Category Archives: Liverpool

Liverpool Zoological Gardens

Sadly, no trace remains of Liverpool Zoological Gardens, “a place of favourite and fashionable resort” in its day, which graced the south-side of West Derby Road beyond the old Necropolis from 1833 to 1865. Indeed, there are few relics nowadays of the Victorian terraced housing which subsequently dominated the area. The Gardens enjoyed an eventful history that I shall describe below, which involved a glorious rise and an ignominious fall.

The Zoological Gardens were opened on 27th May 1833 by Thomas Atkins, the long-time proprietor of a travelling menagerie, the beasts of which were, of course, destined to form its principal attraction. Now nearing his seventies and no-doubt tired of life on the road, Atkins had acquired an old brick-field and pit named “Plumpton’s Hollow” on the edge of town for his purpose. This had been notorious as “a place where multitudes of the lower orders have hitherto been accustomed to resort for the enjoyment of prize fights, and similar amusements”. Atkins had determined to transform it into a pleasant attraction for respectable townsfolk where, “every attention will be paid to the preservation of order and the exclusion of improper visitors…”. (The Liverpool Mercury 22/2/1833, 31/5/1833).


Liverpool Zoological Gardens. Liverpool Zoo/Zoological Parks (Click picture to enlarge)

The existing excavations made the chosen plot ideal for landscaping into a scenic garden, arranged around a natural amphitheatre. A circular grand-menagerie was built in this depression, next to a lake, and there was a monkey house, an elephant house, a bear pit, an eaglery, an aviary, and a waterfowl pond, all suitably populated. There was also a concert room, a refreshment room, and an orchestra-stand on a lawn. Shortly after its opening, the “inducements to a visit” were described as, “extensive grounds very beautifully laid out, a very numerous collection of animals and birds so disposed as to be seen to the best advantage, and the charms of music…giving life and animation to the whole.” Later, there was also a centrifugal railway and a camera obscura. One Monday in June 1833, there were estimated to have been between three and four thousand visitors, entrance being restricted to annual subscribers and their families, and only such others as could pay a shilling and produce a pre-booked Visitor’s ticket. (The Liverpool Mercury 22/2/1833, 31/5/1833, 21/6/1833, 28/6/1833, 25/12/1835; The Liverpool Standard 1/10/1833; The Liverpool Mail 7/8/1847).


Zoological Gardens, Regents Park, by George Scharf, (Aviary) (1835). Public Domain (Click picture to enlarge)


Zoological Gardens, Regents Park, by George Scharf, (Monkey House) (1835) . Public Domain (Click picture to enlarge)

Of course ships put into Liverpool from all over the world, and they soon began to bring exotic animals with them to augment the Gardens’ menagerie. Many citizens also seemed to have curious specimens available to contribute. The Liverpool Standard of 7th April 1835 cited the following presents (amongst numerous others) as having lately been received by the gardens: “An Ursine sloth and a monkey from Captain Harding, ship Bounty Hall; an American black bear from Captain Nicholson, ship Tally Ho; a Caffrarian cat from Captain Adam McMinu, ship Hibernia; an Indian buffalo from Captain Ellis, ship Tyrer…etc…”. On 28th July 1836, Gore’s General Advertiser catalogued, amongst many live donations recently made: “…a king vulture, from Robert Gladstone, Esq, Abercromby-Square…a whistling duck, Captain Bispham of the Sandbach; a red curassow, a crocodile, and three tortoises, Captain Burnett of the Montezuma; a pair of Muscovy ducks and three snapping turtle, Captain Curtis of the Kensington…”. In September 1836, Captain Kellock of the East India ship the Cestrian presented the gardens with a tiger that had belonged to the Nizam of Hydrabad, and which had reputedly devoured sixteen sheep on the voyage over from Bombay. (The Liverpool Standard 6/2/1835, 7/4/1835, 7/7/1835, 16/9/1836; Gore’s General Advertiser 28/7/1836; The Liverpool Mail 15/12/1836).


