Liverpool ’81: the voice of the unheard

1981:  burning milk float barricade on Upper Parliament Street

2011: the same scene today

Riots are the voices of the unheard
– Martin Luther King Jr

Sunday 5 July, 1981.  We live in a top floor flat on Canning Street in Liverpool 8.  Around seven in the evening we need some milk, so I pop over to the little backstreet store just behind Falkner Square.  Something seems to be going on; there are crowds of people milling around and a lot of noise – shouting and distant crashing sounds.  Sudden flurries of people run past, running away from the direction of Upper Parliament Street.  I say, ‘what’s happening?’  ‘There’s a riot.  The bizzies are getting hammered’.

Disturbances had kicked off two days earlier, on the evening of Friday July 3rd when the police had attempted to arrest a young, black motorcyclist at the junction of Granby and Selbourne Street.  An angry crowd had gathered, leading to a fracas during which the motorcyclist escaped but a different black youth, Leroy Cooper whose brother had been acquitted on what the local community regarded as a trumped-up charge in the Crown Court only the day before, was arrested for assault on a police officer.  There was more trouble on the following evening, but it was the events of Sunday 5 July that launched ‘Toxteth’ (as outsiders commenting on the events always called the area) into the national headlines.

1981: the junction of Granby and Selbourne Street

2011: junction of Granby and Selbourne Street today

On that Sunday night we watched as full blown riots ripped through the streets of our neighbourhood: pitched battles between police and youths throwing missiles including petrol bombs, cars seized, overturned and set ablaze to form barricades, buildings set ablaze, shops ransacked.  In the early hours of Monday morning CS gas was used for the first time on the UK mainland.

The rioting lasted for nine days, as disturbances rippled through other inner-city areas. Further serious rioting occurred on 26-28 July when, at the time of the royal wedding of Charles and Diana, a young disabled boy David Moore was killed when he was run down by a police riot vehicle.  By the time the disturbances had died down, more than 300 police officers had been injured and 500 people arrested. At least 150 buildings had burnt down or been demolished, including the former Rialto Ballroom (below), the Racquet Club, the UK’s first drive-through bank, and a sizeable proportion of the shops and pubs on Lodge Lane.

1981: Swainbanks used furniture warehouse in the Rialto burns

2011: the new Rialto building houses shops and a neighbourhood centre

In retrospect what I recall about that Sunday night is the strangeness of it all.  We watched from the grassy knoll on Upper Parliament Street as the Racquet Club opposite (a private club for judges and members of other elite professions) was set on fire.  We watched as hundreds of youths hurled missiles at the retreating police lines (all the force had on the mainland in those days were heavy riot shields that caught light when a petrol bomb hit, while protective grilles were only added to police vehicles after the riots).  We watched with no sense of fear – many of the rioters were familiar to us.  The atmosphere, as we strolled through the milling crowds, was carnival-like.  Young men in black balaclavas would fall back from their endeavours for a while and chat with friends on the sidelines.

1981: Falkner Terrace

2011: the restored Falkner Terrace, a grade II listed building

At the time my job was organising adult and community education courses in a local college.  One of the projects with which I was involved at the time was a course initiated by South Liverpool Personnel, an adult education centre in the Rialto buildings.  The aim of the course was to begin to rectify to the virtually zero representation of  local black residents on university courses and in professions such as teaching and social work locally.  The project in itself epitomised the deep social fractures that culminated in the riots.  Local community activists had been warning for several years of the probable consequences of these divisions.  Indeed, the 1973 Report of the Select Committee on Race Relations inquiry into educational opportunities for black people had noted that the black community in Liverpool was disadvantaged both inside and outside school.  The Select Committee concluded: ‘Liverpool … left us with a profound sense of uneasiness’.

Around midnight we were two blocks from our home, standing at the corner of Parliament and Catherine watching the NatWest drive-in bank and the Rialto burn. The Rialto was a sweet target for many of the rioters:  the disused cinema housed Swainbanks second-hand furniture warehouse, where many on social security had been forced to pay exorbitant sums for crappy furniture.

Someone ran past with a huge drum of olives, looted from the Greek deli in the Rialto.  One of my students loomed from the flickering shadows to apologise: he might be late handing in his essay that week.  The street was littered with fruit and veg, tins and bottles from the looted shops.  Scorched paper drifted like confetti in the air.  The traffic lights changed from red to green and back again, but there was no traffic.  And no police – they hadn’t been since for an hour or more.  A mile from the city centre, buildings burned, shops were being ransacked, and a shifting melee controlled the streets.

But – and this was also strange – it was as if there was an invisible barrier confining the uprising to the boundaries of Liverpool 8.  The pulsing mass of predominantly young people seemed unconsciously to confine themselves to their own turf.  It’s not that I would have wished it, but I have often marvelled at the way that rampaging power halted, even when the police had withdrawn completely.  (Though perhaps there is no mystery to it.  At that time, there were almost no black Liverpudlians employed in the city centre, especially in positions involving face to face contact with the paying public:   for black Liverpudlians the city was a no-go area.)

Strange it was too when, in the early hours of the morning and with work to get up for in a few hours, we left the scene and returned home.  Through our bedroom window the night sky was lurid with the flames rising from the burning buildings two streets away.  Yet, coming in, when we had met our landlord who lived downstairs on the ground floor setting out buckets of sand and water, we had thought him a little mad.



