I’m pleased to feature another guest post from Tom, a past resident of Speke. It’s a follow-up to his earlier article, Growing up on the Speke Estate, Liverpool: a personal perspective, which, with almost 13,000 views, has been one of the most read and, in some ways, most controversial of the posts featured in this blog. The article reflects a personal experience and interpretation but seems to me an important contribution to our understanding of one of the country’s most significant ‘peripheral estates’.
In August 2017, I submitted a posting to Municipal Dreams in response to two MD articles on the Liverpool suburb of Speke in April and May 2017.
As stated in the introduction to my posting, it was a personal perspective on my time spent growing up in Speke, from 1954 (aged 2) to 1974, giving my views on the Speke estate and what I perceived as its shortcomings. I spoke for myself alone but to judge from the volume of comments, I had resonated, not to say touched a nerve, with many current and former residents. My thanks to all who contributed.
Some agreed with my bleak analysis, but several comments took a contrary view. An increasing number of people had fond memories of Speke and disagreed with my findings. I found it no coincidence that most of those who had fond memories of Speke had lived in the more established, pre-war built part of the estate.
The photograph above shows the first section of the estate to be built, pre-1939. Centre left are The Crescent shops, now the site of Bargain Booze. The rough land to the right is the site of the demolished, post-war ‘pre-fabs’ (temporary, wooden, pre-fabricated housing), now the site of the Dymchurch Estate.
Confusingly for a pre-estate hamlet of only ‘400 souls’, old Speke was in two locations. One part was on the site of The Crescent shops, with Speke Town proper a short way to the west, under what is now the junction of Speke Hall Avenue and Speke Boulevard, approximately Dobbies’ car park. (1)
The aerial photograph above shows the part of Speke of my teenage years in the 1960s. By the 1990s, half of what you see would no longer exist. The schools would be demolished, along with all the low-rise flats, centre left. The new Morrisons shopping precinct would replace the park and flats, top left. The road between the estate and the factory, Speke Boulevard (still referred to as Ford’s Road), eventually would be hidden behind a forest of planted bushes and trees.
The sprawling car factory of Fords (now Jaguar/Land Rover) replaced the 1950s’ farmland of my childhood years. It was in my teenage years that I found reasons to leave Speke and couldn’t wait to move out. It wasn’t the absence of childhood memories but the restricting isolation: anything I wanted to do was a bus ride away.
Perceptions differ, and I realise that some people may not have felt so isolated. My intention, then and now, is not to persuade people one way or the other but to confront what I perceived as problems in Speke’s construction: namely, Speke as a post-Second World War answer to a pre-Second World War problem.
The story of the Speke estate cannot be written without reference to the 1939-1945, Second World War: Speke’s design and planning was pre-war but its main construction was post-war. This had consequences.
Speke as a housing estate was planned and designed in the 1930s, but the full story of its origin dates back to Liverpool’s housing problems of the 1800s, if not earlier.
Figure 1. Liverpool District Total Population (2)
This one graph illustrates Liverpool’s population totals more eloquently than any page of statistics. In the century 1800 to 1900, Liverpool experienced a precipitous, seven-fold population increase, culminating in a 1930s’ peak of over 850,000 inhabitants, followed by an equally precipitous population decline to the year 2000.
The nineteenth-century growth in Liverpool was double the national average for England and Wales. The total population for England and Wales in 1801 was 8.87 million. The 1901 census gave a population of 32,526,075: approximately a three and a half-fold increase.
Liverpool’s population growth was attributable to three main factors: the Industrial Revolution, its expansion as a port to cater for the Lancashire cotton industry, and the influx of the Irish. These factors may not be exclusive but the total population figures speak for themselves.
In a post-Irish potato famine, twenty-year period from 1860 to 1880, there was a rapid population increase of 250,000 on an existing total of 400,000: an increase that inevitably would have led to severe overcrowding. This was followed in the 1890s by another thirty-year growth spurt of nearly 200,000, taking Liverpool to its peak 1931 population total of 855,688. (3)
the Irish population of Liverpool, always large, was enormously increased by the inrush of immigrants after the Potato Famine of 1845–9; over 90,000 entered the town in the first three months of 1846, and nearly 300,000 in the twelve months following July 1847. Most of these subsequently emigrated to America, but many thousands, unable to find the passage money, remained to swell the misery of Liverpool slums.
