After 46 years, recognition for a moment in which we can take genuine pride

After 46 years, recognition for a moment in which we can take genuine pride

A long, long time ago – 46 years to be precise – along with some 300 other students I took part in an anti-apartheid protest at Liverpool University, occupying the university’s administration building for 10 days in the spring term of 1970. The key demands we were making on the university was for the resignation of the Vice-Chancellor, Lord Salisbury, a supporter of the apartheid regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa, and for the university to divest itself of its investments in the the apartheid regime in South Africa.  There were many sit-ins at British universities in this period, but in Liverpool it led to the severest disciplinary action of the time. Nine students, including Jon Snow, Channel 4 News presenter, were suspended for two years. But one, Peter Cresswell, was permanently expelled.

Yesterday, in an emotional ceremony following two decades of lobbying for restitution, Pete Cresswell, now aged 68 and retired from a career in social work, was at last awarded an honorary degree. His expulsion was finally recognised by those who spoke for the University as an injustice. As Pete observed in his acceptance speech, time had shown the protestors to be ‘on the right side of history’. Continue reading “After 46 years, recognition for a moment in which we can take genuine pride”

Andy Sheppard and Joanna MacGregor: A Song of Two Humans

Andy Sheppard and Joanna MacGregor: A Song of Two Humans

I went to see pianist Joanna MacGregor and saxophonist Andy Sheppard play their new live score for Sunrise, F.W. Murnau’s 1927 silent film, more for the jazz. I thought I might be slightly irritated and distracted by the flickering images above the musicians’ heads.  I could not have been more mistaken: I was totally enthralled by Sunrise, and now understand why it is regarded as a cinematic masterpiece. Images from it have haunted my mind ever since the screening. Continue reading “Andy Sheppard and Joanna MacGregor: A Song of Two Humans”

Ethel Singleton: a tribute to one who struggled for better conditions

Ethel Singleton: a tribute to one who struggled for better conditions

Ethel Singleton and the Princess (Daily Post)

Ethel Singleton and the Princess (Liverpool Daily Post)

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

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


The student newspaper expose of Liverpool University’s slum housing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liverpool University’s slums in 1968

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

Melville Place

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

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

Students picket Senate House 1 Marching to Senate House

Students join the tenants’ protest

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

Picketing Princess Alexandra in Vine Street

Students and tenants unite to picket Princess Alexandra in Vine Street

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

Liverpool Echo headline

Liverpool Echo: ‘Slums this way eyeopener for Princess’

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

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

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

Express It must be awful

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

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

liverpool-8-roger-millman 1

Not far from Senate House in 1968

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also

The Rescue Man: a city built and destroyed

This is Oriel Chambers on Water Street in Liverpool.  It is one of the city’s greatest treasures, the world’s first metal framed glass curtain walled building erected in 1864 and a precursor of the modernist architecture that took flight two decades later in Chicago. It was designed by a little known Victorian architect, Peter Ellis who, in his time, was reviled and scorned for it.

The rationale for the oriel windows with their maximum area of glass was a desire to provide good daylight for the clerks at work inside.  The oriels on the front and side elevations are separated by tall stone mullions, carved with nailhead decoration, and designed to look like cast iron. But the oriels themselves are framed in the thinnest sections of iron, and in the courtyard behind, the glazing forms a curtain wall, cantilevered out beyond the line of the frame.

The building’s minimalist forms and large windows were hard for Victorian traditionalists to take. It was described as ‘an agglomeration of great glass bubbles’ and even ‘a great abortion’ which almost certainly led the disheartened Ellis to abandon architecture.  He designed only one other building at 16 Cook Street, another striking modernist edifice.

Like Oriel Chambers, it is the rear of building that presents the most remarkable feature.  A glazed cast iron spiral staircase (below) dominates the narrow courtyard. The spiral has no central support, but appears to be cantilevered from each floor. The influence of this can be traced in the early skyscrapers in Chicago, and there is speculation of  a direct link between Ellis and the American architect John Root, one of the founders of the Chicago School style.  Root, having been sent to abroad to avoid the Civil War, was in Liverpool at the time that Cook Street was being built, and some of his work shows the influence of Peter Ellis.