Menagerie, by Hermann Van Aken, (1833). Public Domain (Click picture to enlarge)

Strangely, two (unnamed) men were brought before the city magistrates in late 1833 charged by Mr Atkins “with having represented themselves as belonging to the Gardens, and having obtained in that character from captains of vessels, different animals intended for that establishment.” However, “After hearing the case, the magistrates decided that there was not sufficient evidence to convict them of fraud, but cautioned then not to appear there again, lest they should stand in a very different situation.” (The Liverpool Mercury 4/10/1833)

Atkins was certainly not short of animals to exhibit, so that one wonders how such a diverse bestiary might be properly fed and looked-after. And he was always on the look-out for new additions. In June 1835, “Mr Atkins, the indefatigable collector of curiosities, is gone on a special mission to London, for the purpose of inviting some illustrious strangers, now in town, to partake of the illustrious hospitality of his gardens. He is expected to return, in the course of the week, accompanied by a male and female nylghou [large Indian antelopes], and their young family, a cassowary [a flightless New Guinean bird], some black swans, and several other birds and beasts.” (The Liverpool Standard 9/6/1835).


Isaac Van Amburgh with his Animals by Edwin Landseer (1839). Public Domain (Click picture to enlarge)

And the animals were far from being the Gardens’ sole attraction. For instance, in August 1834, Atkins was advertising evenings wherein, “The Grounds and Principal buildings will be Splendidly Illuminated with Coloured Lamps arranged in Arcades, Festoons, Stars, Flowers, &c, &c…” There was to be the spectacle of a balloon ascent and the accompaniment of a military band, and the evenings were to culminate in a firework display. The Gardens manufactured its own fireworks, and ambitious pyrotechnic performances featured regularly throughout its existence, though it is not recorded how its more timid residents tolerated these explosive disturbances. (The Liverpool Mercury 1/8/1834)

The Gardens opened in spring for each year’s season, with a program of events to last through to the autumn. Each season’s centrepiece was usually a topical tableaux, based upon recent dramatic happenings such as a battle, a siege, or an outbreak of revolutionary violence. In 1838, in view of its eruption in recent years, “The whole of the east side of the garden was laid out to represent Mount Vesuvius, towering above its adjacent hills, and, at its feet, Naples and its beautiful Bay…the optical illusion was accomplished by means of small hillocks and painted canvas…The lighting eruption began at 9 o’clock…At first, a thin column of smoke issued from the crater and rose in the air…After an interval a brilliant flash succeeded…Presently the flashes became more frequent, and flame mingled with the smoke at the craters mouth ever and anon changing its tint from a violet to a livid and from a livid to a crimson hue…Vesuvius opens, as it were, her womb, and pours forth an overwhelming flood of molten fire, carrying desolation in its path…” (The Liverpool Standard 8/6/1838)

There were some real-life, rather then merely figurative, mishaps along the way. William Mayman, a West Derby Road publican, stated that, early one Sunday evening in October 1838, “I was standing at my own door, near which was a man with a basket of nuts for sale. This man first saw a large bear make his way over the gate into the lane. He immediately threw his basket to the beast, and it began to eat the nuts. At this moment a child, being on its way to buy some nuts, I ran and caught hold of it to bring it to my house for safety. Before I had advanced many yards, the bear jumped upon my back, sized me by the right arm, and began to grind it with his teeth in a dreadful manner.” After a prolonged struggle, “the keepers of the gardens came and beat him off, just in time to save my life.” Unfortunately Mayman had been severely mauled in saving the child, and was henceforth subject to such bad fits that he took his own life by arsenic in 1845 (aged only 36). Bizarrely, Mayman’s pub was actually called “The Bear”, a name his widow later declared it had borne even before the attack! (The Liverpool Standard 19/10/1838, 11/2/1845; Gore’s General Advertiser 27/5/1841; The Liverpool Mail 8/2/1845; The Liverpool Mercury 3/11/1864).


Animal Shack, Paul Tierbude, Photo engraving after a painting by Paul Friedrich Meyerheim (1885). Public Domain (Click picture to enlarge)

Thomas Atkins died on the 6th June 1848, aged 84, described in his obituary as, “most liberal to all connected to the large establishment of which he was the head.” The saddest incident in the Gardens’ history coincidentally followed less than two weeks later, when his beloved elephant Rajah, whom he had owned for over eleven years, followed its master to its demise. The poor beast grew infuriated after being struck twice with a broom by its keeper (Richard Howard), to make him budge, and he ran at the man, jammed him against the bars of the cage, let him fall, and then crushed him to death underfoot. Rajah had killed a keeper (Henry Andrews) in this manner before, one night in 1843, when “The handle of a broom, with which the deceased had often struck the animal, was found near the place, broken in two pieces.” Rajah was not forgiven this time, and Atkins’ sons John and Edwin first resolved to poison the creature, then, that having failed, had him shot by a company of riflemen. The keeper’s widow, Sarah, died “through excessive grief” soon afterwards. (The Liverpool Mail 23/12/1843, 11/11/1848; The Liverpool Standard 13/6/1848, 20/6/1848).


