the appalling slums of Liverpool required a fresh approach – and came up with the concept of casting panels of concrete which could be quickly erected in situ. His first experimental houses were in Eldon Street in 1903. The photographs above of the front and rear elevations were taken in 1964 just prior to demolition. (There is one surviving example – Walton stables – on the corner of Rice Lane and Queens Drive – although modified, the block is very much intact). Sadly for Brodie (and Liverpool), the system of using factory-produced panels failed because of trade union opposition. Other countries were less resistant to change – and in the 1960s Liverpool was importing panels from France made under the Camus system to construct the Shiel Park flats.

Looking at the photographs, the result is interesting but not convincing. They personify the worst aspects of concrete as a building material – somewhat crude with a tendency to discolour and stain in an unattractive way. Whether they were pleasant places to live is another matter – but the photographs are a final record of an innovation which Liverpool could have developed and pioneered.

St Mary’s C of E Junior Boys School, Archer Street/Westminster Road, 1976

Lambeth Road Secondary Modern School, 1976

St Alphonsus RC Primary School, Stanley Road, 1976

Here are another three ‘lost’ schools. I never ceased to be amazed by what you can find out on the internet. Out there are an army of enthusiasts who are putting in hours of unpaid research to keep us informed about their particular interests. One such site which is a mine of information is http://liverpool-schools.co.uk

St Mary’s, Archer Street, opened in 1844 and was still listed in 1911. The other two schools are more recent. St Alphonsus opened in 1952 but was merged with St Alban’s and St Gerard’s in the 1990s. Lambeth Road Secondary Modern closed in 1982 when it merged with John Hamilton Secondary School. As I look at the photographs, I cannot help feel how badly society has served children in such inner city areas. There is hardly a blade of grass in any shot and the buildings exude soullessness and dreariness. I taught for a short while at Archbishop Whiteside RC Secondary on Silvester Street as a supply teacher in the early 1970s and the sense of failure permeating out of the place was almost tangible. However bright a child was, they had little chance of succeeding in such negative places.

St John’s RC Secondary Modern, Fountains Road, 1976

Birchfield Road Primary School

St Vincent RC Primary School, Norfolk Street, 1975

In one of my earlier posts, I mentioned that, as a book publisher, one of the most neglected subjects is schools. This has puzzled me because it is one common experience we all share. In recent years, I have published books on pubs, cinemas, churches, railway stations and many other aspects of Liverpool life (or afterlife if you count all the ghost books), but schools have hardly merited a mention. I have thrown out this challenge already but is there anyone out there who can make a decent stab at the subject?

I cannot add much about today’s selection (there are more to follow) except for St Vincent’s on Norfolk Street because I can see its site from my office door. The main body of the church has been demolished but there is part of the school still standing on Brick Street, even though it is covered in corrugated iron and not recognisable. I met Tommy Walsh recently. Tommy a leading figure of the Liverpool Irish community (he is now in his 80s) was born in nearby Blundell Street and attended St Vincent, so it much have been in operation up to the war. The area was very much an Irish Catholic community and the school was at its centre. Pat O’Mara’s Autobiography of a Liverpool Slummy creates a vivid picture of the area, although he went to St Peter’s, Seel Street. Interestingly, my offices are on the site of Pat’s house, which was pulled down in the 1960s.

Houghton Street was once a busy street connecting Williamson Square and Clayton Square. It is still there but one side is taken up by St John’s Market and the other by what were George Henry Lee’s and Owen Owens. This is an interesting colour photograph taken just before the buildings were demolished to make way for the new market. There is not a lot I can add to my previous comments about the destruction of this area. Even the landlords of St John’s appear to have thrown in the towel and have abandoned the complete refit indefinitely.

I can remember that when the precinct caught fire (in the 1980s – my memory fails me), architects gathered at their club in Bluecoat Chambers and toasted its demise. They celebrated too soon. Unfortunately the fire damage was repairable and the Market continued to trade. There are a few other buildings I would raise a glass to if they were to be consumed by fire (no casualties of course): the black glass buildings on Mann Island and St John’s Market topping the list.

David Lewis Hostel and Theatre

Great George Street, 1980

Two more photographs taken by Stan Roberts. Somewhat ironically, he has dated both photographs 1st April 1980.

This was no April Fool’s joke, unfortunately, just the end of a fine institution that had served the city well for over 70 years. My recollection was that the street and hostel had been cleared several years earlier – but Stan was never wrong. One of my earliest memories of Liverpool was going to a meeting at the University Settlement on Nile Street, which was one of the streets that ran up the hill from Great George Street to the Cathedral. The building was part of a shabby Georgian terrace but it had life and character.

