Category: Urban Deprivation

Christmas in the Workhouse

Coopers, Church Street, 1930s

Back to the computer after a break away and may I thank everyone who has logged in, commented, and supported me over the last year. I did not have a chance to wish everyone a great Christmas but I am in time with New Year greetings. All the best for 2012.
Today’s posts cross over both occasions. Photographs of Liverpool’s Workhouse on Brownlow Hill are surprisingly rare. Sadly, it appears that the subject matter was not worth proper documentation. As we prepare for the duocentenary of Charles Dicken’s birth next year, no doubt we will be constantly reminded of the worst aspects of Victorian England. The workhouse might have offered shelter but it was a harsh life for all those who finished up inside its walls dependent on parish relief. The hardship is etched in the faces of the women. The single chain of decorations on the wall only add to the pathos.
The second photograph is of the ‘only wild haggis in captivity’. A curious crowd has gathered outside Coopers, the upmarket foodstore om Church Street. I remember Coopers just before it closed down in the early 1970s. It was a bit like Harrods/Fortnum and Masons in London, with a wonderful aroma of freshly-ground coffee. It was part of a larger chain, which had its headquarters in Glasgow.
Time was not on its side against the rise of supermarkets and it closed to make way for WH Smith (and more recently River Island).

Occasionally I post a photograph that really does not need too much text. The year is 1910 and seven boys are lined up for the photographer (there is an eighth boy half-hidden behind them). This is at the height of Liverpool’s prosperity. The Port of Liverpool building had just opened, the Cathedral was underway and the Liver Building scheduled to be completed the following year. Liverpool had more millionaires per capita than nearly any other city in the world – yet here are barefooted boys dressed in rags. The recent demonstrations about the unfair distribution of wealth throughout Europe and the United States bring into sharp focus the inequalities bred by capitalism – none more so than in today’s poignant image.

On Friday, my book on Picture Post on Liverpool will be in the shops. It contains a fascinating collections of photographs, published and unpublished, taken by photographers of the famous but now defunct magazine.
During my research, I made many unexpected discoveries. The most interesting story was that of an article on Liverpool’s slums that was written by Fyfe Robertson in 1956 (who many older readers will remember for his dry humour and sharp reporting on television). He was supported by his future son-in-law, photographer Thurston Hopkins. I can find no trace of Robertson’s journalism on Liverpool as the article was rather scandalously ‘spiked’ by the magazine’s proprietor, Edward Hulton, after Liverpool councillors (presumably Jack Braddock and others) complained that the impending article was a slur on the city. So the feature never appeared but the photographs survived (now in Getty Images archive for whose permission to reproduce today’s image I am grateful). And what a magnificent series they are! All unpublished, they give a shocking insight into the real poverty that was so evident in many neighbourhoods.
Remarkably, Thurston Hopkins is still going strong at 98. (He actually apologised for taking time in replying to my questions because he was so busy!).
One photograph he particularly remembered was of the young girl in a bed covered with newspaper. The girl’s grandmother had tipped him off (another stunning photograph of an old woman in an alley – ‘like out of a Rembrandt painting’ as Thurston described her). He was accused later of having staged the photograph but he said it was real enough. Every day, the girl’s mother would cover the bed with newspaper to keep the rain from ruining the bedclothes.
How many others lived in such appalling conditions? No wonder the Council wanted the article buried.
The book Picture Post on Liverpool is available from Waterstones, WH Smiths, the Book Clearance Centre and other shops from Friday, price ?7.99

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I am always very careful when making judgments about old photographs. What might seem obvious can often turn out to be nothing of the kind on closer examination. Today’s two photographs are a good example. If one only has one photo to examine, the conclusion is that here is a very sad scenario of a tired bootblack grabbing a few minutes sleep outside St George’s Hall. Put the two photographs together and you realise they are both staged for dramatic effect. Of course the boy probably is a bootblack but the photographer has probably paid him a few pennies to pose for dramatic effect. A more fanciful (and totally unlikely) explanation is that the photos are cunning product placements for Martindales, an old Liverpool company that once dealt in coal and associated products but are now central heating engineers.

St John’s Gardens

New Brighton beach, 1913

My last two posts generated an interesting discussion about childhood, poverty and happiness. I am sure that children from an early age understand poverty, or at least hunger and the cold of winter. However, a superficial look at the three young boys sunning themselves in St John’s Gardens gives the impression they haven’t a care in the world.
The same can be said for the well-dressed children playing on the beach at New Brighton. Halcyon days, although it would be wrong to make any assumptions about any of their futures. They would all be too young to fight in the impending War, fortunately, but the 1920s and 30s were difficult decades for many in the region. Without any judgement, two fascinating images of childhood.

Following the photograph of the barefoot boys by the canal, here are two more taken by the same unknown photographer. Again, the year is 1910. Just a century ago and Britain was the greatest empire the world had seen. The Edwardian confidence, that was so forcefully expressed in the new Pierhead buildings, had seemingly banished the worst excesses of Victorian poverty. Yet here we have further evidence of shameful deprivation almost in the shadows of the newly constructed Liver Building.

Three barefoot boys sitting on a bridge spanning the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. I am not sure of the exact spot but I am sure some reader will know it.
This is Liverpool only a century ago. The photograph, taken by an unknown photographer, shows how tough life was for those at the bottom of the pile. This was 1910 and Liverpool was boasting to the world how important it was by building a cathedral and totally reshaping Pierhead. There was still plenty of money at the top but all these lads had to look forward to was a World War in four years time that they would be lucky to survive unharmed.
What has happened in the last century has been truly remarkable: technology has changed all our lives. Poverty, however relative, still blights the city though. What will the next century bring – and how will photographs of today’s deprived communities be viewed in 2111?

William Henry Street c1895

William Brown Street c1895

I was going to write about the new Museum of Liverpool but my two attempts to walk round have both been aborted after less than 20 minutes each due to the amazing number of people visiting. With the outside temperature in the mid 20s, it wasn’t the time to make any critical analysis, so I will wait until September when I expect it will get much quieter. My initial impression is that too much space has been allocated to the entrance/atrium, which has created congested gallery space, but I need to see how the exhibitions work without such a volume of people. The very positive note is that over 100,000 people have been through already – an encouraging sign of the level of interest in Liverpool’s history.
Today’s posts reflect the darker side of that history. Child poverty has never been eradicated from Liverpool and these photographs of barefooted boys are a reminder of how tough life was a century ago. The first photograph is, I am reasonably certain, of William Henry Street. Blackledge & Sons had a small chain of bakers shops and this one seems to be the most likely location (on the corner of Canterbury Street). (The only other possibility could be Great Crosshall Street). I am not sure what the boy of the left is carrying – maybe a bunch of flowers for his mum.
The second photograph is of Bentley’s bookshop in Shaw’s Brow/William Brown Street (on the site of where the Technical School – now part of Liverpool Museum – was built a few years later).

Ann Fowler Home c1968

Interior of Home, 1910

The announcement today that Southern Cross, the largest provider of care homes for the elderly in the UK, is cutting 3000 jobs and possibly closing over 100 homes, highlights a problem that has persisted for generations.
I studied social administration at university and was taught the maxim ‘a society is judged by the way it treats those in need’. I soon found out – on my first placement, I spent four weeks in a wing of an old workhouse in Sheffield looking after homeless men. With crowded dormitories, a small locker for their life’s possessions and little else but a roof over their heads, it would seem little had changed since the Workhouse had closed. The Ann Fowler Salvation Home for Women perhaps offered sanctuary of a sort but what a miserable place, as can be seen in the interior photograph taken a century ago. Housed in an old Welsh Congregational Church (built in 1868), I was surprised to read that it had survived until 1983 before closure and demolition. What sad lives had been lived by the women who passed through its doors.
Southern Cross’s problems, the cuts in public expenditure and the growing number of old people points rather ominously to a slow slide back into the Dark Ages of care. In a week when a 20 year footballer is bought for ?20 million pounds, it makes me wonder how today’s society will be judged in 100 years time,

I have tried to avoid using Liverpool City Engineer’s Department photographs because one of the main objectives of this blog is to present previously unpublished photographs. In this instance, I was prompted by Christine Legge, who emailed requesting any photographs of Princes Walk, which was off Great Howard Street. I get many requests and I am constantly looking for the appropriate images. In many cases, particularly courts and back streets, it is not possible to find any photographs – although I will continue to look.
With the slum areas, the City Engineer’s collection is the most likely source. Not many photographers wandered into such areas unless they had good reason. The function of the City Engineer’s Photography Department was to document its work including insanitary housing, road improvements, slum clearance, installation of sewers and other major works. The Department started taking photographs in 1898 and survived until 1998 before being dismantled. Its output was fairly consistent although a considerable number of photographs were taken in the 1930s to document the slum clearances (which led to the building of tenements such as Gerard Gardens, Kent Gardens and Caryl Gardens).
The photograph of Burlington is one of my favourites. It is such a poignant image. The boy is in an open doorway, obviously an occupied house in spite of the shutters and broken window. The Supper Bar has a peeling poster advertising a dance at the Grafton on September 29th at 1/6d admission. This is poverty 1930s style. It seems hard to believe but all the children could be alive and in their 80s.