Category: Transport

Peak evening traffic 1953

Tunnel entrance 1967

Following on from Friday’s post – two more images of the Birkenhead Tunnel. The first shows the chaos as workers head back home to the Wirral. There seems to be an absence of road markings – which must have made the journey somewhat hazardous. Those old cars must have broken down regularly – creating mayhem. Outside, the decorations for the Coronation are still very much in evidence – an easy way to date the photograph.
In the bottom photograph, the Beacon is nearing completion. The basalt lighting column (see May 4th post ) had already been taken away and the toll booths at the Liverpool side were soon to follow (date ?).

Queensway Tunnel, 30 July 1934.

Queensway Tunnel ‘Nerve Centre’ 26 May 1934

Walking up Manchester Street today, I was reminded about how much of Liverpool we take for granted. Liverpool is full of tourists – most here for the Mathew Street Festival but I wondered how many would stop to admire the Mersey Tunnel, once regarded as one of the great engineering feats. Today, it is its art deco detailing by Herbert Rowse, in my opinion Liverpool’s greatest architect, that catches the eye – but the engineering by Sir Basil Mott (in co-operation with John Brodie, Liverpool’s brilliant City Engineer) was what caught the headlines back in 1934. An amazing construction, the tunnel was started from both side and was only one inch out when they were finally connected.
The Tunnel opened on 18 July 1934 and the top photograph was taken 12 days later. The bottom photograph is of the Control Centre – which “controlled 140 telephones, fire stations every 50 yards and a variety of traffic signals including ingenious devices which will prevent oversize or overweight vehicles from entering the Tunnel. The installation supersedes anything of its kind in the world.”
I’d love to know how the ingenious device preventing oversize vehicles entering the Tunnel worked – in my cynical mind I imagine a policeman at each end eyeing up each lorry – or maybe that man with a bakelite telephone really did have a way of telling.

My recent posting on the Gaumont cinema, which I erroneously attributed to Camden Street (the suggestion is that it was The Savoy in Brougham Terrace) brought home to me the ease with which errors can be made and, if not corrected, become established facts. When I started publishing books, I soon realised that there were people out there with specialist knowledge on every subject you could name – but especially transport. Known unkindly as ‘rivet counters’, this body of men (they always are) have a detailed knowledge of their subject that would do a Mastermind contestant proud. A book I published with the Museum (The Liners of Liverpool) made a small number of mistakes, such as ship sailing to the wrong port, that immediately diminished its value as a reference book. So for today’s posting I am going to put up a disclaimer that all the information is from a highly reputable expert.
The line below the Overhead serviced the docks and was operated by British Rail. The locomotive is a 0-4-0 saddle tank shunter, nicknamed a ‘Pug’. Their short wheelbase made them ideal for the sharp curves of the dockland lines. Imagine, today, allowing a train to run freely where pedestrians could cross without any barriers or restrictions. I am not sure when the dock railway ceased to operate – but I am certain I am going to find out very quickly.

A depressing image for anyone who cares about Liverpool’s history. The Overhead Railway officially closed on December 30th 1956. Subsequent rescues failed and, in September 1957, the dismantlers moved in.
The photograph was probably taken at the beginning of the demolition process – although it might have been as late as 1958.
The cigarette booth is still trading but the scene is a melancholy one (the Goree Piazzas are in the background awaiting their fate). As I have mentioned before, the fate of the Railway was probably inevitable. Its original function of servicing the docks no longer was viable when set against the rapid growth of car ownership. Tourism was not an option and the cost of repairing the whole line was prohibitive. The 1950s was not a time for sentiment – the vision was of a shiny new city of concrete and steel with rapid transit road systems based on the American model. The Overhead was the past and although the campaign to save it was vociferous, no solution other than demolition could be found.

