January, 2012 Archives

A headline in this week’s Liverpool Echo caught my eye. It appears that the Labour Council is attempting to have Wavertree’s Cricketer’s Club licence revoked after it hosted a conference of the British National Party. An interesting exchange of posts on the newspaper’s website came down heavily against the seemingly autocratic action being taken on the basis that freedom of speech was a value that must be upheld however abhorrent the views of the BNP.
This brought to mind today’s photograph, of a heavily bandaged Oswald Mosley photographed after being attacked at a rally in Liverpool. Photographed at Walton Hospital in October 1937, he was almost at the end of his political career. A member of the aristocracy, he became a Conservative MP at the age of 21 but fell out over the use of Black and Tans in Ireland. Crossing the House, he became a member of the Independent Labour Party and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in Ramsay MacDonald’s government before, again falling out and establishing the British Union of Fascists in 1932. Heavily influenced by Mussolini, he quickly attracted influential support amongst both the Establishment and the working class. His more extreme supporters took to wearing black shirts and the Daily Mail published a famous headline Hurrah for the Black Shirts (not a lot changes with certain papers). Rallies held by Mosley provoked the kind of scenes that BNP rallies attract – although of a more violent nature. The Liverpool rally was described in The Glasgow Herald newspaper:
Sir Oswald Mosley was hit on the head by a stone and knocked semi-conscience immediately he stood on the top of a loud-speaker van to address an open-air meeting at Queens Drive, Liverpool, yesterday. As the van was being driven to a piece of waste land, hundreds of missiles were thrown, Sir Oswald, had not had time to utter a word when a large stone hit him on the temple and he fell on his face. Mounted police who were standing by in a neighbouring yard, immediately rushed out and charged the crowd back. A Fascist bodyguard stood by to guard Sir Oswald in spite of showers of bricks from large sections of the crowd.
Mosley was whisked off to Walton Hospital and discharged after a week recovering from concussion and a minor head wound. Twelve men and two women were arrested, although whether they were Fascists or Anti-Fascists is not stated. From 1937 onwards, the appeal of the Blackshirts rapidly waned and Mosley was eventually detained in prison in 1940 for the duration of the War.
Liverpool has an honourable tradition in the fight against Fascism. Around 130 local men, including two City Councillors, fought in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and 28 of them had died in the unsuccessful battle against Franco. One noted participant was Jack Jones, later General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. In light of the news item about the British National Party and its meeting at the Cricketers Club, it is a timely reminder to be vigilant of the dangers of extremism which often flourishes in difficult economic times.

Fontenoy Gardens c1970

Prefabs off Scotland Road, c1970

Following my recent posts on tenements and prefabs, Peter Leeson has sent me two of the photographs he took while working for Vauxhall Community Development Project. In 1969, Peter gave up a secure job with the City Council Planning Department to record the devastating changes that were being inflicted on the Scotland Road community by the construction of the Wallasey Tunnel. A whole neighbourhood was split in half by the roadworks and Peter’s photographs (and film Us and Them) were the community’s attempt to express their feelings about the enforced changes to its life. I published many of the photographs in Goodbye Scottie Road, a book of Peter’s photographs that also includes fascinating photographs of other aspects of Liverpool from the same period.
The two photographs show the depressing state of public housing. The fabric of Fontenoy Gardens looks well and truly shot. Only major expenditure could reverse its decline and that was not forthcoming. The second photograph shows the last of the prefabs off Scotland Road (St Anthony’s Church can be seen in the background). Neither of the two images appeared in the book – Peter felt they were too depressing.

In my previous post, I illustrated how much the left hand side of Park Lane had changed since the early 1970s. I have no photographic record of what was on the other side of the road before enemy bombing destroyed much of it. However, the photograph above shows a housing initiative that has been largely forgotten – the prefabs. The style shown was widely adopted in the aftermath of bombing as a quick fix to provide short-term housing. Over 160,000 were built throughout Britain, with the largest estate in the country at Belle Vale in Liverpool. Over 1,100 were built and their destruction in the 1960s was against a background of opposition from tenants who were happily settled in their estate.
These prefabs were not expected to provide a long-term housing solution. Quickly erected, they were aimed at families, and typically had an entrance hall, two bedrooms (parents and children), a bathroom, a separate toilet, a living room and an equipped kitchen. Construction materials included steel, aluminium, timber or asbestos, depending on the type of dwelling. The aluminium Type B2 prefab was produced as four pre-assembled sections which could be transported by lorry anywhere in the country.
Liverpool had, in fact, pioneered an earlier form of prefab. The concrete panels invented by City Engineer for Eldon Street flats (see my earlier post) at the turn of the twentieth century, never took off because of union objections (although the idea was used across Europe). Some 50 years later, the basic principle of prefabricated panels (now called the Camus system) was imported from France for use in Liverpool’s high-rise flats.
There has been a revival of interest in prefabs and kit houses, although it has not gained any real momentum. This is surprising in the face of the acknowledged housing problem. Surely quickly erected, low-cost houses which can last for 30+ years would be preferable to the ghastly and costly mistakes in public housing which have been made since the 1960s. After all, most of those initiatives have had a very short shelf-life too.

