Do the walls of a derelict building hold the memories of those who once inhabited its rooms?  Recently I visited the old Merseyside Trade Union Community and Unemployed Resource Centre building at the top of Hardman Street which has been opened up for a Biennial exhibition. I wasn’t there for the art (least said about it the better) but because the building holds memories of mine, and I wanted to see inside before it is turned into a swanky hotel.

Mick Jones Mural 2

The Mick Jones mural in the Old Blind School

The Biennial programme describes the building as ‘The Old Blind School’, which it was, but that was not its most recent function. The Liverpool School for the Blind was founded in 1791 by Edward Rushton whose own sight was impaired (more about him later). It was the first school of its kind in Britain, and second in the world after one in Paris. The school made Hardman Street its second third home (see discussion below) in 1851, after it had begun life on London Road.

Today, on the corner of Hope Street and Hardman Street, there is a white Portland stone extension that dates from 1932.  It replaced the neo-classical school church, designed by John Foster junior, which was built in London Road and, amazingly, moved to this corner site stone by stone in 1851.  There’s a photo of it in 1929, dwarfing the original Blind School building.

Blind school 1929

The Blind School in 1929

The Portland stone extension that replaced Foster’s church dates from 1932 and features a row of bas-relief sculptures designed by John Skeaping, Barbara Hepworth’s first husband and a leading figure of modern British sculpture in the mid-20th century.  The bas-reliefs depict the trades taught here: brush-making, Braille, basket weaving, piano tuning, and knitting.

Blind School extension

The Blind School extension dates from 1932

In 1958 the Blind School moved to Church Road in Wavertree where it still remains today. The Hardman Street building was sold to Liverpool Corporation and served as the Merseyside Police headquarters until 1982.  When we lived on Canning Street in the 1970s the extension housed the local police station, and I recall several visits to report a stolen car or a burglary. With the move of the police headquarters to the riverfront, Merseyside County Council was left with a large, empty building.  The left-leaning Labour council agreed to a plan to turn it over to a consortium of trade union, training and community organisations to manage as the Merseyside Trade Union, Community and Unemployed Resource Centre.

MTUURC

Merseyside Trade Union, Community and Unemployed Resource Centre: the name is still there

This was the height of Thatcher’s attack on the power of trade unions and so-called ‘loony left’ councils – and both the county council and Liverpool City Council were in the forefront of the fightback against her policies and the rising unemployment caused by de-industrialization (in Liverpool this meant the closure of workplaces such as Tate and Lyle’s, Dunlops, Meccano, and many, many others).

In 1981, the first Peoples March for Jobs, modelled on the Jarrow March of the 1930s, had left Liverpool for London, led by the Labour leader Michael Foot. Both the march and the idea of Unemployed Centres were born out of a TUC special conference held in 1980, called to address the issue of mass unemployment – pushing towards 1930s levels at that time. The march forged links between trade unions, community and unemployed workers groups and led to Unemployed Centres being set up to develop those links and provide a focus for the unemployed to organise themselves.

The Hardman Street building, which opened its doors in May 1983, served a wide variety of purposes with conference and function rooms for trade unions and other organisations, a Welfare Rights Advice Centre, a small theatre cum cinema, a basement recording studio, a bar which had a bust of Marx placed (ironically?) next to the till, and the famous Flying Picket music venue, developed with funding from artists including Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, Yoko Ono and Pete Townshend.

Peoples March for Jobs 1981

The Peoples March for Jobs 1981

Most memorably from my point of view, the building also housed a Children’s Centre, attended by our daughter, and the Women’s Technology Centre, a project to train women in information technology skills which had been established, with support from Merseyside County Council and the European Social Fund, by two adult educationalists, one of whom was my wife.  So, all in all, I got to know the building very well.

The centre closed in 2004, and has stood empty and unused ever since.  But for the past few months the Liverpool Biennial have opened up the building for a group art show called A Needle Walks into a Haystack. I went inside for nostalgic reasons, but I also had a particular objective: I wanted to see if a particular feature from the glory days of resistance in the 1980s was still there.

