Category: Slum Housing

Detail of photograph

This is another press photograph illustrating slum housing in Liverpool. The terrace was the unnamed street on the map between Tarbock Street and Mansfield Street, just off Soho Street. One of many streets that were so insignificant to warrant a mention in either the annual Gore’s Directory or the 1928 Bartholomew’s Atlas, it has long since disappeared. I don’t have the figures for how many families lived in the terrace – but a search of the 1931 Census would give an accurate number. Judging by the people in the photograph, it would be in the high double figures. Interestingly, the children in the photograph look relatively well-cared for, in contrast to other photographs taken at the same time of similar streets.

The media’s fascination with Liverpool is not a recent phenomenon. It used to really annoy me back in the 1980s when London-based newspapers continually featured pictures of Liverpool to illustrate urban deprivation in Britain. I particularly remember the Sunday Times leading with a photograph of the Pier Head shot from Birkenhead. In the foreground was a car breakage yard – the cheap headline being Liverpool on the scrapheap!.
For years, Liverpool was the target of television and newspapers features seemingly revelling in the spiral of decline the city was facing – but then, in 2008, it all started to disappear as the realisation dawned that it was no longer such a soft target. However, one interesting legacy is that future generations will have no shortage of images to illustrate those hard years. In a similar way, the city attracted press coverage in the 1930s and the photograph of Byrom Terrace was used to illustrate an article in the Daily Herald with the caption: The terrible conditions under which people live in the slum areas of Liverpool are strikingly illustrated by this picture of Byrom Terrace.
No doubt the image annoyed many people in the city – who maybe felt such photographs gave a distorted view of Liverpool (and I would have been amongst them had I been around at the time). But you cannot have it both ways – and the photograph is a valuable reflection of what life was like for a sizeable number of citizens back in the 1930s. Poverty is poverty and pretending Liverpool is just about fine buildings and great tourist attractions is no real answer.

The first reaction might be that this is another photograph of Liverpool in the 1930s but the young mother’s dress is the giveaway. The year is 1946 and the press caption on the reverse states “Tenements in Canterbury Street, Liverpool, are being demolished while they are still occupied. Mrs Rossiter, of No. 41, in the doorway of her scullery.’
Whatever happened to Mrs Rossiter and her daughter (who would now be about 65)? A decade later, Harold Macmillan announced “let us be frank about it – most of our people have never had it so good.’ For those that were left behind, nothing much changed. Hopefully, Mrs Rossiter’s life improved as the austerity years moved into the prosperity years – now that would be an interesting story.

Here is another fascinating photograph of a Liverpool court which demands a storyline.The young man with his caged bird standing between two grim-faced women suggests impending eviction. Certainly, it was around the time that the street, which backed on to the Walker Art Gallery and the Museum, was demolished in the 1930s slum clearance programme – which saw Gerard Gardens spring up nearby. What tough lives are etched in all their faces! Everything about their demeanour suggests resignation and defeat – but perhaps there was a different storyline (although I don’t think they had just won the Pools).

Netherfield Road North/York Terrace, 1975

John Bagot Hospital, Netherfield Road, 1973

Netherfield Road/Robsart Street 1975

My post of September 12th. was about my favourite City Engineer’s photograph – taken of the amazing stepped terraces leading to Everton Terrace. Today’ s post visits the same territory some 50 years later. Here are the last remnants of a once busy road – with the graffiti (Protestant Boys) pronouncing the road’s allegiance. Within a decade, all these buildings would be demolished, removing any memories of the road’s often turbulent past.
One of the reasons for publishing the images is the many requests I get for specific streets. Two recent requests were for John Bagot Hospital (from Pat Johnson, who was a patient there in 1940)
and for Robsart Street from Charles Jones, who added this wonderful description:

I lived in 81 Robsart St from my birth in 1952 till we were moved out to ‘better housing’. The house was on the corner and, at one time, it was a corner shop. I remember a large glass front shop window and a counter just inside the front door. Just up the street were a number of blind courts and I recall climbing the very high back wall to get into the next court. The wall was not quite vertical but must have been 30′ high – or so it seemed to a nine year-old.
Down the street was a real corner shop and everywhere around were ‘ollers’ and ‘bombies’ the local names for open spaces and bombed out houses. Both gave us the local urchins hours and hours of mischievous play.
The street was very steep and ideal for ‘steeries’ which everyone knows is the shortened term for non motorised wooden boards capable of holding up to 6 kids and a driver (usually the owner). I don’t know what speed they hit but without brakes and with a full load I don’t believe elf and safety would allow it now.
Penny lemonade drinks diluted with water, two penny drinks neat, top shelf sweets 1 shilling and 4 pence per quarter, catapult fights sticky lice liquorice root (yellow and horrible) and sticky toffee apples from ‘Dirty Mary’ once a year.

This is what my blog is about – not just the photographs but the memories they evoke. By the way, the pub on Robsart Street is the Old Stingo.