Park Lane Goods Station, 1980

Apartments on the same site, 2012

Kean’s Hotel (originally Mayfair Hotel) 1980

Park Lane/Tabley Street, 1980

Comparative view taken 2012

Park Lane/Liver Street, 1976

Comparative view 2012

Park Lane is a short street, probably no more the 500 metres. I walk along it most days and always enjoy my quick walk into the centre. It has no pretensions to grandeur unlike its London counterpart but it was once a busy thoroughfare connecting Canning Place with the Dingle.
I can remember some of the buildings that once lined the street. The offices of the Park Lane station (the top photograph) were demolished in the last five years to make way for the blocks of flats shown in the second photograph. Next to the station stood that glorious folly of a pub, the Mayfair Hotel. Folly in that the brewery had jumped the gun when plans were announced to extend the railway from Edge Hill to Park Lane. Anticipating a great trade from thirsty travellers, they built an impressive gin palace, only to discover that the station was meant for goods traffic only. It was a remarkable sight and survived until the early 1980s. The next blocks were typical nineteenth century Liverpool – a mix of pubs and businesses with considerable character. My 1966 Kelly’s Directory has armature winders, flooring contractors, leather goods manufacturers, turf accountants, dried fish dealers, tailors, hairdressers and publicans amongst the trades listed. All in all, a very vibrant street.
The colour comparative photographs tell a different story. Most of the street is now vacant land. There is a new housing development walled off alongside the Swedish Church but the rest of the street is now cleared land – a soulless stretch only enlivened by sight of the Albert Dock in the distance. Why does this kind of destruction have to take place? I could understand it if the land was built on (like the new apartments in the second photograph) but to remove interesting and historical buildings for waste ground is a depressingly routine act in Liverpool. Who is to blame? Developers of the City Council? Either way, the destruction of Park Lane is a clear lesson in how not to develop an area. Like the Sailors’ Home, there is an undue haste to pull down buildings in the hope that development will become that much easier. The holes in the ground and acres of waste ground are scars the community must look at, often for decades.

Cartwright House, 1975

Prince Albert Gardens, St James Street, 1974

Kent Gardens, 1970

St Oswald’s Gardens (on left) and Hurst Gardens (on right) 1979

My last post on Liverpool’s inter-War tenements created a lot of interest, so here are a few more photographs of now-demolished blocks.
I have been referencing an interesting book Housing: A European Survey published in 1936, which included local authority housing in Paris, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Stockholm and Barcelona as well as Liverpool, London, Leeds and Birmingham. The survey was of progressive schemes to improve the housing conditions of the working class and it heralds the unprecedented efforts made since the War ended in 1918 to tackle the slum housing and overcrowding prevalent in all of the cities covered.
Sir Lancelot Keay provided the information for Liverpool and it was under his guidance that the city pioneered both the tenements and what he named cottages (the council houses still standing along Queen’s Drive, in Dovecot, Speke and elsewhere), His plans were for 5,000 cottages and 16,000 flats.
The cottages were preferred by the younger generation whilst the older generation were happier being rehoused in the city centre neighbourhoods they were familiar with. The need for city centre tenements was primarily to provide proximity to the docks for workers.
It would be hard to underestimate what moving into a new flat must have been like for the fortunate tenants. For the first time, most would have running (and hot) water, an indoor toilet and bathroom, dry and spacious living areas and a kitchen fitted with a gas cooker. By the time the photographs were taken in the 1970s, they were no longer modern and needed considerable renovation to bring them up to standard. As we know, the agreed solution was to demolish them – so we are only left with a photographic record of a major housing initiative.

