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.

gazette-feature

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.’

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Us and Them: the destruction of Scottie Road

Us and Them: the destruction of Scottie Road

Life goes on day after day
Hearts torn in every way…

Some enterprising individuals at the University of Liverpool have put together the Liverpool Radical Documentary Film Festival that is taking place over the first two weeks in October.  I went to see Us and Them, a film made in 1970 by Peter Leeson that documented the impact on the communities living in and around Scotland Road of the major road development schemes and the construction of the second Mersey tunnel at the time.

Scotland Road 1960

The film takes us back to the late sixties and the era when the City Planning department was in thrall to mad, modernist plans to sweep away the old and obsolete in order to create a futurist vision of the city in which elevated urban motorways would march through areas where inner-city working class housing had been torn down, the communities smashed, and the people dispersed to the winds. Those left behind needing to get around on foot would be confined to ‘walkways in the sky’, accessed by struggling up artistically twisting steps and ramps, in order to cross the roads beneath.

This vision was set out in the Shankland Report, published for the City Council in 1962. It proposed building an inner ring road as part of plans to regenerate the city centre. The entire road was to be elevated. One architect’s sketch showed the motorway running on the roof of a shopping centre, while in some places buildings were to be constructed over and under the road (imagine a building with a hole in the middle, through which the motorway passed).

There was no conception that at this time that a range of old and new, high and low value properties might be essential to the efficiency of the city centre as a whole. Nor was there any notion that older buildings might have a value other than that measured in rent: as heritage or as much-loved landmarks for local people.  As William Morris expressed it:

It has been most truly said that these old buildings do not belong to us only: that they belonged to our forefathers and they will belong to our descendants unless we play them false. They are not in any sense our property, to do as we like with them. We are only trustees for those who come after us …’ .

Byrom Street 1978
Byrom Street 1978

Peter Leeson, who now lives in Leicester, worked for the City Planning department in the 1960s but became disillusioned with the development plans for the city, and the impact that they were having on the working class communities of the inner city. In 1969 he resigned his post, raised some money, and began to shoot the documentary. Leeson’s purpose in making the film was to highlight the plight of the communities living around Scottie Road (in the film he notes that the planners had even deprived the area of its long-standing name, renaming it Vauxhall).  He shows how the road building and the construction of the Kingsway tunnel brought devastating changes to the area.  The City Council had a slogan at the time that proudly boasted of these changes: ‘City of Change and Challenge’.  I recall that in the late sixties, if you posted a letter in Liverpool the stamp would be franked with that slogan.

Fontenoy Gardens photographed in 1970 by Peter Leeson

Us and Them has a professional look, and is very well photographed.  The tightness of his budget probably explains its audio limitations – most significantly, in the brief interviews which are dispersed through the film.  These are heard in sound only – we do not see those who speak. For example, Leeson highlights the harsh life of one tenement family with eight kids, but while we hear the mother’s voice, we never see her, except from a distance.  This is a big drawback in a film which aims to get close to the way of life that is being destroyed.  The commentary, voiced by the Liverpool comic and linguist Peter Maloney, is, I think, another drawback.  Maloney adopts, for the most part, the precise articulation of Queen’s English, occasionally breaking into scouse when describing the fortitude of the people in the community, and their antipathy towards the ‘Corpy’, the City Council.

This is the ‘us and them’ divide that Leeson sets out to delineate: working class residents eke out an existence in run-down, poorly maintained Victorian-style council tenements, while the Corpy’s planners and politicians set about modernising the city. Leeson stresses the contrast between the Scottie Road community and the remote decision makers who had such a drastic effect on their lives:

The authorities (‘Them’) have cared for the more prosperous and articulate members of the city … Will children from these communities have the same opportunities as children from the richer neighbourhoods? … For them the planner is someone who tears down buildings. … Leaders are needed that come from the communities themselves, not just professionals…

The decision to site the second Mersey Tunnel entrance north of the city centre rather than in the more prosperous areas  to the south Leeson attributes to the Council’s reluctance to antagonise the articulate suburban middle-class  householders of south Liverpool.

Kew street and Bostock street, 1966. Liverpool Records Office
Kew street and Bostock street, 1966. Liverpool Records Office

Too frail to attend the screening, Leeson sent this message to accompany the film:

I was privileged to be able to contribute at that crucial time and I hope that “Us & Them” records the devastating effects of what amounted to an attack on a strong working class community.  I discovered evidence that the community was held in contempt by the “authorities” charged with its care and betterment.  History tells us how the local people fought back and continue to do so.  There have been notable victories, but much has been lost and deprivation is still high.

