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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.’
- Rushton’s letter to Washington about the president owning slaves (Word document)