Liverpool 1984: looking back

Albert Dock 1980s

Talking to my friend Joe this afternoon, he said it was 25 years to the day since he’d arrived in Liverpool. 1984 was our first full year in the Avenue, too, and the year that our daughter was born. So, I thought, what about a few reminders of what Liverpool was like in 1984?

Albert Dock before redevelopment

As these photos of the Albert Dock before the Merseyside Development Corporation had worked its magic reveal, the place was economically battered, with acres of dereliction, yet even at this dark time for the city, changes that have shaped the city we know today were happening or about to begin. But fundamentally this was the Liverpool of Alan Bleasdale’s Boys From The Blackstuff, first broadcast two years earlier,  in which Julie Walters played Angie, wife of  Chrissie, desperate for legitimate work and soured by the indignity and insecurity of life on the dole; in a powerful performance she uttered the lines which seemed to sum up the series’ message about Liverpool and the dole:

“It’s not funny, it’s not friggin’ funny. I’ve had enough of that ‘if you don’t laugh you’ll cry’. I’ve heard it for years. This stupid soddin’ city’s full of it… Why don’t you fight back, you bastard. Fight back.”

At the Town Hall the fight back had begun: these were the days of the left-wing, Militant-dominated Labour council of 1983-6. By 1983, when Labour regained control of the council from the Liberals, Militant had a big enough block of councillors to control events, behind a thin facade of independent left-wingers, like council leader John Hamilton.

As factories closed and the city’s population shrank, total income for the city council between 1974 and 1979 had fallen by 18 percent, and spending by 14%, while council rents were the highest outside London. In 1981 unemployment in Merseyside almost equalled the number unemployed in the whole of Wales.

It was the government’s cuts to the Rate Support Grant for the city which the Militant tendency claimed was unfair. It argued that £30 million was “stolen” from Liverpool by Margaret Thatcher’s government. Prominent Liverpool Militant supporters such as Derek Hatton and Tony Mulhearn argued that the Labour Council should set an illegal deficit budget, spending money on the needs of the people of Liverpool, even if it exceeded the council’s income. It should demand that central government return the “stolen” money to balance the books.

March 1984 saw the beginning of the miners’ strike. On March 29 the City Council met to fix a budget. A one-day strike was called to support the council. Fifty thousand people marched to the Town Hall to support the Labour group’s deficit budget proposal. However, no budget from any party gained a majority.

In the May local elections Labour gained seven more seats. Shortly afterwards the Conservative Minister for the Environment, Patrick Jenkin, visited the city. Visibly shaken he said: ‘I have seen housing conditions here the likes of which I have never seen before’.

In talks in London on 9 July, Jenkin offered Liverpool an extra £20m to be spent on housing. This concession was seized on by the leading members of Liverpool City Council as a major victory and, two days later, the council set a legal budget. The Times in an editorial stated: “Today in Liverpool, municipal militancy is vindicated… a third rate provincial politician, a self publicising revolutionary… Mr Derek Hatton has made the government give way.”

The council launched its Urban Regeneration Strategy to build 5000 houses, seven sports centres, new parks, six new nursery classes and other works, many of which were seen to completion. 1,200 redundancies planned by the previous Liberal administration to balance the books were cancelled, and 1000 new jobs were created. The office of Lord Mayor was abolished and the ceremonial horses sold. It was to be the following year when things really got strange, with the redundancy notices – one of them mine – being delivered by taxi around the city.

In the summer of 1984 ‘the world came to Liverpool’: the 1984 International Garden Festival, the first of its kind in Britain, was in full swing. Billed as ‘a five month pageant of horticultural excellence and spectacular entertainment’ it took place on a site that only two years before had been derelict. The Festival contained more than sixty individual gardens, a Festival Hall, public pavilions and even a miniature railway which toured the site. It also included a pub, The Britannia, and a Pathway of Honour recognising Liverpool stars including Cilla Black, Ken Dodd, and Nerys Hughes.

The Garden Festival was built on a site in the old south docks area by the Dingle. Much of the site was derelict and needed to be cleared of industrial waste before the landascaping for the festival could commence. It was one of the first major projects undertaken by the Merseyside Development Corporation, a body set up in the wake of the Toxteth riots to help regenerate Liverpool.

In 1981, following the riots, Michael Heseltine, Environment Secretary relocated to Liverpool to persuade the private sector to become involved in regeneration. He established the Merseyside Development Corporation – Britain’s first urban development corporation. The MDC existed until 1998, attracting £660m of private and public sector investment. The festival ran from 2nd May to 14th October 1984, and highlights included the arrival of the Tall Ships from 1st-4th August.

The legacy of the Festival was meant to be a unique riverside parkland gifted to the city and ‘available for all to share’.  But, though the festival site has changed hands several times since 1984, much of it lies empty and derelict awaiting development. Half of the original festival grounds have been used for a residential housing development.

Pirate ship Sefton Park

And in Sefton Park, Captain Hook’s Pirate Ship was still afloat.

On 30 May 1984 Liverpool returned to the scene of their first European Cup in Rome 1977 and beat AS Roma on their own ground to gain the European Cup of 1984. The score; Liverpool 1 AS Roma 1; Liverpool won 4-2 on penalties. The victory gave Liverpool three trophies with the League Championship and the League Cup in Joe Fagan’s first year in charge after replacing Bob Paisley the summer before. The final is particularly famous amongst Liverpool fans due to Bruce Grobbelaar’s spaghetti legs antics during the shootout. The team: Grobbelaar, Neal, Kennedy, Lawrenson, Whelan, Hansen, Dalglish (Robinson), Lee, Rush, Johnston (Nicol), Souness. Goals : Neal; Penalties : Neal, Souness, Rush, Kennedy.

In 1984 you could still shop at Blackler’s, Owen Owen and John Lewis was still George Henry Lee’s, located on Church Street; and most days you’d find Harry Brendon busking outside. Harry was that good he once played the Argyle Theatre Birkenhead. He was enormously popular around the the streets of Liverpool, particularly Williamson Square at the back of Marks and GH Lee’s.

Probe Records was a shrine for most Liverpool music fans, located in Button Street.  I hung out there regularly, sifting through the vinyl – and I do believe it was there I first noticed the new guy who had moved into the Avenue. In Probe you might be served by Pete Burns:

“Pete Burns was working behind the counter and he was the only one in the shop at the time. I picked up the sleeve and took it to him and he wouldn’t let me have the record. He said I could pick something else but he wasn’t going to soil his hands with a Poco record. That’s what it was like!” – Probe Records customer

The Liverpool music scene was thriving in 1984.  Half Man Half Biscuit were formed that year, managed by Probe proprietor Geoff Davies (who has since also settled in the Avenue). A tape was made and sent to John Peel, who delighted in the tales of everyday tedium on the dole.

But it was Frankie Goes to Hollywood that completely dominated the Liverpool scene – and the UK pop charts – in 1984. Holly Johnson, Paul Rutherford, Nasher Nash and Mark O’Toole matched a record achieved in Liverpool decades earlier by having their first three singles hit number one (the first being Gerry & the Pacemakers in 1964) –  Relax, Two Tribes and Power Of Love were followed, suitably, with Ferry Cross The Mersey, a cover version of the Gerry Marsden classic. A band remembered for their controversy and ‘Frankie Says Relax’ T-Shirts.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood: Relax

The Everyman Theatre was still cutting-edge, following Ken Campbell’s time as artistic director from 1980-1981. As a result, there was a lot of public interest in the Everyman – much of it in the form of outrage. Campbell’s production of Neil Oram’s The Warp – a twenty-hour odyssey through British alternative culture from the 1950s to the late 1970s – used much of the Everyman’s space as a number of stages, uprooting the chairs from the theatre and encouraging the audience to sit on unused parts of the set.  The Warp was split into ten parts and shown over ten weeks – a soap opera of hippies, wizards, new age cults, and personal discovery.

Glen Walford arrived as Artistic Director in 1984, and carried on the Everyman tradition: young, enthusiastic casts, music, comedy, and controversy. In 1984 a production of The Threepenny Opera was the first to create public outrage. The poster, depicting three women in leather, fishnets, spiked hair and heavy eye make-up, created a storm of indignation and complaints, particularly from feminist groups such as Women Against Violence Against Women as well as the Daily Mail. Staving off financial troubles, the Everyman broke its box office records in 1984.