I’ve been reading The Rescue Man, the first novel by Anthony Quinn,  film critic of the Independent.  Quinn has taken the bare bones of the Peter Ellis story (for that is all there is – little more is known of Ellis than the facts stated here), fictionalised them and woven them into a gripping story of Liverpool during the Blitz of 1940-41.   The central character is an architectural historian, Tom Baines, who, at the outbreak of war in 1939, is languidly working on a Pevsner-style survey of Liverpool’s architectural heritage. He’s making slow progress, partly because he is making architectural drawings of each building. But, with the threat of aerial bombardment looming, he’s keen to preserve a record of Liverpool’s magnificent heritage.  Someone suggests that he would make more progress if he photographed the buildings, and he is directed to a photographer who works from a city centre studio along with his wife.

This couple seem, very loosely, to be based on the celebrated Liverpool photographer, E Chambre Hardman and his wife, Margaret. This is characteristic of Quinn’s approach: there are echoes of real people in several of his fictional characters (Baines, for example, might be inspired by Quentin Hughes who, like Baines, studied at the University of Liverpool School of Architecture before the War).  In the novel, Baines becomes deeply committed to recording and preserving Liverpool’s architectural heritage, making him a close approximation of Hughes, who, in 1964, published the magnificent Seaport: Architecture and Townscape in Liverpool, which utilised superb black and white photograhs to underline the significance of the Victorian and Edwardian architectural inheritance of the city. Much of the city centre was saved because of Hughes’ influence, including the Albert Dock Warehouses and Oriel Chambers. His book was  influential in opposing the architectural brutalism of the 1960s. In 1967 he wrote a detailed policy for the conservation of Liverpool’s architecture which was adopted by the City Council.

In the novel, Baines discovers the journal of Peter Eames, an 1860s architect whose radical designs for the city centre office building, Janus House, provoke ridicule and scorn.  Eames, clearly, is Ellis – though radically fictionalised, few  aspects of the personal life recorded in the journal extracts bearing any relation to that of Peter Ellis.  But it’s clear that they are one and the same when Eames writes in his journal:

Janus House opened for business last month & every day the people file down Temple street to stare & point & declare their astonishment, as if some asteroid had plummeted from the Heavens & landed on their doorstep.  The press notices have been, thus far, extraordinarily hostile.  The Mercury slights it as ‘a greenhouse gone mad’ while the satirical weekly, the Badger, offers this: ‘The plainest brick warehouse in the town is infinitely superior, as a building, to that large agglomeration of protruding plate-glass bubbles in Temple-street, known as Janus House.

Quinn alternates between Baines’s story – he volunteers as a ‘rescue man’ in a Heavy Rescue Team during the period that saw the Christmas Blitz of 1940 and the May Blitz of 1941 destroy large parts of Liverpool and kill over 4,000 residents – and the 19th century story of Eames, the Victorian architect.  The war revitalises Baines. In the most evocative passages in the novel, working with his rescue crew, he employs his specialist knowledge of building structures to assess the risks involved in a rescue operation. Quinn evokes a real sense of time and place in stories that intertwine amidst the fear and tension that builds in the city during the months leading up to the bombardment:

The city was still holding its breath as spring lurched into summer.  Anxiety had become his companion. It woke in the morning in front of the blackout curtains, hovered by the wireless, read the newspaper over his shoulder.

The gripping rescue scenes, in which Baines and the members of his team pull people from the rubble in the most dangerous circumstances, are brilliantly told and evidently draw upon careful research of actual incidents.  When the Lipton factory is bombed, the crew pours cold water on tea leaves to douse the burning smell. In another memorable scene, Baines encounters an unexploded bomb in the cellar of a bombed-out pub, ‘a steel cylinder in green-grey casing, snouty and heavy like a prize-winning marrow, its tail fins set at a jaunty-looking angle’.  It could go off at any minute, but the rescue of a woman and her baby goes ahead.

May 1941: Liverpool city centre

All through this terrible period, Baines continues to read Eames’ 19th century journal.  He knows that Eames’s designs – and many other fine buildings – may not survive the war.  When the city rebuilds there will be a new vision of Liverpool and he is not sure how he feels about this: ‘The transient landscape of the city, its inexorable susceptibility to change, both thrilled and depressed him’.  The damage to the Custom House, built between 1828 and 1839 by city architect John Foster on the site of the original Old Dock, concerns him deeply. This huge domed building graced the south end of South Castle Street and its dome complemented that of the Town Hall at the other end of Castle Street. It was larger than St Georges Hall and, like the hall, built in the classical style.

Image result for liverpool custom house

Custom House from Canning Dock 1891. Source: Liverpool And Merseyside Remembered

Baines was right to be concerned: following the heavy damage that the building incurred during the May Blitz of 1941 which gutted the interior and destroyed the dome,the decision was taken to demolish the shell of the building. There is controversy to this day about whether or not reconstruction would have been practical, but there seems no doubt that the loss of the Custom House was Liverpool’s greatest architectural casualty of the Second World War.