By the 1930s, Liverpool’s housing planners were confronting the inevitable: the city population was approaching, if not already at, critical density. (4)
Behold the ‘Garden City Movement’; Sir Ebenezer Howard’s answer to overcrowded, city-centre slums. Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928), published a book in 1898, To-morrow: A Peaceful Path To Reform, reprinted in 1902 as Garden Cities of To-morrow, in which he detailed his philosophy for healthy urban living. (5)
Ebenezer Howard had no training in town planning, nor did he claim to have. His vision for urban living owed more to his Victorian sense of civic duty and the concept of philanthropic housing. The central tenet of Howard’s thinking was that city people would prefer to live surrounded by countryside and that purpose-built, self-contained satellite towns would fulfil the needs of both city and country. This ideology was influential for generations and produced Letchworth and Welwyn Garden Cities among others.
In 1930s’ Liverpool, the Garden City Movement found an advocate in Lancelot Keay, Liverpool Director of Housing and a knighthood for his efforts. A new development was planned for Speke, as a ‘satellite town’, ‘when complete’, for ‘22,000 people’. Old Speke, a farming community for a thousand years, would be erased from history. (6)
Figure 2. To-morrow: A Peaceful Path To Reform (1898) – Ebenezer Howard
‘Group of Slumless, Smokeless Cities’ is a collection of circles on a hexagonal frame depicting a ‘central city’, with a proposed population of 58,000, surrounded by six smaller circles, two of which are for lesser populations of 32,000 each. The other circles are for ‘allotments’ and unspecified, potential population centres.
Six sections of land, or ‘wards’, between the inner and outer circles, are designated as follows; ‘New Forests, Large Farms, Reservoir and Waterfall, Insane Asylum, Home for Inebriates, and Home for Waifs’. Make of that what you will.
The six smaller circles in the Howard plan were the solutions to Sir Ebenezer’s aversion to sprawling suburban metropolises. Howard reasoned that once a city had reached a given capacity, then any increase should be accommodated in self-contained satellite towns; that is, the smaller circles surrounding the larger central circle but set within their own countryside.
The origin of the Speke estate was as one such ‘self-contained satellite town’.
This September 1936 drawing authorised by Keay is the first in a series of plans, culminating in Speke’s eventual development. Speke ‘Scheme No 1’ displays all the hallmarks of a Howard ‘satellite town’. It’s not quite circular but satellite towns were never intended to be circular, that was only diagrammatic.
Speke ‘Scheme No 1’ exhibits the requisite, satellite town elements of a 50-yards wide perimeter dual carriageway with designated bus stops, and a 100-yards-wide central main boulevard with grass median. The interior is a gridiron of repeated rectangular blocks. The flat terrain of South Liverpool complemented the Howard ideal: no undue changes in elevation to interfere with the planned uniformity.
At the left of the central boulevard by the upside down ‘y’, is the pre-existing Church of All Saints, built in 1872-5. Despite its age and link to old Speke, the church was deemed, ‘not of such importance as to be made the focal point of the new development’, and subsequent plans were amended so that the church was relegated to Speke’s edge.
This ‘preliminary layout’ above, dated March 1937, six months after the September 1936 ‘Scheme No 1’ plan, veers away from the circular design and begins to approximate the finished layout of the estate. The original perimeter road has morphed into a ‘New Arterial Road’ (now known as Speke Boulevard), taking traffic away from Liverpool, on the left, to Widnes, right.
The left and middle circles on the New Arterial Road represent roundabout junctions with Speke Hall Avenue and Western Avenue respectively and locate approximately with the top two roundabouts on the September 1936 plan. The roundabouts have long gone but the junctions still exist.
The third right-hand circle on the New Arterial Road was intended as a roundabout junction with Eastern Avenue but this never materialised. Top of the page, crossing the map from east to west, is a railway line that curves up at the left-hand edge as it heads off north to Liverpool centre, seven miles away. North of the Western Avenue roundabout, a road crosses the railway line at Speke Station, a station that had closed only in 1930 and easily could have been reopened. (7)
Another preliminary layout, also from March 1937, shows the estate extending eastwards: over a mile long, and half a mile wide. From the two March 1937 plans, there are a number of features redolent of Garden City thinking which would not make it to the final August 1937 layout. The huge interior roundabouts, in Western and Eastern Avenues, joined by the equally wide Central Avenue/Central Way, would be replaced by more modest, utilitarian affairs.
