November, 2011 Archives

Peacock Inn by William Gawin Herdman

In earlier blogs, I have lamented the scarcity of pre-1880 photographs of Liverpool. I have the odd image but they hardly represent a substantial body of work. However, the occasional early gem surfaces from time to time and I am grateful to Coin Weekes for allowing me to post this fascinating photograph of the Peacock Inn, which once stood on Park Road, near to High Park Street. Once thought to have been the residence of the keeper of the Ancient Park of Toxteth when it was a royal hunting park, it was probably constructed in the early seventeenth century. Judging by the top hats and also the dress worn by the girl on the right, I reckon the photograph dates to about 1870. Why the group is gathered is not clear but it is the earliest photograph of a Liverpool pub I have come across. By way of contrast, I have also reproduced an earlier painting of The Peacock by WG Herdman.
The building was of a style once common in Liverpool. The artist Brierley painted many such cottages in the 1830s but all were demolished in the town centre with the last one surviving well into the first half of the twentieth century.

Occasionally I post a photograph that really does not need too much text. The year is 1910 and seven boys are lined up for the photographer (there is an eighth boy half-hidden behind them). This is at the height of Liverpool’s prosperity. The Port of Liverpool building had just opened, the Cathedral was underway and the Liver Building scheduled to be completed the following year. Liverpool had more millionaires per capita than nearly any other city in the world – yet here are barefooted boys dressed in rags. The recent demonstrations about the unfair distribution of wealth throughout Europe and the United States bring into sharp focus the inequalities bred by capitalism – none more so than in today’s poignant image.

A mother walking with her children through a derelict docklands. Like a frame from one of the ‘kitchen sink’ films of the early 1960s, it brilliant captures the dying moments of a once-bustling port. I am not sure about the location. My first thoughts were the granaries which once dominated the southern end of the docks but, on closer examination, Birkenhead docks might be the answer.
My reason for using the photograph, apart from its dramatic quality, is to illustrate the dilemma faced by the City Council in deciding on the merits of Peel Holding’s plans for the Liverpool Waters scheme.
The report that the Unesco team was potentially minded to withdraw World Heritage status should the scheme go ahead without serious modifications raised a storm of adverse comments on the Liverpool Echo forum. The consensus seemed to point to Liverpool going the way of development and foregoing the hard won World Heritage accolade. (Of course there were the usual anonymous posters suggesting banning all Unesco officials from Liverpool permanently – but that, sadly, is the norm of internet forums). The basic argument is whether outsiders have the right to challenge Liverpool’s future by imposing conditions on any future development. Peel is seen as representing a golden future with the promise of thousands of jobs and the badly needed regeneration of north Liverpool.
In my opinion, there is a different scenario. Peel have already stated that their plan is a 50 year plan – hardly immediate development. The time scale makes no sense if plans are being put forward now that cannot be fundamentally changed (which is Peel’s position – stating they have already compromised on the number of high rise buildings and that the economics of the development will not add up otherwise). So far, the whole plan is speculative – no major commercial parties have been announced who might underpin Liverpool Waters. All we have seen are fairly wild artist impressions of what might be. In other words, is there any substance to Peel’s case or is it just a case of getting planning permission for the old-fashioned carte blanche approach to planning (the kind that blighted Liverpool in the 1960s and 70s – allowing whole areas from St John’s Market, Derby Square/South Castle Street and the Georgian quarter around the University to be removed wholesale)?
Of course most of Peel’s land is already cleared, which is an important distinction, but should we just sit back and let them do what they think is best (for themselves or the city?).
What is essential is that Liverpool gets it right and it must take the necessary time to make an informed decision. If Liverpool Waters is a 50 year plan, what is the problem in having a public inquiry and allowing anyone who is concerned to see Peel’s proposals in detail. I have never heard of a development planned over half a century before – even over a decade there are significant changes in economic circumstances to say nothing about architectural tastes. The argument must be about a sustainable and sensitive development that brings back Stanley Dock and other important features into proper focus. Skyscrapers are not necessarily the answer. Very few are architectural masterpieces, most are uninspiring filing cabinets in the sky (especially in Manhatten, London or Shanghai). The Unesco officials are right to be concerned – Liverpool’s heritage is too important to be railroaded by speculative developers.

I reckon that one way to double traffic to my blog is to mention Everton (well – increase numbers slightly!). I’m sorry to disappoint any football fans, though, for today’s photograph is a rather striking image of a policeman looking over his beat from the heights of Everton. Netherfield Road is below but I cannot decipher the street name on the side of the corner building.
The city he is observing is about to be dramatically changed.The closely-packed terraces are about to make way for that critically flawed high rise housing policy which destroyed well-established neighbourhoods for very little gain. The tower blocks have largely gone and now parkland rolls down the hill to Great Homer Street. Visually a huge improvement but I am sure there are many readers out there who will look at the disappeared landscape with more than a touch of regret for a lost community.