Caryl Gardens, 1975

Myrtle Gardens, 1977

Sir Thomas White Gardens, 1973

I have always been somewhat bemused by the habit of naming Liverpool’s inter-War tenement blocks ‘Gardens’. A less appropriate word would be hard to find for those rather austere blocks. They do have their champions, amongst them architectural writer Owen Hatherley, whose recent book A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, examines the legacy of the architecture and urban regeneration of New Labour. Travelling through Britain, he ends up in Liverpool where he compares the bungalow mentality of the Militant regime to the 1930s schemes designed by Sir Lancelot Keay, Liverpool’s City Architect and one of the leading planners in the country.
Hatherley complains that the great vision and confidence that took Hamburg, Vienna, Berlin and Rotterdam as its influences to create monumental architecture for the working classes had been reduced to uninspired suburban architecture that had been transplanted into key city centre sites. (Not just Militant – the last tenements were demolished in 2001 in Old Swan to make way for a Tesco store). The issues are never straightforward. Liverpool’s rapidly declining population had precipitated a rethink on housing requirements and the tenements were no longer popular with tenants (indeed I remember filming deliberately burnt out flats in blocks off Park Road where tenants were hoping to be rehoused in the new houses that were being built). Grand architectural statements are one thing – the wishes of the public are another, although it is constantly disappointing why small scale public housing is usually so drab and uninspiring. To quote Hatherley: “It leads to depressing juxtapositions – as at the point where the grand sweep of the major surviving thirties tenement block, St Andrew’s Gardens meets a piddling close of nineties semis, with the Metropolitan Cathedral in the background. The scale is preposterous, with the houses seeming to desperately want to be somewhere less dramatic ..”

Byrom Street/Cartwright Place 1950s

For me, the most interesting news item over Christmas was the revelation that Geoffrey Howe had advocated the managed decline of Liverpool following the Toxteth Riots. I wasn’t particularly surprised by the ‘shock’ headlines, there had been suggestions soon after the Riots that the Government had been advocating a market forces strategy with Liverpool. What I did find intriguing is that a policy of managed decline only came into Cabinet discussions in 1981 – I thought that Liverpool’s whole post-War history had been planned to scale down the city.
Certainly the effects of wartime bombing had seriously damaged the city’s housing stock and infrastructure. Rebuilding in the immediate post-War period was frustrated by a chronic shortage of building materials and Liverpool limped through the 1950s attempting to reinstate its docks, city centre and housing. But there is more than a sneaking suspicion that the damage to the city had created a canvas that the politicians and planners could work with. Road schemes proposed in the pre-War years could become a reality and the ideas for a grandiose civic centre and new zones for shopping and business could take centre stage. (Not only in Liverpool, in Coventry the City Architect, Donald Gibson, the bombing was “a blessing in disguise. The Jerries cleared out the core of the (medieval) city, a chaotic mess, and we can start anew.”) Alderman Shennan, a practising architect and Chairman of the Planning Committee was a strong advocate of clearing out much of old Liverpool and creating a car-friendly transport system that would take out whole historic areas when implemented. In tandem, the city’s housing and industry was to be revamped by a dual policy of creating satellite towns in Kirkby, Skelmersdale, Speke, Runcorn and Northwich and by demolishing whole neighbourhoods to make way for tower block living.
This is an over-simplification but the policies led to a near halving of Liverpool’s population in less than forty years. If that wasn’t managed decline, I am not sure what is. Yet Liverpool is still officially England’s poorest city. Some management! The tragedy is that the voice of the people is never heard. It is left to a small handful of experts to impose their plans and, as has been shown time after time, they are deeply flawed in their assumptions (high rise living, new towns, importing large-scale industry which subsequently failed, destroying historic buildings for no gain). What I would like to see is a Royal Commission on the future of our cities and have a proper discussion about the future shape and function of Liverpool and its counterparts. It might take years to come to its conclusions but it would focus attention on so many pressing issues.
To illustrate one aspect of my point, the first photograph is of Byrom Street in the 1950s – a cobbled street with buildings of character, wide pavements for pedestrians and an efficient transport system. Below is an aerial view from 1964 showing a central block of buildings sandwiched between the Technical College (on the left – now part of Liverpool Museum) and the offices of Blackburn Assurance on the right. The next photograph captures this block in preparation for demolition to make way for road widening from the Mersey Tunnel. Finally, the 1978 photograph showing the end result. All character has been removed in favour of the motor car and the wide pavements reduced to a precarious sloping strip relegating the pedestrian to an afterthought. Geoffrey Howe couldn’t have done better!

Byrom Street 1964

Byrom Street 1966

Byrom Street 1978