David Lewis was one of those larger than life characters who illuminated Liverpool life in the nineteenth century. He had arrived in Liverpool as a 16 year-old and went on to establish Lewis’s Stores as a household name. Deeply religious and philanthropic, he left considerable funds in his will towards charitable purposes (he had already helped fund the Northern Hospital). The David Lewis Hotel (or Hostel) was built in 1906, initially as a place for seafarers. It had sports facilities and a theatre, which staged concerts for the local community (apparently it could seat 1000 people). It doubled up as a cinema, gaining its licence in 1914. I remember it as a community venue in the early 1970s when it was running as a successful youth club. Its fire certificate expired in 1977 and, as the photograph shows, its demolition followed in 1980. Another fine building to add to the lengthy ‘Lost Liverpool’ list.

Walton Road 1976

Great Mersey Street from Stanley Road 1976

I have previously mentioned some of the dedicated photographers who took it upon themselves to document the streets of Liverpool. One name I have not mentioned is Stan Roberts. I knew Stan well. He was a mine of information on anything Liverpool and had built up a magnificent collection of maps and books before his death a few years back. Stan only started taking photographs seriously in the 1960s but he made up for lost time over the next twenty years photographing thousands of street scenes like these two.

I particularly like the idea of Walton Road being Marlboro Country. As the advert says: ‘Come to where the flavour is’.? The photo of Great Mersey Street reinforces my earlier post about Georgian buildings. These were some of the last terraces left after the destruction of the 1950s and 60s. They were part of a solid belt of similar housing that once covered the city from Dingle to Everton and beyond. Thanks to photographers like Stan – whose work will feature regularly in my blog – we do have a valuable record, even if it is of decay and impending destruction.

Pier Head 1911 (the Liver Building is minus its Liver Birds)

Pier Head 2000

Pier Head, May 2010

It is easy to cast oneself as yet another moaner who is always finding fault with any changes. I’d like to think I have a positive attitude to change and I have welcomed many of the recent developments that have transformed the city. I am a big fan of the new Museum of Liverpool and see it as a graceful addition to the waterfront along with the Arena. However, the destruction of one of the best cityscapes in the country makes my blood boil.

The waterfront has always been restricted to the people of Liverpool and the first view taken in 1911 shows a scene that would have been enclosed by storage sheds along the Dock Road. However, the opening up of the vista, particularly from 1984 with the landscaping around Albert Dock, created a magnificent view that lifted the spirits as you walked or drove past. The view through the arch became a favourite photo opportunity – framing the Pier Head in all its glory. My view taken in 2000 captures a scene that must have impressed any visitor to the city. (I used a similar shot for the cover of Quentin Hughes’ Liverpool City of Architecture to highlight the best view in the city). So what have they done? Taken away an iconic view that sold the city for three blocks of black glass-faced speculation that have changed the waterfront for generations (or at least until they pull them down). Why there? Why black when virtually every building in Liverpool is either brick or white stone? We talk about listing buildings. The space around Mann Island should have been declared public open space and landscaped accordingly. Shame on all those who voted for the development (which only got through on a casting vote).

The public are treated with derision by decision-makers. Remember the Fourth Grace fiasco when the public were asked for an opinion and then completely ignored. The obsession with filling every space with commercial buildings is wrong-minded and damages the city’s heritage. We need more open space not less. We have been palmed off with a little patch of green in Liverpool One when what we should have are swathes of green across the city centre. Whoops – I have turned into a typical moaner in three paragraphs.

I have to be a bit careful about cinema locations after my post about the Gaumont, but this is a queue for the Futurist on Lime Street in the early 1950s. The main point of interest is the man with his godly message. I remember him as late as the 1980s in Church Street, still pushing the same proclamation. He seemed remarkably good-natured, although I suppose after 30 years he had survived every insult and witticism anyone could throw at him.

There is a long tradition of photographing street characters. John Thompson had started the genre in 1870s London and it was then developed by many other photographers, particularly after hand-held cameras became widely used in the 1890s. Amateur photographic societies often included a category for street photography in their annual competitions and Liverpool had, in Charles Inston, one of the greatest exponents. Today’s streets perhaps lack the variety – back in the 1950s there were escapologists, strong men having paving slabs shattered with sledge-hammers on their chests as well as the singers, violinists and whistle players – but is still plenty of life to be captured and kept for a future generation.

A bit of a Mexican stand-off in this brilliant photograph taken back in 1953. The Hollywood influence had put right on the side of the cowboys – but that was all to change with movies in the 1960s and 70s that, against the backdrop of war in Vietnam, changed the goalposts to make the Indian the heroic victim of colonial oppression. For all of us kids, that was a philosophy too far. If we weren’t killing Germans, it was Indians.

The great shame is that, political incorrectness apart, there seemed to be far more imaginative play in those days (and outside too!). Somewhere along the decades we have lost something – I think it is called childhood.

I reckon I’ve been a bit serious with my recent blogs, so here is an image from 1969 that should raise a smile or two. The Swan was pulled down a few years back for road improvements but I don’t think it ranks highly on the list of lost buildings. As for the mini skirts, they were amongst the last to be seen for a time as the long, flowing skirts, loon pants? etc. took over. The police, as always, are on the lookout for crime on the streets.