The following morning I did the usual thing of picking up a work colleague who lived further down Canning Street, to give him a lift to work.  I drove the car into Upper Parliament Street to show him the impact of the night’s events.  I negotiated the car around burnt-out vehicles, fallen rubble from collapsed buildings and looted detritus.  My colleague was not as sanguine as I was: by the end of term he had left Liverpool for East Anglia.

1981: the ruins of the Racquets Club

2011: replaced by new apartments

The following day the enormous scale of the destruction became apparent.  The previous night figures running out of the darkness had shouted excitedly that Lodge Lane was on fire from end to end.  Now we could see just how far the devastation extended.  The bustling Lane, with its shops and pubs was wrecked: though some buildings had survived – protected by desperate shop owners – the heart of a white working-class neighbourhood lay in ruins.



Video footage from the period

BBC News footage of the Toxteth riots broadcast on 6 July 1981:

1985 clip from the first BBC TV magazine programme covering issues and developments in UK ethnic minority communities:

Later that year a crew from Finnish TV came to Liverpool  to film a documentary examining the roots of the 1981 riots. I got interviewed discussing the causes of Liverpool’s decline against the backdrop of a derelict Albert Dock:

What caused this, the worst rioting ever experienced on the UK mainland?  To coincide with the 30th anniversary of these events, Liverpool University Press have published a new book Liverpool ’81: Remembering the Riots, edited by Diane Frost and Richard Phillips.


Significantly, the longest chapter is devoted to racism and policing in Liverpool 8.  And most accounts and analyses of these events draw the same conclusion: that although Liverpool 8 was (and remains) a severely deprived area with poor housing, high unemployment and negligible job opportunities, it was the brutality and racism of the police force, targeting Liverpool-born black youths, that provoked the uprising.  And that racism was endemic – from the Chief Constable down to the cop on the beat.

Looking back to that time, it’s difficult to take in just how deeply racist British institutions were.  Take, for example, this passage from James McLure’s over-excited Spike Island: A Portrait of a Police Division, approved by the Merseyside Chief Constable as ‘faithfully’ portraying the ‘often dangerous’ task of the police in the city:

To his left, the North Sub [sub-division], and it’s a bit of a desert island that side. All those cliff-dwellers in high-rise flats; the bucks running wild and a few buckesses too . . .then straight in front of him, the market place: all that glitters, merchants and moneylenders, beggars and meths-drinkers lying about legless! . . . Then, to his right, the South Sub [sub-division]: the jungle noises and even more the jungle behaviour of clubland; then yellow people country, Chinatown; then, up in the right-hand top corner, black people country, Upper Parliament Street, a bit of Liverpool 8 . . . Then, if he’s coming on Nights, he’ll probably see five sort of stockades with campfires burning; places he can get in out of the cold and be safe from a hiding for a while . . .

Even more startling from today’s perspective is the article that appeared in 1978 in the BBC Listener magazine, written by BBC reporter Martin Young.   The racist bile in this piece led to a protest meeting and peaceful demonstration by residents of Liverpool 8;  but, worse, Ken Oxford, the Merseyside Chief Constable, was fond of echoing its phrases in his own pronouncements on the people who the police were ‘up against’ in Liverpool 8:

Policemen in general and detectives in particular, are not racialist, despite what many Black groups believe. … Yet they are the first to define the problem of half-castes in Liverpool.  Many are the products of liaisons between black seamen and white prostitutes in Liverpool 8, the red-light district.  Naturally, they do not grow up with any kind of recognizable home life. Worse still, after they have done the round of homes and institutions, they gradually realize they are nothing.  The Negroes will not accept them as Blacks, and whites just assume they are coloureds.  As a result, the half-caste community of Merseyside – or, more particularly, Liverpool – is well outside recognised society.

The Merseyside police force at the time had a particularly bad reputation in the area for stopping and searching black youths under the hated ‘sus’ laws.  Two telling passages in Liverpool ’81 illuminate this.  In the first, local councillor and Community Relations Council member Gideon  Ben-Tovim recalls:

The concern of all of us from the CRC point of view was problems with the police, with young people getting into trouble   often   in   our  view   for   no   good   reason, with the courts often colluding with the police as part of a whole system involving people getting prison sentences or criminal records for sometimes trivial offences. By the end of the 197os there was clearly a lot of tension building up in terms of the relationship between the police and the community, young     men in particular.

In another recollection, Phillip Canter, a solicitor in Liverpool 8, recalls ‘a time in which there were very bad relations between the police and the general public and also between the police and some of the local solicitors, including us’:

Just to give an example of this, I was in close touch with the then Chairman of the Police Committee, Lady Simey, and she and I were working together in trying to make a dossier of cases. We’d had quite a number of cases in which we had been acting for particularly black young people, who had been arrested and turned out to be wrongly arrested, and were acquitted on trial. I had a folder with many cases in this, and we were on the point actually of making this public when the riots took place.

