This post is a little different – a little more personal, a little more wide-ranging…but then that’s what Liverpool can do to you. It’s my wife’s home town (she’s asked me to point out that it’s actually a city with, as they’ll tell you, a cathedral to spare) and a long weekend last month was an opportunity to meet old friends (and new ones), to enjoy the city’s amazing architecture and setting and, of course, in my case, to explore its unique housing history and a few other municipal dreams.
On Saturday morning, we were lucky enough to be given a guided walk through north Liverpool by someone who probably knows the past and present of Liverpool’s housing as well as anyone. Ronnie Hughes writes the fine A Sense of Place blog and he took us from Anfield to Everton Park to…well, we’ll save the best for later.
Ronnie’s blog post on the walk tells the story better than I can, with a lot more images, so I’ll be selective here. From Anfield and the new stand – and the blight it has inflicted on the nearby terraces for years – through streets of sturdy Victorian housing and mostly generic new build (and some striving too hard for effect), we came to Everton Library on St Domingo Road.
Designed in 1896 by Thomas Shelmerdine, Liverpool Corporation’s Architect and Surveyor, a visually stunning red brick confection of Arts and Crafts and Jacobean, it looks beleaguered now and unloved. It’s Grade II listed and various plans have been floated and grants promised but, as yet, it’s awaiting rescue and a new role. For the moment, let’s take it as a monument to a time when libraries and their cultural purpose were truly valued.
Down the road and across, we reached Everton Park – a new park created in the 1980s on the dust and debris of housing dreams gone (or thought to have gone) awry. Now it gives you one of the best views of Liverpool city centre you’ll find; once it housed many of its people.
You’ll need to look closely to see that history now but sometimes a single image can tell a big story.
At the back here, you’ll see two tower blocks called View 146 of privately-owned apartments (we’d call them flats elsewhere, of course, but these are private). Once they were known as Brynford Heights and Millburn Heights, council blocks built in the sixties. Then Liverpool, the flats even more so, fell on hard times and the flats were sold in the 1980s to a private company which promptly did a deal with the Home Office to rehouse ayslum seekers. A hunger strike protesting against the appalling condition of the flats forced their closure and their revamp. (1)
There are circumstances which we as a community don’t control – though there are many we shouldn’t be persuaded to think ‘natural’ or ‘inevitable’ – but just think how thoughtfully-applied public investment might have supported not victimised the diverse people who lived in these blocks.
Look at the picture again and you’ll see a small paved square, centre-left. This was The Braddocks (named after the formidable wife and husband team, Bessie and Jack, who dominated Liverpool politics in the post-war period) – another block of council housing. Down Netherfield Road, you come across another remnant – the entrance to what was formerly Netherfield Heights, a large slab block of council flats.
All these were demolished in the 1980s – tumultuous times for a city gripped by economic decline and political turmoil and when broader currents decided that high-rise council housing had failed. In Liverpool, where the population had fallen from a peak of 846,000 in the 1930s to 500,000 in the 1980s (it’s now around 466,000), the case for mass council housing had come to seem even harder to make. Here’s Netherfield Heights (on the left) as they were in the 1980s in a photograph by Dave Sinclair. (2)
The three ages of Everton – nineteenth-century, 1960s and contemporary are well illustrated in the model of the district in the Museum of Liverpool- from Victorian terraces to 1960s’ clearance and high-rise to the contemporary, very altered, streetscape and green (and not so green) space.
The right-hand image shows the impact of the massive house-building programme of the Militant-controlled council in the 1980s – a huge achievement in many ways as Thatcherism sounded council housing’s death knell elsewhere though not to everybody’s taste.
Here’s an example – Mazzini Close, just off Roscommon Street. It’s trim and neat suburban-style housing and people got – what many wanted – their own front door and front and back gardens. To critics such as Owen Hatherley – an advocate of the confident urbanism which Liverpool had practised in the 1930s – they just look ‘utterly wrong’, an undignified imitation of suburbia in a city centre setting. (3)
From here, a few more steps and we came to, for me, the Holy Grail of this particular walk, Eldon Grove: the finest council housing built by the Corporation of Liverpool before 1914 and still – though desperately neglected and sadly derelict – a powerful, masterly presence.
