Congratulations to the Liverpool 8 Superstore, BBC Food Retailer of the Year

Congratulations to the Liverpool 8 Superstore, BBC Food Retailer of the Year

It is definitely something to celebrate when the greengrocer and general store up the road from where you live is named named Food Retailer of the Year in the BBC’s Food and Farming Awards for 2015 – and the Liverpool Echo celebrates the win with a gallery of photos taken by fellow-Liverpool blogger Ronnie Hughes.

I couldn’t believe the news when I heard it on the car radio yesterday, driving home from the swimming pool.

Congratulations. It’s a great place – the only shop I know of in Liverpool where you can buy delicious medjool dates from the Palestinian Territories.

The L8 Superstore: photo by Ronnie Hughes
The L8 Superstore: photo by Ronnie Hughes

This is how the Echo reported the success of the L8 Superstore on Lodge Lane:

Judges in the BBC Food and Farming Awards 2015 said the L8 Superstore on Lodge Lane is playing a “vital role” in transforming the community.

The supermarket, which sells thousands of foods imported from all over the world and fresh vegetables, meat, fish, herbs and spices, competed for the award against two other shops in Gloucester and Aberystwyth.

It opened in 2011 on the site of the former Kwik Save and employs around 13 members of staff.

Senior staff member Jaber Mohamed spoke to the ECHO last month and said the secret of the shop’s success was giving customers what they wanted. He said: “We look after the customer and whatever they like. Whatever they want to ask for, we try to get it for them. We try to do our best and we have to follow what they want.

“We have customers from every country and there is a lot of choice for them. Some people look for brand names and others for the price. You will walk in and see food you have never seen before. We have African, we have Yemeni, Syrian, Indian, Romanian and Polish customers and foods. Some people call us the “United Nations” shop – it’s for everyone.”

Staff members Sadar Rashid, left, and Jaber Mohamed, right, celebrate after the L8 Superstore in Lodge Lane was nominated for a top retailer award by Radio 4
Staff members Sadar Rashid, left, and Jaber Mohamed, right, celebrate after the L8 Superstore in Lodge Lane was nominated for a top retailer award by Radio 4

The judges said: “Lodge Lane in Toxteth has a chequered past of problems, but in recent years the area has changed and become more vibrant, with food being at the heart of the community’s transformation.

“Liverpool 8 has played a vital role in changing a once intimidating space into a bustling one, offering a sense of community for a diverse customer base, as well as selling an abundance of herbs, spices, fresh vegetables and authentic imported ingredients.”

 See also

Tricia Porter’s photographs of Liverpool 8 in the 1970s

Tricia Porter’s photographs of Liverpool 8 in the 1970s

A week or so ago I wrote about L8 Unseen, a photography exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool.  Now I’ve been to see another exhibition of photographs from Liverpool 8, this one at the Bluecoat.  Titled, Tricia Porter: Liverpool Photographs 1972-74, the show presents images virtually unseen for 40 years which provide a vivid picture of everyday life in Liverpool 8 at a time when it was undergoing significant change leading to the break-up of close knit communities.

Tricia Porter, Men in Myrtle Street, 1972
Tricia Porter, Men in Myrtle Street, 1972

The photos were taken by Tricia Porter who arrived in the city in 1972 where she met her future husband David, then a student at Liverpool University. He lived in Catherine Street and later Percy Street, which back then were both streets in which the elegant Georgian terraces – typical of the area – were faded and often neglected by private landlords. David was keen to document the changing community, and Tricia decided  to join him to photograph the people they met. The couple were welcomed into the area, and gained the trust of the residents who allowed them access to their lives, businesses and homes.

After leaving Liverpool University in 1971, we too were making a life together in flats in the same area – first in Princes Avenue, and then in Canning Street. So I was particularly interested to see these images that triggered memories of an area that has changed in so many ways in the decades that have followed.

Tricia Porter, Local resident on the corner of Sugnall Street and Falkner Street, 1972
Tricia Porter, Local resident on the corner of Sugnall Street and Falkner Street, 1972

The Bluecoat exhibition comprises images from two series of photographs shot by Tricia Porter over a two year period. The first, Bedford Street, Liverpool 8 (1972) focused on residents at home, at work, in pubs, or out and about in the area. They include street scenes and images of individuals and families in their homes; some are portraits of well-known characters, such as the social campaigner and local councillor Margaret Simey, and Liverpool sculptor Herbert Tyson Smith in his studio at the Bluecoat.

Tricia Porter, The Chippy in Falkner Street, 1972
Tricia Porter, The Chippy in Falkner Street, 1972

Some of the most evocative images for me were of Bedford Street itself, before the shops (including Bedford Street Stores, an old-fashioned general grocery where we often shopped) and the terraced houses were demolished and replaced by university buildings as the campus began the inexorable expansion that continues to this day.

Tricia Porter, Molly in the Blackburne Arms, 1972
Tricia Porter, Molly in the Blackburne Arms, 1972

All around the area, houses were being pulled down and people relocated Part of Falkner Street was bought by the University to be developed as student accommodation, along with the north side of Bedford Street. In the summer of 1972, David and Tricia met people in their homes, in shops, pubs, schools, churches and hospital, talking with them and photographing them. In January 1973, the resulting photographs were shown at Liverpool
Academy Gallery.

Alongside examples of the photos taken by Tricia that summer, the Bluecoat exhibition also features spreads from Amateur Photographer that covered the 1973 exhibition, and a subsequent one in 1975, as well as displays of other press coverage including articles from the local press and a feature in the Merseyside Arts Association magazine, Arts Alive.

There are displays of exhibition posters, invitation card and a brochure containing Tricia’s text about her work. One poster is for an exhibition later in 1978 at the Half Moon Gallery, London. David and Tricia intended to make their texts and photographs into a book; it never happened, but a mock-up for it is on display.

Tricia Porter, Margaret Simey at home, Blackburne Place,1972
Tricia Porter, Margaret Simey at home, Blackburne Place,1972

Two years after the Bedford Street portfolio, Tricia produced another collection, called Some Liverpool Kids (1974), in which images of young people predominate, playing on Windsor Street or in the Anglican Cathedral grounds, posing for group portraits, at street parties and youth clubs, in school, shops and at home.

Tricia Porter, Football team, 1974
Tricia Porter, Football team, 1974

Taken together, these two series offer an affectionate portrait of this multicultural area and its people. It was, says the artist, ‘an attempt to make a photo documentary which would be a positive and meaningful
statement about my neighbours who had all too often been treated as statistical fodder and sociological phenomena.’

The exhibition is accompanied by an excellent illustrated brochure which includes an essay by Tricia Porter, and a foreword by Bryan Biggs, Artistic Director at the Bluecoat.  In it he writes of how he first came across Tricia Porter’s photographs in 2014 on her website.  For Bryan, as for me, her photographs struck a chord: at the time the photos were being taken, Bryan was an art student, newly arrived in Liverpool. He recalls:

The faded splendour of large, Georgian terraces, the late-night clubs stretching along Princes Avenue and ‘Upper Parly’, the hordes of young people improvising adventure playgrounds out of bomb-sites, and the Anglican Cathedral looming large over everything.