At the time, Margaret Simey, a respected local figure, was Chairman of the Merseyside Police Committee.  She worked ceaselessly to hold the police force and its Chief Constable to account for their methods, both before and after the riots.  She once remarked that in the face of such conditions the people of Liverpool 8 would have been ‘apathetic fools’ if they had not rioted.  Phil Scraton documented her struggle in his The State of the Police, published in 1985.  In Liverpool ’81, Diane Frost and Richard Phillips have excavated this revealing entry from her diary (now part of the Simey archive in Liverpool University library).  It’s November 1981 and she has been invited to address the AGM of the local Police Federation.  Simey vividly captures the culture of policing that she sought to confront:

Picture a room with a low ceiling. Crammed with beery bulky men. A jam~packed little platform: policemen are all so   hefty! And in the middle of it, me, the victim, cooked up as an Aunt Sally for their fun and entertainment. [After her speech:] Up then gets this crude Scotsman, Jardine, and rants and roars in true Hitler style. I was sickened and appalled. He urged them into battle against the ‘louts’ of Toxteth. He went for the Bishop and the Archbishop (who are Bishop Tutu types) and me and the Police Committee, ranting and roaring in the best Hitler style. The audience loved it, shouted and cheered and gave him a standing ovation. I think they were half drunk.  But how hideously frightening, that that low lot of illiterates should be sent out on the streets of Granby to chivvy our young people.

Both the Scarman Report (on the Liverpool disturbances as well as others in Brixton and Handsworth) and the Gifford Enquiry (specifically into the Liverpool events) concluded that racism and policing methods had created the conditions for violent protest.  But the Gifford report of 1988 went further, concluding that the problem of institutional racism extended beyond the police force into the procedures and recruitment practices of the City Council and local employers.  As for the police, despite the higher profile given to community policing after the riots ‘racial attitudes, abuse and violence’ still permeated the force, worsened with the introduction of armoured cars, riot vans and the new hard-line Operational Support Division.  In fact, in the months following the first riot, the police began to utilise the Norther Ireland tactic of driving armoured cars at high speed straight into crowds of youths in order to disperse them.  On 26 July this had deadly consequences when a disabled youth, David Moore, unable to run fast enough, was run down and killed.  Three more nights of rioting ensued.

In the immediate aftermath of the disturbances there was a feeling of hope in the air. In late July, the Minister for Merseyside, Michael Heseltine, arrived in the city and a month later announced a package of measures for Liverpool, including clearing a stretch of riverside wasteland polluted with toxic waste to establish the first International Garden Festival. There were plans, too, to clean up stretches of the derelict docks, including the Albert Dock, where the Tate Gallery eventually opened.

The Merseyside Task Force, consisting of high-level civil servants, was established and, along with colleagues, I had the heady experience of negotiating with members of the Task Force to obtain funds to rent and furnish a building in Liverpool 8 which would house a Black Access course.  This partnership project between the LEA, two local FE colleges and Liverpool University resulted, in the following two decades, in hundreds of individuals from Liverpool 8 – of all ages and ethnic backgrounds – gaining entry to university degree courses and then professional employment.  Looking back, I hope that it is not just my personal involvement with this project that leads me to conclude that it was one of the most positive and beneficial outcomes of the riots.

The broader question of how much has changed in Liverpool 8 since the riots is both complex and one which provokes many different and passionate responses.  What most local observers agree upon is that the big headline projects – the Garden Festival, the Albert Dock and the Tate, had little to do with Liverpool 8 (though technically they lay within the ‘Toxteth’ boundary).  Some question whether many residents of Liverpool 8 gained employment through them: often labour was recruited from outside Merseyside.

In Liverpool ’81, local councillor Gideon Ben-Tovim offers a measured assessment, suggesting that though government   initiatives did produce benefits, these did not filter through to the people who needed them most:

One of the legacies of that period was the movement to a greater regeneration of Liverpool as a whole, so the work of the Merseyside Task Force set up after the riots by Michael Heseltine certainly had a wide civic impact for Liverpool. In one sense the renaissance of Liverpool began after the riots in the 198os with the Liverpool Garden Festival, the development of the Albert Dock, the establishment of the Merseyside Development Corporation, and later City Challenge, all of which had an important city-wide impact. Thus an effect of the riots was to bring Liverpool to the attention of national politicians and to kick-start a long and overdue process of regeneration, culminating in the 2008 Capital of Culture achievement.

But l don’t think that such a huge amount was actually invested in Liverpool 8 after the riots, as compared to what was spent on the wider city. There was some cosmetic improvement to the Princes Avenue Boulevard. A process of housing improvement began, seeing in due course some of the removal of the worst quality council accommodation in Liverpool 8. There were some modest targeted initiatives that emerged through the Task Force in that period that  have had an impact in trying to achieve a better degree of black representation  in certain fields of employment. Thus there was a  positive action training scheme which involved the housing associations offering places and the Community College delivering the training, leading to the eventual employment  of some black housing staff. This had some impact on the local housing associations, and helped some individuals to develop themselves in that field.

The significant investment of the NHS in the Women’s Hospital in Liverpool 8 can be seen as a positive outcome of the riots, a deliberate attempt by the then Dean of Liverpool to invest in Liverpool 8 through his ‘Project Rosemary’. So in the period since the riots we have seen some investment  in housing and the urban infrastructure; some incremental  bits of positive action training, including housing associations and social work; the College-University Access partnership and the sustained College recruitment of Liverpool 8 students; a successful new primary school and children’s centre;  a major NHS investment in the area; some improvements in the workforce profiles of the City Council and the NHS.