The Shooting of Rajah. Public Domain (Click picture to enlarge)

The Gardens were, perhaps, never the same again. Shifting priorities were suggested by the new proprietress, Atkins’ widow Elizabeth’s, subsequent efforts to secure a wine & spirits licence for the premises (it already had a beer licence). A lawyer named Mr Snowball opposed her 1851 application, ostensibly on the ground that, “It would be very dangerous to allow parties to partake of spirits in a zoological garden, for many accidents, it was well known, had happened from persons poking the dens of wild beasts even when sober…” (Such examples of “Temerity Punished” had indeed arisen before, one man having had his hand “severely lacerated” in 1847 by a lion he had been “teasing” with a stick.) The real reason for the magistrates’ rejection of Elizabeth’s applications probably lay in their reluctance to see the Gardens descend into disorder and prostitution, such as was notorious at London’s Cremorne pleasure garden. (The Liverpool Standard 17/8/1847; Liverpool Mercury 12/9/1851).

In January 1852 Elizabeth sold the Gardens to Mr John Durandu, “a bullion dealer and exchange broker, Waterloo-road”, whose brief period of ownership does not seem to have been a happy one. In December of that year he brought a complaint against a police officer, who had insisted on taking him up as “drunk and disorderly”, despite his affirmation that he was “perfectly sober at the time”. The Liverpool Mercury speculated that 1852 “cannot have been a profitable season.” He had his own license applications rejected, and in March 1854 sought to recover £10 from Elizabeth Atkins in the County Court in respect of “four macaws and a parrot” he alleged had gone missing. (The Liverpool Mercury 24/2/1852, 10/9/1852, 21/3/1854; The Liverpool Mail, 25/12/1852).

By April 1854, Atkins’ son John had taken the Gardens back into family ownership. And, “In order to secure some new and curious specimens of the animal world,” his brother Edwin had “started, in 1852, on the perilous journey of exploring the almost unknown tracts of the interior of Africa. He had been most successful in his daring adventure, having secured several specimens, when death overtook him on a small island on the White River, a branch of the Nile, in January last.” This was quite notable, considering that David Livingstone’s famous Nile explorations did not begin for over a decade. But despite Edwin’s enterprise, by 1855 it could be complained that, “It is well known that these gardens do not posses that enormous zoological collection which so distinguished them in former years…” (The Liverpool Mercury 14/4/1854, 21/4/1854; The Liverpool Standard 24/4/1855).


Menagerie. In the Animal Shack by Paul Friedrich Meyerheim (1894). Public Domain (Click picture to enlarge)

The changing nature of the Gardens is evident from increasing references to “a great number of improper characters” attending them. This euphemism meant prostitutes, “a class whose presence must always prevent families from attending”, and John Atkins’ newspaper advertisements now stated that all such persons would be prohibited admission. Atkins responded to a complaint from “The Society for the Suppression of Vicious Practices”, that “with the assistance of the police, women of the town had in fact been prevented from entering the gardens.” He was finally granted a wine and spirits licence in 1857, which accelerated the Gardens’ slide into vice. A “Temperance Festival” held there in 1858, “was strangely belied by a visit to the alcoholic refreshment rooms, particularly as the evening advanced, the consumption of liquors being in proportion to the extra number of visitors.” (The Liverpool Mercury 29/6/1857, 13/7/1858, 31/8/1858; Gore’s General Advertiser 16/7/1857; The Daily Post 16/7/1857).