There was a vitality on the streets that is now absent in the gentrified calm of the ‘Georgian Quarter’ or the eerie stillness of the boarded up or bulldozed streets around Granby. Tricia’s photographs capture something of that time, presenting a compelling picture of everyday life in what was a truly multicultural part of the city.

Tricia Porter, Girls at the youth club,1974
Tricia Porter, Girls at the youth club,1974

This exhibition, like L8 Unseen, is part of Look 15, Liverpool’s biennial international photography festival. Bryan Biggs observes that exhibiting Tricia Porter’s photographs is important because photography ‘has changed so fundamentally – technically and democratically (it seems everyone is a photographer now) – since they were taken.’

Tricia’s photographs present not necessarily a more innocent time, but one less complex in comparison to the ubiquity today of of photographic images, their endless digital reproduction and dissemination, issues around the legalities of who ‘owns’ the right to take and distribute images of people, and the ethics of taking portraits without permission.

One could add: the possibility to take candid photos of children in the street without legal restriction or fear of being suspected of having nefarious intent.

In the exhibition brochure, Tricia Porter writes about her intentions in taking these photos:

I particularly wanted to use my photographs to portray our individuality, our unique personalities – a special and important aspect that the media and government bodies too readily ignore. People in this district of Liverpool, for instance, were often characterised as vandals or thieves.  I applied successfully to the Arts Council for funding to try to discover through photography a more truthful portrayal of the people in the community – not to conceal the serious problems of mugging or vandalism, but to focus more on aspects of everyday living and personal relationships.

This is a fascinating exhibition which not only brings back into focus what now seems a long-lost period in Liverpool’s past, but also reveals images that challenged the stereotypes of those who lived in Liverpool 8 at the time – stereotypes that over the next two decades were to intensify and become even more hostile.

See also

L8 Unseen: picturing a state of mind, an idea, a culture

L8 Unseen: picturing a state of mind, an idea, a culture

There’s an engaging photography exhibition showing at the Museum of Liverpool at the moment.  L8 Unseen features twenty arresting large-scale photographs of individuals and groups who have made their home in Liverpool 8, and whose work reflects its vibrant and determined culture.

Liverpool 8 is a state of mind, an idea, a culture, rather than just a geographical location. L8 transcends postcode boundaries.

So says historian Laurence Westgaph in the introduction to the exhibition. L8 Unseen aims to reveal that state of mind through carefully-staged photographs taken by Othello De’Souza-Hartley accompanied by filmed interviews that highlight the stories and experiences of a diverse range of people from the Liverpool 8 community.

Photographer and artist Othello De Souza-Hartley (Left) and Marc Boothe of B3 Media
Photographer and artist Othello De Souza-Hartley (left) and Marc Boothe of B3 Media

The project was the brainchild of Marc Boothe of B3 Media, and the images were captured by London photographer and artist Othello D’Souza-Hartley, who has previously exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery and the V&A. In 2014, they began gathering stories and images from the people of Liverpool 8, seeking particularly to present alternatives to the more usual, stereotypical images of the area that tend to predominate in the media.

L8 Unseen 1
L8 Unseen: Imam Mohammed Alawi, Dr Peter Grant, Father Iakovos Kasinos, and Canon Bob Lewis.

The photographs were taken in buildings which have historical significance for the people of Liverpool 8, since many of them were founded on the proceeds of the city’s international trading links and the transatlantic slave trade. Setting portraits of individuals and members of groups active in the local community in these locations encourages the viewer to reflect on the city’s history and the patterns of global trade, immigration and settlement which created the rich ethnic mix of L8 and shaped the area’s culture and identity.

So, for example, the photo of four of the area’s faith leaders – Imam Mohammed Alawi (Al Taiseer Mosque), Dr Peter Grant (Princes Road Synagogue), Father Iakovos Kasinos (St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, and Reverend Canon Bob Lewis (St Margaret of Antioch Church) – was taken in Liverpool Town Hall, one of the finest Georgian
civic buildings in the country built in 1749, but with money raised by benefactors who had made fortunes through the slave trade.

Historian Laurence Westgaph again:

The people and cultures that make up the most diverse community on Merseyside have a proud history that began more than 250 years ago. The area developed in the 18th century as Liverpool’s dock capacity increased to accommodate a greater number of larger ships. Tradesmen and builders were drawn from Scotland, Wales and Ireland and settled there.

The area also incorporates the south side of L1 known as ‘Sailortown’ where mainly male migrants from Africa, Asia and the Americas originally settled. Many went on to marry the daughters of their white neighbours. Some of these men and women crossed over the Parliament Street border with their families into the north west end of Toxteth during the 19th and early 20th centuries. …

From there, the community continued to migrate further east and by the 1960s many of the descendants of the early L8 community were actually living in L7, in the Georgian townhouses of Falkner Street, Upper Canning and Upper Huskisson Street. Some in the community were upwardly mobile, owning family businesses and providing vital services to the multitude of seafarers who were confronted by signs in the windows of boarding houses saying ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’.

L8 Unseen 2
L8 Unseen: Tayo Aluko, Ramon ‘Sugar’ Deen, and Laurence Westgaph in the Athenaeum

One of the most successful – and striking – images in the exhibition presents three local men of Afro-Caribbean heritage and successful in the arts and media in the setting of the Athenaeum, the oldest private members’ club in Liverpool, in existence since 1797. The club was founded by Liverpool’s most prominent citizens, many of whom, the exhibition commentary notes, were involved in slavery and the transatlantic slave trade(but note the comment below from David Steers).

The photo features Tayo Aluko (born in Nigeria, a writer, actor and singer who trained and worked as an architect in Liverpool, before he gave up architecture to travel the world performing his one-man play about Paul Robeson), Ramon ‘Sugar’ Deen (club and cabaret singer in the Merseybeat days), and Laurence Westgaph (historian who grew up on the Falkner estate in the 1980s).

L8 Unseen Bill Harpe
L8 Unseen: Bill Harpe in the Black-E

Many of the individuals you encounter in these images are well-known to people who live in the area, but less so beyond. One who certainly has a wider profile is Bill Harpe, co-founder and director of the Black-E Community Arts Centre.  Originally from county Durham, Bill came to Liverpool in 1961 to dance at the Empire Theatre. Falling in love with Liverpool 8, he set up home here and founded Britain’s first community arts project. The project was originally known as the Blackie – a scouse shortening of ‘The Black Church’, describing the Congregational Chapel built as the Great George Street Church in 1840 and by the 1960s darkened with a century of city smoke and grime – though now goes by the name The Black-E , more appropriate perhaps, given the proximity of the building to Britain’s oldest established African-Caribbean community – and to Europe’s oldest Chinatown – as well as the project’s commitment to cultural diversity.

L8 Unseen Pagoda Chinese Youth Orchestra
L8 Unseen: The Pagoda Chinese Youth Orchestra

The Pagoda Chinese Youth Orchestra is based in Liverpool and is the first and largest Chinese youth orchestra in Europe. It teaches young people how to play traditional Chinese musical instruments and offers a programme of training and performance opportunities throughout the year.