However, overall I would say there have not been enough targeted interventions, and a lot of what we saw after the riots was a rather general regeneration which on the whole bypassed Liverpool 8. Within Liverpool 8  itself some of the worst council accommodation has been cleared and better council or social housing accommodation put in its place, but even here there are the ‘Four Streets’ in Granby [above] that have still not had their future decided, and Granby Street itself has not been regenerated, with many boarded-up shops remaining. However, this is bordered by a new school and attached Sure Start Centre … which recently received an ‘Outstanding’ Ofsted inspection assessment.

The International Slavery Museum at the Albert Dock currently has an exhibition of photographs of the riots taken at the time by local residents. The pictures have been preserved by Sonia Bassey-Williams, then a young resident of the Toxteth area and now project manager for the Merseyside Black History Month Group. She went on to work with the Liverpool 8 Defence Committee to which local residents donated the photos.  The photos can also be seen on the Group’s 1981 Toxteth Riots website.

Coincidentally, the Museum also has an exhibition of photos of dramatic and iconic moments from over 40 years of South Africa’s history, captured by Lancashire-born Magnum photojournalist Ian Berry.  The exhibition culminates with the display of an anti-apartheid banner carried on protests organised by the Liverpool 8 Defence Committee, established in response to the riots (above).  This reminded me of something significant back in 1981 – the strong and empowering currents in black culture, especially in music, and the sense of shared identity with black experience in other UK cities and in other parts of the world, especially South Africa.

American soul music from the ghettos, Jamaican reggae and British ska and reggae all explored the theme of discrimination against black people.  In Britain, amidst recession, rising unemployment and bitter hostility in the inner cities to the government of Margaret Thatcher there had also been several years of assaults on black and Asian communities by the National Front, which had in turn led to the formation of the Anti-Nazi League. 2-Tone music from bands such as the Specials and Selecter fused elements of ska, punk rock and reggae and provided much of the soundtrack to these years.  In their songs, British reggae bands like Misty in Roots, Aswad and Steel Pulse linked the tribulations on the streets at home with struggles in Africa and elsewhere.

The lyrics of Steel Pulse’s ‘Handsworth Revolution‘ not only summed up the injustices felt by black Britons living in the inner cities, but also expressed the sense of hope and strength that many gained from Rastafarianism:

Dread we are for a cause
Deprived of many things
Experienced phony laws
Hatred Babylon brings
We know what we got to offer
We know what’s going on
Don’t want no favours
Cause there is still hunger
Innocent convicted
Poor wage, hard labour
Only Babylon prospers
And humble suffer
They are brothers in south of Africa
One Black represent all, all over the world
Can’t bear it no longer
Blessed with the power
Of Jah Creator
We will get stronger
And we will conquer
And forward ever, and backward never

Above all, the songs of Bob Marley gave young people in the inner city a sense of the justice denied them, as well as strength and purpose:

Get up, stand up
Stand up for your rights
Dont give up the fight!

Most people think
great God will come from the sky
Take away everything
Make everybody feel high
But if you know what life is worth
You’ll look for yours on earth

Some of these artists responded to the riots, the most striking example being The Specials, who, in the most perfect coincidence of music and politics topped the charts with ‘Ghost Town‘ as the the riots spread from city to city.

Linton Kwesi Johnson responded to the riots in Brixton and elsewhere with ‘The Great Insurrection’ (below) and ‘Mekkin Histri’.

well dere woz Toxteth
an dere woz Moss Side
an a lat a addah places
whey di police ad to hide
well dare woz Brixtan
an dere woz Chapeltoun
an a lat a addah place dat woz burnt to di groun

it is noh mistri
wi mekkin histri
it is noh mistri
wi winnin victri
– Linton Kwesi Johnson, Mekkin Histri

And let’s not forget Liverpool 8’s own The Real Thing, who in 1977 had released their second album, Four from Eight(originally to have been called Liverpool 8 in honour of the neighbourhood where they grew up and still live, before their record company rejected the title).  The album concludes with the fine trilogy ‘Liverpool 8 Medley’: ‘Liverpool Eight’, ‘Children of the Ghetto’ and ‘Stanhope Street’.

Children of the Ghetto
Runnin’ wild and free
In the concrete jungle
Filled with misery
Yeah, yeah, yeah
Theres no inspiration
To brighten up our day
None at all, not at all, none at all
So out of desperation
I would like to say:
Children of the Ghetto
Keep your head
To the sky

In 2011, Liverpool 8 in general looks better. There are examples of much improved housing and the schools are new,  better performing and treat children of all backgrounds with the same care and respect. Relations between the police and the community are undoubtedly better than they were. But there is a risk, if you’re someone comfortably off living on the edge of the district, of being taken in by surface stuff. Dig deeper and the reality is that Liverpool 8 is still one of the poorest areas in the country.

Nevertheless, let’s keep our head to the sky and end on a positive note, with a look at two examples of the people of Liverpool 8 aspiring to better things.

Lodge Lane at the time of the riots was a largely white working class district.  The area was devastated by the riots and subsequent housing renewal, with residents being dispersed to other parts of the inner city. Today, though, it is the centre of a highly diverse community, many of whom are more recent arrivals in the city, whether from Africa, the Middle East or Eastern Europe.