Atkins sold the Gardens to the Zoological Gardens Company Ltd (“a company of capitalists”) in early 1860. Despite their promises to increase the stock of animals, when they opened for the season in May 1861, “The most important improvement we have to notice is the new decorations of the immense dancing platform…These have been carried out in a most expensive and expansive style…Completely encircling the platform is an arcade of thirty-two arches… The inner faces of these arches are filled with gas jets…In the illumination of the platform and precincts three thousand gas jets are used and they are surrounded by thirty thousand lustres.” Clearly, the Zoological Gardens had completed the transformation into a Pleasure Garden that the licensing magistrates had feared. When the elephant house burned down in September 1861 all it contained was the skeleton of Rajah, which was thus “reduced to ashes”. (The Liverpool Mercury 30/3/1860, 4/5/1861; The Liverpool Mail 31/3/1860; The Daily Post 7/5/1861, 28/9/1861).


The Dancing Platform at Cremorne Gardens by Phoebus Levin (1864). Public Domain (Click picture to enlarge)

By now the area was becoming heavily built-up, and the Gardens were no longer on the edge of town. The finances must always have been precarious, with the expense of purchasing, feeding and keeping the animals, and of mounting grand spectacles, offset by the revenues from only a half-year season, and that at the mercy of the weather. And, since their fall from grace, the Gardens were no longer considered a public amenity by the metropolitan great and good. In 1864 the proprietors did offer to sell the land to the corporation for £28,000 to make for a public park, and it was sad that this means of preserving an open space with mature gardens for posterity was declined. Ultimately the temptation to realise the site’s development value, especially that of the frontage to West Derby Road for shops and pubs, proved too much, and the Gardens finally closed on 30th September 1865. The ground was levelled and laid-out for building purposes, with Boaler Street driven right through its middle, served by several streets leading off. Now most of that is gone in its turn, largely replaced by an anonymous industrial estate. (The Liverpool Mercury 8/9/1864; The Daily Post 2/10/1865).

When closure first loomed in 1864, The Liverpool Mercury commented thus: ‘The unenviable character borne by “the gardens” of late years extinguishes all feeling of regret at the fate with which they are threatened. It was not always so. At one time, and that no distant date, the title of “Zoological Gardens” was not the misnomer it has for some time been. The two or three half-starved specimens of the “king of beasts,” and the mangy monkeys, which a visitor to “the gardens” in recent times might, after much searching, find, were but the miserable remnants of one of the finest collections of animals in the kingdom, representing in value many thousands of pounds. In those better days, too, “the gardens” were the favourite resort, not of the demi-monde but of the “upper ten thousand,” as well as of the numberless lower ten thousand who could only claim to be honest and respectable.’ (The Liverpool Mercury 19/10/1864).

Additional Sources: “The Streets of Liverpool” by James Stonehouse, pp., 116-21 (1869); Entry for Thomas Atkins in the Oxford DNB; “A History of Zoological Gardens in the West” by Eric Baratay & Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugien (2002)

In Memoriam

I was in Liverpool recently for a day and decided to go over the water to visit the U-Boat Story museum at Birkenhead, where salvaged German submarine U-534 lies at rest. I went aboard U-534 some years ago at the Historic Warships Museum in Birkenhead, when she was still in one piece. She has since been sliced vertically into four segments, like a shark on a fishmonger’s slab, with head, tail, and middle bits arranged separately, their interiors visible, but not accessible, through transparent partitions sealing their exposed ends. The U-Boat Story is situated at the Woodside Ferry Terminal, which has sentimental associations for my family that I shall describe.

U-534 was sunk at the end of the war on 5th of May 1945, the order having been given for the U-Boat fleet to surrender to the allies as from eight a.m. that morning. She had just left Germany for Norway and was proceeding on the surface in the Kattegat, northeast of Denmark. Fatally for her, she was not flying a flag of surrender. An allied aircraft spotted her and dropped depth charges on her stern, one of which slipped off and exploded below, blowing the hole in her side which drove her to the bottom. Her crew escaped but she remained on the seabed until 1993, when she was raised and brought to Birkenhead. It is not known why the captain failed to fly a surrender flag, nor what final mission he was on, because he later committed suicide without elucidating these mysteries.


The tail section of U-534, showing the depth charge damage which sunk her. My photo.

It’s such a pity that the boat has been cut-up, though I understand there were significant practical difficulties in moving her to the site and showing her without doing so. Better that she is displayed like this, I suppose, than not at all. Going aboard her when she was still intact was a tremendous experience, however, that cannot really be reproduced by the internal cameras now installed. Everything was encrusted in fifty years’ worth of marine deposits that one could touch. There was still tinned food in the galley, and items of clothing hanging up, and bundles of still-readable documents, waterproofed by silt. She was so long and narrow that one could acutely feel the claustrophobia of a confined and dangerous world.

