One of the most important aspects of this blog has been to give voice to the experience and views of council estate residents, so often ignored, too often maligned. I’m pleased to feature today a post from Tom – in response to posts on Speke on the blog in April and May this year – who describes his own experience of growing up on the Estate and his views on the mistakes that were made in its planning and design.
Thank you Municipal Dreams for remembering the Liverpool suburb of Speke: a forgotten part of a forgotten city.
I was born in 1951 in, now demolished, Mill Road Maternity Hospital, Liverpool. My parents lived in the Dingle, a wartime bomb-damaged part of Liverpool 8, in a one-room bedsit with an outside toilet. They registered for a new city corporation rental house. For two and a half years my mother attended council surgeries for an update on the request. In 1954 we were allocated a two-bedroom house in Speke, on the city’s southern limit.
Properties in Speke were several orders of magnitude better than accommodation most of its residents had lived in previously. Houses were well built, brick throughout, and had front and back gardens. There were indoor toilets and plumbing for hot and cold water. If you wanted hot water however, you had to light the coal fire an hour before: electric immersion heaters were some time off yet.
Growing up as a child in Speke was idyllic. We lived on the northern perimeter road opposite a farm. Childhood was exploring woodland and playing ‘hide and seek’ in wheat fields. South of Speke was more farmland, more woods and the River Mersey, three miles wide at that point. The river was too polluted to swim in, but it had a sandy shoreline and off in the distance up river, an afternoon’s walk away, Hale lighthouse. What more could a child ask for?
Speke Town predates the City of Liverpool, and had been fertile farmland for centuries. The genesis of Speke as a Council Housing Estate dates from the 1930s when Liverpool City Planners became enamoured with the ‘Garden City’ concept as a solution to the problems of a post Industrial Revolution inner city full of overcrowded slums. Plans were made for a ‘self-contained satellite town’.
The desperate need for new housing was exacerbated by Second World War bomb damage and further hastened by the post war ‘baby boom’ population explosion. In the space of a few years (c.1938-1953), Speke mushroomed from a pre-war census of ‘400 souls’ to 25,000 people. In the process, any vestige of old Speke, or its farming history, was bulldozed off the map. Speke Town was buried under the intersection of the newly constructed Speke Boulevard and Speke Hall Avenue.
Close scrutiny of the 1952 photograph, Dunlop’s factory in an earlier post, reveals that large chunks of Speke had still to be built, specifically the central shopping area known as the Parade. From memory, I was nine or ten years old before there were any central shops to go to. There were vans driving around Speke selling groceries, a practice that lasted until the mid 1970s. I have a cine film record.
This ‘Garden City’ idealism never progressed beyond the drawing board. Houses were built and then the building stopped: schools, shops, churches and community centres, all took up to a decade to build. The promise of a ‘self-contained’ Speke went unfulfilled.
The ‘Garden City’ idealism also contained an ill-founded assumption that city people would prefer to live in the country and could be transposed en masse. The ‘self-contained satellite town’ of Speke degenerated into isolated, urban, frontier country, still within the city limits, but a bus ride away from its nearest residential city neighbour.
This ‘open play area’ (above) had been left fallow since the day the flats were built, twenty years previous. Within another twenty years, all the blocks of flats would be gone.
Tenement blocks surrounding open play areas besotted Lancelot Keay, Liverpool City Council Chief Architect responsible for Speke, and a knighthood for his efforts. Watch Sir Lancelot make his case: Liverpool Tenements of the 1930s.
Lancelot Keay was a nineteenth century dinosaur trying to solve a twentieth century problem. Speke residents didn’t share his enthusiasm for living in tenement blocks. By the 1980s, just thirty odd years after they were built, low-rise blocks of flats in Speke lay abandoned and derelict awaiting demolition. Structurally they would have been good for a hundred years, but within less than two generations they were considered not fit for purpose. People didn’t want to live in them. People wanted to live in houses.
All the low-rise blocks of flats in Stapleton Avenue and Ganworth Road (photo above), East Mains, West Mains, Millwood Road, Alderwood Avenue, Central Avenue, Central Way and Conleach Road were demolished and replaced by houses with gardens. Testament that ‘tenement blocks surrounding open play areas’ was a failure.