Walk the mile-long length of the Lane, and there is scarcely a shop boarded up with businesses that appear to be doing reasonably well.  There are no chain stores here: there’s a real sense of small entrepreneurs from every conceivable ethnic background pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.  There are takeaways offering a diverse range of ethnic food – whether your preferences is Caribbean jerk fish or chicken, English fish and chips, Chinese,or Middle Eastern cuisine. There are stores selling halal meat and poultry, barber shops offering every kind of cut including Rasta, an Internet cafe,two international call shops, a mobile phone repair shop,the Islam Lifestyle store, newsagents, a Middle Eastern restaurant, off-licences, cafes and pubs.

As well as places looking to sell you something, there are offices of organisations that support and strengthen the community: the Liverpool Arabic Centre, Lodge Lane & District Credit Union, Granby-Toxteth Development Trust, and the Muslim Enterprise Development Service.  At the top of the Lane, next to the ruined public baths building, there’s the local branch library and the ‘Pivvy’, the Pavilion Bingo Club.

At the other end of the Lane, with one of last year’s Go Penguins standing guard, is the Greenhouse Project which for the last 14 years has been providing after-school child care and running multicultural play and arts projects. The project encourages local kids to explore and celebrate the diversity of the local community. One group of young people aged 14-18, recently started a campaign called ‘Loving Lodge Lane’ to bring together business owners, residents and local services to demonstrate pride in the area.  Another group has produced a short film, These Streets, which has just won a national award.

Meanwhile, it’s a different story over at Granby Street, which is a ghost of its former self. The top end of the street has largely been demolished and alongside the new school and Sure Start centre there are new housing developments that look to be of a reasonable standard.  Further down, though, is a scene of utter dereliction: Granby Four Streets is a distressed neighbourhood where most of the houses are bricked up and empty.

But amidst this devastation, the remaining residents of Cairns Street, Beaconsfield, Ducie and Jermyn Street, off Granby Street, have joined forces to green up and regenerate their area and fight Council plans for demolition. They want to save all of the empty houses in the Four Streets area – 128 in all – and turn them into affordable homes again. The last few years have been a hard grind of lobbying, meetings and negotiations with the local council and potential developers.

At the same time the eight remaining residents of Cairns Street have taken matters into their own hands, tidying up their street, painting the boarded up houses in pastel colours, and planting flowers, shrubs, vegetables and fruit in every available space.  On the first Saturday of every month they hold a community market.

Ironically, the spending cuts have made the situation a lot more optimistic – basically, the money for demolition and rebuilding has run out, so there might just be a chance to save the houses and revive the area.

The Four Streets Trust has issued a declaration of hope for the area:

We firmly believe that it is possible to retrofit the existing houses so that they emit 70-80% less carbon than similar houses, and generate some of their own energy. This will help to protect residents from fuel poverty and make the neighbourhood a green and pleasant place to live.  We also want jobs and training in construction and renewable technologies for local people to be a major feature of this project – so investment stays in the area, and helps to make the neighbourhood truly sustainable in the long term.

They have produced a short video setting out their hopes for the future and how they intend to use this ‘chink of light, this chance of change’ for the place and for the people:

You can listen to Richard Phillips and Diane Frost, authors of Liverpool ’81: Remembering the Riots, discuss the riots on Thinking Allowed with Laurie Taylor on this YouTube clip, illustrated with photos of riot locations then and now.


Update 17 August

The Dingle: digging into the past

The Dingle: digging into the past

Dingle Vale allotments

In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation…
– TS Eliot, Four Quartets

There’s always a sense on city allotments of the ‘fields beneath’ – the land as it was before it was urbanised.  Gillian Tindall explored this idea 30 years ago in The Fields Beneath, whose title was prompted by an inscription above the door of a Victorian terrace house in Kentish Town: ‘The fields lie sleeping underneath’.  But here, on our recently-acquired plot on Dingle Vale allotments in the south end of Liverpool, that feeling of being close to ancient land seems especially strong.

The allotments stretch along both sides of the railway line that runs southeast to Aigburth and Garston, and here disappears into a tunnel under Shorefields school to emerge at Brunswick Dock.  The plots tumble down the sides of a fairly deep declivity that, with a little bit of research, I discovered was the Dingle – the once-picturesque valley that ran down to the Mersey at Knott’s Hole, and which gave its name to this part of the city.  The photo below reveals what it looked like around 1900, when it was a pleasant destination for a country ramble.  The allotments came in 1923, and this is the view across the valley now: the Dingle ran down to the Mersey to the left, the railway line is to the right.

This land was once part of Toxteth Park, established in the 13th century for the recreation of King John when he visited the castle he had erected in the settlement to which he had granted the privileges of borough and seaport in 1207.  The Domesday Book records Toxteth (Stochestede, the stockaded or enclosed space) as still being possessed by Bernulf and Stainulf, Saxon thanes, even after the Conquest.

The Dingle was one of four ‘lost’ streams that flowed through Toxteth Park to join the Mersey. The Dingle stream rose in the higher land around the present High Park Street,  flowed down what is now Park Road past the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth, passed through the grounds of the Turner Home and the present allotments, before entering the Mersey at Knott Hole behind a rocky outcrop known as Dingle Point.  This was a rural area of rolling hills and isolated farmsteads until comparatively recent times, as revealed on Perry’s map of 1768.  It was only in the second half of the 19th century that the regiments of terraced streets that characterise this area now began their march along Park Road.

