For those of a certain age, Kirkby is probably most associated with Z Cars, a BBC police drama that first aired in 1962. The programme was set in the fictitious ‘Newtown’ but the town bore an uncomfortable resemblance to Kirkby, described by Troy Kennedy Martin, one of the show’s screenwriters, as: (1)
one of the black spots of England, an overspill New Town from the slums of Liverpool, where 50,000 displaced and truculent Merseysiders carry out a continuous war against authority and where crime and adolescent terror incubate.
Kirkby was not an officially designated New Town – though it was sometimes given the name and bore some superficial resemblance to that post-war Government programme – and, as you read on, you can judge for yourself how far it deserved Martin’s caustic characterisation. This post, at least, will attempt a balanced verdict but it’s fair to say that execution fell some way short of ambition.
Kirkby’s origins lay in the late 1920s as it became clear to Liverpool’s politicians that the city needed to move away from its dependence on the docks and allied employment. The City Council developed two new industrial estates in response, one at Speke (along with its associated satellite town), the other at Aintree.
A third was planned at Kirkby, six miles north-west of the city centre, but shelved due to the war. In the event the war would give its own boost to such planning when the Kirkby Ordnance Factory was established in 1938 as the UK prepared for conflict. It grew at peak to comprise around 1000 buildings and employ a (mainly female) workforce of some 23,000.
The Government built around 200 houses too for key workers, principally designed by Arthur W Kenyon – standard family homes but distinguished in some cases (such as those on Spinney Close) by their modernist-style sloping roofs and, in most, by flat roofs. As Kenyon recalled, the latter ‘were dictated by war emergency; timber was not available for sloping roofs’. He did, however, provide each home with a brick shed large enough to ‘satisfy the shed addict’. The homes were transferred to the local authority after the war and those on the Park Estate near the station now have pitched roofs (2)
The Ordnance Factory closed in March 1946; its land acquired by the Council to form the new Kirkby Industrial Estate, intended as the employment hub of the major housing development to follow. In conjunction with the local planning authority, Lancashire County Council, and the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, the Council moved quickly to finalise its proposals and a Town Map covering 2800 acres (including the trading estate) was approved in July 1949.
The plan provided for three roughly equal neighbourhoods – anodynely named Southdene, Westvale and Northwood – grouped around a town centre with open ground between the westerly and south-easterly neighbourhoods occupied by schools and playing fields. Whiston Rural District Council, in whose land the scheme lay, gave planning approval for Southdene, the first element in the proposals, in November and preparatory work began early in the following year.
The first housing contract– with the locally based Unit Construction Company – for 647 homes was signed in March 1952 and, at a rate of three per week, 116 had been completed by December.
Further contracts with Unit Construction brought the 1000th house in October 1953, the 5000th in 1956 and the 10,000th in September 1961, the latter marked in an opening ceremony attended by Henry Brook, Minister of Housing and Local Government, and Liverpool’s Lord Mayor. The occasion seemed to merit a little justifiable hype: (3)
The completion of ten thousand dwellings on a single estate for a single authority by a single firm of contractors, accomplished in a remarkably short period of nine years, is by any standards a tremendous achievement.
In the longer term, that achievement might be questioned but at the time numbers counted. A 1955 housing survey of the city revealed that of near 205,000 homes in Liverpool, 61,247 were unfit and only suitable for demolition and a further 61,247 required extensive repair or demolition – in total, some 43 percent of total housing stock. (4)
Peak housing production in Kirkby – 1700 homes completed in the year – was reached in 1957 and the town’s population was projected to reach 74,000 by 1971. All this leads to the obvious question: what was the quality of the environment and infrastructure provided in this breakneck expansion? (5)
Ronald Bradbury, having previously held a similar position in Glasgow, was appointed Liverpool’s City Architect and Director of Housing, aged 40, in 1946. He moved away from the more formal Beaux-Arts designs of his illustrious predecessor Lancelot Keay, making Kirkby’s overall layout ‘informal by founding it on existing roads, contours and natural features’. (6)
The housing, in the town’s early years, was almost wholly low-rise, generally undistinguished but pleasant and functional and, of course, in terms of space and facilities, vastly better than the slum housing from which most new residents had moved. Bradbury himself provided a precise summary in the 1961 commemorative brochure: of the 10,000 homes built to date, some 5817 were two- to four-bed, two-storey houses; 1197 were one-bed flats for elderly people placed in two-storey blocks; 2166 were two- and three-bed flats in three-storey blocks.; and 688 were three-bed maisonettes in four-storey blocks. (7)
Four eleven-storey blocks of one- and two-bed flats in Gaywood Green approved in 1961 marked the beginnings of high-rise development in Kirkby. Fourteen tower blocks had been erected by 1967: two further 11-storey blocks at Cherrywood Heights and eight 15-storey blocks at Kirkby Northwood. In the mid- to late-sixties, three 15-storey blocks were added at Quarry Green Heights and two, more modest seven-storey blocks at Whitefield Square.
