Housing in Liverpool, and me

The first time I walked along Canning Street I was awestruck. It was 1973 and I’d just started at the University. And one lunch time I went out of the back entrance of the Eleanor Rathbone building where I’d just started going, and crossed Myrtle Street into Liverpool 8. Yards later I was in Canning Street, still now the most magnificent terraced street I have ever seen in my life.

Canning Street, 2003. And yes, that’s Liverpool Cathedral at the end of the street.

Its magnificence at that time though was like that of an ancient relic. Because it looked like it was crumbling away.

Nowadays it’s hard to remember how Canning Street and its surrounding Georgian Terraces were back in the mid-seventies. How poor so many of the people who lived there were. How exploited they were by the private landlords who’d split the magnificent terraced houses up into so many tiny and badly maintained flats.

Canning 1975. The houses in the background look like they’re crumbling away © Paul Trevor

Because now, though there is still plenty of social housing in the Canning area, there have also been flats selling there in the last few years for a quarter of a million pounds. That day back in 1973 I could never have imagined that.

Me, 1973. From my student ID card. A spotty youth.

But just how it all felt back then has been brought back to me in a book of lovely photographs that I’ve recently found. It’s by Paul Trevor and it’s called ‘Like you’ve never been away.’ (It was apparently an exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery in 2011, but it passed me by.) And every time I open the book I’m taken back to the times in the early to mid 1970s, in Liverpool, when I began to find my way in life.

This ‘waking up’ kind of began a few years earlier. In 1966, along with a quarter of the British population, I’d watched a Wednesday Play on BBC 2 called ‘Cathy Come Home’ about homelessness, unemployment, and the rights of mothers to keep their own children. And, living in a world where I’d thought things were only getting better, I was shocked to find there was a Britain that still existed where life for many was little better than Dickensian.

But I was only twelve years old, so there wasn’t much I could do. Other than notice the big ‘Shelter’ posters that started to appear, as ‘Cathy Come Home’ turned into a campaign.

A few years later though, in 1972 when I started working, I found myself drawn to housing. And I travelled into central Liverpool each day, from my home in the comfortable suburbs, to a different world.

I got a job in the City Council housing office on Benledi Street, just off Scotland Road. It was a little brick fortress where about twenty of us ‘managed’ 14,000 tenancies in North Liverpool. In truth it was more like crowd control than management. There were good people in there, but most of the old hands despised the tenants and referred to them all, collectively, as ‘deadlegs’.

Some days I’d be sent off to the sub-office in Netherfield Heights, at the top of the hill in Everton. On the way up there I’d pass The Piggeries. These were three high-rise blocks, built as recently as 1965 and already on their way to being uninhabitable slums. Crosby, Canterbury and Haigh Heights, as they were really called, had recently staged a rent strike, because of the appalling conditions and the Council’s failure to maintain the blocks. Most Council employees entirely blamed the tenants, of course. But, spending some time at the local Repairs Office, on Shaw Street, I was shown how to prioritise and file repairs requests. And told to put requests for Piggeries repairs ‘in that box down there’. At the end of the day ‘that box’ was emptied into the bin.

 

Haigh Heights 1975 © Paul Trevor

Liverpool City Council had played a pioneering role in developing high quality public housing earlier in the 20th century – and we’ll return to that another day. But by the early 1970s its energy and standards had declined. And so I decided to put my own energies elsewhere.

Haigh Heights and Salisbury Street, 1975. © Paul Trevor

‘Cathy Come Home’ had led to the setting up of ‘Shelter’ the national homelessness charity. And Shelter in turn had put much of their money into the initial funding of small, locally based, radical housing associations. Such as Notting Hill Housing Trust and Liverpool Housing Trust.

I first tried to get a job with Liverpool Housing Trust (LHT) in 1973, but got nowhere. So I went to University and carried on working for the City Council during the holidays. Until 1975, when I finally managed to talk my way into LHT as a volunteer.