Picture Post on Liverpool available in Waterstones, WH Smith, Book Clearance Centre etc. and on Amazon:

Two photographs of the same block on Brythen Street, with the Playhouse clearly visible in the first photograph to fix the location. A bit of a pub crawler’s dream – with The Old Royal next to Quinn’s Oyster Bar, Roberts (bird dealers), The Dart and The Old Dive on the opposite corner.
I have already posted a number of photographs around the Williamson Square/St John’s Market area. The destruction of the network of streets and squares to make way for the new market, road widening and (abandoned) civic centre scheme was one of Liverpool’s most significant architectural losses. My reason for resurrecting my opinion is the visit of Unesco officials to determine the threat posed to Liverpool’s World Heritage Status by Peel Holdings’ proposed Liverpool Waters development.
It is reassuring that the issue is being discussed at this stage. In the 1960s, the heritage lobby would have been brushed aside as an irrelevance. Today, the balance has shifted but is Liverpool Waters a threat or a necessary, even essential, scheme to create a future for the city? I am fairly clear where I stand. Unlike the 1960s redevelopment, which removed over a century of character and history, the Peel proposal is on derelict land which has been vacant for decades. The physical integrity of Pier Head is not threatened, the key issue is the visual impact (which has already been badly compromised by the Mann Island development). I cannot say I am a great fan of skyscrapers unless they are of a very high architectural quality – and most in this country are not. I prefer the human scale of smaller buildings in a more intimate setting where a restored Stanley Dock could take pride of place. Clearly Peel will have a strategy that will accommodate revisions to their plans and I hope that the public can have some input. Development at all cost is not the issue – even with 12,000 jobs at stake – but what future Liverpool has got without an ambitious plan.

On Friday, my book on Picture Post on Liverpool will be in the shops. It contains a fascinating collections of photographs, published and unpublished, taken by photographers of the famous but now defunct magazine.
During my research, I made many unexpected discoveries. The most interesting story was that of an article on Liverpool’s slums that was written by Fyfe Robertson in 1956 (who many older readers will remember for his dry humour and sharp reporting on television). He was supported by his future son-in-law, photographer Thurston Hopkins. I can find no trace of Robertson’s journalism on Liverpool as the article was rather scandalously ‘spiked’ by the magazine’s proprietor, Edward Hulton, after Liverpool councillors (presumably Jack Braddock and others) complained that the impending article was a slur on the city. So the feature never appeared but the photographs survived (now in Getty Images archive for whose permission to reproduce today’s image I am grateful). And what a magnificent series they are! All unpublished, they give a shocking insight into the real poverty that was so evident in many neighbourhoods.
Remarkably, Thurston Hopkins is still going strong at 98. (He actually apologised for taking time in replying to my questions because he was so busy!).
One photograph he particularly remembered was of the young girl in a bed covered with newspaper. The girl’s grandmother had tipped him off (another stunning photograph of an old woman in an alley – ‘like out of a Rembrandt painting’ as Thurston described her). He was accused later of having staged the photograph but he said it was real enough. Every day, the girl’s mother would cover the bed with newspaper to keep the rain from ruining the bedclothes.
How many others lived in such appalling conditions? No wonder the Council wanted the article buried.
The book Picture Post on Liverpool is available from Waterstones, WH Smiths, the Book Clearance Centre and other shops from Friday, price ?7.99

Available from Amazon:

Scrubbing Steps 1954

Today’s post is another milestone – my 200th. Since starting the blog in January 2010, it has grown steadily and is now read by over 10,000 people every month. This is a real pressure to keep it lively and interesting and I hope you are all enjoying the mix of photographs (and commentary).

For many years, I have been fascinated by Picture Post magazine. It started in 1938 before the outbreak of War and its innovative photo-journalistic approach rapidly pushed its circulation to over one million. Many of the best photographers and journalists were recruited and it set a standard in journalism and design that is still remembered over 50 years since its demise.
I decided to research the magazine’s coverage of Liverpool and managed to collect all the copies dealing with Liverpool. Remarkably, apart from one feature about the dockers in 1941, nothing else appeared until 1949. Then, over the next seven years, a further eight features appeared, regrettably mainly negative in their concentration on urban poverty. The photograph by John Chillingworth above (courtesy of Getty Images) was for an article The Best and Worst of Cities. In the case of Liverpool, the emphasis was mainly on the worst. In my communications with John, who is still active in his 80s, he admitted to remembering little of his assignment except for memories of a very tired string quartet in the Adelphi Hotel where he was staying.
I have put all the articles and many of the photographs in my new book, Picture Post on Liverpool, which will be out next week. Many of the photographs were never published and are in print for the first time – including a fascinating unpublished feature on Liverpool’s slums which I will feature in my next blog.

I am dedicating this blog to Claire McKeown, a truly beautiful person who was tragically killed in a road accident in Norfolk recently. Claire worked for me in Bluecoat Press for five years before moving on to City Challenge, Acme and River Media and she had become a leading light in Liverpool’s creative sector. She was an exceptional talent and will be deeply missed.