As a result of Kirkby’s suburban setting and plentiful land, this was, by Liverpool standards (by 1981 half of the city’s council homes were flats), a relatively small incursion. All the blocks in Kirkby were built – you guessed it – by the Unit Construction Company but, although the firm became the UK licensee of the French Camus form of system building in 1962, those in Kirkby seem to have been constructed of in-situ reinforced concrete frames with brick and concrete panel infilling. (8)
Whitefield Square, Westvale, 1987 © Tower Block, University of Edinburgh
Liverpool Builds, the Corporation’s celebratory account of its housing programme published in 1967, also emphasised the 914 homes built for owner occupation in the town on ‘three very substantial areas of ground set aside by the Housing Committee for that purpose as part of its policy of housing diversification on the estate’. That ‘mixed community’ was not, however, the reality or certainly not the reputation of Kirkby.
It was not a New Town in the sense that it was developed by a Development Corporation with full resources and powers to do so but the Council aspired to create something similar, as Bradbury claimed: (9)
From the outset the Liverpool City Council was fully alive to the fact that Kirkby was not merely a new housing estate but that they were creating a “new town” which must have all the essential facilities and amenities such an entity required.
Health facilities and new schools were built, of course – 32 schools and twelve doctors’ surgeries and three dental clinics by 1965. The Town Map also set aside sites for 15 churches and chapels across the new town in addition to the nineteenth-century St Chad’s parish church retained centrally. Places of worship were always an apparent planning priority but post-war local government managed also to largely shed its aversion to the demon drink: at Kirkby, the Council planned twelve public houses plus a central residential hotel. Lancashire County Council provided a library, courts and the emergency services. A privately developed shopping centre and three neighbourhood retail centres completed the ensemble.
That infrastructure and an allegedly growing ‘civic consciousness’ ensured that the Kirkby parish of the Whiston Rural District was created an Urban District in 1958. The Council’s Civic Centre, designed by Jackson and Edmonds, was completed in 1969. Later, in 1974, Kirkby was absorbed into the new Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council which, in turn, became a part of the Liverpool City Region in 2014.
It was Kirkby Urban District Council which was responsible for the last extensive phase of the town’s housing development: the Tower Hill district, north of the Liverpool-Manchester Victoria railway line, built from the late 1960s and intended to house some 10,000 second generation residents. Its homes were mostly low-rise terraced housing and maisonettes but included a number of seven-storey maisonette blocks. The latter, built by Unit and in this case using the Camus system, were poorly constructed and soon revealed multiple flaws. Demolition of seven was agreed as early as 1980.
That might come to seem portentous but in 1961, its principal planner, Liverpool’s City Architect and Director of Housing, Ronald Bradbury, could claim proudly and perhaps justifiably that: (10)
Kirby is now a well-established and thriving community but it is not possible … in print to convey the spirit of Kirkby or the enthusiasm which has gone into its creation … There has been created in a remarkably short period a feeling of “belonging” and pride in the New Kirkby.
Of course, the true test of such assertion lay in the sentiments of the town’s new residents and in its longer-term evolution. Alan Martin, now 65, arrived in Kirby from inner-city Liverpool in 1957: (11)
Living in a terrace house in Walton, it was a chance to have a brand new council house and a fresh start. I’ve got very little memories of not living in Kirkby as a kid. Everything was being built in front of us, like the fire station, the market, the police station. It was a great place to be. There were buildings sites and there were also open spaces. It was an adventure for most kids
Jeff Morris, 66, recalls arriving in Kirkby from Everton in 1958:
It was good. My mum and dad thought this was the great new world that came but they did have some doubts when they moved in and had talks about moving back to Liverpool. But when St Kevin’s school opened my dad went to go see it and saw all science labs and facilities. He knew if we stayed we’d get a good education.
