Ethel Singleton and the Princess (Daily Post)

Ethel Singleton and the Princess (Liverpool Daily Post)

I received a sad email today that brought memories flooding back of a different and (sometimes, it seems) lost world of solidarity.  In 1968 I was a student at Liverpool University, hoping to become a journalist and meanwhile dabbling a bit in that line of work.  I learned from housing activist friends the astonishing news that the university had a bit of a sideline going, too: owning slum properties in which working class families were surviving in conditions more redolent of the 1860s than the 1960s. The tenants, however, had formed a tenants’ association and started a rent strike.  The secretary of the tenants’ association was Ethel Singleton, and this post is a tribute to her.

For today’s email came from Ethel’s daughter, Kim Singleton, informing me of her mother’s death: ‘After battling Alzheimers for a number of years, Mum died last night, peacefully in her sleep aged 81′.  This is the story of how I came to know Ethel, her husband Jim and their three children.


The student newspaper expose of Liverpool University’s slum housing

I wrote this about their circumstances in a piece for the Liverpool University student newspaper:

Melville Place is about five minutes walk from the Union, the street of downcast houses, some of them boarded up and rotting, can be seen from the fourth-floor windows of the Social Studies Department.

The street looks much like the rest of Liverpool 8, and, like much of the area, houses people living in squalid and insanitary conditions reeking of the Victorian age.

But Melville Place is special, for a good number of these houses are owned by the University.

Between 1955 and 1960 the University bought up property in the street as part of its precinct-development plans, bought it apparently without inspecting it, and handed lt over to Liverpool Improved Houses Ltd to be managed until demolition in 1970.

Since then, the residents say, no one from the University has been round. They naturally feel bitter: “As far as they’re concerned,” says Mrs. Singleton, at number fifty, “we’re just a nuisance because we’re on property they want knocked down. ”

Mrs. Singleton lives at number fifty with her husband and three children. Her house is one of those owned by the University and managed by Liverpool Improved Houses Ltd. It’s a three storey, 7-roomed house, but the family live in two rooms on the ground floor and sleep in one bedroom on the first floor. The top floor is a wreck: walls just crumble when touched, huge cracks gape in the walls, a door leans on its hinges, and the back bedroom floorboards dip perceptibly as the whole building leans outwards. Rain pours in through the roof.

Houses near Senate House owned by Liverpool University liverpool-8-roger-millman-2

Liverpool University’s slums in 1968

In fact, the University owned a total of 130 slum properties adjacent to the campus, in which families experienced appalling housing conditions. The University had bought up streets of dilapidated Victorian terraces in advance of plans to extend the university campus. But it was struggling to rehouse the tenants and the housing association it employed to maintain the properties was failing to carry out repairs. In October 1968, hundreds of tenants, spread across thirty six Abercromby streets, had joined the Abercromby Tenants Association and had began to withhold all of their rent in protest at their situation. News of the strike reached students at the University, who began to assist the campaign by leafleting and providing a room in the union for meetings.

Melville Place

The Doyle kids, sharied one bedroom in a University-owned house

In the weeks that followed, while the rent strike continued, there were meetings between student representatives and University officials. But the University’s position remained unwavering: it was not directly responsible for the state of the properties – that was the job of the housing association employed by the University – and it had been assured that the City Council anticipated being able to rehouse all the families concerned within twelve months. “It is, of course, very regrettable that people should have to live in these conditions”, the University conceded.

Students picket Senate House 1 Marching to Senate House

Students join the tenants’ protest

When students and tenants learned that the new Senate House, situated a stone’s throw from the University-owned slums, was to be officially opened by Princess Alexandra, the reaction was outrage. Resentment among the tenants about Senate House had been growing as they saw the expensive new administrative block being built on their doorstep, complaining that huge amounts of money were being spent on it whilst their homes rotted. Now, to add insult to injury, £5000 was being lavished on preparations for the royal visit. The tenants, supported by students and ATACC, the city-wide Tenants Coordinating Committee, decided to picket the royal opening.

Picketing Princess Alexandra in Vine Street

Students and tenants unite to picket Princess Alexandra in Vine Street

On 15 May 1969 over a thousand tenants and students assembled outside Senate House as Princess Alexandra arrived to open the building. Later, the princess chose to visit nearby Vine Street. Across the entrance to the street was a banner with the words,” Come and visit the slums of Vine Street.”

Liverpool Echo headline

Liverpool Echo: ‘Slums this way eyeopener for Princess’

The protest received national media coverage.  Even the Daily Mail gave it front page treatment (the lesson being, perhaps, if you’re planning an effective protest, do it within earshot of royalty):

Mrs Ethel Singleton, 35, secretary of the Abercromby Tenants’ Association, which organised the demonstration with students’ help, said : “The Princess need not have come to talk to us about our grumbles, but she wanted to find out what the demonstration was all about. I explained that the demonstration and the ba nners we were carrying were nothing personal against her. She said she understood. Then we got down to talking about the conditions in our homes.