Regeneration is an ambitious word!  It implies that the community must be listened to, involved and have their needs addressed.  Including workers , unemployed, women, men, the disabled, the elderly , children etc.  Priorities will differ – safety, access to:- work, training and education, family help and child care, community and leisure facilities, affordable shops and services etc.  This must include those who don’t usually participate.  All must be accommodated.

The physical environment is not just about traffic, or number of houses built.  Sustainability and affordability of the existing homes and built environment must be assessed and taken into account.  Design should be of high standard, endurable, capable of adaption, energy efficient and appropriate to the context.  Consideration of accessibility should include public transport, the pedestrian environment and disabled access.

These are not easy tasks and require relevant training and co-operation between agencies in all sectors and at all levels; but without this approach we are simply rebuilding (usually for private profit) not regenerating.  (Contrast, for example, the rebuilding in the South dockland areas with the needs of adjacent Toxteth.)

In a discussion following the screening, some who had lived through the events portrayed in the film were critical of its limitations, especially the way in which it gives voice to a certain quietism, articulated in the gently calming words of the parish priest who suggests that deprivation, poverty and hardship are facts of life which the people of the area have adapted to with fortitude and cheerfulness.

In fact, the removal of inner-city communities to the outer council estates and ‘overspill’ towns such as Kirkby and Skelmersdale generated resistance, leading to mounting opposition to the environmental and social impacts of large scale slum clearances and the ravaging of communities to make way for urban motorways.  As a consequence, most of Liverpool’s planned urban motorway was never built, and the M62, rather than ploughing through the city to the waterfront, now ends abruptly beneath the last flyover to be built in the city.

In that sense, Nick Broomfield’s first film Who Cares, made in 1971, is a better film, documenting not only the trauma of slum clearance, but also the isolation, bleakness and lack of social facilities in the new tower blocks and outer council estates. His next film, Behind the Rent Strike (1974), angrily voices working class resistance, documenting a  fourteen month long rent strike mounted by council tenants on the Tower Hill estate in Kirkby in a protest against increases in council house rents.

In the discussion following the screening of Us and Them, several people made the point that the changes which have affected Liverpool and its people reflect the way in which global capitalism has evolved in the last 50 years or so.  In  1965, making the case for the urban motorway network, Liverpool City Council could still boast that:

Liverpool is Britain’s second port handling 25% by value of the nation’s trade.  It is a  major marketing,  industrial,  transport and  cultural  centre  and  is of key importance to the social  and economic well being of a  widespread hinterland extending from North Wales to the Lake District and from the Irish Sea to the Pennine Uplands.

Within a decade of that confident prognostication, Liverpool was to suffer a remarkable economic and demographic decline.  The port declined, and with it dockside employment. Once central to the trading routes between the industrial north of England and important markets across the Atlantic, Liverpool found itself, quite simply, on the wrong side of the country: on the periphery of an increasingly integrated European economy which had become Britain’s biggest market.  The deindustrialisation of the British economy, brought about by reductions in demand for traditional products and intensifying competition as the process of globalisation intensified, eliminated what little there was of an industrial base in Liverpool. The easy employment and social stability of the sixties became a thing of the past.

Pathfinder Liverpool: boarded up houses off Smithdown Road

Others who contributed to the discussion remarked on the similarities between the clearances documented in Peter Leeson’s film and the impact of the Labour government’s Pathfinder housing renewal programme. They said that said the programme had left many areas of Liverpool – especially around Anfield, Kensington, Princes Park, and Lodge Lane-Smithdown Road – looking like ‘war zones’ where housing due to be demolished has been left empty.  The schemes were brought in to encourage developers to choose sites in run-down areas ahead of more affluent spots, thereby stimulating the local market.  But, as in the clearances of the 1960s, the good came down with the bad, houses have been left boarded up and unusable, and people forced to leave neighbourhoods where they would rather stay.  Things weren’t helped when the programme was withdrawn halfway through its planned course.

Edge Lane where campaigners failed to save hundreds of Victorian houses

Kensington was one of the worst-affected areas: ironically a virtual re-run of the circumstances of Peter Leeson’s film, with hundreds of homes demolished to make way for the widening of Edge Lane (above) in a watered-down version of the plan, abandoned in the seventies, to extend the M62 into the heart of the city (this time as a dual carriageway).  Earlier this year, scouser Alexei Sayle wrote in The Observer:

I took part in the campaign to try to save 371 repairable homes in the Edge Lane district, from a road-widening scheme connecting the city centre with the M62. Unfortunately, the new Labour council has pushed the plan through and as I drove up at Christmas I was greeted with rubble where a decent community had once been. The new homes that will replace the dignified Victorian houses are of a gruesomely banal design, which even the government’s design adviser, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, has criticised.