It is fitting that she is housed on the Mersey, given that the Western Approaches command was situated there during the Battle of the Atlantic. My mother was a teenager in nearby Wallasey when the war started and was evacuated to north Wales, their house being completely bombed-out subsequently during the blitz on Merseyside. At the same time my father worked as a shipping-office lad in Liverpool, and thus had occasion to visit vessels limping into port after surviving the U-Boat menace on the Atlantic convoys. He later fought in Burma during its liberation from the Japanese.

My parents first met at the Woodside Ferry Terminal, where U-534 is now displayed, in the early 1950s, as they were queuing for excursion tickets. Sadly, my mother passed away some weeks ago. They had been married for sixty-three years. We are losing our human connection to the nobility and sacrifice of those who endured the war. We do need to remember.

A Sentimental Journey

I was passing through Liverpool lately and thought I would take a sentimental journey (after the title of one of his solo albums) into the city’s South End to look at the two houses Ringo Starr lived in before the Beatles made it big. Beyond knowing that neither had been converted into a museum I had done no research, but when I got there I found the actual state of the properties far more affecting than I had expected.

The area in question is perhaps a mile-and-a-half’s amble southward from the city centre, in the region of Princes Park. It is an area of great contrasts, where mass-produced nineteenth-century terraced housing is just minutes’ walk from the grand Victorian and Edwardian mansions surrounding Princes Park and lining its approach roads. I have read that the terraced streets hereabouts were notoriously rough and deprived in Ringo’s 1940s and 50s childhood and that, of the four Beatles, his was the humblest upbringing.  10 Admiral Grove, where Ringo lived for many years with his mother and step-father after his parents separated, is reached along a short, narrow, paved passage, running behind the Empress pub (off High Park Street).


“10 Admiral Grove” by Stundra

As you can see, the house is painted in a decidedly un-rock-and-roll wedding-cake colour scheme and is a very modest one. It is of the type where the front door opens directly into the lounge and where there would have been only two rooms on each floor, upstairs and down. I gather that the houses Ringo now revolves between are somewhat larger and are  sited in sunnier and more exotic international locations.

There is some black and white footage (apparently staged, unfortunately) of Ringo being mobbed by teenagers here in 1963, as he exits the house and tries to join George Harrison who is awaiting him in an open-topped sports car. Standing outside, I talked to some (admirably tolerant) neighbours who said that the house had belonged until recently to a now deceased old lady. I peeked through the window to see that the interior has been stripped of all its furnishings including carpets, indeed the very walls have been scraped back to the bare plaster and the fire-place has been filled (presumably to deter souvenir hunters).

The house where Ringo was born, and lived for his first few years, is over the other side of High Park Street and a little way down Madryn Street, which leads off it. Number 9 is still standing, but the whole street is empty of residents and all the windows and doors are steel-shuttered.

Madryn Street, Toxteth

Madryn Street, Toxteth, looking North-west

North-west end of Madryn Street

North-west end of Madryn Street

Ringo’s former house is the first on the right, with its shutters covered in graffiti. It has been re-pointed relatively recently, perhaps as a prelude to a projected restoration.

The security door and graffiti at 9 Madryn Street, Toxteth

The security door and graffiti at 9 Madryn Street, Toxteth

One learns from the dates on some of the graffiti that the shutters are at least five years old. Apparently there is an ongoing tussle over whether this piece of Beatles memorabilia merits being saved from demolition, but the whole street has also been standing empty alongside it for that time. In fact, as I soon learnt from exploring further, it is part of a much larger section of housing on this side of the main road that is in exactly the same condition. Six parallel streets (Wynnstay St, Voelas St, Rhiwlas St, Powis St, Madryn St itself, and Kinmel St) known collectively from their names as “the Welsh Streets”, are empty and closed-up in the same fashion.

Powis Street, Toxteth

Powis Street, Toxteth

 Wynnstay Street, Toxteth  

Wynnstay Street, Toxteth. The tower of the Anglican Cathedral can be seen in the distance. There is evidence of bomb damage to the right-hand terrace, where a gap has been filled with post-war housing.