At the entrance to the exhibition a panel carries these words from Marc Boothe, Producer, B3 Media:

Liverpool 8 can be different things to different people. For some it is an idea, a culture, rather than simply a geographical location. L8 transcends postcode boundaries. Yet L8 is also a definite space.

Generations of families have come, lived and forged their own identities here. At times their stories have taken in riots and rebellion as well as the everyday human journey of births and deaths, loves and struggles and making a hard living. Memories and stories merge, where do they begin and end? They might arise in China, Somalia or Poland but they continue here and enrich the lives of those in L8, in Britain and in other parts of the world. But L8 it is not a place where separate communities live separate lives. It is these stories of shared experiences that capture the real spirit and heritage of the area from the past and the present, for the future.

L8 Unseen 3
L8 Unseen: Sheila Coleman, Donna Kassim and Sonia Bassey pictured in 19 Abercromby Square.

Three women with a strong sense of pride, political awareness and community activism are pictured in 19 Abercromby Square, an elegant town house, now part of the University of Liverpool.  The house was built in the 1860s for the affluent businessman Charles Kuhn Prioleau from South Carolina who supported the Confederacy during the American Civil War, and helped finance the construction of the Alabama, built in secret at John Lairds shipyard, Birkenhead before serving the Southern cause by attacking Union merchant and naval ships.

Sheila Coleman hails from from a large Liverpool-Irish family, and calls herself ‘scouse, not English’. She’s a well-known activist and campaigner, particularly as spokesperson for the Hillsborough Justice Campaign. She currently works as the North West region community coordinator for the trade union Unite. Donna Kassim is Regional Officer for Unite, while Sonia Bassey, following a successful career as a community artist and director of her own business, now works in local government, responsible for family services.

L8 Unseen Tiber Young People's Steering Group
L8 Unseen: Tiber Young People’s Steering Group in the boardroom of the Royal Liver Building

The Tiber Young People’s Steering Group consists of young people from the Lodge Lane area who are fully involved in planning and decision-making for a major project to build a public square on the Tiber Street site (chosen by the retail guru Mary Portas to be part of her UK-wide campaign to ‘save the high street’). There’s an interesting clip on Vimeo in which Tiber Youth Facilitator Stephen Nze talks about the project and his work.

So what is the culture of L8? Maybe it is the culture of accepting,
tolerating and welcoming people from other cultures. This can be demonstrated in the most obvious and meaningful way, through ‘interracial’ marriage and relationships. It is not a neighbourhood where separate communities live separate lives within a multi-cultural area, similar to what can be seen in many other towns and cities in Britain. L8 is a community where people from all parts of the globe have intermingled genetically and otherwise, for generations.
Laurence Westgaph, Historian – L8

L8 Unseen is a multimedia exhibition – visitors are offered a number of ways to access the content, including a smartphone app that will play extracts from the oral history interviews as visitors walk around the display. In a separate space there is a continuous screening of the oral histories, complemented by archive photography and stories from the Liverpool 8 Old Photos Facebook group, while visitors are encouraged to add their own L8 tales via a video booth.

The exhibition is part of Look 15, the Liverpool International Photography Festival, which continues throughout May. This year’s theme, Exchange, explores three key topics and the interactions between them: Migration, Women and Photography, and Memory.

See also

Razzle Dazzle on the Mersey

Razzle Dazzle on the Mersey

One Saturday morning some time in the mid-1980s, when home-grown art works and photographs were displayed for sale on the railings outside the Bluecoat Arts Centre, I bought this moody photo, taken in 1984, of the Seacombe ferry arriving at the old wooden landing stage at Pier Head.  It’s either early morning or a late winter afternoon. Shot by a photographer who has signed the print, but whose signature I can’t decipher, this iconic image has hung in our hall since we moved in here some thirty years ago.

Ferry Cross the Mersey, 1984
Ferry Cross the Mersey, 1984

I love this photo. For me, it’s as evocative of the city I arrived in as a student in the sixties as Gerry Marsden’s lyric:

Life goes on day after day
Hearts torn in every way
So ferry ‘cross the Mersey
‘Cause this land’s the place I love
And here I’ll stay

I always see the city back then in monochrome, like this image. The ferry in the photo would be either the Woodchurch or her sister ship, the Mountwood, both of  which have plied the river constantly since coming into service in 1959 (it was the Mountwood that featured in the film Ferry Cross The Mersey, inspired by the Gerry & The Pacemakers song, and in the opening titles of The Liver Birds.

The Woodchurch  had a complete refit in 2003, returning to service as the Snowdrop (all the Mersey Ferries now have flower names; the Mountwood is now the Royal Iris).  I like to think it’s the Woodchurch in our photo, since it has now been transformed into a dazzling, colourful mobile artwork which, I’m certain, none of us back in the sixties when Gerry sang about it, or in the eighties when my photo was taken could ever have imagined. Imagine. This:

Peter Blake, Everybody Razzle Dazzle, 2014
Peter Blake, Everybody Razzle Dazzle, 2014

The hallucinatory paint job is the work of Sir Peter Blake, who was commissioned by Liverpool Biennial in partnership with Tate Liverpool and 14-18 NOW, the World War 1 Centenary cultural commemoration body.  Because, behind the dazzling, psychedelic colours, this work is actually a First World War memorial.

Dazzle Ferry 1

Dazzle Ferry 2

Dazzle Ferry 3

Dazzle Ferry 5
Setting forth on the Razzle

The Biennial website explains the ocular principles behind 1WW dazzle ships and their links to contemporary art:

Dazzle painting was a system for camouflaging ships that was introduced in early 1917, at a time when German submarines were threatening to cut off Britain’s trade and supplies. The idea was not to ‘hide’ the ships, but to paint them in such a way that their appearance was optically distorted, so that it was difficult for a submarine to calculate the course the ship was travelling on, and so know from what angle to attack. The dazzle was achieved by painting the ship in contrasting stripes and curves that broke up its shape. Characterised by garish colours and a sharp patchwork design of interlocking shapes, the spectacular ‘dazzle’ style was heavily indebted to Cubism.

Dazzle painting was invented by a marine painter, Norman Wilkinson, a future President of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours. Artist Edward Wadsworth, who supervised the application of ‘dazzle’ patterning to over 2,000 ships, later made a series of paintings on the subject.Though the practice has largely (but not entirely) fallen out of fashion in the military, ‘dazzle’ remains a source of inspiration to artists today.

Peter Blake, Design Motifs for Everybody Razzle Dazzle
Peter Blake, Design Motifs for Everybody Razzle Dazzle

So, as well as being a moving artwork, those who board the Snowdrop can learn more about the history of dazzle and the role that the Mersey Ferries took in the First World War from a display developed by curators from National Museums Liverpool and Tate Liverpool.

Peter Blake's Sgt Pepper album cover
Peter Blake’s Sgt Pepper album cover

Peter Blake has had a long association with Liverpool over the years – most famously with the cover he designed for the Beatles Sgt. Pepper album in 1967 – but his Scouse connections go further back. While doing his National Service in the RAF, he would sail from Liverpool to Belfast, and in 1961 his Self Portrait With Badges won the junior section of the John Moores Prizes. He gave the £250 prize money to his dad.