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Walking through the disused rooms, where paint peeled, buckets caught leaks and plaster crumbled, provoked an elegiac mood.  The distinctive odour of rotting plaster permeated the place; cornices and ceiling rosettes had partly collapsed; architraves and window mouldings had crumbled with rot; old cast-iron fireplaces were filled with rubble.

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The art was rubbish, and I began to feel angry that neither the Biennial organisers, nor the artists, seemed to have made any attempt to respond to the history of this listed building and the three major functions which it had served.  Talking to a couple of the young attendants, it was clear that they knew next to nothing about the building’s history and were unaware of its iconic status for the city, whether as the ‘Old Blind School’ or as the trade union centre.

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My feelings were powerfully expressed by Zoe Pilger in her review of the Biennial for the Independent:

In March this year, cuts of £156m to Liverpool’s public services were announced, which means that half of the city’s 19 libraries are expected to close, as well as the majority of children’s  centres. Against this backdrop of social injustice, the 8th Liverpool art Biennial has just opened.

What is the relationship of art to politics? Do artists and the institutions that commission them have a responsibility to respond to the most pressing issues of the day? Or should art exist as a form of aesthetic escapism, untouched by the realities of everyday life? […]

This omission is most keenly felt in one of the biggest exhibitions, housed in the former HQ of the Merseyside Trade Union, Community, and Unemployed Resource Centre, which closed down in 2004. The sign is still printed above the door, albeit with letters missing. This stunning though derelict building is a symbol of Liverpool’s “gentrification”. The building will soon be converted into a complex of apartments, a gastro pub, a spa, and a restaurant with Michelin aspirations.

For nearly 150 years, the building was also the Old Blind School, and the interior appears untouched. Sadly, it is more fascinating than the art itself. There is a lime-green and pink art deco banister, bricked-up fireplaces, graffiti, a maze of corridors, and, most strikingly, a  ceiling mural of the “people’s march”, which shows demonstrators with fists raised and  banners flying. The paint has flaked off in places. This relic of Liverpool’s radical past seems overlooked, which is a great shame – for me, it is the most interesting work in the exhibition, despite the fact that it is not officially included.

Instead, there is a sprawling group show by international artists. There is a lot of bad art. Baskets inexplicably left in a room, a large white patent sofa shaped like a hand, boxes transformed into sheep, a painting of what appears to be a meteor, another of a space station, yet more of people copulating on a picnic blanket while an 18th-century earl looks on with feverish glee.

The elegant dilapidation of the building is an ideal space to show new, experimental, challenging work, but I found myself more enthralled by the decades of peeling patterned wallpaper, wondering what had gone on inside these walls. I would have preferred to see a bold exhibition that asked artists to respond to the history of the site.

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In another online article, Laura Harris also argued that the Biennial had shown itself to be distinctly disengaged with the reality of Liverpool’s present political situation:

Against a backdrop of cuts and arts job losses, the need for curatorial politics is perceivably augmented. Moreover, I believe that the choice of The Old Blind School as the main festival venue — an explicitly politicised, evocative space, set up by philanthropist Edward Rushton and more recently used as a Trade Union headquarters – is a promise of a politics that is traitorously unfulfilled. In choosing The Old Blind School, and failing to develop a social and historical narrative, an unspoken politics goes so resolutely ignored as to be offensive.

The site’s exhibition, A Needle Walks Into a Haystack, declares itself to be about our habits and habitats. Incorporated in the theme is an engagement with spaces and their significance; yet a deconstruction of the contextual history of the building is palpable in its absence. Instead of confronting this history in a socio-politically engaged manner, the show confronts us with impenetrable works coupled with impenetrable texts; we must rely on the pretentious copy of the programme as our interpreter. […]

The Old Blind School site itself is a relic of a struggle that continues … Once the Biennial has closed, the building is to become a boutique hotel and a restaurant with ‘Michelin aspirations’. This is gentrification worthy of the most ardent protest, and if ‘silence becomes a type of knowledge’ in the show, as claimed, the lack of protest from within the Biennial is certainly illuminating. […]

It is not enough to rely on implicit politics. It is not enough to suggest a history and leave it unspoken. Unengaged with a political present and an important social history, the Liverpool Biennial fails a public and a city. It is a missed opportunity to explore radical political alternatives, and encourage dialogue between people who feel largely ignored.