As late as the mid-19th century the Dingle was still a rural area of large houses, vast gardens, babbling streams and a long beach on the Mersey known as Jericho Shore that stretched from Knott’s Hole at the mouth of the Dingle towards Garston in the south east.  Smith’s Stranger’s Guide to Liverpool described the Dingle in 1843 as:

A sweet romantic dell…It is a delightful retreat, extending to the river, having all the diversity of hill and dale, wood and grove, tastefully laid out in shady and winding walks, with numerous arbours and rustic seats [see the 1821 drawing at the head of this post].  Few persons in Liverpool are aware of the beauty of this romantic spot, which is certainly a rare acquisition for the neighbourhood of a large town.  Admission is gratuitous, visitors only being required to enter their names in a book at the lodge, to prevent improper persons gaining access to the ground.  The Dingle, in Park Road, is two miles from the Exchange, and is passed by an omnibus from town eight times a day.

In 1841 Thomas Kaye added this detail:

The projecting land around the place forms the western end of a sweet romantic dell, well known by the name of the Dingle, a favourite pleasure resort of the inhabitants of the neighbourhood, who have liberty of access to it at stated times and under certain restrictions, by the permission of the public-spirited proprietresses, the Misses Yates, by whom the grounds are kept in a good state of cultivation.  The upper part of the tower of St. Michael’s, Toxteth Park, appears peeping through the rich foliage of  the trees arising from the Dingle.

The ‘Misses Yates’ referred to in that extract were Anna Marie and Jane Ellen Yates.  The two days a week on which they allowed the public access across their land to the Dingle in the 1830s and 1840s, before there were any public parks in Liverpool, became known locally as ‘Dingle Days’.  It was their brother, Richard Vaughan Yates, who owned the estate (marked in red on the 1847 Dingle Tithe Award map, below). The property fronted onto what is now Aigburth Road (then known as Park Lane), on the site now occupied by the Turner Nursing Home and the old Shorefields school building. The site occupied by the allotments today is marked in green, as is the location of the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth. [Click on map to enlarge.]

Richard Vaughan Yates was the man who financed the first public park in Liverpool – Princes Park. Yates was a wealthy iron merchant and philanthropist who, ‘desirous…that a place of healthful and pleasant recreation should be secured for the people’, paid the Earl of Sefton the hefty sum of £50,000 in 1842 for the land and employed Joseph Paxton to do the landscaping.

The Yates family eventually sold their estate to Charles Turner, a shipowner, M.P, and first chairman of the Dock Board (Mersey Docks and Harbour Board).  After he died in 1875 at Dingle Head, the home he had built on the estate, his widow gave £40,000, with an endowment, to establish the Turner Home to provide accommodation and residential care for chronically sick men and boys.  The Home, named in memory of her late husband and their only son who had died in his twenties, was built in the grounds of Dingle Head and opened in 1884. Robert Griffiths in his  History of Toxteth Park described it as a ‘princely monument…. an ideal home of rest, nestling peacefully in the seclusion of shady bowers….. remarkable for its chaste picturesqueness…. the material used, red sandstone…..’.

The Yates family were Unitarians, the dissenters with roots in Toxteth Park since the early 17th century.  In 1823 the Yates family sold the nearby estate of Dingle Bank (outlined in blue on the map above) to the Cropper family, who were Quakers well known in Liverpool throughout most of the nineteenth century for their philanthropic works.  James Cropper was a wealthy shipowner whose firm, Cropper, Benson & Co., formed in 1799, carried mail and passengers as well as cargo between Liverpool and America.  At one stage the company was making £1,000 per day profit.

Cropper built three large houses at Dingle Bank for members of his own family, and Dingle Bank Cottages on the shore for estate workers.  These buildings can be seen on the detail from the 1906 Ordnance Survey map below.

These watercolours, painted in 1893, depict the views from Dingle Bank across the Mersey to th Welsh hills, and southeast along the Jericho shore towards Otterspool and Garston docks.  The site was one of outstanding natural beauty and was the subject of much envy. The land sloped down to the River Mersey, looking south away from the docks up the Mersey where it broadened out into a great lake with shining islands of sand at low tide. One contemporary commented that it was ‘like living in the country and at a very interesting seaside place at the time, with the shipping and yacht racing and yet within a couple of miles of the centre of a huge town’.

The Croppers had made the grounds of Dingle Bank’s even more exquisite with a walk around the property which followed winding paths lined with Japanese plants and trees and crossed a wooden bridge. Several arbours with seats were placed along the walk overlooking the sandy beach of the Jericho shore, where, according to a contemporary account, ‘peace and tranquillity could be found in the beauty of the surroundings’.

James Cropper set up a ragged school on Miles Street, just off Park Road, which provided teaching in moral and elementary education to pauper children.  He was deeply involved in the campaign against slavery and Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin visited Dingle Bank on a tour of England.  She was overwhelmed by the welcome she received there and from other dignitaries of Liverpool, and found the beauty of Dingle Bank captivating.

Other visitors to Dingle Bank were  the feminist Josephine Butler, the novelist Mary Augusta Ward and her uncle, the poet Matthew Arnold, who died in Dingle Lane in April 1888 while visiting his sister, Susan Cropper.  He was running to catch a tram to the Pier Head to meet his daughter, who was visiting from the United States.  There’s now a primary school on Dingle Lane that bears his name.