Peter Blake, Self-Portrait with Badges, 1961
Peter Blake, Self-Portrait with Badges, 1961

Blake’s self-portrait shows his equal respect for historical tradition (he based the image on Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait The Blue Boy) and modern popular culture (Blake replaces blue silk with denim, and embeds references to his love for American youth culture – his baseball boots and badges, and the Elvis magazine).

Peter Blake, The First Real Target, 1961
Peter Blake, The First Real Target, 1961
Peter Blake, A Souvenir of the Peter Blake Retrospective, Tate Liverpool, 2007
Peter Blake, A Souvenir of the Peter Blake Retrospective, Tate Liverpool, 2007

Eight years ago, Tate Liverpool hosted Peter Blake: A Retrospective, the largest since an exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1983, where I was able to see such works as the Self-Portrait and the delightful The Meeting’ or `Have a Nice Day, Mr Hockney, painted after in 1983 a trip to California where he stayed with David Hockney, an ironic re-working of Gustave Courbet’s painting The Meeting or ‘Bonjour Monsieur Courbet’.

'The Meeting' or 'Have a Nice Day, Mr Hockney' 1981-3
‘The Meeting’ or ‘Have a Nice Day, Mr Hockney’, 1981-3

Peter Blake’s work has always reflected his fascination with all aspects of popular culture, and the beauty to be found in everyday objects and surroundings. Many of his works feature found printed materials such as photographs, comic strips or advertising texts, combined with bold geometric patterns and the use of primary colours.

Peter Blake, Liverpool 2008, Capital of Culture, 2012
Peter Blake, Liverpool 2008, Capital of Culture, 2012

Blake’s works capture childhood images from the fifties and the optimistic youth culture of the sixties. His work is permeated with a nostalgia for childhood innocence.

Peter Blake  and the Dazzle Ferry
Peter Blake and the Dazzle Ferry

Everybody Razzle Dazzle: short Tate film

Those who take the ferry are entertained by the number that provided the inspiration for Peter Blake’s title – ‘Everybody Razzle Dazzle’ by Bill Haley:

A few years ago, we spent a a whole, sun-kissed day on the ferry Snowdrop – taking the Mersey Ferries cruise along the Manchester Ship Canal.

Apart from being dazzled by Peter Blake’s ferry, I continue to be besotted with the magnificent beauty of Liverpool’s waterfront – especially as seen on a day of clear blue skies, when the temperature on the Mersey was the same as at Nice on the Mediterranean.

Pier Head April 14

Pier Head April 14 3

Pier Head April 14 2
Brutal juxtapositions at the Pier Head

See also

The scandalous decay of a brilliant representation of Liverpool’s radical past

The scandalous decay of a brilliant representation of Liverpool’s radical past

Mick Jones Mural 2

The Mick Jones mural in the Old Blind School

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 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 home 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.


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.


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…

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.’


See also


Noel Chavasse: WW1 hero from Liverpool

Noel Chavasse: WW1 hero from Liverpool

Noel Chavasse in uniform

When the Liverpool One complex opened in 2008 it incorporated a once-shabby open space named Chavasse Park, named in commemoration of Noel Chavasse, son of a former bishop of Liverpool and the only man to be twice awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery during the First World War.  Knowing something of the extraordinary acts of bravery that earned him the double VC, and having had read some of his remarkable letters home from the Western Front, I knew his grave was one place I wanted to visit on my recent WW1 trip.

This hero from Liverpool wasn’t even a frontline soldier, but a medical officer.  However, he was awarded the double VC  for some of the bravest and most unselfish acts of the entire war.

Noel Chavasse grew up in Liverpool, where his father was the Bishop of Liverpool (he launched the project to build the Anglican cathedral). Noel qualified as a doctor and was 30 when the war broke out. Like most families, the Chavasses were deeply affected by the war. Noel’s brothers, Bernard, Aidan and Christopher, also served in the King’s Liverpool Regiment. Noel and Aidan were not to return – Noel died in Flanders, and Aidan was one of the Flanders missing (his name is recorded on the Menin Gate at Ypres).

Aidan Chavasse Menin Gate

Aidan Chavasse: one of the missing, his name recorded on the Menin Gate, Ypres

With his background in medicine, Noel Chavasse served in the Royal Army Medical Corps as Medical Officer to the Kings Liverpool Regiment in Flanders. He was in the trenches at Sanctuary Wood, near Ypres, and experienced the horrors of  the battle of Passchendaele. Throughout his time in Flanders he wrote home regularly to his family. These letters provide a graphic and moving account of trench warfare and record his increasingly critical observations on the brutality and waste of the war. His father, the Bishop, had some of them printed and privately circulated back in England.

Noel Chavasse’s letters form the core of Ann Clayton’s book, Chavasse: Double VC, from which these examples are taken.

Marching away to war

The Liverpool Scottish, leaving for the front in 1914

The Liverpool Scottish, leaving for the front in 1914

‘Thank you for the parcel of clothes for my RAMC boys. They are not Liverpool Scottish lads, but are detached from a St Helens Field Ambulance (5 of them) to look after water carts etc. They are poor boys and are not well off like most of our Liverpool Scottish, so they need better clothing and are very grateful. This is our last night in Old England. I don’t quite know what lies ahead, and I rather dread the thought of roughing it through the winter, but I have got devoted to the battalion. I have inoculated and vaccinated them, had all their teeth put right, and settled up their feet, and I think now that as far as fitness goes, they want a lot of beating.’

‘Even marching from the station [St Omer] yesterday through the crowded streets, they marched past as if they were marching from Sefton Park, but finer and steadier than ever Liverpool people saw them march. I believe and hope fervently that the Liverpool Scottish will ‘get into it shortly’, and that if they do a great boost will be given to recruitment.’

– 5 November 1914. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p71.

We hate the war worse than we thought we could.

Liverpool Scottish Bellewaarde Farm 16 June 1915

The Liverpool Scottish under fire at Bellewaarde Farm, 16 June 1915

Noel Chavasse records the death of Captain Arthur Twentyman, the first Liverpool Scottish soldier to die. The Liverpool Scottish occupied trenches in the Kemmel area, five miles south of Ypres. They suffered their first fatality on 29 November –  Captain Arthur Twentyman, killed while attempting to return to British lines. The combination of severe winter and trench warfare soon depleted the strength of the Liverpool Scottish. From an establishment of 26 officers and 829 men recorded in November, the battalion had dwindled to 370 able-bodied men by January 1915.

‘We heard the sad news by telephone from the trenches. He had been over rash – he was screened by a hedge, but not sufficiently, and was shot through the heart. I feel very sad about it because I liked him the best of the whole lot, and he has always been invariably kind to me… and I miss him very much. That evening the Colonel told me he wished me to take my stretcher-bearers up, and bring him down. At first the zip, zip of bullets hitting the sandbags close to one’s head was rather disconcerting, then it became just part of the general environment. At one point we had to get past a gate where a sniper lay in wait. I went by doing the 100 well within 10 sec…. We had to rest 5 times while crossing a ploughed field as the Captain was very heavy on the improvised Stretcher (2 poles and a greatcoat). On the way I saw a group of 10 dead Frenchmen. Next evening, the men came out of the trenches. The young chaps were haggard, white, and stooped like old men, but they had done gallantly…. 2 men have lost their nerve….Two days ago the King inspected us from a motor car, and now we are to go back to the trenches, tomorrow night. We all hate the war worse than we thought we could. Today, we are the supports. We are on a hill and look over a plain towards the spires of Ypres, for all the world like Oxford from the Hinksey Hill.