It is easy to imagine these streets being thronged with people, and strange to think that so large an area would be left in this sort of limbo for so long. Though obviously dilapidated the buildings do not seem positively derelict, and most of their roofs and basic structures seem intact. There is none of the blackened fire-damage and randomly strewn rubbish that normally marks an area’s slide into terminal dereliction. Nor is there the sense of unease and threat to the idle visitor usually present in such places, since no other human beings are to be seen. The thoroughfares and pavements are remarkably neat, with trees still pleasantly punctuating several of them, and one small area cleared of its houses many years ago seems to have served the locals as a little park:

Voelas Street, Toxteth

Voelas Street, Toxteth 

The overall effect is quite eerie in its complete depopulation, like a sort of Marie Celeste of South Liverpool. A passer-by unaware of its famous former resident might wonder why taxis periodically park outside one undistinguished boarded-up house on Madryn Street, and disgorge visitors who gaze at it gape-mouthed and who are lectured knowledgably about its part in popular culture by their driver, who apparently knew all the main players in the Beatles’ rise to fame personally.

Obviously, there is a contest going on between those who want refurbishment and those who want to knock it all down and start again. At one point out on High Park Street an official sign, which has apparently been there for some time, trumpets the region as “Princess Park Regeneration Zone” and talks of “Creating neighbourhoods of the future.” There is a picture of happy future residents swanning about. But the pubs and shops, that would have faced along the main road and provided the community with its focus, are long since demolished. It seems that the “zone” has been embalmed indefinitely against some future moment when conditions will somehow be propitious for it to be occupied again.

The ghostly desolation made me think about the thousands upon thousands of people who lived (and maybe died) here and pursued their day-to-day lives down the generations, from the 1880s when these streets were first constructed. Maybe the relevant authorities are waiting for Ringo to return to Liverpool and summon the people back, like a pied-piper (or pied-drummer) in reverse, so that the homes can be reopened and refitted and returned to productive life.

At the Landing Stage

I have written previously about the journalist Hugh Shimmin, who was such a vivid observer of Liverpool’s mid-Victorian low-life, and such a committed activist for improved social conditions in the town. Having been granted permission to reproduce the following portrait of Shimmin, I shall say a little more about his life and attitudes, as illustrated by a piece he wrote in 1860 concerning dodgy-doings at the George’s Landing Stage:


Hugh Shimmin (1819-1879) by Richard Norbury. Image by Public Catalogue Foundation. Courtesy National Museums Liverpool.

As appears from the portrait Shimmin had a roughness about him that advertised his humble origins, and a set of whiskers that were exuberant even by mid-Victorian standards. He could be combative, outspoken and intimidating, and he spared no one, high or low, in his denunciations of perceived moral and social failings.

The very Victorian emphasis on abstinence and self-improvement, that is often evident in his journalism, came from real personal experience rather than patrician sanctimony. He was born on the Isle of Man and was apparently brought up in poor circumstances, his father being a stonemason with a drink problem. The family moved first to mainland Whitehaven and then to Liverpool, where Shimmin was apprenticed to a bookbinder at only eight years old.  His father died a few years later, thrusting the boy into the role of provider for his mother and younger siblings. Eventually he became manager of the bookbinding workshop, and later bought it out, which put him on the road to ascending the social ladder as a self-made man in the world of books and publishing.

Just how morally disapproving he could be emerges from a short piece Shimmin published in his own periodical, Porcupine, on 15th December 1860. In it he observes the scene on a Sunday evening at the George’s Landing Stage, which in those days fringed the river in front of the George’s Dock (filled in during Edwardian times to be replaced by the monumental Three Graces). He describes the landing stage as being very crowded, owing to the busy ferry traffic transporting folk to the Cheshire shore for their Sunday recreation, and then back home again. He has no gripe with the honest citizens engaging in this pastime, but he has every difficulty with many other persons assembled on the landing stage:

“Young lads and girls who began by going there for a walk,” he writes, “soon made it a meeting-place. Older heads, with more vicious intentions, then began to frequent the stage, and it has gone on from bad to worse, until now it is almost impossible for a female to pass to or from the Ferries without being subjected to the rudeness, vulgarity, obscenity, or profanity of the shameless hordes, of both sexes, who congregate on, and pollute the stage by their presence.”