My experience is that today many things are better in Liverpool.  … It is just such a shame that there has been no holistic solution to the problems of post-industrialisation in the city, and so many neighbourhoods on the edge of the centre remain abandoned, tinned-up and waiting for regeneration cash that will now never arrive.

Madryn Street tinned up

In 2011, SAVE Britain’s Heritage published a devastating report on the impact of the Pathfinder programme in Liverpool.  In May that year SAVE bought 21 Madryn Street in the Welsh Streets, one of the areas affected, in an effort to thwart council plans to demolish the house and hundreds around it.  In June this year, the City Council managed to secure government funding to save about 32 houses in the Welsh Streets, including 9 Madryn Street, Ringo Starr’s childhood home.

As for the Vauxhall area, residents there now feel, as one contributor to the discussion put it, that they live in Liver-Peel, referring to the massive Liverpool Waters development of the adjoining North Docks by Peel Holdings. Despite the threat of the city losing its UNESCO World Heritage Site status as a consequence, the City Council planning committee has renewed its support for the plan.  The scheme aims to regenerate the derelict dockland sites of the Vauxhall area by building 9,000 apartments, offices, hotels, bars and a cruise terminal. Controversially, the project also includes plans for a 55-storey tower.  Peel Holdings has faced objections ever since its first proposals in 2007, with English Heritage arguing that the plan ‘largely fails to harness what is special about this important historic site’.

In March, Peter Kilfoyle, former Labour MP for Liverpool Walton, wrote in the Liverpool Echo:

There is a … consolidation of economic power illustrated by the rise and rise of Peel Holdings headed up by Isle of Man-based John Whittaker. When Peel took over Liverpool Airport, it began a period of expansion for a previously underrated local resource. Next, Peel took over the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company, giving it a virtual monopoly on the banks of the Mersey.

When the government set up the Local Enterprise Partnership to determine Merseyside’s economic strategy, a Peel representative was put on a board heavily dominated by businessmen. Then, another Peel executive was added to the LEP as chairman – Manchester-based Robert Hough.

Peel itself set up two massive development areas, dominating Wirral and Liverpool. These include plans for the equivalent of 140 tower blocks of flats in its Liverpool development alone. Given the huge number of empty flats already in the city, these plans seem an extraordinarily confident view of Liverpool’s future population expansion.

Enterprise Zone status has been given by government to Peel’s sites. That means huge tax breaks, funded by the taxpayer. However, Peel’s plans stretch ahead for decades – who knows what will be the case in 40 years time? The question is: what happens when its ownership is passed or sold on? Those decisions are not those of Merseysiders but of big money people based in London or overseas.

What price, then, is accountability – and to whom?

While Robin Brown wrote on the Seven Streets blog:

Peel’s plans detail apartments, office space and enormous leisure complexes on a ‘build it and they will come’ basis; but will they? Is there anything to suggest that the North West needs another gigantic business/leisure hub? What is the likelihood of the local unemployed finding their way into the labour forces? What is the demand for private apartments on a stretch of coastline so exposed to the elements that there’s a wind farm a mile up the road? I have no answer to these questions, but nor does anyone else. Either way, it is right to ask them.  What’s more, Peel says that the Liverpool Waters project may take 50 years to build. 50 years

Brown argued that we should think very carefully what the World Heritage Status means to Liverpool:

It’s not just an empty vanity badge … it’s the best remaining check against the unfettered, uncaring development of Liverpool’s city centre and waterfront.  Without it, the city centre becomes a plaything of the developers – and there’s plenty of evidence in the city centre of what happens when private developers and architects get their own way. … business in Liverpool actively wants the World Heritage Status gone, Liverpool Waters or no. The redevelopment of the north docks is a handy hobby horse to galvanise feeling against UNESCO and the waterfront’s World Heritage listing.

In a long and thoughtful survey of Liverpool’s changing economic and social fortunes in New Statesman magazine in July, Ed Platt noted that Peel Holdings and the city’s new mayor, Joe Anderson, claim that the expanse of derelict docks and warehouses stretching between Pier Head and Seaforth has the same potential as Canary Wharf, yet, he wrote:

it is hard to see where the shops and businesses to fill the development will come from. It seemed to me that Peel was proposing a boom town without a boom, hoping to inspire economic revival by constructing offices and shops for which there is no demand.

See also