– 5 December 1914. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p80.

Knee-deep in mud: another graphic account of life in the trenches

Liverpool Scottish trench, 1915

 Liverpool Scottish trench, 1915

‘Our men have had a terrible experience of 72 hours in trenches, drenched through and in some places knee-deep in mud and water. To see them come out, and line up, and march off is almost terrible. They don’t look like strong young men. They are muddled to the eyes. Their coats are plastered with mud and weigh an awful weight with the water which has soaked in. Their backs are bent, and they stagger and totter along with the weight of their packs. Their faces are white and haggard and their eyes glare out from mud which with short, bristly beards give them an almost beast like look. They look like wounded or sick wild things. I have seen nothing like it. The collapse after rowing or running is nothing to it. Many, too many, who are quite beat, have to be told they must walk it. Then comes a nightmare of a march for about 2 to 4 miles, when the men walk in a trance…and in about 3 days, they are as fit as ever again.’

– 11 December 1914. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p82.

The tortured city: Noel Chavasse describes the effects of the German shelling of Ypres

Ruins of Ypres Market Square, 1915

The ruins of Ypres Market Square, 1915

‘Every now and then there passes overhead a thunderous shriek, like an express train tearing through a small station. This is followed by a dull roar, these are the real Jack Johnsons on their way to level an ancient city to the ground. I don’t know what thunderbolts of wrath were hurled on the cities of the plains, but they could not have been more terrible than those forged by the Hun. We hear them pass all day and we hear them crash and looking over tangled and shell-pocked fields we can see great pillars of smoke and dust rising from the tortured city.

It is wonderful to see how quickly but how graciously Nature tries to hide the hideous scars made by man in the countryside. I have now lived for a month in a shattered village 400 yards behind our trenches. When we came at the beginning of April, all around was a stark, staring, hideous abomination of desolation. The place was a ruin and wreckage of homes, with an awful collection of refuse left by French troops and a stink of decaying organic matter.

Now the shells of the houses are being veiled by blossom, in the rubbish flowers are forcing their ways up to the sunlight, and a kindly green veil is being drawn over all the unsightliness and shame of the outraged homestead. Meanwhile, between the bursts of cannonade, the birds sing ever so sweetly and are building everywhere. I found one only yesterday in a dugout. Every morning I walk across green fields, drinking in the sunlight…’

– 2 May 1915. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p107.

In this letter, Noel Chavasse describes the extent of destruction in Ypres by June 1915 (though not naming it for fear of the censor):

At the time of writing I am in a trench on short rations which we don’t like half as much as shortbread. We had to go through a city of which you have heard a lot and it is now all knocked to pieces, it is practically only a rubbish heap. You pass between rows of empty houses all gutted by fire and only bits of the outer walls standing, some are absolutely levelled to the ground, and one passes between heaps of smouldering rubbish. When we went through there were two big fires blazing and the whole city is given over to the flames. The smell is appalling. I was afraid a great many people are buried in the cellars under the debris.

– 5 June 1915. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p116.

A sad but necessary job

Liverpool Scottish Bellewaarde Farm 16 June 1915

The Liverpool Scottish near Hooge, 16 June 1915

This letter was written to Madeleine, the daughter of Professor Twemlow, with whom Noel had become acquainted whilst at Liverpool University. The Twemlow family lived on Upper Parliament Street, a short walk from the Bishop’s Palace on Abercromby Square. The letter provides a vivid account of his life under fire in the Hooge area, just outside Ypres. He also describes in a very matter of fact manner, the ‘sad but necessary job’ that led to his reputation for bravery and selfless concern for the soldiers.

As we carried our stuff to the trenches we had to pass through a little copse. It was about 11 p.m. and in the copse a nightingale sang most sweetly. This was most remarkable because bullets were spattering through the trees all the time and frequently shells burst quite near so that its song was drowned. But it did not mind and continued singing all the time. It sings every night and I love to hear it.

When we got to our dug-outs we found we had a hot spot because they are played upon by a machine gun. We found this out to our cost two days ago because as one of my poor stretcher-bearers was chopping up some wood to boil some tea the Maxim gun suddenly let off and a little shower of bullets kicked up the earth all round him. One bullet pierced his head and he dropped unconscious. He lived still when we put him onto the ambulance, but we hear he died on the way to hospital.

I have now had 4 stretcher-bearers killed and one wounded, and one has had to go home with a strained heart and another because his nerves gave way after a very bad shelling. That is 7 out of 16 already. Last night I had a bad but necessary job. I had to crawl out behind part of the trench and bury three poor Englishmen who had been killed by a shell. I am going out after another tonight. This is the seamy side of war, but all is repaired in the feeling of comradeship and friendship made out here. It is a fine life and a man’s job, but I think I shall be glad to get home again.

– 5 June 1915. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p116.

 The attack itself was somewhat on this wise

The site of Hooge battlefield in 1919

The site of the battlefield at Hooge in 1919

The battle of Hooge took place on 16 June 1915, and the Liverpool Scottish played a major part. The objective was to capture the German trenches that lay between the Menin Road and the Ypres-Roulers railway, where a salient had been formed, bulging into the British lines. This is Noel’s account:

I have not been able to write for some time, but I have much to tell you now. All leave was cancelled, and we were told…that the Battalion would take part in a charge on the German trenches… The attack itself was somewhat on this wise. Our brigade had to take a thousand yards of trenches. Another battalion was to take the first line. We were to rush over and take the second line, and then they were to come over us again, and take the third line. The artillery were to bombard each line before it was taken. As a matter of fact our men made such a splendid rush that they carried all three trenches in fifteen minutes, and even penetrated the 4th line. But the artillery continued to shell the advanced trenches, according to order – the smoke obscuring everything. A great many of our own poor fellows were wiped out by our own shells. Then for some reason the people on our right gave way, and the Germans also began to come round us on the left, so our men were in the air at both ends, and had to retire to the first line we had- taken, and at one place to our second line. In this way a great many wounded fell into the German’s hands, among them three great friends of mine — Kenneth Gemmeil, and Captain Ronald Dickinson (the latter, I fear, dying), and Captain McKinnell, who went on ·leave with me. The remnant of our battalion was relieved the same night. 130 men reached the camp out of 550 who had marched out the previous day; 2 Officers (both Lieutenants) were left out of 22. The trench is a great gain, as it commands a very extensive view of our part of Belgium.