Here’s how it looked in the original architect’s drawings (you can find this one in the library of Harvard University) and below in its heyday as a home – complete with gardens and bandstand – for some of the poorest of Liverpool.
It’s Grade II listed but in an age when we know the cost of everything and the value of nothing its rescue depends on being made to pay. Ronnie has charted the recent plans to save it which, for the time being, seem have fallen through. It must be saved – to me it’s as valuable a piece of heritage as Buckingham Palace but the real beauty of Eldon Grove, of course, is that it can still serve its original purpose as housing for the people.
Ironically, immediately adjacent, are terraces of sturdy council housing in Bevington Street and Summer Seat doing just that. The gable ends of Summer Seat, inscribed 1911, show they were built at about the same time as Eldon Grove.
We walked on past the entrance to the Kingsway Tunnel – the second Mersey Tunnel, opened in 1971 – and through streets familiar to me by name as the site of yet more pre-First World War Corporation housing. The tunnel itself marked the final nail in the coffin of another of Liverpool’s grandest early schemes, the Victoria Square Dwellings – a five-storey quadrangle of some 270 flats – opened in 1885.
The first image shows them, as planned in 1885. That immediately above shows the remnant of the scheme, when just two blocks remained, in 1966.
For all that grandeur, the bulk of Liverpool’s council housing before 1914 comprised modest two-storey terraced housing and three-storey tenements. Liverpool had built the first council housing in the country in the country – St Martin’s Cottages, not far away in Ashfield Street – in 1869. (They were demolished in 1977.) By 1914, it had built 2747 flats and houses, a record of council house-building unequaled outside London. The Hornby Street scheme, for example, was made up of 23 blocks of 445 dwellings, accommodating 2476 in all. You can read all about this proud record in greater detail in my earlier post on Liverpool’s pioneering council housing.
Similar housing was built around the turn of the century in Arley Street, Gildarts Gardens, Dryden, Kempston, Fontenoy, Kew, Newsham and Adlington Streets. Now most of that housing and some of those streets have gone. What you see instead are Militant-era streets and closes of two-storey houses, ‘even bungalows for God’s sake’, to Owen Hatherley’s chagrin.
By now we were close to the centre and a quick walk took us to the Municipal Buildings in Dale Street, designed by John Weightman and ER Robson, completed in 1866, and the parting of our ways. My thanks to Ronnie who had been a great guide and mentor on the rich history you’ve just seen.
Down the road lies the Town Hall, built between 1749 and 1754 to a design by John Wood the Elder – the political and ceremonial headquarters of the Corporation, Grade 1 listed and described by Pevsner as ‘probably the grandest such suite of civic rooms in the country…a powerful demonstration of the wealth of Liverpool at the opening of the C19’. (4)
That wealth, amidst massive poverty, would endure for some time and it was those extremes which both enabled and compelled – alongside more self-serving motives, no doubt – the Tory administration which governed Liverpool to 1955 to build housing at such scale and such ambition. Labour, right and left, Liberal and Liberal Democrat councils have run Liverpool since but each has continued to grapple with the central issue of housing and each has reflected the circumstances and the fashions of their time.
(1) ‘Sold for 10p, the tower block where a flat fetches £250,000’, Liverpool Echo, 15 January 2004
(2) Dave Sinclair was a photographer for Militant at this time. You’ll find this and many other powerful images of this phase of Liverpool history in his volume Liverpool in the 1980s (Amberley Publishing, 2014). Ronnie’s post of the same name has more images from the time.
(3) Owen Hatherley, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (2010), p336
(4) Richard Pollard, Nikolaus Pevsner, Joseph Sharples, Lancashire: Liverpool and the Southwest (2006), p291