“The girls who frequent the stage,” he goes on, “and by their gaudy dress, rude speeches, and unseemly conduct, excite the disgust of all well disposed people, are not such as have given themselves up wholly to a dissolute life.” While he might not bracket them as out-and-out prostitutes, he does think that the manner of these girls’ mingling with young men there constitutes a “great public nuisance.” In short, he thinks it an indecent pick-up spot, which can incite the “ruin” of some young girls by “fast young men” who scent “the game of the Landing Stage.” One can imagine Shimmin pacing up and down the boards, growling with disapproval at the goings-on, and one can hardly imagine him going unobserved himself, given his striking personal appearance.

But it is an admirable characteristic of Shimmin’s that he is far from making the “lower orders” his only target in railing at the abuses he sees. “The evil would not have reached such a magnitude,” he maintains, “had it not received more substantial support. On a Sunday evening recently, we noticed men of good position, (one of whom had filled public offices in this town, and had a wife and family at home) leering and chatting with girls, whom they would in daylight, or in the public streets, be ashamed to acknowledge.”

Shimmin singles out (but does not name) “one of our great public men” who has just landed from the Rock Ferry boat: “He appeared to have been wooing the rosy god, or in plainer terms, he was partially intoxicated. He stood a little time by the south refreshment room, gnawing the head of his cane and reeling about now and then, noticing the while the girls that passed, and occasionally tapping some of them on the shoulder or hat. Having completed his resolve, he joined a group, and in a few minutes after was seen talking to a very young girl – a child, or little more – and by the eight o’clock boat this couple crossed to Seacombe.”

Shimmin remarks that “the number of aged men, of decent exterior [his italics] who promenaded and seemed to enjoy the scene was the most suggestive sight. To think of men who will walk to Church with their daughters in the morning, spend the afternoon with their amiable families, and yet devote the evening of the sacred day to the encouragement of such abominable profanity.”

The irony is that Hugh Shimmin himself was just such a man of “decent exterior” as he describes, spending his own Sunday evening away from his suburban villa to take in the “abominable” scene. I don’t seek to impugn his motives or denigrate his sincere efforts toward the betterment of society. But all of us are capable, on occasion, of being unable to define the line that divides our genuine abhorrence from our prurient curiosity.

I am indebted to “Low Life and Moral Improvement in Mid-Victorian England” edited by John K. Walton & Alastair Wilcox (1991) for the biographical information, and also to that publication for its reproduction of Shimmin’s article “Sunday Night on the Landing Stage” (“Porcupine”, 15 December 1860).

An Oriel Prospect

Liverpool must have presented a magnificent prospect to visitors in the second half of the Nineteenth Century, whether arriving by sea or rail. They could hardly fail to be impressed by the city’s gigantic dock complex, the immense worldwide trade it quite evidently supported, and the grandeur of its civic and commercial buildings. It was second only to London as the great port of empire. But there was, of course, an opposite prospect to the city, in which the superlatives applied to everything that was debased and distasteful.

I have written here before about the journalism of Hugh Shimmin. In an article in the Porcupine, printed in January 1863, Shimmin wrote about what he termed ‘An Oriel Prospect’. Oriel Street was (it is still there) a street leading eastwards off Vauxhall Road, close to the docks of the North End and the terminus of the Leeds and Liverpool canal. Shimmin counted thirty courts on this street, each leading off between every two houses fronting it, with “ten, and in some cases, eight houses in each court – five or four on each side, – and for the use of each court there is an open ashpit at the top, and a very small privy on each side of this. One may perhaps form some idea of the foulness of these places…”.  Shimmin visited Oriel Street just after Christmas when, “the vegetable refuse, broken mugs, and filth of all sorts bore evidence that the people here, in the expressive language of Mr. J.L. Toole [a comic actor], had been ‘a-going it’.” In one court, “The roofs are all now leaking;” and “There is not a whole pane of glass in any of the windows, – hardly a whole frame.” “In some cases the skirting boards have been torn off for firewood, the handrails have been found extremely useful in case of a ‘row,’ and the boards have been known to be ripped from the floor…”. Shimmin heard the obscene banter of women and girls “quite indifferent to a sense of shame” and saw “men lounging about here who evidently didn’t like to be looked at.”