Liverpool Overhead Railway photographed from Strand Street. The last vestiges of the Goree warehouses can be seen in the centre of the road (the road splits into The Goree, which was between the Pier Head buildings and the Goree warehouses – and The Strand, which was the road to the other side of the warehouses).
The effects or war damage are still very much evident. the White Star building is being restored on the far right and beyond, on The Strand, work is about to commence on the modern offices to replace those destroyed in the Blitz. For the politicians and planners, war damage had opened an opportunity to upgrade worn-out infrastructure with cohesive plans for linked up roads suitable for the growing shift to motor cars and for the zoning of business, retail and industry in specific areas (away from the Victorian laissez-faire approach to development). With hindsight, much of this thinking can be criticised but, at the time, the mood was for regenerating and modernising our towns and cities along American lines, with bright new civic centres, industrial estates, dual carriageways and high rise living.
The fate of the Overhead Railway was slightly more complex. It had been repaired after the war but it faced a total replacement of its tracks because of a design fault in the original structure (the lines had been laid on cast-iron cylinders which had seriously corroded over the sixty years of the railway). With dwindling revenues resulting from the fall-off in demand from shrinking dock activities, the railway company decided it was no longer a commercially feasible prospect and closed it down the year after this photograph was taken.

Watching Michael Portillo’s programme Great British Railway Journeys, it struck me how often it is outsiders who make the most of Liverpool’s heritage. In this instance, Portillo was enthusing about the unique place Lime Street Station held in the history of the railway. His first impression – the magnificent canyon cut out of rock as you approach the station – was exactly the same as mine on my first visit to Liverpool in 1965. He marvelled at the station – but was somewhat bemused at the statues of Ken Dodd and Bessie Braddock. I too am puzzled. With no disrespect to either local personality, why isn’t British Rail shouting from the rooftops that this is where the greatest transport revolution in history started. Thousands of strangers arrive at Lime Street each year – and most will not have a clue who Ken Dodd or Bessie Braddock are – but they would certainly appreciate the fact that they are standing in one of the oldest working railway stations in the world (I suppose Crown Street comes first). So why not something eye-catching to celebrate our great claim to fame instead of a couple of, for me, dull statues that have little to do with the great age of steam that transformed the world.

My?’Lost Liverpool’?has created quite a bit of interest and, in particular, incredulity that so many fine buildings have been demolished over the last sixty years. ?However, Liverpool has been luckier than most cities. Newcastle, Manchester, Glasgow and Bath suffered wholesale destruction (remember T. Dan Smith and the wilful destruction of Eldon Square in Newcastle). Cities do require constant reinvention to accommodate economic and social changes and sometimes, as in the case of the Overhead Railway, the cost of preservation can seem to be far too high (not many people had a crystal ball predicting Liverpool would become a major tourist city). However, my point is that the buildings I have listed?had unique qualities that would have?graced any city and that by highlighting?such losses, it makes it more difficult to remove further pieces of our heritage for?usually short term gains. Today’s three buildings fit very much into that category.

12 Liverpool Central Station. Liverpool has Michael Heseltine to thank for saving the Lyceum at the foot of Bold Street. Sadly, he was not around to save the frontage of Central Station from being turned into one of the ugliest shopping malls you will find in any city. The magnificent interior also deserves a mention. (Manchester at least got GMex which proves that imaginative uses can be found for most buildings worth keeping).

13 West Dingle. A fine villa on the banks of the Mersey. Designed by Decimus Burton (he was the tenth child, hence his name), the architect of Kew Gardens, parts of Regents Park and also the new town of Fleetwood). Built as a house for Joseph Yates, it was allowed to fall into disrepair before being demolished in 1955.

14 The Old Hutt.? Although strictly in Halewood, this was a major architectural loss. The Old Hutt was a medieval moated house (not many of them around in Merseyside) – although only the gatehouse remained intact. Archaeological studies have indicated a substantial manor house with residential buildings grouped around a great hall. At the time of the gatehouse’s destruction (photographed here in 1949?), in 1960, only three buildings remained as well as fragments of the 14th century Great Hall . The house was part of the Ireland estate??(the Lords of Hale) and, although?it had been modified over the centuries,?was recognised as being a site of?national?importance. Nonetheless, when Ford built its factory, they were not prepared to modify their plans, even though the Old Hutt?was on an approach road rather than under the main building. Would such a destruction happen today with tighter listed building controls? I would hope?not – but?now there aren’t many medieval buildings left to protect in Liverpool.