June, 2011 Archives

County Road, 1911

Sefton Street, 1911

Armoured Car

Cricket outside St George’s Hall

Over fifteen years ago, I published a book Near to Revolution by Eric Taplin on the 1911 Transport Strike in Liverpool (not to be confused with the 1926 General Strike). This year Liverpool City Council has launched its City of Radicals 2011 to mark not just the centenary of the strike but a number of other events (including the first Post-Impressionist exhibition outside of London at the Sandon Studios – now Bluecoat Art Centre, the death of Robert Tressell -author of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists) – and the first International Women’s Day.
The strike itself should be seen against the background of a divided society, with 120,000 people owning two-thirds of the nation’s wealth. The Industrial Revolution had widened the poverty gap with millions living barely at subsistence levels. Liverpool was a hotbed of activism and there was a growing feeling that a united labour force could take over the means of production. Inspired by radicals such as Tom Mann and Ben Tillett, ‘War’ was declared and industrial action began to spiral out of control. Troops and police from other forces were called in, HMS Antrim was moored in the Mersey and, inevitably, two strikers were shot dead in the most violent strike action seen in Britain. Winston Churchill, the Home Secretary, described the situation as ‘near to revolution’. Panic resolutions to settle with the different unions began to take the sting out of the strike, which had lost some of its willingness to continue after the police and military aggression coupled with the two deaths.
From a photographic point of interest, this was the first major strike to be fully documented photographically and cinematically (although only brief snatches of the film survive). Most of the photographic record is the work of the Carbonora company run by Gwilym Mills. His set of postcards published throughout the strike are now amongst the most collectible of postcards (reaching up to ?100+ per card). Unfortunately, the offices and workrooms of Carbonora were destroyed by enemy bombing and their negatives and archive destroyed (the company still survives as the Mills Media Group).
The top photograph shows a police and army convoy travelling along County Road in Walton. The shops on the left belonged to Robert Crease (a music dealer), Arthur Rattenbury’s tobacconist, and Elizabeth Ford’s hosiery shop. The second photograph, showing troops protecting food supplies in Sefton Street was an American Press print I purchased from a supplier in Dallas – which indicates the international importance of the strike. The other two photographs are my favourites: the rather inadequate riot car (although petrol bombs had not been thought of at that time) and the boys playing cricket on St George’s Plateau in the midst of all the mayhem.

Dream at Suttton Manor

I have just returned from a week’s holiday in Yorkshire and took advantage to visit both the new Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield and the nearby Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The Hepworth Gallery, designed by architect David Chipperfield, is magnificent both externally and internally. Rising out of the River Calder, it houses a superb collection of works by Wakefield-born Barbara Hepworth and her close circle of friends, including Sir Henry Moore.
The place was packed – probably, like me, people from outside the area who would never have visited Wakefield but for the gallery. Like the Guggenheim in Bilbao, it offers further proof (if proof is needed), that people will travel many miles in the cause of good art and architecture. A gallery alone will not regenerate Wakefield, but it certainly will have a major impact on how the town is viewed in future.
Seven miles along the road and another stunning experience – the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Set in 500 acres of rolling countryside, the Park houses superb works by Henry Moore, Hepworth, Elizabeth Frink and many others of international renown. Many are dramatically sited in the landscape in a far more dynamic relationship than they would have in an art gallery.
I had specifically visited the Sculpture Park to see a comprehensive exhibition of the work of Jaume Plensa, the Barcelona-born sculptor. However, to get a taste of his stunning work, you only need to travel the short distance to Sutton Manor, close to the M62. His head of a young girl dreaming is set amongst trees on the top of what was once a slag heap. The 20 metre head, covered with white Spanish dolomite, is in symbolic contrast to the coal once dug out from below.
One of the best things about all three places is that they are free to enter (except for car parking charges at Wakefield and the Sculpture Park). This really got me thinking about how much Liverpool has to offer that is without an entry charge: Another Place at Crosby, the two Cathedrals (York Minster charges ?9 per head), the Tate, the Walker, Lady Lever, Museum – the list goes on. With so many negatives about the current economic situation, here is one great positive. All these places can change the way you see life – and at no financial cost. I can think of no other European country that is so generous with free access to its great institutions, its museums, galleries and cathedrals, as is Britain. I hope it will always remain so.