In the mid ’70s I made a cine film record of Speke. It was an Art School rant intended to show the estate in a less than favourable light: not a difficult task. The irony is that it has become historically significant, as less than half of what was filmed still exists.
Above is a street view of Ganworth Road with Speke’s signature three storey blocks of flats either side. It may look odd, from a 2017 perspective, to see two children and a toddler wandering around unaccompanied, but it was nothing out of the ordinary in the 1960s and 1970s. The legacy of living in flats was that children had no back gardens to play in, and resorted to playing in the streets.
This concrete eyesore, above, is a 1960s’ interpretation of a children’s play area. By 1974 it was condemned by the National Playing Fields Association as grotesquely dangerous and only fit for demolition. The low-rise blocks of flats behind (West Mains) would soon join it awaiting demolition.
The 1950s and 1960s presented a paradox for Liverpool. The ring of housing estates that surrounded the city, of which Speke was but one, were overflowing with children, yet the population of Liverpool had been in steady decline since the 1930s, and continued to decline for the rest of the century. The inner city was being rehoused further and further afield, outside of the city. The population of Liverpool went from a 1931 peak of 855,688 to a 2001 census of 439,473. (2)
The ‘baby boom’ years were followed by a shift to smaller families. This left a problem for Speke: what to do with all the three storey ‘large family’ houses, of which there were many. After abandonment, these were reduced to two storeys.
The section of Speke in the aerial shot (below) was built in the 1950s, but I doubt if anyone younger than forty can remember it as such. Half of what you see is no more. The white roofed rectangular buildings, centre, was All Hallows Secondary School, boys and girls, now All Hallows Drive houses. The school was demolished, not enough students.
The open space two blocks above the school was Speke Park, now Morrison’s shopping precinct. The retail hub of Speke shifted from the centre to its edge to access Speke Boulevard, top right diagonal. Fords [Jaguar/Land Rover] off picture, right.
To the left of Speke Park is the ‘open play area’ behind the flats, in the top photograph. The main road in the picture, top to bottom, is Stapleton Avenue / Alder Wood Avenue which runs east-west. Just visible at bottom right of the picture is Eastern Avenue. Check Google Maps and see what little remains.
For ‘Beatles’ cognoscenti, the street second from the bottom, on the left, is Ardwick Road, the McCartneys’ second residence in Speke (1950-1955). Half way up on the left is Upton Green, surrounded by three storey blocks of flats, and home to the Harrisons (1950-1962).
On 20th December, 1958, on the occasion of George’s brother Harry’s wedding reception, 25 Upton Green, Speke, was the venue of a pre-Beatles Quarrymen performance with John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison – drummer, if any, not known. (2)
George Harrison and Paul McCartney spent most of their formative years in the Liverpool suburb of Speke (George 12 years, Paul 9 years), but you have to look hard in the plethora of biographies to find any mention of their early childhood in Speke. Phoney Beatle mania has produced two ‘Caverns’ in Mathew Street, but ‘Beatles’ tour buses don’t go anywhere near Speke.
In the early 1960s, the Ford Motor Company car plant [now Jaguar/Land Rover] replaced the farm on the northern side of Speke. Speke Boulevard, forever known to my generation as ‘Ford’s Road’, was extended to run between the car factory and the estate, for the full length of Speke and beyond. To compound Speke’s isolation, this arterial road prohibited pedestrians for five miles or so, all the way to Widnes.
One of the consequences of this pedestrian prohibited road was that it separated the factory from the workers arriving by bus at the Eastern Avenue bus terminus. There was an underpass 200 yards away, but for whatever reason, people insisted on making their way through the fence to cross the road. This conflict persisted for thirty odd years until the terminus relocated to Morrison’s at the new shopping precinct. Progressively stronger fences were built with ever more ingenious ways found to get through them. It would have been cheaper to build a footbridge. I viewed this perennial conflict as individual protest against imposed isolation.
When I visit Speke, the difference I find most striking between now and even up to the 1980s, is not the missing or changed dwellings, but the amount of trees there are. Driving along Speke Boulevard is like driving through woodland. Trees now obscure all the sight lines of my childhood memories. Belatedly, the city has made amends for wiping a thousand years of history off the face of the earth in Speke’s construction. I cannot see, or remember there being, a single mature tree in the 1963 aerial photograph of Speke.
The 1960s’ Speke of my teenage years was a depressingly bleak, isolated, rectangular Gulag, devoid of any sense of history or community, built to house factory fodder. By the time I was sixteen, my life’s objective was to get out of Speke. Three years later I went away to Art School, never to return. I did visit, but never lived. My Mother, give her a medal, is still there: Speke resident for 63 years and counting. (RIP Father, 2010).
Speke as a Housing Estate did have two redeeming features:
- All the properties were solidly built with brick throughout.
- The estate was built before the advent of the ubiquitous high-rise tower blocks that blighted other estates.
The failings however were legion, chief among them was that it didn’t comply with the house buyers’ mantra of ‘location, location, location’: Speke Estate was built in the wrong place. Its isolation was, and remains, its handicap.
If there are Town Planners out there who still adhere to ‘self-contained satellite town’ thinking, I will happily maroon them on the eastern edge of Speke, without a car, to experience what isolation feels like.
Speke’s contribution to town planning dogma is a nail in the coffin of the ‘Garden City’ concept. Speke was designed as a solution to a problem, but resulted in generating its own problems. Speke planners may not have anticipated the changing shift in family sizes, but they are guilty of not ensuring that Speke would become a solution.
Speke could never develop as a community because Speke was never self-contained. If you wanted to do anything, you had to find somewhere else that catered for your interest.
The founding vision of Speke as a township ‘planned to accommodate all classes of the community’ was as delusional as its ‘self-contained’ status. Speke, and all the other post war housing estates around Liverpool, were not communities, they were overspill.
In the absence of any community identity, people from Speke, and all the other Liverpool estates, were perceived differently. In a time of full employment, people living on estates were not accorded the ‘working class’ designation, but were thought of in the then unused demographic of ‘underclass’. Like the estates themselves geographically, people from the estates were regarded as ‘peripheral’, not part of the mainstream. You came from ‘an estate’. It didn’t matter which one, we were all tarnished with the same brush. I lived all my teenage years with this, and left at the first opportunity.
My parents tried for years to get out of Speke, but eventually resigned to staying when they were able to buy their house. My siblings left Speke, and Liverpool. I took it a stage further and emigrated.
I still talk ‘Scouse’. My accent was set in concrete by the age of six, and I have yet to find an alternative that I would want to emulate. I still follow Liverpool FC from a distance, but I could never live there again. Morrison’s precinct in Speke, and the Liverpool ONE complex, are commendable and possible turning point improvements. The irreconcilable is remembering the fifty years it took to get to there.
The Orient is the last remaining pub in Speke, and worth a visit if just to see a bar dedicated to both Liverpool and Everton football clubs. It is difficult to say how much longer The Orient can last. For decades, supermarkets in Britain, Morrison’s included, have been underpricing pubs out of existence.
Speke Estate is suffering the malaise experienced by small towns after a bypass is built. The fulcrum relocates: people leave, schools close, pubs shut, churches downsize. Speke in the 21st century has half the population it had in the 1950s. St. Christopher’s Church (capacity 1,000) has the distinction of being built and demolished in a single lifetime. Schools are torn down as the numbers of children plummet. I had intended to show my film and photographs to the students at Parkland’s School, but it closed, only twelve years after it opened. Depending on whom you ask, it was either falling intake or falling standards. Either way, Speke no longer has a secondary school.
Speke’s fate was sealed on the drawing board: it was designed to have a bypass. No one ever goes through Speke: making a brief detour off Speke Boulevard to shop in Morrison’s doesn’t count. The problem was there from its inception. Speke, as the city planners envisioned it, never should have been built.
(2) Gratitude to the Quarrymen website for information.