March, 2012 Archives

Strawberry Field, 1967

I live only a stone’s throw from Mendips, John Lennon’s home on Menlove Avenue. I moved into the area some 30 years ago and have watched with amazement how the number of people visiting has grown in recent years. In the late 1970s, I sold all of my Beatles’ memorabilia thinking their day had passed and it was time to cash in. A bad mistake! My fliers and programmes have shot up in value 20-fold and the passion for the Fab Four goes on and on. In the early days, it was just the occasional Japanese tourist wandering along, looking bemused at the unmarked semi. Now it is coach and taxi tours from early morning to late at night. The Beatles might have left Liverpool in their first flush of fame but the city has certainly benefited from them ever since.
Strawberry Field(s) is just behind Mendips and was John Lennon’s childhood playground. The top photograph was taken in 1967 when, perhaps, the group’s most haunting record was released. John would have been more than familiar with the austere Gothic pile, for it was a Salvation Army home from 1934. Every year, they would hold a garden party to which the young John would eagerly look forward to. In reality it was a grim place to bring up children and it was demolished in the 1970s and replaced by a more family friendly home (although only slightly in my personal experience). That too was eventually closed in 2005 and is now just a meeting place for the Salvation Army.
The nearest the public get is the splendid set of gates, splattered with graffiti by visitors from around the world. The view is largely of undergrowth and trees and is rather romantic. Had the original house survived, it would have added a rather melancholic background. However, I am not one to regret its passing. Like many other old children’s homes such as its once close neighbour Woolton Vale, it hid much sadness behind its doors.

Exchange Flags, May 1886

Exchange Flags, 1829

I must apologise to John Sergeant. He did visit Liverpool and included a mention of Frith being a founder member of Liverpool Photographic Society (although not the founder as was stated) in 1853. By way of illustration, a photograph of cotton traders and other merchants was shown – all gathered for the camera in Exchange Flags.
As John Sergeant mentioned, this was a clever commercial ploy. Photographing so many together would have guaranteed healthy sales – as any school photographer worth his/her salt knows.
My particular interest is not in the realities of commercial photography – a difficult business at the best of times – but in the setting. Exchange Flags has been through three major transformations. The photograph of Wyatt’s Exchange Buildings, built in a ‘Flemish Renaissance’ style in 1867 reveal an ornate and impressive building in sharp contrast to the building it frames, the Town Hall. It replaced a smaller building in the more complementary Classical style which is illustrated above. By the 1930s, Wyatt’s building itself was felt to be too small and the current buildings were erected, although not finally completed until after the War. I have ambivalent thoughts about the ‘modern’ buildings. I used to dislike them but my views have softened now that they have been cleaned up.
My biggest problem is with Exchange Flags itself. It should be a magnificent city square but it is a soulless place. The statue to Nelson is a superb centre-piece but there is nothing else to break up the view. Tree planting is out of the question, I suppose, because of the underground car park, but surely a more dynamic setting could be designed that will actual encourage people to sit down (seats would be a good starting point) rather than rush though. Liverpool is not good on squares – Williamson Square and Clayton Square are dreadful and Derby Square is little better in spite of its recent upgrade. The best continental squares are where people want to be, with caf?s, fountains and interesting sculptures. Somehow, we cannot create such places. Exchange Flags would be a good place to start.

George’s Dock c1875

New Brighton c1875

I have almost given up on John Sergeant’s television series. Four programmes in and Francis Frith has almost vanished from sight. Whoever conceived this vanity needs reminding that the central figure should be the pioneering Victorian photographer not a presenter showboating his amateur photographic skills. Harsh comment, perhaps, but I can only make comparisons with Michael Portillo’s excellent Great British Railway Journeys, in which he puts the subject before himself and reveals the magnificence of the Victorian railway system.
To further my research on Frith, I need to visit Birmingham Public Library, where the Frith archive is held. I want to get some handle on his negative numbering. I have in the region of 100 of his Liverpool photographs plus another 50 of ships in the Mersey.
Many are of familiar subjects, particularly St George’s Hall, which have limited appeal because they are places and buildings covered by many other companies. There were serious competitors such as Scottish firms James Valentine and Washington Wilson, as well as local Liverpool photographers. Their photographs were the postcards of the time and the popular attractions were the most saleable. Frith realised that liners were a good market and produced hundreds of the great Cunarders, Inman Line and other familiar ships. How active Frith was personally is difficult to ascertain, his company had grown substantially and he was in his late 50s when the real growth occurred.
The earliest photographic book on Liverpool I have come across was published by Philip, Son and Nephew in about 1875. It features some of the great buildings in Liverpool including the Custom House, Exchange Flags, the old Adelphi Hotel along with a liberal assortment of the new churches that were being built. The photographs, all by Frith, are hand-tipped in (this was before photo-mechanical printing was invented) and are rather lonely, uninhabited images (the exposures were so long that movement appears as a blur, as in the New Brighton photograph above, so the photographer chose to avoid people in the photograph whenever possible). I have reproduced a number of photographs from the album previously but here are two new ones, of George’s Dock and New Brighton.