Ann Fowler Home c1968

Interior of Home, 1910

The announcement today that Southern Cross, the largest provider of care homes for the elderly in the UK, is cutting 3000 jobs and possibly closing over 100 homes, highlights a problem that has persisted for generations.
I studied social administration at university and was taught the maxim ‘a society is judged by the way it treats those in need’. I soon found out – on my first placement, I spent four weeks in a wing of an old workhouse in Sheffield looking after homeless men. With crowded dormitories, a small locker for their life’s possessions and little else but a roof over their heads, it would seem little had changed since the Workhouse had closed. The Ann Fowler Salvation Home for Women perhaps offered sanctuary of a sort but what a miserable place, as can be seen in the interior photograph taken a century ago. Housed in an old Welsh Congregational Church (built in 1868), I was surprised to read that it had survived until 1983 before closure and demolition. What sad lives had been lived by the women who passed through its doors.
Southern Cross’s problems, the cuts in public expenditure and the growing number of old people points rather ominously to a slow slide back into the Dark Ages of care. In a week when a 20 year footballer is bought for ?20 million pounds, it makes me wonder how today’s society will be judged in 100 years time,

SS Great Eastern in the Mersey, 1876

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the arrival in the Mersey of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s SS Great Eastern. Brunel had come up with the idea of a super-ship in 1851 with the purpose of transporting emigrants to the United States. The ship was to be six times larger than any other ship and posed huge technical and financial problems, particularly the latter. After numerous problems, including the shipbuilder going bankrupt, the ship was launched sideways into the Thames. Powered by a single screw plus two paddle wheels, the ship also had six masts, although the sails could not be used at the same time the paddles and screw were under steam, because the hot exhaust from the five funnels would set them on fire. Her maximum speed was 24 km/h (13 knots).
In 1859, after fitting out, the ship set out on its maiden journey to Weymouth. It had just passed Hastings when there was a huge explosion, the forward deck blowing apart with enough force to throw the No. 1 funnel into the air, followed by a rush of escaping steam. Five stokers died from being scalded by superheated steam and others badly injured. Finally, in June 1860, Great Eastern set out for America, a trip completed in just under 11 days.
Upon Great Eastern’s return to England, the ship was chartered by the British Government to transport troops to Quebec. This was its first trip to Liverpool, arriving on June 4th, 150 years ago. Over 2,000 officers and men, 473 women and children and 200 horses were embarked at Liverpool along with 40 paying passengers. The ship sailed on 25 June 1861 and went at full speed throughout most of the trip arriving at her destination 8 days and 6 hours after leaving Liverpool. Further voyages proved the ship had no great commercial value. Used for laying telegraph cables across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans at least prolonged her active life. At the end of her cable laying career, she was refitted once again as a liner but, once again, efforts to make her a commercial success failed. Finally, and degradingly, the ship was purchased as an advertising hoarding?sailing up and down the Mersey for Lewis’s Department Store before broken up for scrap at Rock Ferry in 1889.
What would Liverpool give now for such an “embarrassment”? As a great port, one thing missing from its attractions is a great historic ship. Bristol has Brunel’sGreat Eastern, London has the Cutty Sark and Portsmouth has the Mary Rose and HMS Victory – but Liverpool has nothing. What a shame for the most important trading port of the nineteenth century. At least Liverpool FC have the Great Eastern’s main mast at the Kop end – but that is not the same as a great ship for people to marvel at.

A dramatic vista with the Huskisson Memorial prominent.

The descent from the Cathedral

This Bank Holiday Monday, I took a couple of visitors around the Anglican Cathedral. Having marvelled at what I consider Liverpool’s finest building, we then wandered around St James’s Cemetery. It is really one of the most interesting places in the city and I am surprised at how poorly it is presented to the visitor. With the exception of Highgate in London and Necropolis in Glasgow, there can be few other cemeteries with such a dramatic setting. Sadly, the gravestones have been over-tidied up, but that only marginally spoils the impact. Every time I walk around it, I am reminded about the grim reality of Victorian life (and death). Only a handful reached three score years and ten, with an astonishing number dying before they reached one score. All around are graves of sailors lost at sea in foreign places, soldiers dying in colonial wars and the great and good of the city (including Kitty Wilkinson and William Huskisson).
Particularly poignant are the graves to the children of the orphan asylums, both boys and girls, with row after row of long-forgotten and little mourned names. Perhaps for many, it was a release from an almost inevitably desperate life of poverty and drudgery but it is impossible to read the inscriptions without feeling deeply moved.

Gravestones to children from the Female Orphan Asylum

The mass grave of orphans from the Bluecoat Hospital

The tragedy of Louisa Wood (aged 11) whose “death was occasioned by her apparel having accidentally taken fire.”

The hazards of the sea. The sad fate of the Keay brothers.

What is really needed is a cemetery trail – with information boards pointing out people of interest, as well as the history of the place. After all, Huskisson was the world’s first casualty of the railway age – but his mausoleum does not give any clues. Nor is it evident how the horse-drawn hearses descended from the roadside down the narrow ramps cut into the precipitous rock face. We really do undersell the city – the cemetery is up there with all the other great (free) attractions.