August, 2010 Archives

Peak evening traffic 1953

Tunnel entrance 1967

Following on from Friday’s post – two more images of the Birkenhead Tunnel. The first shows the chaos as workers head back home to the Wirral. There seems to be an absence of road markings – which must have made the journey somewhat hazardous. Those old cars must have broken down regularly – creating mayhem. Outside, the decorations for the Coronation are still very much in evidence – an easy way to date the photograph.
In the bottom photograph, the Beacon is nearing completion. The basalt lighting column (see May 4th post ) had already been taken away and the toll booths at the Liverpool side were soon to follow (date ?).

Queensway Tunnel, 30 July 1934.



Queensway Tunnel ‘Nerve Centre’ 26 May 1934

Walking up Manchester Street today, I was reminded about how much of Liverpool we take for granted. Liverpool is full of tourists – most here for the Mathew Street Festival but I wondered how many would stop to admire the Mersey Tunnel, once regarded as one of the great engineering feats. Today, it is its art deco detailing by Herbert Rowse, in my opinion Liverpool’s greatest architect, that catches the eye – but the engineering by Sir Basil Mott (in co-operation with John Brodie, Liverpool’s brilliant City Engineer) was what caught the headlines back in 1934. An amazing construction, the tunnel was started from both side and was only one inch out when they were finally connected.
The Tunnel opened on 18 July 1934 and the top photograph was taken 12 days later. The bottom photograph is of the Control Centre – which “controlled 140 telephones, fire stations every 50 yards and a variety of traffic signals including ingenious devices which will prevent oversize or overweight vehicles from entering the Tunnel. The installation supersedes anything of its kind in the world.”
I’d love to know how the ingenious device preventing oversize vehicles entering the Tunnel worked – in my cynical mind I imagine a policeman at each end eyeing up each lorry – or maybe that man with a bakelite telephone really did have a way of telling.

The Thistle, Breck Road

Unknown house interior c1890

Most of us who collects photographs finish up with family albums and family photographs which offer a tantalising glimpse of the past – even if the people and location are often not known. I have dozens of photographs ranging from WW1 soldiers, young children in prams, proud shopkeepers outside their premises, families on the beach – even children on their death bed. So many questions arise – but even unanswered, they are fascinating social documents. Quite a few years back, Audrey Linkman, realising the historical significance of such photographs, established the NW Documentary Photography Archive – which is now housed at the Greater Manchester Record Office. Most of its holdings are from the Manchester area and are a rich and important resource for the wider community. Is it time we did the same for Liverpool and bring together the thousands of photographs held in family albums – along with the stories behind each one? The NWDPA in most cases just copied the original – but the result is a regional treasure trove.

Here are two of my images which would benefit from more information. The first of an old lady and dog outside The Thistle. What was it? It says high class but the only clues are pots of aspidistras in one window and a few bottles in the other. The other photograph is equally enigmatic, showing an old lady in her well-furnished living room. The pictures on the wall suggest she is relatively well off – but there are no clues as to where the house was.

The photograph is of HMS Eagle in Brunswick Dock. It is a small photograph I picked up many years ago. Not particularly eyecatching as an image, it was only when I read the pencil note on the back that I realised that here was a forgotten history of Liverpool. The pencil note reads:

Court martial held on HMS Eagle in 1915. The Offenders on HMS Ambrose lying in Mersey during the European War.

Initial research led quickly to the use of HMS Eagle as the divisional HQ of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) – who still retain their presence in the city. HMS Eagle – a 74 gun frigate – was renamed the HMS Eaglet in 1919. Unfortunately, I have not traced details of the court martial – although it would have been a serious matter during wartime. My particular interest is that my grandfather was in the RNVR during WW1 and served on the notorious Q-ship SS Baralong. Q-ships were disguised merchant ships that were used as a weapon against the U-boat threat. They would fly a neutral flag until within attacking distance and then change flag and attack.

On August 19, 1915, about 100 miles south of Queenstown, Ireland, U-27, commanded by Kapit?nleutnant Bernard Wegener, stopped the British steamer Nicosian in accordance with the rules laid down by the London Treaty. A boarding party of six men from the U-27 discovered the Nicosian was carrying munitions and 250 American mules intended for the use of the British Army in France. They ordered the freighter’s crew and passengers into lifeboats, and prepared to sink the freighter. U-27 was lying off Nicosian’s port quarter firing into it when the Baralong appeared on the scene, flying the ensign of the United States as a false flag. When she was half a mile away Baralong ran up a signal flag to the effect that she was going to rescue Nicosian’s crew. Wegener acknowledged the signal, ordered his men to stop firing, and took U-27 along the port side of Nicosian to intercept the Baralong. As the submarine disappeared behind the steamship, Herbert steered Baralong on a parallel course along Nicosian’s starboard side.