Lord Street c1880

Detail of Lord Street photograph

I have been looking forward to John Sergeant’s series on Francis Frith, the Victorian photographer who helped change the way we look at the world. The first of a ten-part series started tonight on the pioneer who spotted the commercial potential of taking and selling photographs of every town and village in Britain.
Sadly, if the first episode is anything to go by, you will learn nothing about Frith. In fact, apart from a passing mention in Sergeant’s introduction, his name was not mentioned again. Instead, we had the master of the dance hamming his way through a few set cameos which gave no inkling of the life and contribution of the programme’s subject matter. This is a great shame because Frith is so important to the history of photography and his photographic life started out in Liverpool.
Frith moved from Chesterfield to Liverpool as a young man and established a wholesale grocers at 85 Lord Street. In Gore’s 1851 Directory, he is listed separately as a gentleman living at Beaumont Terrace, Seacombe. A founder member of Liverpool Amateur Photographic Association (along with James Newlands, Liverpool’s innovative Borough Engineer), Frith became enamoured by photography and sold his business at a substantial profit to pursue his hobby full-time. He made his name travelling to Egypt and the Middle East, where, under the most hostile conditions, he photographed the wonders of the Ancient World. His photographs were a sensation but, not one to rest on his laurels, Frith set about creating a photographic record of Britain that still survives largely intact to this day.
My disappointment in the first programme is that Frith has been relegated to no more than a prop. I have been researching his early life and was hoping to get a clearer picture of the man. Maybe, with nine more episodes to go, there will be something of substance but I am not holding my breath: the itinerary Sergeant has chosen on his round Britain trip does not even include Liverpool.
The photograph I have chosen today is by Francis Frith’s company and is of Lord Street c1880. The photograph has been slightly damaged as the result of being pasted on board. The glue has seeped through but fortunately only the sky in the background has been affected. The detail of the horse-drawn omnibus illustrates how well these prints (130 years-old) have survived.

The Beeches, c1930


Carnatic Hall, 1937

My post on Booker Avenue stimulated some interesting responses. I overlooked Liverpool-born JG Farrell, who won the Booker Prize for The Siege of Krishnapur. Farrell in his acceptance speech made a cutting reference to Booker’s history of exploitation, which did not go down well with the sponsor. Another connection I overlooked was that one of Liverpool’s most famous comedians in the first half of the century. Billy Matchett – the Mirthquake, lived at 165 Booker Avenue from the 1930s until his death in 1974. A forgotten performer today, Matchett was mentioned by Ken Dodd as one of the two men who had most influenced him (the other was Arthur Askey). The Mirthquake (what a great name) claimed to have performed on every music hall stage in Britain.
Leading on from the mention of the Booker family, I have selected three photographs of now-demolished mansions that once dominated the local landscape. Allerton is probably known to golfers because the colonnaded facade is still standing after a fire gutted what was the club house (of Allerton Golf Club) in 1944. Designed by Thomas Harrison of Chester in 1815 (whose two remaining buildings in Liverpool are the lantern tower of St Nicholas’s Church at Pierhead and the Lyceum at the foot of Bold Street), it was the property of Jacob Fletcher, son of a privateer and slave-trader.
The Beeches was a later building by that great architect Norman Shaw (designer of the White Star building, James Street). Built for Sir Henry Tate, the sugar magnate in 1883/4, it was demolished in 1939. The road, The Beeches, is off Allerton Road, facing Calderstones Park.
Finally, in Mossley Hill rather than Allerton was Carnatic Hall, built by Peter Baker in the late eighteenth century following his successful capture of an unarmed French ship, the Carnatic in 1778, which was carrying a valuable cargo including a box of diamonds. The Hall was demolished to make way for the University halls of residence in Elmswood Road.
It is hard to quantify the loss of such buildings to Liverpool’s heritage. In many cases, they were built on the proceeds of either slavery or privateering, two trades which stain the history of the city.
They were also part of a millionaires’ belt of exclusive properties that covered much of the outskirts of Liverpool. The 1881 Ordnance Survey gives some indication of their privileged living conditions compared to the hundreds of thousands squeezed into the inner city.

Liverpool in 1881 had more millionaires than any city outside of London and, like today, the disparity between rich and poor was an increasing source of concern. The removal of their large estates was inevitable in the face of suburban expansion, although a good chunk of public green space fortunately survives.