As for films – Liverpool had more cinemas in 1984 – the Odeon, ABC, Scala, Futurist, plus the Odeon in Allerton and Woolton Picturehouse – as well as the Merseyside Film Institute Society with its little cinema in the Blucoat Chambers for independent and foreign films. Two films a week and always sold out;  a great place full of atmosphere, even if the seats were ancient and uncomfortable.

In 1984 there was only one university in Liverpool: Liverpool Polytechnic didn’t gain university status in 1992, and it wasn’t until 2005 that Liverpool Hope became a fully-fledged university. If you wanted books, you could browse three floors of them in the rambling Philip Son & Nephew bookshop in Whitechapel, or seek out radical literature in News From Nowhere in its expansive new premises at the other end of Whitechapel (having moved round the corner from a tiny place in Manchester Street).

The nearest supermarkets for avenue-dwellers in 1984 were a rather small Tesco out in Allerton, Leo’s down on Park Road and the Mini-Market up on Smithdown. Sefton General hospital was yet to be demolished to make way for Asda.

Here’s a sequence of photos that reveal a quarter of the city that has seen some big changes. The first shows St Johns beacon (the revolving restaurant defunct by 1984 and many years before it became home to Radio City), St Georges hotel that is now the Holiday Inn and Concourse House that was demolished late last year.

Three views of Clayton Square around 1984 reveal the street layout before the creation of  the Clayton Square shopping mall and the pedestrianisation of the square. In the view below, the Timpson branch is roughly where Boots is now.

In this image we’re looking down the side street, towards Central Station.  This is one of the streets that disappeared when demolition began in 1986.

This is the view looking towards Central Station, with the old Jacey Cinema building on the far right. This screened adult films, with the occasional continental art film, before closing in 1972 when it was radically transformed into a church, known as the Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament.

9 thoughts on “Liverpool 1984: looking back

  1. I have stumbled across this blog a number of times while researching about Liverpool, namely the Toxteth area.I have read it lots of times and found out a lot of new and interesting things.

    Would it be ok to contact you and ask some questions about Liverpool during the 80s/90s?
    I’ll you why…..I am a landscape architect student working on a project about the attitudes and habits of the people of Granby/Toxteth. I also volunteer for Growing Granby where I am helping design and build their first community garden and allotment (it’s on Kingsley Road, next to the church). I live about half a mile away from there, too.
    Would it be ok for you to contact me? I ask as I cant find anything on your blog.
    I look forward to hearing from you!
    Kind regards
    Andrea
    andreaku at hotmail dot com (I write it like this in case of spam bloggers I have read about who go phishing for email addresses!)

  2. This won’t be much use to you, but I remember Granby Street when it was a very nice area, lived in by what they call “lower middle class”. But that was pre-1960.

    1. It was the Tranmere ground (in 1985, actually) – couldn’t have been any other since the Birkenhead band were loyal supporters of Tranmere, once even turning down the opportunity to appear on The Tube because Tranmere Rovers were playing that night – despite Channel Four’s offer to fly them by helicopter to the game. Since I don’t follow football I can only marvel at such misguided loyalty!

  3. Love the Pete Burns Poco story. I’m always looking for pics/info on Edenfield Road…Grant Avenue end. Lived there 1944-45…mom and dad in RAF.

  4. I took all my formal schooling – primary to postgraduate in Liverpool. But a significant portion of my education took place in those 3 floors of Phillip Son & Nephew! I keep on hoping that the liverpoolpicturebook site will turn up an old picture. But so far, no luck!

    1. Yes, Ron, I’d love to find a pic of that rambling old bookshop (I did look for this post). But many bookshops were like that that back then – did you ever go to Foyles on Charing Cross Road?

      1. Somebody once said that one could judge the state of a city’s culture by the number of second hand bookshops. Oh dear, Liverpool doesn’t measure up like it did in the 1970s, and Philip Son & Nephew was a treasure trove to me.

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