James Cropper’s son, John was also committed to the anti-slavery movement and attended the first World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840 which attracted delegates from America, France, Haiti, Australia, Ireland, Jamaica and Barbados.  He was the subject of a poem, Dingle Bank, by Edward Lear:

He lived at Dingle Bank – he did; –
He lived at Dingle Bank;
And in his garden was one Quail,
Four tulips and a Tank:
And from his window he could see
The otion and the River Dee.

His house stood on a Cliff, – it did,
Its aspic it was cool;
And many thousand little boys
Resorted to his school,
Where if of progress they could boast
He gave them heaps of buttered toast.

But he grew rabid-wroth, he did,
If they neglected books,
And dragged them to adjacent Cliffs
With beastly Button Hooks,
And there with fatuous glee he threw
Them down into the otion blue.

And in the sea they sway, they did, –
All playfully about,
And some eventually became
Sponges, or speckled trout: –
But Liverpool doth all bewail
Their Fate; – likewise his Garden Quail.

Despite the encroachment of city streets and industry (note the petroleum storage tanks on the 1906 map, above),  Dingle Bank remained secluded and intact until 1919 when the whole estate was bought by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board and all the buildings were demolished to make way for the Dingle oil jetties and petroleum storage tanks.

As early as the start of the 19th century the stream that had once flowed down the Dingle had long since dried up, prompting William Roscoe to compose his fanciful poem, The Nymph of the Dingle:

Stranger, that with careless feet
Wanderest near this green retreat,
Where through gently bending slopes
Soft the distant prospect opes ;

Where the fern, in fringed pride,
Decks the lonely valley’s side ;
Where the white-throat chirps his song.
Flitting as thou tread’st along :

Know, where now thy footsteps pass
O’er the bending tufts of grass,
Bright gleaming through the encircling wood,
Once a Naiad rolled her flood.

If her urn, unknown to fame,
Poui-ed no far extended stream,
Yet along its grassy side
Clear and constant rolled the tide.

Grateful for the tribute paid.
Lordly Mersey loved the maid ;
Yonder rocks still mark the place
Where she met his stern embrace.

Stranger, curious, wouldst thou learn
Why she mourns her wasted urn ?
Soon a short and simple verse
Shall her hopeless fate rehearse.

Ere yon neighbouring spires arose,
That the upland prospect close,
Or ere along the startled shore
Echoed loud the cannon’s roar.

Once the maid, in summer’s heat,
Careless left her cool retreat,
And by sultry suns opprest,
Laid her wearied limbs to rest ;

Forgetful of her daily toil,
To trace each humid tract of soil,
From dews and bounteous showers to brine
The limpid treasures of her spring.

Enfeebled by the scorching ray,
She slept the circling hours away ;
And when she oped her languid eye,
She found her silver urn was dry.

Heedless stranger ! who so long
Has listened to an idle song,
Whilst trifles thus thy notice share,
Hast thou no urn that asks thy care ?

The poem was very popular and for many years a statue commemorating the water nymph stood in an ornamental alcove on the rocky outcrop above Knott’s Hole (the white columned shelter with a domed roof visible above the tree-line in the watercolour above). According to Robert Griffiths writing in 1907 in his essential History of the Royal and Ancient Park of Toxteth,  the statue had by then been moved to the grounds of the Turner Memorial Home where it could be seen ‘damaged by some vandal in a deplorable manner’. There is a probable copy of it in the Walker Art Gallery.

The five views (above) of Dingle Point and Knott’s Hole around 1900 reveal a landscape that is still rural, with the shoreline as yet unchanged.  In the top photo is the rather odd sight of a tennis court set in the middle of the dell.

However, by the time Robert Griffiths published his History of  Toxteth Park in 1907, the city was encroaching. Herculaneum Dock had appeared to the north, marking the expansion of the docklands along the Toxteth waterfront. Inland were rows of terraced houses and the old lanes of the area had been developed into the road pattern with which we are familiar today.  The Dingle was now spanned by a viaduct carrying the railway line. Griffiths wrote:

Standing beneath this viaduct and looking towards the river, which is here just hidden from view by a bend in this ancient watercourse, one is confronted with one of the most beautiful glens in this part of the country…On either side the verdure-clad embankments rise to a height over-capping some of the hoary trees with which the the whole of the slopes are covered.  Leading up through the gnarled and bent trunks on each side of the ravine are the moss-covered remains of the ancient ‘Wishing Steps’. …The deep solitude is broken only by the gentle murmur of the Mersey water, the joyous note of the feathered songsters, secure in their lofty homes, or the whirr of the martin’s wing as it hastily rises from its covert amid a little cloud of summer dust at the unusual sound of a stranger’s footfall.

The photo above shows the Wishing Steps at the time Griffiths was writing.  The 1821 drawing at the head of this post shows the valley from where Griffiths was standing in 1907.  He remarks that the rustic summer house had been burned down one 5th of November a few years previously ‘probably, it is thought, by a gang of roughs’.

In the early 1920s, the dell under the railway viaduct was filled in and the land was allocated to allotments. But part of the Dingle remained green. By this time, the land behind where the photographer stood  had been allocated to the allotments, while an area stretching down to Knott’s Hole (seen on the 1908 OS map, below) was still part of the grounds of West Dingle, the large house on the hillside built for Joseph Yates in 1824, but since 1897 converted as the House of Providence, a home for ‘destitute women’.