Booker Avenue 1934

I drive down Booker Avenue everyday, usually just after 9.00 to avoid the school run to popular Booker Avenue School. The road is a built-up 1930s estate, all neat and well-cared for houses, but there is a hint of antiquity for, in a railed off corner plot is the Archer Stone, which was a target for local archers according to legend. The photograph shows rural cottages being dismantled in preparation for new housing. Today’s blog, however, follows a different path. Bennison’s Survey of Liverpool (1835) gives a clue.

Bennison’s Survey 1835

At the top left is the wooded estate of Calderstones. Further down is the land held by J. Booker. According to the history of the Booker Company, the biggest wholesaler in the UK: In 1815, Josias Booker, the third of seven sons of a Lancashire miller, emigrated to Demerara to work in the sugar plantations. One of the first British settlers in Demerara, he learnt his trade quickly and became a planter of some distinction, and by 1818 he was managing his own plantation. Following his success he was joined by two of his brothers, George and Richard, and the firm of Booker Brothers was founded. After a dispute with the Liverpool Shipowners who had been transporting their sugar, the brothers decided to form their own shipping company, and in 1835 they acquired their first ship, the Elizabeth, a brig built in Scotland in 1832. In the early years Bookers bought and sold many ships, unfortunately a lot of the company’s records were destroyed by fire in Guyana, and the complete record of the company’s activities was destroyed in London during WW2, but it is known that some of their early ships were; Palmyra, Standard, Lucknow, Lord Elgin, John Horrocks and Lancaster.
In 1846 John McConnell went to Guyana to work as a clerk for the Booker Brothers, where he prospered, and in 1874 founded his own firm of John McConnell & Company. Due to his long and close association with the brothers, the two firms merged in 1900 and became known as Booker Brothers, McConnell & Co Ltd, and the company set up an office in The Albany, Old Hall Street, Liverpool, where it remained until 1941.

Booker were the sponsors of the prestigious Booker Prize for literature and two local authors have featured in its shortlist (Beryl Bainbridge and Linda Grant). Perhaps a less welcome link to such an important prize is the unsavoury fact that the Booker’s wealth depended on slave labour. The first awards were held in 1968 and it is now known as the Man Booker following the withdrawal of Booker as its main sponsor.
It is always interesting to dig deeper into Liverpool’s history, there are always fascinating facts that can be gleaned from the most ordinary places.

Morning Star, Scotland Place c.1900

Patrick Byrne Fountain before removal, 1971

Patrick Byrne Fountain after removal to Pownall Square, 1973

In my last post, I bemoaned the apparent loss of the aluminium statue that once graced the Palais de Luxe in Lime Street. It might not have been a masterpiece but its disappearance is in keeping with the loss of a number of statues and ornaments that could have been saved with a more respectful approach. The single greatest loss is the sculpture by Charles Cockerell that once filled the tympanum on St George’s Hall. In their lack of wisdom, the Council decided it was unsafe and had it removed and, scandalously turned into hardcore. Another loss was the fine basalt pillar that once graced the entry to the Mersey Tunnel. Fortunately, the pillar at Birkenhead survives.
The fountain to Patrick Byrne does survive in a very much reduced form in the graveyard of St Anthony’s Church in Scotland Road. The base was rescued and turned into a memorial, although the handsome pillars were lost in the 1970s. Dandy Pat deserves much better – and his story is an essential part of Liverpool’s Irish heritage. His relatively short life (1845-1890) was full on achievement. Arriving penniless in Liverpool from County Wexford at the age of 17, he found work on the docks. Saving any spare money, he bought his way into the licensed trade, soon owning the lavish Morning Star public house in Scotland Place. His sobriquet, Dandy Pat, was in recognition of his smart and somewhat ostentatious dress sense.
A shrewd businessman, he was also a strong figurehead for his community, becoming an Irish Nationalist councillor for one of the two Scotland wards in Liverpool. He was a constant fighter against injustice and a benefactor to many Catholic charities. The fountain was erected from public donations and it is a sad reflection of the lack of care for his contribution to Liverpool that this important monument was treated with such a lack of respect. There is precious little to show of that great wave of Irish immigration that changed the character of Liverpool so fundamentally. I worked on an Irish Heritage trail some years ago – but it was eventually abandoned because so much of it had been destroyed, such as the birthplace of James Larkin, a revered figure in contemporary Irish history), or the original wash-house built for Kitty Wilkinson in Upper Frederick Street.
It’s all too late now but what a draw an Irish heritage trail would have been as part of the tourist mix. There really is a lack of imagination in the corridors of power.