All the next day I had to look after my 11 wounded, and to try to shelter them from the sun under the mud wall. I then made a tour of the trenches, to see if any wounded were lying out, and learnt that one had been heard to cry from a trench between the lines, and got a bullet through the shoulder for his pains. A brave Officer had slipped out and given him a drink. J also found a great many wounded Germans and English – in ‘dug-outs’ in the trenches, but none of our men. I reported them, so that they could be carried back at night. When it was dark I brought up a stretcher, and an Officer of the regiment holding the trenches crawled out to the ‘Jack Johnson’ hole where the poor Scottie was lying. When we crawled to the hole I found that it was an Officer, such a nice chap, with a broken thigh. You may be sure he was glad to see us. The other Officers went back to get the stretcher, and the poor wounded chap put his hands in mine, and we sat in the ‘Jack Johnson’ hole, holding hands like kids. Then we got him into the stretcher, and ran him back to the trench, where many willing hands helped to lift him in.

Just after, Germans were heard crawling in front, and we expected the trench to be attacked. They gave me a spade. But nothing happened, except that a Maxim of ours swept the ground where they were. We got him back, and dressed him, and saw him carried off to hospital.

And then I went to see another bit in front of another part of our trench. The Engineers were there already, putting up barbed wire, and they had searched the ground thoroughly, but we found and carried back a poor chap from another regiment.

Then I was beaten for a bit, but a drop of brandy made me feel all right, so I did one more little crawl to search some ‘dug-outs’ in front of another part of our line, but only found dead Germans.

– 20 June 1915. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p121.

Letter to a twelve year old

Attending to wounded in the advanced dressing station on Hill 60

Attending to wounded in an advanced dressing station on Hill 60

This letter was written to Cecily Twemlow, aged 12 and describes aspects of trench life and Noel’s work as a Medical officer.

Advanced Regimental Aid Post,
You know of what Regiment but
You don’t know where exactly – In Flanders.
July 23rd. 1915.

My Dear Cecily,

Just after I had got back from leave we were ordered back to the trenches. We were not able to take up much of a line, as we are only 200 fighting strength but we have a nice little compact piece of trench to manage. I will explain it to you. First, there is the fire-trench about 1SO yards away from the Germans. This trench is fairly comfortable and although we have been in the trenches 9 days I have only sent 3 sick men to hospital. We draw lime-juice for them instead of fresh vegetables and meat and we send a petrol tin round on all hot days at noon and give each man a good cupful. We also give them a great treat. There are potatoes in a farmhouse close by and we buy them for the men. You should see how they fry them on little fires they make out of chips of wood in tins. But best of all a stream flows through the trench. It comes from the German lines and has been poisoned with arsenic and they must not drink it but I have got basins made out of biscuit tins by a clever Sergeant of mine, and have canvas baths brought up and the men wash three at a time.

Behind this trench is a wood and through the wood a little fort called a redoubt (I think that is how it is spelt). In this little fort are 50 men, who if the Germans break through the first line never leave it but fire on the enemy all round, till they drive them back or get wiped out.

Then close by the fort is the sapper trench and at one end of this trench, I have my Advanced Dressing Station and live in a little dug-out I have had built. In two other little dug-outs live two medical orderlies and four stretcher-bearers. These are round a little square, and in the middle of the square we are building a large dug-out with one side open, and large enough to hold four stretchers. This is our hospital. From this medical square, a communication trench goes back for ‘half a mile to a road and there is also a path over the fields for night.

A way back by the road is a large house, in the cellar of which I keep a medical corporal and four men. Here I send seedy men for the night, and they can have a stretcher and a blanket and milk, eggs and bread, and are very comfortable, and soon get well. Here too I keep most of my dressings and bad cases are properly dressed here, after I have given first aid in the trench. The ambulances come here every night and take the wounded men away. Of course, any man who can walk can get back to the dressing station in the daytime down the communication trench. The bad cases must wait till night and be carried down the path.

I am writing this in my little dug-out. I am very cosy. It is very wet outside and the men go slosh, slosh, along the trench and so I have drawn the curtain (a sand bag) across the little window (a real little window with glass) and am waiting for my supper – fish (sardines), thick bread and jam. A fine feast, if no-one gets hit …

With love,

Your affect. friend,

Noel Chavasse.

– 23 July 1915. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p127.

A smell of death hung on the damp air

Sanctuary Wood 1915

Sanctuary Wood in 1915

Noel provides a vivid account of the attack on Sanctuary Wood in late September 1915, ‘the dreariest and most dreadful spot in the whole of that desolation of abomination called the firing line’.

I have been the witness of as gallant a charge as ever took place, which has ended, so far as we are concerned, in our line here being exactly the same as it was before; but two regiments at least are cut to pieces. I doubt if much attention will be paid to it in despatches; yet it was the biggest thing that has happened since we came into this tortured spot, and as usual everybody responded to the call of duty, and blood was poured out like water, and lives cast away as carelessly as old boots. I am sick of seeing men sent out to die in the mud which is the mould of former battalions ‘gone under’; but it will always be a delightful honour to lend a hand to the wounded heroes, and so in spite of all, in a selfish sense, this year has been the happiest of my life.

Our Brigade was in reserve. There was a barn for the men and good dug-outs for the Officers. We had hardly laid down when a terrific bombardment took place. The Huns did not make much reply, but some shells dropped very close to our dug-outs I believe; I was too sleepy to notice much that happened. At 7.30 a.m. batches of prisoners arrived and I went out and inspected them. The first batch was pretty good; afterwards there were some very poor, low, types of men; but among them was one Officer who gazed about him with defiance and hauteur, and marched off with head erect and stiff back. He was only nineteen, but everybody liked him. In the afternoon the bombardment began again…

Finally, we reached the wood, and I got my men settled in about 11 p.m. The wood we were in was full of dressing-stations, and I wandered about till at last I hit on one. It had been the dressing-station of a Highland regiment, but the doctor and stretcher-bearers had been sent off exhausted, and the relieving doctor was trying to tackle the work. His relief when I offered our stretcher-bearers’ services was very plain. The trenches; he said, were choked with wounded. He could not cope with it. The R.A.M.C. had gone to lend a hand, but they were insufficient. I asked our Colonel’s leave, and he said he thought it was our duty to do all we could. So I called out my poor, sleepy, tired men, who came with splendid grace, saying that they knew how they had appreciated help given to them after June 16th. I was now wide awake and fresh as a goat. We had the communication trenches pointed out to us. It was a dark night, but lighted up by the flares shooting up nearly all round us.

The trench first led through a dreadful wood. The trees, stark and blasted, dripped with rain. Straggling briars were the only vegetation. The ground was pocked with shell holes, through which poured muddy water. A smell of death hung on the damp air. Bullets snapped amongst the splintered and blasted trees, and every now and again a shell fell and burst somewhere.

We hurried on, picking our way by the spasms of light, and suddenly found the trench ended in a large shell hole, in which floated the body of a Highlander. A Highlander limping back from the trenches — the only thing near us – pointed out our direction, and we emerged from the wood, and saw before us a muddy, shell-stricken rise of clay, on the ridge of which were our trenches.