There were about 25 of us at first, managing around 2,000 homes and tenancies. A much higher ratio than the Council. We believed in small teams, managing small areas, where we could get to know all of the tenants we were housing. And we believed in housing people who were in the greatest housing need. We were working mainly in Canning, nearby Granby, (where I’m involved again now) and Walton. And for the first few years it wasn’t like working at all. I’d arrived at my housing campaign and was overjoyed to be there.

But more of that another day.

To end, a precious memory. It’s late August 1975. I walk along sunny Canning Street and round the corner into Falkner Square, to enter LHT’s office at 38 & 39, for the first time. The office windows are open and Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born To Run’ – released this week – is belting out across the Square. I am home.

You can watch ‘Cathy Come Home’ here. The whole 77 minutes has been uploaded by its Director Ken Loach as a public service. It changed my life.

And you can buy ‘Like you’ve never been away’ here. It’s only £9.99. And it’s ‘only’ photographs. But it sums us up, us Liverpool people, and the places we’ve sometimes had to make the best of, as well as anything else ever filmed, photographed or written. Photos published on Walker Art Gallery site.

25 thoughts on “Housing in Liverpool, and me

  1. stan cotter

    Hi Ronnie, when I was born, Sept 1936 (yes I still remember the date but not the incident) my parents lived a flat in 99 Upper Parliament Street. They are still there now and what magnificent buildings they must have been in their heydays.

    I was a driver for the Ambulance Service for a while and used to collect a patient from a hostel in Canning Street. But I can’t remember the number of it. There was a lady there her name was Schmiechel. She claimed to be French and had fought alongside the French Resistance during the war.

    Reply
    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      The buildings in Upper Parlaiment Street were renovated in the late 1970s by Liverpool Housing Trust, I’m proud to say. At first we did them with the entrances round the back, but that was a disaster, obviously. So we returned them to having proper front doors.

      Reply
  2. Jan Baird Hasak

    What a fascinating look into Liverpool history! Something we’d never know without your wonderful blog. Takes me back to my college days in the 1970’s, although I went to school in a more rural environment in upstate New York. I love the picture of you in the photo ID card.

    Reply
  3. Ronnie Hughes Post author

    Thanks for ‘wonderful blog’ Jan, and your fascination with Liverpool. Now you’re one of the, I’d guess, very few American people who know about the Piggeries!

    Reply
  4. lindsay53

    Fascinating but horrifying insights into how people without means are manipulated by those with more power – well even just a bit more power. It is appalling that it continues to happen all over the place. Love the blog & love the fact that there are still people with projects that stand up to this abuse, refuse to accept it and find ways to unlease the potential of people whatever their circumstances & whatever their housing conditions. Like some of the projects we have worked on together in the past! A great read as always Ronnie.

    Reply
  5. Steve Rowse

    Hi Ronnie. I ‘worked’ in Benledi St too (doing sod all most of the time), in the early 70s, probably from 73 to 76; I’m the same age as you. Something made me google it and this came up. It was a very disheartening place for all the reasons you say, I really hated that job! My memories of the area are vivid but of the office, very weak – surely we knew one another? I seem to know the face but not the name…

    Reply
    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      Hi Steve, did you work in Repairs? I remember your name. I was mostly through in Rents, though every now and then I’d go upstairs to swear at John Ledwitch.

      It was a dreadful building though, just a brick shed really. And it leaked. Remember John Blackwell in Rents? For some reason(?) he once had an industrial quantity of washing powder stored behind his desk. And after one particularly rainy weekend we arrived at Benledi Street on the Monday morning to find soap suds leaking out of the doors on to the street! Took us all day to dry the place out. But it was the only time the dump was ever really clean.

      Reply
      1. Steve Rowse

        Oh I only just saw that you replied, this internet thingie takes some getting used to, so sorry about that. I’ll click the ‘notify’ box this time.

        I remember John Blackwell very well, we went fishing together and had the same type of sports cars, he was older than me and I guess I followed his lead a bit though he was always rather mysterious. I don’t remember the soap powder but Blackwell was always very clean and tidy. Tom Lutton was a friend but we lost touch.

        I worked all over the office – upstairs opposite a bloke called Waring who was a laugh, downstairs on Enquiries, and on the rents counter, they moved me around a lot from unpopular job to unpopular job probably because I refused day release due to some twisted idea of principle I had at the time. Eventually I left to be a HGV driver but eventually ended up an English teacher. If you’re the person I remember you used to be keen on The Eagles and you introduced me to The Basement Tapes? Lived in Crosby? Oh and do you remember Pat Lively?

      2. Ronnie Hughes Post author

        Hi Steve, I do remember Tricia Lively. In fact she got in touch a while back because of this post. Happy, well and living in Bristol.

        And as for The Eagles, I’d just seen them for the first time supporting Neil Young at the Empire (who played his magnificent but not yet released ‘tonight’s the Night’ album) And was much impressed, then. But glad to hear I introduced you to some Bob Dylan anyway!

  6. David Sakho

    Ronnie,

    I came across your site while looking for some info on Liverpool Council housing in the 1970’s. I’m of the same generation as you, I’m a year younger. I too, watched “Cathy Come Home” as an 11 year old in 1966. I remember it being quite a media event at the time, and quite a controversial programme in the eyes of many during those days of Harold Wilson’s Labour Government.

    I was born and brought up in Grove Street, Liverpool 7, but in June 1969, I moved, with my dear late Mum and Dad, to an upstairs Council Flat in No 60 Canning Street. I remember the area as not being too bad in those days, I still have very happy memories of the four years that I spent there with my Parents. I was there from the age of 13 to the age of 18, June 1969 to September 1973, when my parents and I moved to a newly built Council Estate in St Nathaniel’s Street Liverpool 8; that estate only stood for about 20 years, it was demolished in the late 1980’s to make way for the new Women’s Hospital, and now no one would ever know that it had existed. I’m having a period of strong nostalgia right now, because 40 years ago at this time, April-May 1975, I was in love with a girl called Julie who lived across the road from me on the estate, she was my first real love. I was trying to find some more information about the estate, and that brought me here.

    The story of how you got to know the Canning area as a teenager is fascinating. And your mention of the Piggeries has also struck a chord – I saw an item about them on North West TV news one evening way back in May 1971, and the very next day, while out on an errand for my Mum, I went strolling around north Liverpool to try and locate them!

    The flat I lived in with my parents is on the left side of the above photo, near the end of the block just before Bedford Street. I’ve written to LHT a couple of times in the last few years asking them to notify me if No 60 becomes vacant, as I would love to visit it and take some photos. Of the four addresses that I’ve previously lived in, it is one of the two that has not been demolished.

    Reply
    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      Hi David, I think your estate is what is now remembered as the Falkner Estate. After Falkner Street that had formerly stretched through the middle of it. I’ll see what I can do about 60 Canning Street.

      Reply
  7. Linda Friday

    Hi Ronnie, Just thought I would add a few details here too. I worked in what was Walton Clubmoor in the 70’s then Norris Green / Croxteth and lastly back to Walton through the late 80’s and 90’s. I was a close friend of Hilary Jones and Moira Quigley. I went on holiday with Trish Lively to Amsterdam. As I recall Dave Lambert, John Ledwich, Tommy Roberts and Alan Dodd were in Benledi Street during this time. Working in Housing was tough in those days- I think that there was an old breed of staff that were slowly replaced by ones with a more caring and motivated outlook. But Housing was always a political issue.
    I remember the rent strike when Priory Grove and Stanfield Road were declared CPO’s for slum clearance and the graffiti – to ‘Hang’ the then director of housing. Looking back the scale of dilapidated and unfit housing in Liverpool in the70’s was staggering.

    Reply
    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      Hi Linda, great to hear from you. Feels like we’re putting the Housing Department of the mid 70s back together here, Tricia and everybody else.

