Amene Mir asked recently whether I had any photos of St Michael’s Church in Upper Pitt Street. I am happy to oblige with this view of c1920.
Liverpool suffered serious losses to its architectural heritage during the last war. The Custom House was undoubtedly the single most important loss. The shell remained and it could have been rebuilt, but the City Fathers, in their wisdom, decided it had to go. The future of St Michael’s church on Pitt Street was less in doubt – it was comprehensively damaged in the May blitz of 1941 and finally demolished in 1946. Standing in a square between Kent Street, Upper Pitt Street, Cornwallis Street and Granville Street, it was one of the most elegant churches in Liverpool (and one of the last remaining Georgian churches in the city centre). Closely modelled on St Martin in the Fields in Trafalgar Square, building was commenced in 1816 and completed ten years later. It was replaced by a small, mediocre modern building, its size perhaps in keeping with the shrinking local population.
The whole area around Pitt Street up to Great George’s Square is a disappointment, a hotch-potch of apartment blocks, warehouses and, worst of all, the maisonettes on the east side of Great George’s Square, once reckoned to be the finest of Liverpool’s squares. The Baltic Triangle is showing great signs of improvement; hopefully the same spirit will cross over Park Lane in the near future.
Back in the early 1920s, the mood throughout the country was grim. The Homes for Heroes illusion had well and truly been shattered as unemployment kept rising against the background of worldwide depression. In Jarrow, on Tyneside, where the famous walk on London began (just one of a number from the North, including Liverpool), unemployment had reached 80%. This was compounded by a welfare system which was basic in the extreme.
The government was in a panic. After all, the Russian Revolution was too close for comfort and the ruling class (“Our country is in a jam: YOU must tighten your belts”) was hell-bent on crushing dissent. In Liverpool, the 1919 police strike had been put down with disastrous consequences for its participants. The press barons knew where their interests lay and reported a growing number of unemployed ‘disturbances’ throughout the country. In Liverpool, a cartoonist portrayed the unemployed as pot-bellied idlers receiving their meagre benefit cheques from an official while a distracted ratepayer looked on with the caption “Why work.”
If the press was unsympathetic, at least the unemployed had a small voice: one George Garrett, a genuinely working-class socialist. His writings are largely forgotten now but he impressed many at the time, including George Orwell, with his eloquent plays and short stories on the class struggle. Garrett’s account of the events of September 1921 is well worth reading.
A mass meeting of the unemployed had assembled at St George’s Plateau to continue a series of demonstrations through Liverpool to draw attention to their plight. It was the largest meeting yet held but also the least organised. As the focus seemed to be drifting, one of the key demonstrators, a police sergeant who had been sacked in 1919 when only weeks from the end of his career (without pension as a punishment), suggested: “I think we’ll go for a walk. It’s too late for anything else. We’ll all be art critics this afternoon. We’ll go across and look at the pictures in the Art Gallery. Those places are as much for us as anybody else. They belong to the people.”
A crowd followed him into the Walker but, as they entered, hundreds of police ran out of the Sessions House next door with their batons raised. Mayhem ensued; heads were split, limbs broken and demonstrators arrested.
In the subsequent trial, the police were pilloried. Even the Walker Art Gallery officials gave evidence against the. Nevertheless, the jury found the demonstrators guilty. The Recorder, however, had heard enough and sentenced them all to one day’s imprisonment, meaning an immediate release since they had already been held in custody for that time.
Another bit of Liverpool’s ‘secret’ history fortunately captured on camera for posterity and gives that leisurely stroll around the Walker a bit of a darker context.
Probe, Mathew Street, c1980
Liverpool School of Language, Music, Dream and Pun, c1980
It is frightening how quickly time goes by. I remember both Probe and the School of Language, Music, Dream and Pun so well. I was running Open Eye in Whitechapel at the time and we had a close involvement in Ken Campbell’s Illuminatus, that radical theatrical event that lit up Liverpool in 1976. Science fiction writer Brian Aldiss, amongst many others, hailed it a work of genius. Its setting, in Peter O’Halligan’s shrine to Carl Jung, only added to the atmosphere and mystique. How Liverpool could do with more people of such artistic vision. The photograph has an incidental interest – the white Rolls Royce parked on the side is the one famously burnt out in the Toxteth Riots in 1981. Its owner, Michael Showers, can be seen just getting out of the car. Showers, the self-avowed community spokesman, has since spent most of his life behind bars.
Probe also has a connection. The doors advertise a record by The Cherry Boys, released on the Open Eye record label. The short-lived label and sound studio had a memorable history, recording the first tracks of Orchestral Manouevres in the Dark, Echo and the Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes amongst many other local bands that made waves in the 1980s.
I was offered the whole Probe building for ?9,000 in the mid-1970s. I was looking for a base and a number of buildings were looked at. I rejected Probe because it had been used for cold storage and the whole place would have cost a fortune to convert. Besides, ?9,000 was a lot of money in those days.
The reason for this blog is to give publicity to a crowdfunding venture which is trying to raise money to publish a book of photographs by Francesco Mellina, who was Dead and Alive’s manager as well as being a talented photographer. If you would like to see more of his photographs, click on the link http://kck.st/1otKScv