34 Alexandra Drive, 1891

Eldon Street, 1910

On February 26th, in one of my first blogs, I compared the extreme poverty in Liverpool with the great wealth that was very visibly present. At the turn of the twentieth century, Liverpool still had a significant number of millionaires, who had built their mansions in the suburbs – from Princes Park outwards to Woolton. Their life style could not be further from the lives of those they would have seen as they went about their daily business.
Photography might be a simplistic way of illustrating such contrasts but today’s images do give a fascinating insight into the expectations and ambitions of the wealthy and the desperate hopelessness of the poor. The photograph of the four young adults in their rather bizarre headgear was taken by ‘Society’ photographer Vanderbilt (who had studios in James Street and Church Street). Commissioned to take a photograph of the owner’s new car – obviously a special moment – the photographer has inadvertently captured the rather superior expressions on all four occupants face (or is that just my prejudice coming out). Sadly, their names and the location are not marked on the mount.
The second photograph – by London photographer Bedford Lemere & Company – is quite specific. It was taken in October 1891 at 34 Alexandra Drive, by Sefton Park. Pre-dating the first photography by a decade, it shows the over-elaborate furnishing of a well-off businessman’s home.
By total contrast, the final image is a City Engineer’s Department photograph of a slum bedroom in Eldon Street dated 1910 (two decades later – and exactly a century ago). These were the conditions which thousands of the poor had to contend with. In the 100+ years since these photographs were taken, we still talk about the poverty gap and politicians introduce yet more policies and strategies to combat it – but it still seem as wide as ever, even if materially lives have improved to some extent.

Burlington Street 1890

Temperance March c1895

There is a substantial number of contemporary accounts of life in nineteenth century Liverpool. Journalists such as Hugh Shimmin wrote extensively about slum life, usually sympathetically but invariably looking at drink as the underlying cause of poverty. Invariably, middle class response to the threat of the ‘underclass’ was to lobby for tighter controls on the sale of alcohol – with a growing number arguing for total abstinence. Signing the ‘pledge’ (not to drink) and supporting temperance organisations such as the Band of Hope attracted national support – even if, like most bandwagons, it eventually ran out of steam.

The first photograph, of Burlington Street, is one of a series taken by Liverpool photographer N. Stephen, a committed anti-drink campaigner, and used as lantern slides in temperance lectures. The second photograph, which looks as if it has been taken somewhere near Abercromby Square, shows what appears to be a well-heeled crowd about to start their procession. The distance between the two locations is only a couple of miles in distance – but light years in comfort, opportunity and life expectancy. A century on, one might ask ‘what has changed?’

Victoria Square 1954

Victoria Square (original layout)

St Anne Street 1937

Holidays over and time to get back to my blog!

One of the most fascinating aspects of Liverpool’s social history is that of public housing. Astonishingly, no comprehensive book has been written on the subject in recent years – I await one with great anticipation! – although the importance of the many initiatives undertaken is more than worthy of an in-depth study. The first major project was St Martin’s Cottages in 1869 – which survived until the 1980s. Victoria Square was the second initiative, although not until 1885. The Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1890 (imagine calling a piece of legislation that today) resulted in a rapid expansion of local authority housing – and Liverpool took the lead, including the St Anne Street flats of 1914, which showed the imaginative design using high quality materials.
Victoria Square was an ambitious scheme, considered a pioneering venture at the time. It originally contained 270 dwellings but, following war damage in 1941, these were reduced to 215. Substantial improvements were made in the early 1950s, including installing back-boilers for hot water and wiring for electricity. Particular care was taken to maintain the external features – but, in 1961, the original four blocks were reduced to two. Even these improvements were not enough to save the Square and it was demolished to make way for the Wallasey Tunnel.

I raised the point in an earlier blog about the opportunity missed to create a museum of housing. This was mooted at the time of St Martin’s Cottages future being considered and was dismissed on cost grounds (there was a similar proposal for Duke Street Terrace). Somehow, money has been found for the new Museum of Liverpool, a building I consider one of the best modern buildings in the city. However, I have serious misgivings about its proposed content – too early to judge but the advance information suggests style over substance. The collection of the old Museum of Public Health (now in the possession of NML) would have provided a substantial element to a real museum of Liverpool life utilising the structures of buildings which had been part of the great housing initiatives (imagine had Gerrard Gardens been used for such a purpose – and within walking distance of William Brown Street). Building expensive, ‘iconic’ buildings is one thing – history is another.

Not so popular Poplar Street

Unromantic Valentine Grove

The debate over slum clearance has been well aired over the last fifty years. There are many who believe the wholesale clearance of housing across Liverpool was an unmitigated disaster and that communities would have been best served by careful renovation of run-down properties. On the other side, there is the argument
that the housing stock was in such a poor condition that only demolition and rebuild would be appropriate if living standards were to improve. The residents of Valentine Grove along with their neighbours in equally inappropriately named Venus and Cupid Streets (off Larch Lea) had already departed when the photograph was taken in 1972.(Who thinks up such street names?). In nearby Poplar Street, the inhabitants were prepared to voice their indignation in a graphic and eye-catching way.
Perhaps not the most photogenic images – but such records are an important reminder of what the city was like and the kind of conditions its citizens endured.