Liverpool

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.

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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).

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“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:

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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).

Liverpool’s Own St Paul’s

One of the most prominent and distinctive buildings on nineteenth century Liverpool’s skyline would have been the beautiful, but now long demolished, St Paul’s church. I have a personal connection to its former site, which I shall explain.

John Raphael Isaac’s bird’s eye view of Liverpool in 1859 depicts St Paul’s standing tall above the neighbouring Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway station (Exchange), and the church’s dome and surmounting ball and cross would have been visible from ships out on the river. It was a smaller version of St Paul’s in London and was built in the mid-eighteenth century on that cathedral’s model, though it was oddly compacted into more of a square (somewhat like a Byzantine cathedral) rather than the cruciform layout of the original. It sat in the middle of St Paul’s Square, which was a prosperous and fashionable area on the fringe of countryside in the mid-eighteenth century, surrounded by stately Georgian terraces. There was the Ladies Walk nearby, where one could stroll beneath a pleasant bower of trees and gaze out over the river.

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St. Paul’s from sepia wash drawing by Brierley, 1830

But the prosperous and fashionable soon fled as the explosive growth of industrial Liverpool drastically altered the area’s character. The docks advanced north along its shoreline, bringing warehouses and factories and slums and all the vices of “sailor-town”. The Georgian terraces of St Paul’s Square descended  into multi-occupancy, and soon-to-be densely populated courts were erected behind them. The east side of the square was demolished to clear space for building Exchange station, bringing with it noise and smoke. Poor St Paul’s steadily became a church without a congregation as the nineteenth century progressed, many of the incomers being chapel folk or the irreligious. It was closed in 1901 and lay derelict until 1931 when it was, lamentably, torn down.

My own association with the place, although I didn’t know its history then, came sometime in the early nineteen-seventies when I was in my mid-teenage years. Liverpool Boxing Stadium, built on the site of St Paul’s church in the middle of the square, was opened in 1932, and by the seventies it was supplementing its usual pugilistic fare by staging rock concerts. An earlier, long-haired version of myself went to see Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come there (yes, the “God of Hellfire” himself) and of all the concerts I have seen down the years it remains one of the most memorable to me. Performing on a tiny stage in the middle where the ring usually was, with one half of the hall cordoned off, Brown and his sidemen delivered a highly theatrical prog-rock set. I seem to remember him being in a wooden boat on wooden waves at one point, and at another him climbing into a giant syringe which was then depressed so as to trap him within it. The visuals came from coloured slides being loaded into a projector right next to my seat. Some of these details may well be incorrect (it was 40 years ago), but that’s how I remember it.

These and the more pugilistic entertainments (neither of them to everyone’s taste) were swept away in the mid-eighties when the stadium was demolished in its turn, and the site was left empty for a quarter of a century or so. More recently a great big modern office complex has been built there. Although the structure has a St Paul’s Square address, it overshadows everything around it so it’s hard to picture that this was once a residential square with an attractive church at its centre. Arthur Brown is still going strong though. I have seen him twice since, at roughly twenty year intervals, most recently at the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds when he was on fine form and had an excellent youthful band with him. I hope to see him again in another twenty years. And St Paul’s church, with its surrounding square, lives on in my imagination at least, where it features as a setting in my current fiction writing.

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?

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