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Above one of the first floor staircases is a dome containing the feature I had come to see – a mural that condenses the history of this place into a stirring swirl of images representing episodes from Liverpool’s radical past and present. When the Merseyside Unemployed Centre took over the Hardman Street building from what had been the Old Blind School the management team commissioned Mick Jones to paint the dome in 1986 and he made a tribute not only to working class activism on Merseyside, but also to the man who helped found the Blind School.

The mural that fills the entire rotunda commemorates the Peoples’ March for Jobs in Liverpool, a celebration of all the rage and passion of 1980s political activism.  It was painted in 1986 by the artist Michael ‘Mick’ Jones, son of the Garston-born trade unionist Jack Jones.  As you crane your neck to follow the swirling design, you see depictions in socialist realist images of the 1981 Peoples March for Jobs; young unemployed people wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the message ‘Give Us a Future’; Liverpool dockers; marchers who include miner’s leader Arthur Scargill as well as Karl Marx; workers at the Halewood car plant; the house-building programme of the 80s; John Hamilton the leader of Liverpool City Council in the 1980s: the Women’s’ Technology Scheme; and the central image of Edward Rushton, one of the co-founders of the Blind School. There is a companion piece made by Mick Jones in 1993 entitled Unemployment on Merseyside – Campaigning for the Right to Work on display in the Museum of Liverpool. Mick Jones, who also painted murals in London, died in 2012

Despite the building’s mouldering condition, the colours are still surprisingly vibrant, but one large area of the paper and plaster has peeling away and hangs in mid-air.  It seems scandalous to me that a work of such significance for Liverpool should have been left to decay. Laura Harris again:

Peeling from a feature dome in the roof of the building is a mural from the space’s iteration as a Trade Union centre. Workers march together, fists in the air, to a backdrop of industry: a salient reminder of the lost art of protest. As visitors are herded around the Biennial, the mural flakes further and the true significance of the building flutters with it to the floor. The Old Blind School is offering us its own metaphor; as bit-by-bit, festival programme in hand, the people’s history is ignored…

Mick Jones Mural 1 Mick Jones Mural 2 Mick Jones Mural 3 Mick Jones Mural 5 Mick Jones Mural 6 Mick Jones Mural 7 Mick Jones Mural 8 Mick Jones Mural 9 Mick Jones Mural 10 Mick Jones Mural 11 Mick Jones Mural 12 Mick Jones Mural 13 Mick Jones Mural 14

Edward Rushton was one of Liverpool’s great radicals, not only a founder of the school for the blind, but also a campaigner against slavery and poverty.  He wrote poetry, and became a tireless campaigner against slavery and against the press gangs. He was a revolutionary republican, supporter of the American war for Independence, the French Revolution, and the struggles of the Polish and Irish people.Mick Jones has depicted him in the mural, blind in one eye, sweeping forward with representatives of all the causes he fought for cradled in his arms.

Mick Jones Mural 4

This summary of his campaigning work is taken from Nottingham Trent University’s Labouring-Class Writers Project:

Rushton (1756 – 1814) was a poet, slavery abolitionist and co-founder of the first school for the blind in the country. Born in John Street, Liverpool, Edward was the son of Thomas Rushton, a victualler. Apprenticed to a Liverpool shipping company by the age of eleven, Edward was promoted to second mate around five years later after demonstrating outstanding courage in guiding a vessel – which the captain and crew were prepared to abandon during a storm out in the Mersey Estuary – back to port.

While on a slaver bound for Dominica in 1773, Rushton grew so appalled by the sadistic treatment of the captives he remonstrated with the captain to the point of being charged with mutiny. As the only member of the crew willing to tend to their suffering, Rushton contracted the highly contagious ophthalmia, which left him blind.

