The poetry of the Welsh streets

I went to look at the poems which have appeared on the doorways of derelict houses in the Welsh Streets, now threatened with demolition. A group calling itself the Unknown Poets posted the poems the other day to draw attention to the imminent destruction of the houses, which include Ringo Starr’s birthplace at 9 Madryn Street.

Demolition of the empty properties could begin in three weeks’ time.  Clearance notices, announcing that the bulldozers would be moving in soon, appeared in the area last week – this afternoon they could be seen pasted to lamp-posts and doors of derelict properties. No developer is yet assigned to the area, which means the empty site will be grassed over.

A spokesman for the Unknown Poets said:

This was a poetic response to wanton destruction. It was intended to lift people’s spirits. We focused on Beatles lyrics and in particular John Lennon on what would have been his 70th birthday. The idea behind the piece, called Safe as Houses, was to put a poem on the doorway of each derelict property. The demolition compares with the destruction of the original Cavern club. While we don’t think it will save the houses, it will have brightened up people’s lives in some small way. We turned a derelict street into an open-air gallery.

I noted poems by Shakespeare,Roger McGough and Adrian Henri – as well as several Beatles’ lyrics, including Ringo’s ‘Liverpool 8’:

I was a sailor first, I sailed the sea
Then I got a job, in a factory
Played Butlin’s Camp with my friend, Rory
It was good for him, it was great for me

Liverpool I left you, said goodbye to Madryn Street
I always followed my heart, and I never missed a beat
Destiny was calling, I just couldn’t stick around
Liverpool I left you, but I never let you down

Livepool I left you, said goodbye to Admiral Grove
I always followed my heart, so I took it on the road
Destiny was calling, I just couldn’t stick around
Liverpool I left you, but I never let you down

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Ringo Starr was born in 9 Madryn Street, where he lived until he was four. His family then moved to Admiral Grove, a minute’s walk away, where he was still living when he joined the Beatles.  Madryn Street is earmarked for clearance as part of the government’s controversial Housing Market Renewal (Pathfinder) Initiative, described by the Urban Task Force as a ‘crude, insensitive and wasteful’ return to mass housing clearance, and criticised as ‘high risk’ by the National Audit Office. The programme has already resulted in the demolition of large swathes of Liverpool, for example along Smithdown Road, Kensington and Wavertree Road.

SAVE Britain’s Heritage and the local Civic Society are calling for the immediate listing of Madryn Street, together with 10 Admiral Grove, Ringo’s subsequent childhood home; 12 Arnold Grove, the birthplace of George Harrison; Mendips, Menlove Avenue, where John Lennon lived from 1945 to 1963; 20 Forthlin Road, childhood home of Paul McCartney, and the ornate iron gates and stone piers of Strawberry Field, all that remains of the house and gardens which inspired one of the Beatles’ most famous songs. William Palin, Secretary of SAVE says:

This is a bid for national recognition and statutory protection for a group of buildings which are intimately associated with the four men who, together, became the greatest cultural phenomenon of the 20th century.  In 1973, Liverpool’s celebrated Cavern Club, birthplace of the Beatles, was demolished because of a council compulsory purchase order, to make room for a ventilation shaft that was never built. The destruction of Madryn Street would represent another tragic loss and a further assault on the heart and spirit of the city.

The demolition of the Welsh Streets, 16 streets with Welsh names, would also close a chapter in the long-standing relationship between the city and Wales. More than any other English city, Liverpool’s roots are uniquely Celtic: towards the end of the 19th century around 120,000 of the city’s 450,000 population were first-born Irishmen, and second only to the Irish influx was the wave of migrants from Wales.

The streets were nicknamed the Welsh Streets because they were built and lived in by the Welsh workers who also built a large percentage of buildings in Liverpool in the 19th century and early 20th century. The streets were consequently named after Welsh towns and villages. In the late 19th century almost a quarter of the city’s population, around 80,000 people, were Welsh, drawn by the promise of work.  Liverpool once had 70 Welsh chapels, and across the city, in places like Anfield, Walton, and Vauxhall and Scotland Road, are dotted rows of Victorian terraced properties with Welsh places names like Denbigh Road, Snowdon Lane and Barmouth Way.

Views are deeply divided in the local community between those who are fighting to preserve the streets and those who favour demolition and rehousing. The homes in the Welsh streets were built above streams and have had persistent problems with rising damp.  They are small properties and have no gardens.  Others argue that the houses were well-built and could be modernised.  On the outside, at least, these are pleasant, tree-lined streets which once harboured a strong sense of community and solidarity.

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