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
Myrtle Street Baptist Church
Driving up Hardman Street today, I noticed work was progressing rapidly on what was for a long time a car park facing the Philharmonic pub. In one of my earliest posts, I uploaded a photograph of the church that once stood there – Myrtle Street Baptist Church. For a Nonconformist church, it is surprisingly ornate – given the generally subdued architecture favoured by Baptists.
The church opened in 1844 and was very popular because of its charismatic preacher, Hugh Stowell Brown: so popular that the church was extended in 1862 to create more room for his followers. Folklore has it that the church was bombed during the last War. (I use folklore very loosely here – it is astonishing how short communal memory can be). In fact it was demolished in the 1930s – although its vacant site was used to site an air raid shelter.
I doubt the current development will lift souls either architecturally or spiritually. It is an important corner with a palace to culture and a gin palace on facing corners. A palace for students? We shall see.
Bombed Out, 1941
The daily news from Iraq, Syria and Gaza only reinforces the fact that there is no glamour in war. The targeting of non-combatants goes back to the earliest times but WW2 was the first major conflict in which civilian casualties exceeded those of the military. The German blitzkrieg (or lightning strike) was introduced as a tactic to overwhelm an enemy by massive bombing attacks on towns and cities.
Liverpool suffered more than any other city outside of London. There were 3134 fatalities in Liverpool and Bootle. Birmingham suffered 2147, Glasgow 710 and Manchester 611.
The Blitz could have succeeded but, as the photograph above shows, the reaction of the affected people was defiant and stoical. The family shown smile at the photographer as they carry the meagre belongings salvage from the wreckage of their house.
Unfortunately, the street name is impossible to decipher and I cannot name the location. The young girl will be in her 80s now if she is still around. I hope someone can identify the family.
The current humanitarian disaster in Iraq brought to mind one of my most poignant and interesting images – that of a group of emigrants waiting by the quayside in Liverpool. I am speculating that they are Russian or Polish Jews fleeing persecution in their homelands. (The photograph is probably late 1880s).
It is estimated that over nine million emigrants left Liverpool for the New World. Many left for economic reasons, leaving behind poverty in their European homeland to take their chances in America. Others, probably the ones in the photograph above, were fleeing for their lives. Anyone who visited the fascinating Chagall exhibition at the Tate last year will be familiar with the story of how Jews in Russia were confined to the Pale of Settlement – a geographical area covering an area that is now Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine. Frequent anti-semitic pogroms and purges left Jews in fear of their lives and more than two million Jews fled Russia between 1880 and 1920.
Sadly, I can add no more information about the photograph. There are no names – only desperate faces. The two details below give some idea of what it must be like to flee with little more than the clothes on your back.
St John’s Market/Parker Street/Elliot Street 1964
St George’s Place 1960s
Standing in the throngs outside St George’s Hall last Saturday, I tried in vain to photograph the giants’ progress through the city. Too many people and I was in the wrong place. Standing opposite that awful advertising hoarding that shrouds the Lime Street side of St John’s Market, however, reminded me of a newspaper cutting I had saved for a future blog. New Giant in City shouts the Echo headline. But this is for 22 September 1962 and the giant was a dual proposal for the Ravenseft development to demolish the old St John’s Market area and another scheme to replace Central Station (and the adjoining Lyceum Club) with a 30 storey tower block (the Ranelagh Centre).
These were the swashbuckling days of out with the old and in with the new. Liverpool was to be modernised and history was bunk.
Fortunately the Ranelagh Centre scheme did not progress as planned, although Central Station was demolished and an awful low level development replaced it (the Lyceum was saved thanks to Michael Heseltine). What I find interesting reading the Echo is the unconditional support the newspaper always gives for such schemes. There is no hint of any sense that anything is being lost – simply that all such developments are good for a modern city. Ironically, the Chairman of the Development and Planning Committee was reported as saying: “We have been late in getting ahead, but the architects have possibly learned from some of the mistakes already brought about in other parts of the country and we have not only learned from them but have used it to advantage.” Lessons learned? That developers will promise the earth and fail to deliver, that shiny and new is not the same as good, that historic fabric can never be replaced?
In that context, yesterday’s decision to grant Heap Mill listed status is an interesting development. My fear is that the site will now be blighted because developers will walk away from the huge cost of any conservation project. It might appear my stance contradicts what I have written above but I do not think Heap Mill is a significant building and I would rather see the site redeveloped sympathetically. Oh dear! I am beginning to sound a bit like that Chairman of the Development Committee.