This August 1937 layout, less than a year after the ‘Garden City’ inspired original plan, is a good approximation to the size and shape of the post-war, 1950s estate. The Western, Eastern and Central Avenues, so dominant on earlier plans, are now reduced to much more moderate scales. The New Arterial Road (Speke Boulevard) only made it as far as the middle circle, Western Avenue, and would not extend eastwards until the Fords car factory was built in the early 1960s. The Eastern Avenue connection was never built.
The pre-Second World War section of the estate, the Western Avenue end, adhered to some of the pre-estate road system and incorporated what it could of old Speke. Post-war sections of central and eastern Speke weren’t concerned with such details: not one tree or hedgerow line remained to link the estate to old Speke’s thousand-year farming history.
The original gridiron format dominates the central section with only the far eastern end showing any deviation from rectangular sub-divisions. The large circular road system in the centre of the plan would be redesigned to form an east-west rectangle incorporating The Parade, the main shopping precinct (demolished in the early 1990s).
Below this circular system, a road runs south from the estate to a promenade on the River Mersey. This shoreline extravaganza, a grand example of pre-war Garden City idealism, didn’t make it to post-war austerity.
In 1950s’ Britain, the schoolboy mantra was that ‘England had won the war’. Germany was indeed defeated but that defeat came at a cost, and that cost was America’s involvement. The price of America’s involvement was ‘Lend Lease’, a programme in which Britain was obliged to sell off its overseas assets. At war’s end, Britain no longer had an income to rely on. ‘England’ had ‘won’ the war, but Britain was bankrupt. (8)
On the post-war Speke estate, houses were built, but everything else was on hold; schools, shops, churches, libraries, civic buildings, factories, community centres, etc.
This magnificent 1946 aerial perspective drawing by JL Berbiers shows the estate as it soon would become in the 1950s. Drawn one year after the war, it is noticeable for its post-war pragmatism of (imagined) factories on the outskirts versus pre-war optimism of (absent) ludicrously wide boulevards in the interior.
The New Arterial Road/Speke Boulevard can be made out just north of the estate (above), along with two roundabout junctions. The right hand, Eastern Avenue junction was never built, leaving the left Western Avenue junction as the main entry and exit point, connecting the whole estate to Liverpool City centre and beyond.
Centre frame in the image above is the pre-1946 constructed Western Avenue/Speke Boulevard roundabout, with Western Avenue running to the left (south) and Speke Boulevard, a single carriageway at this time, running to the top left (west). The road running to the top right (north) is Woodend Avenue which crosses the railway line at Speke station, half a mile from the estate.
From the outset, this one junction would be the main entry and exit point for the whole estate which had a peak population of 26,000. (9) The relocated Liverpool Airport in the 1980s took traffic westwards to the Speke Hall Avenue roundabout, just visible top left. The new shopping precinct in the 1990s gave Speke an extra access point east of Western Avenue but all the traffic from Speke converged on Speke Boulevard, the main arterial route from Liverpool to points south and east.
In Figure 2 above, Ebenezer Howard’s inclusion of Inter-Municipal Canals and Railways was quaint 19th century utopianism but from his plans, and writings it is clear that Howard understood one aspect of urban living: transport links.
In his compulsive manner, Howard detailed distances and times travelled by various means of transport. He understood that satellite towns had to be interconnected with each other and the main central city. ‘Satellite’ did not equate with isolated.
In the August 1937 preliminary, but eventual, layout of Speke (above), Keay approved the plan that resulted in Speke having only one main exit and entry point at Western Avenue/Speke Boulevard.
The photograph above shows Speke Boulevard looking west as an original single lane, viewed from the Western Avenue roundabout: Speke estate left, Evans Medical Ltd, right.
Speke Boulevard initially stopped at the Western Avenue roundabout, and wouldn’t continue eastwards until the Ford Motor car plant was built in the early 1960s: the Eastern Avenue junction was never built. Additionally, the estate, on average, is over a mile away from Speke railway station, a station that had closed only recently but would have connected Speke with Liverpool City centre. Speke’s infrastructure was lacking from the day the estate was built.
In the half-century between the 1902 reprint of Ebenezer Howard’s book and the 1950s’ construction of the Speke estate, Britain had endured two world wars and the Great Depression of the 1920s/30s.