I have described this place in detail, because by many it is supposed to be the dreariest and most dreadful spot in the whole of that desolation of abomination called the firing line. It is indeed the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Bunyan alone could describe its weird horror. It fairly grips the heart … Just here about a little party of wearied men who had charged so gallantly told us that close by in a bomb store two men had lain wounded and forgotten for nearly two days, so my men set off to bring them in. I believe that these poor fellows would not have been found for another two days if we had not heard of them, for no reinforcements were sent there.

It was now getting near morning, and all my men were gone, but I had a haversack full of dressings, and helped by a capital medical corporal, searched among the trenches for the wounded. Some of these were pitiful beyond words, but bore their sufferings with a patient courage, of which mere words are not worthy. I thought I might as well wash the mud away, and put a dressing on, even if we could not get them all removed at once, but the Officers near spared a man here and there. My men, though very tired, came back in the early morning for a second carry, and one by one the worst cases were borne away down the stricken slope, through the dismal wood, to the dug-out dressing station, where the doctors made good my clumsy trench efforts, and then despatched them to the collecting post, from which they had to be carried a mile through mud to the ambulance wagon.

At 4 a.m. some men came trooping along from advanced trenches, because they were not safe by day, as they were shelled. They reported that these trenches were full of wounded. These were the very advanced trenches, dug in front of our wire, out of which the men jump for the charge.

I could not bear to think of our wounded lying in trenches which would be shelled. They get so terrified. So I went up with my faithful orderly, to see how many there were. We found in one sector about nine. We got two of them dragged down. It was a long and tedious job…

– 28 September 1915. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p136.

The mud was fearful

PilckemRidge1August1917 British stretcher bearers carrying wounded in deep mud near Boezinge

British stretcher bearers carrying wounded in deep mud

Here Noel describes the attack on Guillemont, August 1916, in which the Liverpool Scottish suffered heavy casualties. It was here that Noel Chavasse performed the acts of bravery in searching for wounded in front of enemy lines for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. The citation states that ‘under heavy fire, he carried an urgent case for 500 yards into safety, being wounded in the side by a shell splinter during the journey…Altogether he saved the lives of some twenty badly wounded men…His courage and self-sacrifice were beyond praise.’

‘We found an R.E. man. My S.B. Corporal bent over him and found him bleeding badly from one arm and held the main artery, and then we put a tourniquet on with a respirator string. Then I found that the arm was all but off and was only a source of danger. So I cut it off with a pair of scissors and did the stump up. We had to do everything by the light of an electric torch and when we got a stretcher it took us two hours to get him out of the wood….

The mud was fearful. While I and my Corporal were dressing a case we both sank up to our knees in the mud of the trench. Men had to be dug out and some poor wounded of another battalion perished in the mud. We had one sad casualty. A poor fellow was crouching at the bottom of the trench when there was a slip which buried him, and he was dead when he was dug out. Both his brothers have been in the Scottish and have been killed. His mother committed suicide after the death of the 2nd. There is only a sister left.’

– 26 September 1916. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p163.

Brandhoek 2Brandhoek 1

Brandhoek New Military Cemetery

Noel Chavasse is buried in the New Military Cemetery at Brandhoek, a little village just west of Ypres.  It was here, in May 1915, that Field Ambulance No. 81 of the British 27th Division established a dressing station as medical units were pulled back from Ypres in the face of German attacks. Brjtish serviceman soon began burying their fallen comrades in a field adjojning the dressing station, which became Brandhoek Military Cemetery. Brandhoek remained a site for medical units, from field ambulances and dressing stations to large casualty clearing stations, throughout the war.

In the summer of 1917, in preparation for the major Allied offensive which would become known as ‘Third Ypres’, three
casualty clearing stations were sent to Brandhoek. Land was also set aside for two new cemeteries, Brandhoek New Military
Cemetery and Brandhoek New Military Cemetery No. 3. The former contains over 550 burials, including those of 28 German soldiers, all dating from 1917. Over 500 British officers and men werelaid to rest here in July and August 1917,including captain Noel Chavasse, one of only three men in history to have been awarded theVictoria Cross twice. All three of the Brandhoek cemeteries were designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield, the architect of the Menin Gate Memorial.

It’s a small cemetery, tucked (like the one where I found the grave of Edward Thomas) behind the back gardens of a quiet street (though when I arrived the street was noisy with machinery digging a trench to lay new mains water pipes) . On one side, back gardens with greenhouses and vegetable plots; on the other a field of maize, reaching taller than I am.

Brandhoek approach

The approach to the cemetery

Noel Chavasse was awarded his first VC for ‘the most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty’ during the attack on Guillemont, in the Ypres salient, in August 1916. The second VC was awarded posthumously for his bravery in the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) in August 1917.

After setting up an Aid Post in a captured German dugout he was wounded in the head during an attack. Chavasse returned to his aid post after treatment at the Main Dressing station at Weiiltje. For a further 2 days and nights without rest or food he carried out further treatment on wounded men. He received two further serious wounds but refused to leave his post. Several times he searched the surrounding area under heavy fire for wounded, eventually receiving a mortal abdominal wound from a shell which penetrated the dugout. He was evacuated to a Casualty Clearing Station but died there on 4 August 1917 (the third anniversary of the outbreak of war).

This is the account given by Ann Clayton in her book:

Early in the attack on 31 July, while standing up and waving to soldiers to indicate the location of the aid post, Noel was hit by a shell splinter. It may be that his skull was fractured… He was, however, well enough to walk back to the dressing station at Wieltje dug-out, where the wound was dressed. He was told, or at least advised, to stay in the dug-out until he could be taken back to the casualty clearing station for proper treatment. But he refused, declaring that there was no one to take his place. So back he went to the aid post on the Passchendaele Road.

There was very little food, a shortage of water, and the constant scream of shells overhead. Again and again the stretcher-bearers went out to fetch the wounded, and as night fell Noel collected his torch from the box of medical supplies brought up by his orderlies and systematically combed the torn-up area that the Germans had fled from only hours earlier. This was not no-man’s-land as such, as it was now in the possession of the Allied forces, but it was under continual bombardment, from the guns of the retreating Germans and from Allied artillery, whose shells might fall short at any time.

At about eight in the evening it began to rain. Sergeant Bromley, in the headquarters trench beyond the Steenbeke, was appalled by the conditions in which men were having to fight:

‘The rain continued incessantly throughout the night, and in a very short time our trench became merely a muddy ditch half full of water, and our condition became absolutely filthy . The night brought a certain amount of relief from hostilities, but the climatic conditions became even worse, and we simply stood and shivered until daylight came. What an indescribable scene presented itself as dawn came, and we looked back to our old trenches. Mud and water everywhere, stranded limbers, dead men and mules, damaged tanks, broken trees etc., made a scene of desolation comparable only with the Somme.’

For the next 24 hours, Noel continued to treat the wounded. At some point during August 1, Noel received a wound which would normally have required his removal from the battlefield. He was hit twice in the head and suffered intense pain, but carried on caring for the wounded. Then.within hours, Noel was wounded again, this time mortally when, early on August 2, as he was taking a rest at his first-aid post, it was struck by a shell:

What had happened was that another shell had entered the aid post, this time during the night while Noel was sitting in a chair in the lower room, leaning on the table in an attempt to get some sleep. All the occupants of the dug-out were either killed outright or wounded so seriously that they were immobilized. Herd recorded that a primus stove in use in the dug-out was untouched and still alight, but a man who had been using it was dead, presumably from concussion, and with no visible wound. It is ironic, after all his brave sorties into no-man’s-land at Hooge, Guillemont and elsewhere, that Noel should have been felled inside his own aid post.