Members of Liverpool Corn Exchange outside the bombed building during the Blitz.
Members of Liverpool Corn Exchange outside the bombed building during the Blitz.

The two main strands of the novel finally draw together one night during the May Blitz as a firestorm rages around Abercromby Square in the city’s Georgian quarter.  It was here, in the 19th century, that Peter Eames’ family had their home, and here in May 1941 Baines and his men struggle to save themselves amidst the inferno which threatens St Catherine’s Church on the square.

St Catherine’s Abercromby Square (Streets of Liverpool)

Again, Anthony Quinn has done his homework: the church was badly damaged, but still stood, the centrepiece of an elegant wing of Liverpool’s most elegant square, as seen in the panorama below, from Quentin Hughes’ Seaport.

Panorama of Abercromby Square before demolition of St Catherine’s (click to enlarge)

This is what Quentin Hughes wrote about the church and its setting in Seaport in 1969:

Physically, most of the area has deteriorated badly. The houses, now too large for single family occupation, have been turned easily into flats and lodgings. Many races inhabit them and dark-skinned, curly-headed children play in the streets.

The shopping centre of Myrtle Street is cosmopolitan. Untidy and threadbare, it has the quality of an eastern bazaar, remarkable in its range of goods which cater for every taste. Paint peels from the walls, the stucco cracks and crumbles and ornate cast-iron balconies rust and fall apart. The once proud district has gone to seed.

At the north end the University attempts to arrest this dilapidation and has shown how admirably adaptable these fine buildings can be. Even here the stucco houses of Regency Bedford Street are being pulled down under the pressure of redevelopment to higher densities and new uses within the University precinct.

Abercromby Square is threatened, but is still well cared for and well loved. The last of the London-type squares built between 1820 and 1865 for the wealthy merchants of Liverpool, it is named after Sir Ralph Abercromby, the intrepid general who was killed in Alexandria in 1801 after his brilliant landing of the British forces at Aboukir. The Square is sufficiently high to command a fine view over the river and the Cheshire bank to the rising hills of Wales beyond. The elder John Foster submitted a plan to the Common Council on 21 November 1800 for this area of the Moss Lake Fields, proposing that ‘houses with not less than twenty-one feet frontage shall be built to a form elevation approved by the Common Council or its Committee’. However, the development appears to have awaited the installation of the city sewerage scheme which John Rennie was commissioned to undertake in 1816, draining amongst other places the ‘intended Abercromby Square’.

Picton called this the ‘most aristocratic quarter of the town’ and each resident had a key to the square and was able to use it for his recreation.

Most of the houses are of plain brickwork, well proportioned and dignified. The doorways are uniform with the exception of a few stone columnal porches which project from the face of the buildings. On the first floor, cast-iron balconies are continuous across the fronts of the houses. On the east side stands St Catherine’s church, its dome shattered in the war, but its splendid stone Ionic portico remaining intact. On each side are stucco-faced houses which set off the sombre character of the church facade.

But the church did not survive – and this where my own story links with that of the fictional Baines and Eames.  In 1966, the University of Liverpool reduced St Catherine’s to a pile of rubble to make way for their new Senate House.  I arrived as a student at the University the following year, and in 1969, working as a student journalist, I discovered through friends involved with the local tenants’ association that the University owned many of the slum properties in the area, in which families, often with young children, lived in indescribable conditions.  The student newspaper published my story, and a movement gathered  pace in which students and tenants joined forces to protest at the fortune squandered on Senate House, due to be opened officially that spring by Princess Alexandria.

Colin Wilkinson on his Streets of Liverpool blog makes this comment about the destruction of St Catherine’s:

Whether the destruction of St Catherine’s Church in Abercromby Square was vandalism or redevelopment is a matter of opinion. The whole integrity of the square was quite incredibly broken up by no less a body than the University of Liverpool in their drive for expansion. Street after street of Georgian housing was removed to allow for their vision of a modern campus and John Foster’s classical church of 1829 unfortunately stood in the way. At least until 1966, when it was reduced to a pile of rubble.

In Quinn’s novel, however, Baines is able to rescue a precious (though entirely fictitious) building.  Hidden under bomb damage he discovers Peter Eames’s final unfinished project, a grand public library, planned as a monument to his dead brother. He launches a campaign to save the building from Corporation demolition, enlisting the support of a journalist from the Liverpool Echo who is initially sceptical of his chances:

‘But I thought, with it being a site of historical interest, they might want to preserve the place.’