And Oriel Street was not exceptional. A glance at an ordnance survey map for 1864 reveals the whole Vauxhall area to be a tightly packed matrix of such thoroughfares, many of them having courts narrower and meaner than those of Oriel Street, some with the houses facing each other only a few feet apart and accessed only through enclosed alleyways. The population density was astounding. A look at the 1861 census shows that many of these small terraced houses (without bathrooms, kitchens, indoor toilets or running water) were occupied by more than one family group. For instance Number 20 court on neighbouring Paul Street, with only six houses, contained sixty people in nine family groups. Most of the menfolk were casual labourers, either on the docks or in the numerous local factories existing cheek by jowl amid the housing. In the immediate vicinity there were soaperies, alkali works, potteries, foundries, saw mills, chemical works, cooperages, breweries and tanneries. All these would have been highly polluting establishments, whose effluvia must have mixed with the ubiquitous coal smoke to produce an unimaginable miasma.

All of this is long gone, though some of the previous street pattern remains. I see that a measure of gentrification has taken place. There are blocks of newish, nice-looking flats along a southern section of Paul Street where many of its courts would have been. These are no doubt well-appointed, gated, and convenient for those working in city centre offices. I wonder if the present residents have any idea of the tumultuous history they are sitting on.

Hugh Shimmin’s Liverpool

The action in my latest novel has moved to Liverpool and features an expedition to some of the lowest quarters of the city’s North End in 1864. My research for this has sent me back to reading the little-known journalism of Hugh Shimmin.

Writing in the 1850s and 1860s, often in his own publication the Porcupine, Shimmin invokes a desperate Liverpudlian landscape of squalid and overcrowded living, causal labour, acute poverty, hopeless drink dependency, savage bare-knuckle and dog-fights, and riotous disorder. His sketches are peopled by feckless parents, for whom the consolations of drink take priority over the care of their children, acquisitive publicans, compulsive gamblers, canting clergymen, and inert and indifferent public authorities. Several of his pieces describe scenes of domestic life on a Saturday night, where the husband has his meagre wage in his pocket and he and his wife (or perhaps himself alone) go forth from their hovel to squander their family’s subsistence on getting incapably drunk. In one account Shimmin tells of how often babies were smothered at night as a result of being overlain in bed by their drunken parents, and of how often such tragedies were knowingly recorded by coroners as “accidental”.  The Porcupine was well-named, as Shimmin spared no one in his zeal to prick the pomposity of those persons in authority he identified as being responsible for the persistence of intolerable conditions in the city.

Such campaigning was highly praiseworthy and Shimmin is regarded by historians as having exerted a beneficial influence, particularly in his agitations for public health reform. There is however a prudish, and perhaps prurient, side to his jottings. Shimmin emerges as a harsh moral judge of other peoples’ behaviour, and he is as hard on the vices of the underclass he chronicles as he is on the negligence of the city fathers. Sometimes he can simply come across as a sanctimonious killjoy, looking down on the innocent pleasures of others, as he does when he writes about a day at the Aintree races. And one wonders, as one does with that much more famous social recorder of his times, Henry Mayhew, about his role as an observer. He seems to take an uncommon interest in low places and pastimes. He clearly sits through whole sessions at, say, a “free-and-easy” entertainment in a pub, or a prize fight in its upstairs room without “making his excuses” in classic News of the World fashion. His prosperous attire would certainly have marked him out for attention, but he never tells us anything about his own participation in such events. I cannot help suspecting that he was, at least to some degree, enjoying himself.

Most of the appalling slums in the North End that Shimmin decried were gone before the Second World War, and good riddance to them. I am not alone, however, in charging the city fathers of the post-war period with excessive zealotry in their urban cleansing. In the interests of social engineering, and the avaricious petroleum carriage, very little of the pre-war North End remains standing. From Vauxhall Road, all the way across Scotland Road and Great Homer Street (which are in effect urban motorways now), and up to Everton Brow, there is almost nothing to indicate that this was once one of the most populous and characterful urban areas in the country, and one that was known all around the world as a result of its proximity to the docks. One must guard against romanticising terraced housing, but surely a good proportion of the stock built in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was worth saving? My own grandmother spent her childhood in a now long-demolished terraced house off West Derby Road in the 1890s and 1900s. I cannot help contrasting the warm community life of those times, which she sometimes talked to me about, with the desolate 1960s council estate on the city’s outskirts in which she ended her days, harried to her demise by burglars grubbing for drug money. What would Hugh Shimmin have made of that?