He had received four or five wounds, the worst being a gaping hole in the abdomen from which he bled profusely. Nevertheless, aware that relief would be a long time in coming, he managed to drag himself up the stairs and out along the remnants of the trench to the road. He stumbled and crawled along this lane in the darkness, in the direction of Wieltje, the filthy mud of Flanders entering and infecting the wound… He stumbled across a dug-out occupied by Lieutenant Charles Wray of the Loyal North Lancs. Regiment, who later sent an account to his local newspaper telling how Chavasse examined his own wound because the medical personnel went to help his men.

He was taken through Ypres to the 46th Field Ambulance and then on to the 32nd Casualty Clearing Station, but his face was unrecognisable and he had suffered that serious wound to the abdomen. After an operation on the abdominal wound, he found the strength to dictate a letter to his fiancée in which he explained why he had carried on working in spite of his injuries, insisting that ‘duty called and called me to obey’. Noel died at one o’clock in the afternoon of 4 August 1917. It was the third anniversary of the outbreak of war.

Chavasse grave

The grave of Noel Chavasse

Noel’s grave has the only headstone in the world to have two Victoria Crosses engraved upon it. The inscription, ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’, was chosen by his father.  There is are other memorials to Captain Noel Chavasse at his old school, Liverpool College, in Mossley Hill, Liverpool – and in Abercromby Square, where a statue dedicated to Chavasse, commissioned by the Noel Chavasse VC Memorial Association was unveiled in August 2008.  It’s by Liverpool sculptor, Tom Murphy.

Chavasse Memorial' Abercromby Square, Tom Murphy


The Chavasse Memorial in Abercromby Square



Waiting for jellyfish on High Park Street

Waiting for jellyfish on High Park Street

Jellyfish 3

Blue light till dawn

When it’s Biennial time in Liverpool, all kinds of oddities turn up in the most unlikely places.  Walking down Park Lane by Liverpool One the other day with my daughter Sarah we encountered an avenue of trees wrapped in what can only be described as knitted woolly trunk-warmers.  They were created by an army of knitters for Yarn Bombing, part of ‘a carnival of the built environment’ to celebrate ‘the hidden creativity of the argybargy in art’. Obvious really.

Tree warmers

Leg-warmers for trees on Park Lane

Then last night the two of us were on High Park Street, a fairly desolate stretch of Liverpool 8, waiting to see a Biennial installation that had been recommended by friends.  Behind the steel shutters rolled down over one of the empty shop-fronts that pepper this once-thriving street, there were jellyfish, and at ten pm the shutters were due to rise to reveal them.

Jellyfish a1

Waiting for jellyfish on High Park Street

We had thought we would be the only ones mad enough to turn out at ten on a Saturday night to look at jellyfish in a derelict shop window.  But when we arrived there was already a small crowd, and more people gathered as we waited for the magic moment.  Clouds had rolled in off the river after another sweltering day, and rain began to fall.  Umbrellas went up. The event was late.  Then, by remote control, the shutters began to roll up, revealing a large fish tank filled with tiny jellyfish peacefully floating in gentle blue water.

Jellyfish a1a

The shutters go up

This installation, by Walter Hugo & Zoniel Burton, is called The Physical Possibility of Inspiring Imagination in the Mind of Somebody Living, though somebody alongside me muttered, ‘Where I come from, we call this an aquarium’.  The blue light and the gently shifting jellyfish were undoubtedly soothing, and drew the kids in close.

Jellyfish 5

A ‘secret, magical window’

The installation is described by the artist duo as a  ‘secret magical window’ and as a ‘psychedelic display, intended to have a discordant presence within the building and to intrigue those in the surrounding area’.  But what I found most intriguing – and what turned out to be the subject of nearly all the photos I took – was not the installation itself, or the jellyfish, but the incongruity of a crowd of people, adults and children, gathered on a darkened street as warm rain fell, staring at an illuminated fish tank.

Jellyfish 4  Jellyfish 2 Jellyfish 1

Gazelli Art House in London is supporting the project and live-streaming a video from within the tank into their gallery. They say, ‘The projection is viewable both from within the gallery but also from the street outside, creating a virtual corridor between the two cities’.  I hope David Cameron drops by.

There are more images of the installation on Gazelli’s website.

High Park Street, Liverpool 8 1982

High Park Street, Liverpool 8, 1982 (photo  by Steve Howe)

Back in the 1970s, we lived in a top-floor flat on Princes Road where, from the back kitchen door that led to the wooden fire escape, we could look out along High Park Street. As now, this was a deprived area, but then the broad street was always bustling. There were shops, pubs, a bakery – and the local social security office.  Now it’s a desert.  The controversial Pathfinder programme depopulated the area, leaving the once-homely Welsh streets tinned-up and decaying (fellow-Liverpool blogger Ronnie Hughes keeps an eye on what’s happening there; his most recent report is here). Most shops have gone, a lonely chippy hangs on, along with one pub – Ringo Starr’s old local, The Empress, a local treasure that draws Beatles aficionados from all over.

At the top of the street is another treasure – the grade II listed High Park Street reservoir. Built in 1845, it’s a rectangular structure half the size of a football pitch, with a tower at one corner. It’s one of the earliest examples of public health engineering in the world, and once held 2 million gallons of water, serving thousands of homes in the area.

High Park Street reservoir

High Park Street reservoir: outside

But since 1997, the reservoir has been redundant. Now it’s being managed by a social enterprise, Dingle 2000, which is looking at uses that could be made of it that would benefit the local community.  Ideas include growing crops on the roof and selling the produce at a farmers’ market inside the building.

Because there is an inside.  The blank external walls conceal a spectacular piece of Victorian workmanship, with high vaulted ceilings, a grid of cast iron columns and a series of brick arches, reminiscent of the Albert Dock constructed just a few years earlier.  At the moment it often serves as a dramatic backdrop for scenes in films or TV dramas.

Liverpool High Park Street reservoir building

High Park Street reservoir: inside

I’ve never been inside the reservoir (it’s sometimes opened up to the public on annual Heritage Days) but next door is another historic building with whose interior I was once familiar – the High Park Social Security office.

High Park St Social Security office 1969

High Park St Social Security office 1969 (

Built in 1865, this used to be Toxteth Town Hall, and it has Grade Two listed status.  Over the years it served as a register office, morgue, police cells, medical dispensary, Coroner’s court – as well as the local DHSS office for social security and unemployment benefit claimants.

Empress pub

Ringo Starr’s local – featured on the cover of his album ‘Sentimental Journey’

We left a small crowd still peering at the jellyfish installation.  On the next block the light from the open chippy door revealed that it was empty. A little further along, the door of Ringo Starr’s old pub, The Empress, had been left open to let in some air on this hot night.  A few regulars stood, illuminated in the warm glow of the interior.  Denizens of their own floating world.