Rushton’s aunt took him in shortly after his return – his father having now remarried a woman antagonised by Edward’s presence. The injustices Rushton observed at sea led to the publication of his first book-length work, The Dismembered Empire (1782), a denunciation of British rulers and merchants in the framework of the American War of Independence. His disgust at the slave trade was given further voice in The West Indian Eclogues (1787). A decade later he wrote to his former hero George Washington, pointing up the hypocrisy of retaining slaves while fighting for freedom: ‘In the name of justice what can induce you thus to tarnish your own well-earned celebrity and to impair the fair features of American liberty with so foul and indelible a blot’. A similar letter was dispatched to Thomas Paine, but neither he nor Washington tendered a reply.

After his marriage around 1784 to Isabella Rain, Rushton went on to become editor of the Liverpool Herald. This career was soon cut short after he reproached brutal press-gang practice in several articles, and rebuffed his partner’s suggestion of a retraction. This episode in Rushton’s life inspired the poem Will Clewine (1806).

When he became a bookseller at 44 Paradise Street, Rushton’s outspoken political convictions deterred potential custom, but not to the extent of preventing him from living out his life in relative comfort, and giving his children a sound education. In the late 1780s Rushton became a member of a literary and philosophical society – thought to have been the forerunner of William Roscoe and James Currie’s ill-fated radical Debating Society – where the idea of raising funds to offer care for local blind paupers came into effect. The Liverpool School for the Indigent Blind opened in 1791. Rushton published a collection of poems in 1806, and the following year an operation by the Manchester surgeon Benjamin Gibson restored his sight, enabling him to see his wife and children for the first time.

Rushton died of paralysis on 22 November 1814 at his home on Paradise Street, just a few years after the death of his wife and one of his daughters. The eldest of his four children, also Edward, became a prominent social reformer in Liverpool’s political landscape, advocating Catholic emancipation and prison reform.

There is a book about him, written by Bill Hunter, which I must get hold of. It’s called, Forgotten Hero – The Life and Times of Edward Rushton. Hunter says: ‘I wrote this book on Edward Rushton in an attempt to rescue from obscurity, this uncompromising fighter for the common people, and to pay tribute to his indomitable spirit.’

Meanwhile, the survival of Mick Jones’ wonderful mural is in doubt. The Hardman Street building was sold to the owner of the Hope Street Hotel in 2010. He intends to convert the building into a complex with serviced apartment bedrooms, a gastro-pub, bistro, chocolatiere and coffee shop, a restaurant, a spa and offices.  There ought to be a campaign to ensure that, as part of the redevelopment, the mural is preserved, along with the carving above the doorway on Hope Street which reads: ‘Christ heals the Blind For who denies / That in the mind / Dwell truer sight / And clearer light / Than in the eyes.’

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See also

 

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39 thoughts on “The scandalous decay of a brilliant representation of Liverpool’s radical past

  1. Shame to hear about the mural I remember it being painted. Use to walk under it nearly every day. Something must be done to save it. There needs to be a written account of the history of MTUCURC and the picket venue.

    1. Agree absolutely, John, on both counts. When I did a little background research on the web, I was surprised at how little (ie, virtually nothing) there is on the history of the MTUURC.

      1. It is a story that needs to be told both about MTUCURC and the picket. Especially as people who were involved from the early days are getting older. If we can take Banksy’s off wall why can’t we do that with the mural?

    1. There seems to be a number of discussions about this topic on here and on peter hootons facebook page. Maybe a save the mural facebook page to start the ballrollling or a way of people voicing their concerns and comments

    2. Stephanie – after reading your comment I sent this email to NWTUC: ‘I recently posted on my blog a response to seeing the dilapidated condition of Mick Jones’ mural celebrating radical and trade union action on Merseyside (http://wp.me/poJrg-5Bp) seen when looking around the building, opened up for the Liverpool Biennial. I’ve had several responses that ask whether there is a campaign to save the mural, including this one from Stephanie Power: ‘Is there a campaign to get Hope St Hotel owner to preserve the mural? Has anyone spoken to NWTUC?’ Given that the mural was painted by Jack Jones’ son, is the NWTUC campaigning – or seeking assurances from the building’s developer – that the mural will be preserved, with public access ensured?’

      NWTUC headquarters is in Jack Jones house.