Sociological studies of the time largely echo such sentiments. NH Rankin’s ‘Social adjustment in a North-West New Town’, published in 1963, found that 40 percent of new residents were pleased to move to Kirkby from their inner-city slum clearance properties and 22 percent had wanted to move but not necessarily to Kirkby. It was true, however, that a large number – 29 percent – had not wished to move to the new town. (12)
Interestingly, after relocation, around three-quarters wished to stay. The big plus was, of course, the new homes and few missed the allegedly close-knit community of the slum quarters lionised by some contemporary sociologists: Rankin found that ‘the influence of the close-knit matrilocal lifestyle is of lesser importance than the attainment of better housing’. Nevertheless, a significant proportion did want to move away – flats were particularly unpopular – and over half of households, in Rankin’s words, ‘expressed some reservation about the “kinds of people” they preferred to mix with in Kirkby’.
This latter concern was echoed in another early survey by a resident (‘a machinists’ wife with two daughters’) who declared that ‘they should have put the roughs in flats and the respectable ones in houses to look after gardens’. John Barron Mays, like Rankin a Liverpool University academic, also published his research in 1963.
Mays was caustic regarding the town’s situation and overall design: (13)
On the drearily flat, wet plain of South-West Lancashire, it repeats many of the less pleasing features of similar developments elsewhere. There are the usual long avenues of similar houses, some taller buildings and blocks but little architectural elegance. An atmosphere of organised anonymity prevails throughout its length and breadth; a new, raw, hardly-lived-in place, unsoftened by time and unrelieved by local colour.
His further commentary, based on resident testimony, was gentler but marked by its faint praise. He found in general ‘a reluctant acceptance by residents of their new situation’. Certainly most ‘did not seem to be unduly isolated’; only 29 percent found their Kirkby neighbours less friendly than those of the inner city. Many disliked living in multi-storey blocks of flats even while, at this stage, most blocks only reached four storeys. ‘For the majority of ex-inner city slumdwellers the new estate is desirable or at least adequate’. ‘In the end’, Mays hoped, ‘the long trek from the dingy, cramped back-streets of central Liverpool [would be] a step toward a happier and fuller life’.
We’ll assess that judgement in next week’s post.
(1) Quoted in Asa Briggs, The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom: 1955-1974. Competition, Volume 1; Volume 5 (Oxford University Press, 1995)
(2) Quoted in Finn Jensen, Modernist Semis and Terraces in England (Routledge, 2016)
(3) Ronald Bradbury, Kirkby: the Story of a Great Achievement (Unit Construction Company, 1961)
(4) Ronald Bradbury, ‘Post-War Housing in Liverpool’, The Town Planning Review, Vol 27, No. 3 October 1956
(5) ‘Kirkby as Proposed New Town’, Liverpool Echo, 25 September 1957
(6) Richard Pollard, Nikolaus Pevsner, Joseph Sharples, Lancashire: Liverpool and the Southwest (Yale University Press, 2006)
(7) Bradbury Kirkby: the Story of a Great Achievement
(8) Stefan Muthesius and Miles Glendinning, Towers for the Welfare State (The Scottish Centre for Conservation Studies, 2017) and the Tower Block UK website of the University of Edinburgh.
(9) Bradbury, ‘Post-War Housing in Liverpool’
(10) Ronald Bradbury, ‘Development at Kirkby by The City of Liverpool’, Official Architecture and Planning, vol 24, no 10, November 1961
(11) Quoted in Jess Molyneux, ‘Kirkby’s transformation from sleepy rural town to “the great new world”’, Liverpool Echo, 26 April 2020
(12) Quoted in Mark Clapson, Invincible Green Suburbs, Brave New Towns: Social Change and Urban Dispersal in Postwar England (Manchester University Press, 1998)
(13) Mays’ analysis, ‘New Hope in Newtown’, appeared in New Society, 22 August 1963. It is quoted in David Kynaston, Modernity Britain: A Shake of the Dice, 1959-62, Book 2 (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014)