Expectations had moved on from such adversities but the blueprint for the creation of the post-WW2 Speke estate was a remnant of nineteenth-century utopianism. Lancelot Keay had failed to adapt his housing policy to the changing anticipations of a post-war world. Keay was assumptive in thinking that nineteenth-century idealism would transpose into the twentieth century. The Speke of Keay’s approval was not a ‘self-contained satellite town’ in the countryside: it was an isolated council housing estate set in farmland.
The ‘self-contained’ requirements of employment and leisure were slow to appear, if at all. Many thousands of people needed to work and socialise on an estate that barely catered for either. Initially there weren’t even any public houses in Speke: Liverpool Corporation excluded them from the estate. Breweries had to build their pubs on the outside of the perimeter road, namely The Fox, The Pegasus and The Dove & Olive Branch. The Pegasus and The Dove & Olive Branch have since been demolished.
The cottage industries that Howard contemplated in his 1902 plans were insufficient for twentieth-century needs. An uprooted labour force, transposed from the city centre to a satellite estate with poor transport links, needed a large workforce employer in close proximity. Speke would have to wait until 1963 for the Ford Motor car plant to be built: the new factory simultaneously eradicating a quarter of the surrounding ‘countryside’.
In that same year, 1963, Harold Wilson (Prime Minister 1964-1970) gave his ‘white heat of technology’ speech, in which he warned that to prosper, a ‘new Britain’ would need to be forged in the ‘white heat’ of scientific revolution. (10) Speke would struggle to find its relevance in the second half of the twentieth century. Speke’s failings were, and are, its isolation. The Speke estate was built in the wrong place.
The author of the Pevsner Architectural Guide, Lancashire: Liverpool and the Southwest’ is blunt in his assessment:
But by the 1960s it was clear that Keay’s ‘adventure’ had failed. Although he claimed Speke as a prototype New Town, in reality, it was an isolated, working-class suburb. There was no private housing, no trams (prohibited across runway approaches) [tram routes ended at Garston], the railway station never opened, and even the scaled-down shopping and public amenities were not completed until the 1960s.
The writing continues, in uncomplimentary style: ‘Speke is a vast housing estate of great monotony, so exploration is only for the committed’. (11)
This book was published in 2006. One can only assume that the writer of such condescension was not acquainted with Speke of the 1950s, ’60s, or ’70s. He would have had a fuller understanding of the term, ‘great monotony’.
The photographs above of Speke’s signature low-rise blocks of flats were taken in 1953 from the same corner, looking north and east. Identical blocks of flats occupied huge swathes of central Speke. Of 6000 dwellings in Speke, 1270 were flats.(9) Built in the 1950s, virtually all the flats would be demolished by the 1980s.
Speke residents of the past thirty years or so may not realise that early Speke was as devoid of trees as the photographs above show. The ‘garden’ in Garden City was lost in construction. Speke was an island of buildings in a sea of farmland. There were pockets of woodland outside the estate but Central and Eastern Speke were barren.
I am the same age as the post-war estate, and spent the 1960s trying to equate teenage life with Speke’s impoverished isolation. Time spent has granted me every entitlement to be critical of the failings in Speke’s construction as I saw them.
Some people came to terms with Speke and happily remain there. I wish them well. I didn’t, and left. Speke and I failed to bond in my teenage years. Yes, my childhood was idyllic, playing in surrounding farms and woodland but adolescence uncovered Speke’s deficiencies.
The requirements for Speke as a ‘self-contained satellite town’ surrounded by countryside were never met: circumstances dictated otherwise. Speke defaulted to a residential island, set in a sea of encroaching industry. The farmlands surrounding Speke, ‘some of the best wheat growing land in the hundred’, (12) were replaced by factories and distribution warehouses. The need for local employment replaced the given of countryside. Garden City ideology gave way to economic necessity and the countryside succumbed to industrial development.
An isolated Speke is mutating into a Dormitory Estate, a sleepy, detached suburb for Liverpool commuters lucky enough to have found inexpensive property within the city limits. Developers have seized upon defunct school playing fields to be converted into mini-housing estates: houses and plot sizes considerably smaller than neighbouring original properties but one and a half times the asking price.
The last time I visited Speke, I flew into Manchester Airport (the runway at Liverpool’s John Lennon Airport isn’t long enough for transatlantic flights), walked to the connecting railway station, and took a train to Liverpool South Parkway. At South Parkway I waited an hour for a bus to Speke (Morrisons): two of the displayed twenty-minute service simply failed to turn up. I enquired at ‘Information’, only to be told that they were a railway station and weren’t responsible for bus schedules. Some things haven’t changed in seventy years: Speke is still an end of the road housing estate with poor transport links.
The ‘New Arterial Road’, Speke Boulevard, does ‘connect’ with Speke, but it takes people past, and away from the estate. No one drives through Speke, they never did. Post-1980s, there are so many planted trees and bushes on Speke Boulevard that people driving past don’t see the estate or even know it’s there.
Figure 3. Proposed Eastern Access Transport Corridor (2018)
The heavy line in the map above is Speke Boulevard, locally Ford’s Road but officially the A561. The blue line is the proposed Eastern Access Transport Corridor connecting the A561 with the airport. A to B would be a new road with the remainder a rebuild of the existing Hale Road. The blue area is Green Belt farmland.
The Eastern Access Transport Corridor map is taken from the 2017 Consultation Draft of the Liverpool John Lennon Airport Master Plan to 2050. This proposed corridor will be primarily an airport link road with the A561 but would serve a double function, alleviating the commercial traffic congestion on Speke Boulevard from the Estuary Business Park, west of the estate.
This intended airport relief road is only one of several ‘improvements’ sought for the airport by owners Peel Holdings. The Peel Holdings’ Master Plan for the airport proposes an extended runway for long-haul flights, double the passenger handling to 11 million per annum by 2050, and ‘to grow cargo throughput by 20,000–25,000 tonnes per annum over the period of the master plan’. ‘Up to 20 percent of revenue on a long-haul service can be generated from air freight.’ (13)
The Speke estate, the once-upon-a-time ‘satellite town surrounded by countryside’, is being choked by industry and losing the fight. Airport and commercial traffic pollution is replacing the ‘Garden City’ fresh air, with the remaining farmland sought for airport development by the Peel Holdings juggernaut. (14)
The Speke of my childhood, the ‘satellite town’ of the 1950s, was enclosed almost entirely in farmland. I have aged to see three-quarters of that surrounding farmland disappear to industry which leaves the question: How much of the remaining countryside, if any, will survive me?
The photograph above shows farmland at Oglet, part of the last remaining countryside south of the Speke estate, squeezed in between the airport runway and the River Mersey and sought for airport expansion by owners Peel Holdings.
The question remains: How much longer does the ‘countryside’ have before it succumbs to tarmac and concrete?
Special thanks to the Liverpool Record Office for supplying many of the images in this post and allowing their reproduction.
(1) The Archi UK website here links to an 1894 Ordnance Survey 6 inch to 1 mile map of the Speke area. The slider top-left superimposes a current map of the same location.
(2) A Vision of Britain through Time, Liverpool District Total Population
(3) William Farrer and J Brownbill (eds), ‘Liverpool: Trade, population and geographical growth‘, in A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 4, (London, 1911)
(4) The population density, and housing shortage problems would be compounded by war time bomb damage, and the post war ‘baby boom’ population explosion.
(5) A key extract of Howard’s Garden Cities of To-morrow is provided on this Cornell University webpage.
(6) George Mercer, ‘Speke as a New Town: An Experimental Industrial Study’, The Town Planning Review, vol 24, no 3, October 1953
(7) Disused Stations: Speke
(8) See Professor Stephen Ambrose, ‘From War to Peace’ in The World at War (Thames TV, originally broadcast in 1974: on Lendlease at 13:51 and Britain’s cost, 17:15. [This 22-minute film is mandatory viewing for anyone wishing to understand the geo-political legacy of the Second World War, as viewed from the early 1970s.]
(9) City of Liverpool, Tenants’ Handbook, undated c1962
(10) Wilson’s speech to the 1963 Labour Party Conference in Scarborough has been re-created by Manchester’s People’s History Museum and can be viewed on this Guardian webpage.
(11) Richard Pollard, Nikolaus Pevsner, Lancashire: Liverpool and the Southwest (Yale University Press, 2006)
(12) William Farrer and J Brownbill (eds), ‘Townships: Speke’, in A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 3 (Victoria County History, 1907)
(13) Liverpool John Lennon Airport, Master Plan to 2050, Consultation Draft June 2017
(14) Guy Shrubsole, ‘Who owns the country? The secretive companies hoarding England’s land’, The Guardian, 19 April 2019