‘My dear chap, this is Liverpool we’re talking about.  “Preserve”?  When has this city ever honoured the principles of culture or heritage above the cold brute urge to make money?  You know as well I do that the place has always been a mercantile centre – and if a thing isn’t paying its way it’s either knocked down or left to rot.’

One of the features of this fictitious building is ‘a row of lovingly carved capitals beneath the frieze … all of the same figure, a young man seated, one leg crossing the other, reading a book’.  Quinn must have been inspired by the images of boys engrossed in a book that are carved in stone on the exterior of Norris Green library, on the outskirts of the city.  These were sculpted by George Herbert Tyson Smith who executed many works in the Liverpool and Merseyside area, in particular war memorials, including  the beautiful reliefs on the Liverpool Cenotaph outside St Georges Hall.

The Rescue Man is an impassioned tribute to Liverpool – the city’s history, its architecture and its people.  It’s a gripping read for anyone, but if you have a love for this great city by the Mersey you will relish it.  Quinn ends the book with Baines musing on the changes being wrought to the cityscape as a result of the war’s destruction:

He’d heard that they were planning to pull down the old Customs House, which had stood by the river since 1829.  It would be infamous – unforgivable.  Whole streets and lanes were disappearing, their names remembered only by word of mouth, or in the forgotten folds of disused maps.  These brief candles.  They were blowing out their own past … But maybe he’d got that wrong.  Maybe you couldn’t destroy history.  You could only add to it.

There are echoes here of the controversy in Liverpool right now about the plans by Peel Holdings for a massive redevelopment of the North Docks – the Liverpool Waters scheme – which will feature skyscrapers housing offices, shops and apartments, but threaten the city’s UNESCO World Heritage status.

Oriel Chambers is now a Grade 1 Listed Building.  It was damaged during the war, but sympathetically restored with a 1950s extension. It’s a working building still, housing a set of barristers’ chambers.

A notable Liverpool landmark, however, is a building left in ruins since the Second World War. St. Luke’s Church stands prominently at the top of Bold Street as an enduring symbol and reminder of the destruction caused by the Blitz.  The church was hit by an incendiary bomb on Monday 5th May 1941 and the ensuing fire proved impossible to quench.  The city was burning as a result of the prolonged attack by the Luftwaffe; fire fighters and relief workers were already stretched to the limit.  In the early hours of Tuesday May 6th local residents who were sheltering in the nearby basements of Roscoe Place reported hearing the great bell fall from the tower.

A fantastic example of neo-gothic architecture, St. Luke’s was designed by another great Liverpool architect, John Foster along with his son.  It took nearly 30 years to build, but a single night to destroy.  Now the burnt out shell is commonly known locally as ‘the bombed-out church‘. It is now a garden of remembrance, commemorating the thousands of local men, women and children who died as a result of the bomb attacks on their city.  It remains one of Liverpool’s best loved landmarks.

St Luke’s after the bombs, 5 May 1941
St Luke’s before the Blitz

See also

Up on the roof – again

Among the many student protests against the trebling of university tuition fees and the abolition of EMAs across the country yesterday was this one (above) at Liverpool University.  Students are seen on the roof of the main university library; 40 years ago this was the University Senate House and students were occupying the building then, and hoisting the red flag on the roof:

Yesterday’s photo comes from today’s post in Seven Streets that makes the connection between the two events:

What’s going on with students these days? When tuition fees were being brought in by New Labour – the only point at which they could conceivably have been headed off at the pass – students, mainly led by students fully signed up to the Labour party, were satisfied to sign petitions. Although some of the really radical ones went as far as to sit in baths.

These days students are occupying buildings and everything. They were at it again, occupying Senate House, the University of Liverpool’s very own ivory tower.

40 years ago Jon Snow and a number of others from the university occupied the same building in protest at the University’s dubious investments in South Africa.

And six months ago many of those involved in the 1970 protest met up to celebrate the occupation; although ten of their number were expelled for organising the protest. Let’s hope a similar fate doesn’t befall these students.

The 1970 occupation is documented on the reunionistas blog, An Emotional Involvement.

Steve Bell has one of his best cartoons in The Guardian today, commenting on the bizarre statement yesterday from Vince Cable, the Minister responsible for implementing the fees policy, that he might consider abstaining when it comes to the vote in the Commons: