Photos courtesy of Getty Images
It was only a month ago, I posted a set of photos by the master of photojournalism Thurston Hopkins. Sadly, within days, he passed away at the grand age of 101. I was privileged to have had a correspondence with him arising out of my book Picture Post on Liverpool, in which I included his magnificent series on the Liverpool slums. The assignment was never published; Picture Post proprietor, Edward Hulton, gave way to pressure from Liverpool City Council who were worried that the planned feature would paint them in a bad light. Ironically, the sequence won the following year’s coveted Encyclopaedia Britannica prize. The review in the British Journal of Photography (an august publication that has its roots in the original journal of Liverpool Amateur Photographic Association in the mid-nineteenth century). The reviewer wrote:
‘Here we have a set of 22 pictures of commonplace scenes; scenes which might possibly – in fact almost surely – be duplicated in a number of our great cities. They are pictures of everyday life; of men, women and children fighting for existence, struggling to maintain the comforts of home life and striving to retain some of the dignity of humankind under conditions which are appalling and which cannot be realised by many million whose lot has been cast in happier surroundings.
Thurston Hopkins has lifted a stone in our vaunted Welfare State and shown with unemotional clarity some of the things which many people would prefer not to see or know about. Here is superb photography, stark in its realism; an example of photographic journalism at its best. The pictures tell their own story, carrying their own message, and while being a damning indictment of the City Fathers of Liverpool are perfect examples of how it is possible to weld the trained eye of the cameraman to modern photographic technique in order that a civic conscience might be aroused. This sequence is the high spot of the 1957 Encyclopaedia Britannica exhibition, and should be seen and carefully studied by all photographers, whether amateur of professional.’
Over half a century later, how shall we judge the Welfare State? We need a Thurston Hopkins of today to stir the conscience of the nation. There is a willing publisher here.
Thurston Hopkins 1913-2014 RIP
This is my last visit to the 1890s for a time. It was an important decade architecturally, starting with the completion of the University’s Victoria Building and the Royal Hospital (both by that master of red brick, Alfred Waterhouse) and ending with work commencing on the Royal Insurance Building and the Philharmonic Hotel. In between, Liverpool Overhead Railway, the White Star Building, the Palm House and Ullet Road Unitarian Church were completed – along with Kensington and Everton Libraries.
Impressively, only Liverpool Overhead Railway is no longer with us – a sad loss and preventable, as was the case of the Custom House. Along with the Sailors’ Home, these are Liverpool’s greatest post-War architectural losses. The Custom House was firebombed but its structure remained intact. There was a public campaign to save it – perhaps lacking the intensity of that to save the Overhead Railway, which was raised in Parliament – but after years of war, the Council’s intent to restructure the city won its way. Very sad looking at the photograph. Imagine had they all survived what an amazing collection of buildings Liverpool would have had with a bit of foresight.
Church Street c1895
Bottom of Water Street c1895
The dates are approximate but reasonably accurate. Within a few years, there would be changes to both these views. The photograph of Water Street shows Picton’s Tower Building (with the original street name Prison Weint on its wall as a reminder of its predecessor’s original function). By the turn of the century, the classical pile had been replaced by the current Tower Building with its white glazed facade (to cope with the soot-laden air). On the other corner, the rather plain block with the street name Back Goree, survived a little longer (until the 1920s) before being replaced by the Bank Of British West Africa, a rather fine Greek Revival building by Arnold Thornely, architect of the even more impressive Cunard Building.
Church Street was similarly ‘tweaked’ over the next decade. The semi-circular building on the corner of Whitechapel was pulled down and replaced by the Edwardian baroque of Bunney’s Corner (which lasted a mere fifty years before being replaced by Greenwoods, which in turn lasted fifty years before suffering a similar fate – a theme seems to be developing here). The building in the far distance caught my eye. The tower by the side of Central Station is part of the first Lewis’s store on Ranelagh Street. That was replaced by a second store in 1910 – which was bombed and largely destroyed in 1941 and replaced by the current building which is being renovated as a multi-functional building.
Change in Liverpool is usually quite subtle, like this. A building goes and is replaced by another – hopefully a better building. Over a few decades, a new vista emerges. In the case of Water Street, the other two big gains were India Buildings and Martin’s Bank – two Art Deco masterpieces that have definitely enhanced the city’s architectural stock.
Church Street suffered serious war damage, the buildings on the right at the junction of Lord Street and Paradise Street were destroyed in the War along with Russell’s Building (the corner of which can be seen on the right). The building on the corner of Church Street is Seel’s Building of 1872, a rare foray into commercial architecture by Edward Welby Pugin, best known for his churches. It is rather an odd building for Liverpool – where such stonework stands in complete contrast to all its neighbours. I like its quirkiness but perhaps he should have stuck with religion.
Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to put names to photographs. When I started my blog, I aimed to bring unseen images to greater attention in the hope that readers would add their opinions and information. Photography has a unique place in our appreciation and understanding of the past but only too often, the people in the photographs remain anonymous and one can only guess at their lives.
A few weeks ago, I received an email from Mary Mclean, delighted to have found the picture of her (above) used on the cover of my book Picture Post on Liverpool. It was the first time she had seen the photograph, which was taken by Thurston Hopkins in 1956 as part of his unpublished assignment on the Liverpool slums. Mary is now 62 and a grandmother but that is all the information she gave. My attempts to contact her failed, as her emails bounced back as undelivered. So I know little more than her name and age and that she married and had children (and that the photographs were taken in the vicinity of Scotland Road).
Thurston Hopkins is still alive (now 101) and living in Susses with his wife, Grace Robertson, who was also a Picture Post photographer and daughter of the broadcaster Fyfe Robertson (who you will have to be in your 50s at least to remember). It was Fyfe Robertson who accompanied Thurston on their controversial story about slum living which Edward Hulton, proprietor of Picture Post, refused to publish after pressure from Liverpool Council (who thought the article would be a slur on the city).
Hopefully Mary Mclean will discover this blog (she has only seen the book) and reply with more information about where the photograph was taken and about her subsequent life. In the meantime, here are two more photographs from the same session that have remained unpublished until now.
St Nicholas’s Parade, 1895
Tower Building and Liverpool Overhead Railway, 1895
John Massey corrected me on my last blog. I mentioned in my text that the occasion (on St George’s Plateau) worried me. The two key concerns were that if it was the visit by Queen Victoria, there was an absence of banners and that the Sessions House had been completed in 1884 (the photograph shows an unfinished facade). John rightly pointed out that the visit was illustrated in the Illustrated London News with a large engraving which clearly showed lavish decoration and a completed Sessions House. What is more, the visit was in pouring rain – not the sunshine shown in my picture. So that raises two points: the photograph must be from 1883/84 and there is no immediate explanation for what was a considerable gathering. Any suggestions?
Today’s pictures are far easier to date. The Overhead Railway opened in 1893 and St George’s Church (the spire on the right) was demolished in 1899, having closed two years earlier. That gives a six year window but as the photograph has 1895 pencilled in, I will settle for that date.
Most commercial photographs of Liverpool of that time cover the same subject matter: St George’s Hall, the Pier Head area, Church Street/Lord Street. Perhaps this is not surprising, after all they were in business to make money. In the 1980s and 90s, I produced dozens of different postcards of the city. I started off trying to be adventurous, with less well-known locations but the sales figures quickly taught me that visitors would only buy a small number of cards and what they wanted was the obvious: the waterfront, two Cathedrals, Albert Dock. Nothing really changes – the Victorians realised it and just aimed to take a better view than their competitors. My interest in such images is partly on the buildings but very much on the level of street animation. Without the horses and carts and other activity, the photographs would have far less appeal.
Visit of Queen Victoria 1886
Detail of main photograph
St George’s Plateau has been a meeting place since its early days. Over the years, trade unions, suffragettes, May Horse parades, Orange Lodge marches amongst many groups have made it their meeting place. In the 1960s, there was that famous photograph of dozens of Merseybeat groups on its step. More recently, it has witnessed football triumphs, French giants and the opening ceremony for 2008 Capital of Culture with Ringo Starr drumming on the roof of St George’s Hall.
Back in the nineteenth century such big events were somewhat scarcer. At first this photograph bothered me. In the background, the Sessions House is clearly in the process of being completed – its facade is bare and the winch above the building suggests work is in progress (the church behind is Christ Church in Hunter Street – demolished in the 1920s).
According to my references, the Session House was completed in 1884 but I am guessing the final additions to the facade must have over-run the official opening on August 4 because the great gathering on the Plateau can only have been for the visit of Queen Victoria in May 1886. The two day Royal Visit culminated in a drive from the riverfront along Lord Street, Church Street, along Lime Street and up London Road to Newsham House. I doubt any other event would have drawn such a crowd. The detail shows every vantage point being taken as the crowd tried to get a rare sight of the Queen at a time when the British Empire was the dominant force in the world.
The terrible devastation wreaked on Liverpool by the Luftwaffe in May 1941 was concentrated in a relatively short period. After May, bombing raids reduced significantly as the RAF gained supremacy in the skies. Raids did continue as the photograph taken near to the Royal Court in Roe Street shows. An eye-witness wrote many years later:
For some reason, just before Christmas, they (the writer’s family) all went along with my idea of spending the night in a place of safety. About midnight the shelter was hit and caught fire, and we were shepherded out by the Royal Court Theatre. Outside a fire engine had crashed into a bomb crater, and the whole area was lit with searchlights and chandeliers.
We were shown to different shelters in Elliot Street, Great Charlotte Street, Cases Street and, in my family’s case, to Lewis’s in Ranelagh Street. I later learnt that my sister had been playing the piano throughout the raid – Sonny Durband, Lewis’s resident pianist, had left his sheet music in the Music Department, which at that time was in the shop’s basement.
The last raid took place on 10 January 1942, destroying several houses on Upper Stanhope Street. By a quirk of fate one of the houses destroyed was number 102, which had been the home of Alois Hitler, Jr., half brother of Adolf Hitler and the birthplace of Hitler’s nephew, William Patrick Hitler.
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