Heap Mill, Beckwith Street, 1980
Bridgewater Street, 1980
Bridgewater Street, June 2014
I picked up a leaflet this week asking me to sign a petition to save Heap Mill. The ex-rice mill is in a prominent position facing Albert Dock and next to the Formule 1 hotel on Liver Street. Planning permission is being sought to demolish the dilapidated warehouse complex to build a block of apartments. Those in favour of the new development (according to online sources) seem to be fairly evenly split with those wishing to save the mill and see it converted to other uses. The conservation lobby argue that warehouses were a key element in Liverpool’s history and only a small number of the larger complexes remain. So on which side do I fall?
My heart is with those wishing to hold on to buildings which have such a key relationship with the city’s trading past but, in this case, I can see no future for what is a rather grim block which has long since served its purpose. I can see no developer coming forward to convert the building, which has bulk but little aesthetic charm – the cost would be astronomical.
What bemuses me is that two key warehouses on Bridgewater Street have just been demolished without, to my knowledge, any fuss being stirred up. Admittedly, again, the warehouses were little more than facades having been burnt out some years ago – but their prominence at the gateway to the Baltic Triagle was impressive.
I started by business life in a run-down warehouse om Manesty’s Lane. Apparently, the building was Tate and Lyle’s first warehouse but when I moved in (in 1973) it was almost a shell. The floor plan was literally a rectangle with a heavily beamed ceiling with a circular stone case in the corner as access. The roof leaked because of the parapet roof construction, it had no running water and in winter (or most of the year) was bitterly cold because of the metal loading doors on each level. My recollection of Liverpool at that time was of street after street lined with similar obsolete buildings, all decaying. I can think of no other city in England that had such dereliction within a few yards of its main streets.
So, sadly (for I am a great believer in keeping the best examples of our heritage), I will have to go with the modernisers on the Heap Mill question. There are more important battles to be fought.
In my last post, I brought up the problem of dating photographs. Probably only one in ten of my vintage images has a date that can be considered reliable. The other 90% I have to give an approximate date according to the photographic process used (only reliable to within ten years at the best), a specific event, people’s dress or buildings that existed at the time (again, often only good to within ten years).
On the whole, this is not a serious problem – more of a desire to be as accurate as possible. With many street photographs, it is easy to say 1890s but in quite a few cases, some of my images of bare-footed children were taken up to the early 1900s. (The fact that hand-held cameras only really started to make an impact in the early 1890s is one helpful clue).
Fortunately, the photograph of a busy Pier Head turned out to be relatively easy to date thanks to the internet. Reading up on the history of the ferries, it turns out that the Alexandra (the ferry in the foreground) was only in service for one year – in 1890. It was chartered for that year only (why and from whom is not stated). I imagine it must have been named after Princess Alexandra – consort of the Prince of Wales. I suppose I should dig deeper but, to be honest, transport history is not really my bag. Perhaps some informed reader can fill in the gaps.
One of the frustrations of interpreting historic photographs is correctly dating them. Perhaps the most popular subject for the Victorian photographer was St George’s Hall – and no wonder. When it opened in 1854, it must have been an astonishing sight. Towering above the city, like the Parthenon on the Acropolis, this great statement of civic endeavour and intent must have had an immense psychological impact on the fast growing town.
I remember my first trip to Liverpool from Sheffield in 1966. As I left Lime Street, I was confronted by this immense building which was anything but provincial (as most of Sheffield’s architecture was). Even though it was soot-black, it had a startling presence with its impressive plateau and statuary, including the much under-valued Wellington’s Column.
Getting back to my starting point: dating Victorian photographs can be quite imprecise. Clothing can give a clue but fashions lingered on for years and is anything but foolproof. Similarly, shop names can give an indication. A new shop would have a new sign but many businesses had long lives. The clue in today’s photograph is the original staircase on the Southern facade (below the eight columns on the left hand side). This had been replaced by the current arrangement by 1855: according to Picton ‘Originally access was obtained from the street by two narrow flights of steps descending right and left from the centre: but the taste of the local dilettanti being offended, an appeal was made to the council, by whose authority they were removed, and the terrace finished as it now remains.’
So the photograph can be dated to around 1854 to 1855. Not as old as the photograph I published in October 2010 (which shows signs of construction still in progress) but close enough. What makes the photograph special is that it is signed Forrest – a founder member of Liverpool Amateur Photographic Association (established in 1853 as one of the world’s first photographic societies – it is now part of South Liverpool Photographic Society). John Alexander Forrest was a glass manufacturer in Lime Street and his image is the earliest one of Liverpool by a named photographer I have come across.
St George’s Hall seems to be on the fringe of the city centre rather than a central feature. The shabby state of Lime Street is apparently to be addressed but the soulless dual carriageway and the dreadful lump that is St John’s Market with its crude advertising hoarding also need sorting. Do we really need a dual carriageway? If ever a site need creative thought and design, this would be my priority. By clever design, Liverpool One has brought the Albert Dock and Pier Head back into life. Now we need an equally smart solution for the Lime Street area.