      1. Maybe sent the email to len mc cluskey at unite. Who were very active in the development of MTUCURC as transport and general workers union

  2. We, as a crew of of artists,musicans and filmakers found ourselves with access to this building for a whole 12months during the process of the building being sold to hope street hotel, for a while, it seemingly belonged to nobody… oh what a 12months they were :)

  3. Thanks for the wonderful article and pictures. I worked there back in 2003 and my daughter went to the children’s centre. As a community development officer it was typically ironic that we were kicked out when the building was sold.We tried in vain to keep the flying picket open. Yet the building has been allowed to decay ever since. And for what? To be turned into a luxury hotel for out of towners?
    Disgusting as well that the biennial arena to have completely missed an opportunity.

  4. I’ve received a reply from Jay McKenna, Regional Campaigns and Policy Support Officer for North West TUC:

    Hi Gerry, Lynn has passed your email on to me, about a campaign to save the mural. Thanks for bringing it to our attention. We will be writing to the building owner and asking what the plans are for the building and how this will impact on the mural, along with the view that this important piece of Liverpool and trade union history should be protected. We will let you know of any response. In the meantime, if you hear of any other responses or information, please let us know. Thanks, Jay

  5. Thanks for a top article. We work with Hope St Hotel and they are very aware of the importance of the building, its history and the mural. The building was empty for well over six years; they inherited it in the state you see it today. They are a privately owned Liverpool company that are doing what they can to preserve the building, they are not a corporate monster stamping all over history! Sadly it looks unlikely that the entire mural can be saved. Unlike a Banksy or such, this mural was painted onto thin wallpaper which has degraded and is falling apart, a process that began long before Hope St Hotel took over. What can be saved will be saved, meanwhile we will be photographing and filming it with ultra-HD cameras and possibly 3D scanning it to make sure there is at least an archive of it (which we’ll make publicly available) should it not survive. This process should begin within the next week or two, we’ll let you know.

    1. This sounds like very good news, Phil. I’m sure all those who have followed this issue here, on Facebook and on Twitter will be thankful that steps are actively being taken to save the mural. When I was there, it looked to me (no expert, admittedly) that although a section of the wallpaper had fallen away, bring down the underlying plaster, the piece was still more or less intact, with just one long tear where it had separated from the ceiling (rather than having crumbled into bits). Those reading this post can perhaps see this in the photos I took when I was there. So – lets cross fingers that the rescue mission is not too late. Will you keep us up to date via this post or my email, please?

      1. I certainly can keep you posted. And I’ll pass this article onto the owners, I think they’ll appreciate people who care about this building as much as they do. It’s surreal for us being in here (we’re in the conference/studio area of the former Picket) and we are acutely aware of what these buildings mean to those who worked, created and partied here. The likes of Phil Hayes, Pete Wylie and Kev McManus have paid us a visit in recent months and it’s a humbling experience to be honest. We’ll do what little we can to help.

      2. Hi Gerry, thanks for this article! I really enjoyed reading it and following the conversation it has opened up. I’m just picking up on this thread as I’m working with Phil’s studio and with FACT on a documentary project centring on the mural and the different events and figures depicted in it, as well as its current condition and the campaign to save it. I am wondering if it there’s any way I could get in touch with you with some questions and with a bit more info on the project? It would be great to hear your thoughts on it. Thanks again, best, Lauren

      3. Many thanks for your comment, Lauren – it’s great to hear that a documentary about the mural is in the works. I’ll contact you by email.

  6. This response from Mick Whitley, Unite Regional Secretary for North West region:

    There are a number of people including Steve Mumby from Liverpool City council looking to see if we can save Mick Jones Mural from the old unemployed centre. I will keep you updated on any progress
    Regards
    Mick

    1. Thank you, Kimberly, comments like yours are much appreciated! I’ve started following yours – some great images; I look forward to seeing more!