“When I told her there were no bathrooms, that we had to use outside toilets, and our only water supply was a cold tap, she was really taken aback. She asked how we bathed our children and I told her we did it in a tub in front of the fire.”

Express It must be awful

The Daily Express: ‘It must be awful, said the Princess’

The December 2009 issue of Nerve, the cultural and social issues magazine published in Liverpool by Catalyst Media, included an article by Jim and Ethel Singleton’s daughter, Kim, entitled ‘Revolting Tenants: The Great Abercromby Rent Strike of ‘69‘.

liverpool-8-roger-millman 1

Not far from Senate House in 1968

A year later, Jim and Ethel Singleton would feature in the documentary film-maker Nick Broomfield’s first film,Who Cares? Made whilst he was a student at Essex University using a borrowed camera, it has been described as, ‘honest, raw and confrontational … a 16-minute black and white observational film that successfully communicates the resentment felt by a close-knit Liverpudlian working class community, angered at the demolition of their homes by the local council and forced to leave a neighbourhood where the same families had been living for generations, relocating to alienating high-rise flats on the outskirts of the city.’  provides a vivid insight into the housing conditions that sparked the demonstration that greeted Princess Alexandra when she opened Senate House.

The Singletons were rehoused and remained active politically; they feature again in Nick Broomfield’s third film, Behind the Rent Strike (1974) about the rent strike undertaken by 3000 tenants in Kirkby in 1973. You can see a video from 2009 of Ethel and Kim Singleton discussing Nick Broomfield’s films Behind the Rent Strike and Who Cares here. This YouTube extract from Behind the Rent Strike features Ethel:

In fact, I can think of no better way to remember Ethel than with than these perceptive words from the film:

Ethel Singleton: ‘Maybe it’s just, Nick, that I’m so sceptical…that the working-class position will ever change. I know it could change, in actual fact – the working-class position could change, but it won’t change through the media. And that’s why I’m so sceptical about the media. It won’t change through films, television, papers — it will not change because as you’ve just said it’s middle-class views. It’s controlled and owned by the middle-class who put across what is in their best interests, so in actual fact I’m very ckeptical about them ever changing the working-class position. They just cannot. The only people who can change the working-class position are the working-class themselves.’

Nick Broomfield: ‘Well what do you think of me making a film down here?’

ES: ‘Well I don’t think anything about it. You can come in, you’ll make it and it’ll have no effect. It’ll make people think for a few minutes and that’s all. But the position of the working-class won’t change. It won’t change by you making a film, or for that matter any other film-maker coming in. It just won’t make any difference. There’s been dozens of film-makers we’ve seen on local estates.’

NB: ‘Why do you think I’m making it then?’

ES: ‘I’m asking you that! Why are you making it? It’s only personal self-satisfaction, that’s all that it must be. How can you get the injustice of it all unless you actually feel deeply enough about it? And the only way to feel deeply enough about it is for it to be bloody well happening to you — and it’s not happening to you, because at the end of the three months you know that you can go back home.

I mean, how many of the working-class are actually working at something that they want to do? We have this constant economic pressure on us all the time, of trying to make ends meet, of trying to give your kids the best that you can, and the best is very little, believe me. The process of it never changes. They live a constant illusion: all the time that somehow, someday they’re gonna get out of it. Or maybe their children will do better than them. And that’s why there’s that constant struggle by many parents to try and get their kids out. But it is just really an illusion, because our position never, ever changes. Never.’

See also

12 thoughts on “Ethel Singleton: a tribute to one who struggled for better conditions

    1. Thanks Ronnie. Yes, she was – one of a remarkable generation of working class people whose intelligence and perceptiveness was denied the opportunity for further flowering in one of the very universities to which she took the fight. Changing the subject, I hope you’re recovering from your recent afflictions. You passed in front of my car this morning, crossing at the lights by the Mystery. Small world, small town!

    1. It was a good campaign, and I’m proud of having researched and written the story that kicked it off from the student end. But there were many other elements to it – the Shelter activists from whom I first learned the details, the Abercromby tenants, the Architecture department students who got really involved,and then the mass support from the student body. It seems amazing, looking back, how much press coverage it got (on the front pages of several national newspapers the day after the Princess Alexandra picket), but maybe that was because a royal was involved. Nevertheless, none of the coverage was unsympathetic (‘revolting students’) and that was, I think, because the case was morally unanswerable.

  1. Thank you Gerry for such a wonderful read. I am Ethels Step-Grandaughter & it is a great comfort at such a sad time to read though & see how she stood up for what she believed in. Such a strong & amazing woman.

  2. Thank you Gerry for your lovely tribute to Ethel, my grandmother, my nan. Ethel helped people to acknowledge the struggle of the rent strike and made her opinions clear, to help others and make a stand on how people can adequetly live.

  3. Thanks, this was an interesting read. I caught a glimpse of Ethel on Nick Broomfield’s recent movie – her brilliance and clarity was very striking – I immediately wanted to find out more about her and what else she did.

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