Before U-27 came round Nicosian’s bow, Baralong hauled down the American flag,hoisted the Royal Navy White Ensign, and unmasked her guns. When U-27 came into view from behind Nicosian, Baralong opened fire with her three 12-pounder guns at a range of 600 yd (550 m), firing 34 rounds. U-27 rolled over and sank in less than a minute. Twelve men survived the sinking of the submarine, the crews of her two deck guns and those who had been on the conning tower. They swam to the Nicosian and clambered up her hanging boat falls and pilot ladder. Herbert, worried that they might try to scuttle the steamer, ordered his men to open fire with small arms, killing all except six on the Nicosian. Wegener is described by some accounts as being shot while trying to swim to the Baralong.

Herbert sent a party of twelve Royal Marines to the steamer to hunt the German sailors down. They were discovered in the engine room and shot on sight, an action which may have been spurred by revenge. Earlier that same day, U-24 had sunk the White Star liner SS Arabic with the loss of 44 lives. The Baralong had been about 20 miles from the scene, and had received a distress call from the ship. Her Royal Navy crew considered it as an atrocity equal to the sinking of the Lusitania – which they had been involved in the aftermath, seeing the corpses lined up on the harbourside of Queenstown.
The Baralong incident was a defining moment in the naval war – regarded as a war atrocity by the Germans. Naturally, the British exonerated the crew but the immediate result was to remove any semblance of fair play on the high seas. Interestingly, my grandfather, a quiet and unassuming man, was in total agreement with the Baralong’s action – feeling the Germans got what they deserved. For me, a small photograph of seemingly little interest has opened a window on a sequence of events that I feel the need to research further. That is the thing about photographs I love – the moment frozen in time that tells a compelling story if you can unlock it.



Burlington Street 1890

Temperance March c1895

There is a substantial number of contemporary accounts of life in nineteenth century Liverpool. Journalists such as Hugh Shimmin wrote extensively about slum life, usually sympathetically but invariably looking at drink as the underlying cause of poverty. Invariably, middle class response to the threat of the ‘underclass’ was to lobby for tighter controls on the sale of alcohol – with a growing number arguing for total abstinence. Signing the ‘pledge’ (not to drink) and supporting temperance organisations such as the Band of Hope attracted national support – even if, like most bandwagons, it eventually ran out of steam.

The first photograph, of Burlington Street, is one of a series taken by Liverpool photographer N. Stephen, a committed anti-drink campaigner, and used as lantern slides in temperance lectures. The second photograph, which looks as if it has been taken somewhere near Abercromby Square, shows what appears to be a well-heeled crowd about to start their procession. The distance between the two locations is only a couple of miles in distance – but light years in comfort, opportunity and life expectancy. A century on, one might ask ‘what has changed?’


Victoria Square 1954

Victoria Square (original layout)

St Anne Street 1937

Holidays over and time to get back to my blog!

One of the most fascinating aspects of Liverpool’s social history is that of public housing. Astonishingly, no comprehensive book has been written on the subject in recent years – I await one with great anticipation! – although the importance of the many initiatives undertaken is more than worthy of an in-depth study. The first major project was St Martin’s Cottages in 1869 – which survived until the 1980s. Victoria Square was the second initiative, although not until 1885. The Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1890 (imagine calling a piece of legislation that today) resulted in a rapid expansion of local authority housing – and Liverpool took the lead, including the St Anne Street flats of 1914, which showed the imaginative design using high quality materials.
Victoria Square was an ambitious scheme, considered a pioneering venture at the time. It originally contained 270 dwellings but, following war damage in 1941, these were reduced to 215. Substantial improvements were made in the early 1950s, including installing back-boilers for hot water and wiring for electricity. Particular care was taken to maintain the external features – but, in 1961, the original four blocks were reduced to two. Even these improvements were not enough to save the Square and it was demolished to make way for the Wallasey Tunnel.

I raised the point in an earlier blog about the opportunity missed to create a museum of housing. This was mooted at the time of St Martin’s Cottages future being considered and was dismissed on cost grounds (there was a similar proposal for Duke Street Terrace). Somehow, money has been found for the new Museum of Liverpool, a building I consider one of the best modern buildings in the city. However, I have serious misgivings about its proposed content – too early to judge but the advance information suggests style over substance. The collection of the old Museum of Public Health (now in the possession of NML) would have provided a substantial element to a real museum of Liverpool life utilising the structures of buildings which had been part of the great housing initiatives (imagine had Gerrard Gardens been used for such a purpose – and within walking distance of William Brown Street). Building expensive, ‘iconic’ buildings is one thing – history is another.

Girls swinging c1963 (Karl Hughes)

Boy climbing street lamp c1963 (Karl Hughes)

Girl in street c1953 (Frank Dugan)

Three street scenes with a street light as the common factor. A perfect piece of play apparatus – not too high and with the bar at the top for hanging or swinging on. What is particularly sad is that this kind of impromptu photography is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Most photographers today would avoid such subject matter. The law is still on the photographer’s side but candid street photography is an increasingly difficult problem, especially where children are involved. Clearly such images as the ones shown here are not exploitative – and are a valuable record of yesterday’s childhood – but I do wonder whether we will leave a comparable record for the future.