  7. Gerry, My cousin tells me that when the building was the Merseyside Trade Union Community and Unemployed Resource Centre at 24 Hardman Street in the 1980s, there was a wooden plaque on the wall with some names of Liverpool Dockers commemorating their trades union activity on the docks. One of the names on there is TJ Brennan who was my grandfather. I would dearly love to know where that plaque now is so that I could photo it for my mother (his daughter) who is now 88 yrs old and it would be a thrill for her to see. Any ideas about where it is now ? Trades Union archives , Liverpool Council archives, Liverpool library archives. I have approached the Unite union in Jack Jones House but they could not help me. I will keep digging but any help would be welcome. Terence Connell

  8. I called round to see what had happened to the mural but the staff didn’t know what I was talking about
    I emailed Dave Brewitt but got no reply
    I have a feeling it may be part of the Hope Street Hotel rather than the Old Blind School restaurant.

    1. It was on the first floor. a corridor back from the front – pretty much dead-centre to the building if my memory serves me well. Could be the hotel, then. But what its residents would make of it, I don’t know – and anyway the question arises – has it been restored? It was in a pretty parlous state when I saw it..

      1. Mike – I emailed Mary Colston at the Hope Street Hotel and received this reply which suggests the mural is within the hotel confines, rather than the larger part of the building. Her reply also suggests a positive future for the mural:

        “As you would have seen, much of the mural is in a bad state or nonexistent. It was painted directly onto plaster and where water has come in the damage has happened.

        We hope to rescue as much as possible – the water ingress has been solved – and it will remain in full view. The rotunda will become a private area but if people request a look then we will of course accommodate a private view.”

  9. Hi Gerry, This is an excellent piece with some amazing photos, a brilliant record saved for us to appreciate, especially the valuable detail since it was vacated by the police. Thanks for all the time and info put in. I also spent many hours in there in its later use and for my own research. Being the pedantic git that I am, just a few points on its history. Its actually the third Blind School incarnation not the second. The first was in rented rooms in Commutation Row, before moving into London Road. After several years in Hardman Street, the School then moved to Wavertree in 1898 for children aged 5-16 and the Hardman Street building became the technical college for older students 16-21 where they then learned the trades you highlighted through the sculpted reliefs. You are right, the college finally closed the doors in 1958, but only a small number were left, who transferred back to Wavertree where they had already spent their younger years. Regarding Edward Rushton, he had the idea for the school and was active in its foundation, but didn’t play a role in its operation from the outset. Either he didn’t look for a role, or he may have been edged out by those who felt it was time for the ‘professionals’ to take over. His original portrait, effectively used in the mural, still hangs in the Wavertree School. The Chapel for the Blind School was actually on the corner of Great Nelson Street and Duncan Street, not London Road (a good source is Kaye’s Map of 1810 which shows the future plot with streets named). I spent 1989-91 researching and writing ‘Pioneers and Perseverance – A History of the Royal School for the Blind, Liverpool 1791-1991’ (published 1991) – and had to present a copy to the Queen when she visited the school for the anniversary in 91. Prior to that I had to catalogue the extensive school archive which was fascinating (which took 6 months). All the original minutes regarding Hardman Street, letters, plans of the building etc etc., plus copies of the letters Rushton wrote to garner support. I was also asked by the OUP to write the entry on Edward Rushton for the revised Dictionary of National Biography a couple of years later. This was before ‘Forgotten Hero’ was written and the piece by Nottingham Trent University’s Labouring-Class Writers Project, which referenced my book/research. Now forgotten too. In all the work I put in at the time, I thought I had already rescued Rushton from ‘obscurity’. Just sayin’ like. :-))) I love the site and keep coming back to it, keep up the great work! Kind regards Mike Royden (back to obscurity ;-) ) I’ll get me coat…

    1. Thanks, Mike, for the correction and extra information. I bow to your detailed knowledge and research. Your website has been a source of information on local history for me for quite a while, and I appreciate you taking the time to add this detail to my post. See you soon!

  10. Hi Gerry and thanks for the heads up.
    I visited yesterday and Mary Colston showed me what they are up to.
    They are working on renovating the cornice work at the moment but are determined to restore as much as possible (about 2/3). It will probably take another two years but it won’t go the way of some other works by Mick Jones and will be open to genuine enthusiasts to visit although not on general public display as that part will house offices.

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