Up to the 1930s, the view from West Dingle was still picturesque, with the valley stretching down to the low cliffs at Knott’s Hole.  But then a wall was built across the shore, and the area became a rubbish tip.  After the Second World War, rubble from buildings in the city centre destroyed by the blitz was used to fill in the valley, and once the level had been raised the whole area became an extension of the the oil and petro-chemical site seen on the 1906 OS map of Dingle Bank earlier.  The oil terminal heralded the complete transformation of the landscape of the lower Dingle, beginning with the infilling of the shoreline down to Otterspool.  By 1949 gas storage cylinders had been built behind the pier. By this time, too, the houses on the hill, including Dingle Bank, had been demolished.  More gas storage cylinders were built in the period up to 1960 and the long beach of the Jericho shore was reclaimed for building land.  By 1964 the beach had totally disappeared.  By the 1980s the whole area had been filled with household waste.

Then came the Thatcher era and the social and economic devastation of the city: the docks were already in decline as trade moved elsewhere, while the deepening crisis, rising unemployment and inner-city tensions led to the Toxteth riots in 1981, which focussed national attention on the social and economic problems facing Liverpool.  The arrival of Michael Heseltine, Thatcher’s ‘Minister for Merseyside’, began a new phase for the Dingle. The International Garden Festival  in 1984 was an attempt to spark regeneration in the area. Whether or not it was a success, it completely reshaped the landscape.  The area of landfill waste was developed into extensive gardens. Where once the shaded bay of Knott’s Hole opened out on the Mersey, the Garden Festival Arena now stood.

On the aerial view (above) the line of the original Dingle stream has been marked in deep blue, and the original shoreline in light blue – showing the extent of the infilling along the shore since the early 20th century, and especially in the preparation for the Garden Festival.  When the Festival was over, the Dingle waterfront once again became neglected, as no long-term future for the site could be secured, though new housing that now backs on to the allotments was built at Knott’s Hole, while Riverside Drive, the new waterfront road to Otterspool, was another legacy of the Garden Festival.

Last September it was announced that work would soon begin on redeveloping the site, with the Chinese and Japanese gardens being restored, as well as the lakes and associated watercourses and the woodland sculpture trails. The developers also announced that they still intend to build the 1300 homes planned for the site ‘as soon as the market conditions allow’.

Dingle Point (seen above in a photo from around 1890) was the most southerly part of the Dingle.  Remnants of the sandstone cliffs of the Point can still be seen near the roundabout on Riverside Drive close to the Britannia Inn (below).

This stretch of shoreline is remembered by older Liverpudlians as the ‘Cast-Iron Shore’ or ‘Cazzy’, a reference to the cast iron (used in the construction of St. Michael’s church) forged at the Mersey Foundry, a vast site on Grafton Street that was operative through the 19th century.  The Cast-Iron Shore is referenced in John Lennon’s lyric for the Beatles’ Glass Onion and recalled in ‘Norra Lorra Otters’, by local poet Justine Tennant:

I’ve never seen a otter
Down at Otterspool
I’ve rode me bike
An flown me kite
An even bunked off school
Burrive never seen a otter
On the banks of Liverpool
I’ve never seen a otter
Down on the Cast Iron Shore
Me ma’s seen one around der
but long before the war
No, I’ve never seen a otter
Cos, ders none der any more!

Standing on the cast iron shore,
Lady Madonna trying to make ends meet.
Looking through a glass onion.

We can no longer wander down the wooded valley of the Dingle to the Cast Iron Shore, forever blocked off and buried.  But if you’re fortunate to have an allotment in Dingle Vale, you can still sense the old landscape, see the birds wheel and the trees bend, dig deep into that old earth:

Let the day grow on you upward
through your feet,
the vegetal knuckles,

to your knees of stone,
until by evening you are a black tree;
feel, with evening,

the swifts thicken your hair,
the new moon rising out of your forehead,
and the moonlit veins of silver

running from your armpits
like rivulets under white leaves.
Sleep, as ants

cross over your eyelids.
You have never possessed anything
as deeply as this.

This is all you have owned
from the first outcry
through forever;

you can never be dispossessed.

– Earth, Derek Walcott

The black and white photos in this post are from Liverpool Records Office and originally appeared in a post by Darren White on YoLiverpool forums.  The two 1893 watercolours of Dingle Bank appeared in the guide to the Liverpool International Garden Festival, 1984 and were posted by Darren White on YoLiverpool forums.

See also

The Ancient Chapel of Toxteth

The Ancient Chapel of Toxteth

Every year on four days in September, buildings of every age, style and function throw open their doors, ranging from castles to factories, town halls to tithe barns, parish churches to Buddhist temples. It is a once-a-year chance to discover hidden architectural treasures and enjoy a wide range of tours, events and activities which bring to life local history and culture.

Today I took advantage of Heritage Open Days 2009 to take a look round Toxteth Ancient Chapel which is located on a busy junction at the bottom of Park Road in the Dingle, but which dates back to 1618, when it was a haven for Dissenters settled in the wilds of Toxteth Park. Continue reading “The Ancient Chapel of Toxteth”