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?