      And yes, John, Tommy and Alan were at Benledi Street at the same time as I was. Dave shortly after. And then later on Dave Arrived at Liverpool Housing Trust where I was already working by then. The older staff than us were indeed pretty uncaring at times. ‘Deadleg’ being their collective name for tenants.

      Reply
      1. Linda Friday

        Our paths might have crossed at some time – I was Linda Mattack in those days. I can remember one or two rather unsavory names that were used about tenants – ‘cocklodger’ being one! Sadly it wasn’t just the tenants that were on the receiving end – the senior levels in those days were full of Masons and misogynists. I do believe that as time moved on some good work was done. I am in touch with people like Sue Marsh who was a partner to Jim Tilley for a time ,and Dave Slack who I now work with.
        I always felt it was like ‘fire fighting’, rather than managing the properties we lurched from one crisis to the next. That said when I left the service provided and the properties where far superior with a number of intrinsic rights enshrined for tenants.

      2. Ronnie Hughes Post author

        Your name does sound familiar Linda. Did you ever come on the annual outing to Blackpool Illuminations? All of the Housing offices came to it on several Corporation buses leaving from Foster House as was. We all went straight to the pub, didn’t see any illuminations – and a good deal of inter-office ‘liaising’ resulted!

      3. Linda Friday

        Indeed I did ! I recall Pete with an attache case of drinks – then all into the Dolphin under Foster House when we got back. Did you ever go to the ‘NALGO’ ? i seem to think that Tuesday nights most of the younger Housing Department were in ‘Beachcomer’ and Friday nights were in ‘Uglys’ or the Cabin. Were you amongst these?

  8. Malcolm McFarlin

    Ronnie -I stumbled across your website by chance and it brought back great memories of my time at Benledi Street which we referred to as ‘The Alamo’. I think you succeeded me as I worked on the housing enquiry centre just prior to you before getting promoted to ‘Cash Books’ in the City Treasury [one extreme to the other]. I was at Benledi Street from 1970 -1972.
    I can recall the character building experience of working in the ‘trenches’ on the front line at Benledi Street dealing with desperate people seeking re-housing. Like you with similar long hair [first job from leaving school], I travelled from the leafy suburbs of Aigburth to spend my day getting threatened on the public counter with a dead rat being pushed through the glass perspex on the counter; numerous drunks; and some very nice real working class people who needed help. My experience certainly helped me with my future life having to deal with all types of people.
    I can recall the ‘piggeries’ as you refer to but we called them the three ugly sisters which were known as hard to let properties for anyone brave enough to want to live in them!
    There were many characters employed at the housing department. I remember Steve Rouse- we stayed around at John & Angela Ledwich’s house several times since they had only been married recently. John was the deputy housing manager when I was there and a man called Derek Tyler was the manager (AKA ‘Hitler’) who was a young thrusting university graduate totally unaware of the needs of local people [knock the houses down first & then sort the people out later]. I can also recall working with the following:
    Dave Lambert -great guy from Kirkby who always regretted buying the Rod Stewart album rather than the Imagine album by John Lennon which I bought. We did swap albums but in those days you could only afford one album every few months;
    Pat Lively -worked upstairs in the slum clearance section. We often got the bus together;
    Dave Blackwell -with swept back black hair -like Elvis Presley;
    George ‘Multi’ Storey technical officer who awarded tenants the ‘decoration allowance’ and told stories of tenants leaving milk bottles in their baths rather than use them for washing in!
    Mckevitt who was on the repairs counter and spent his time smoking and laughing to himself behind the public counter -probably not fit to work these days;
    An ex-policeman who also worked on the repairs counter and believed that tenants should do their own repairs and went to great lengths to explain to them ‘how to change a washer’.
    I also remember Roy Waring who entered the office saying ‘where’s the ale then’
    Donnaugh [Ken?] -whom I played for his cricket team for several years.
    Riley -who got a second job as a waiter in a restaurant where the Benledi mob had their Xmas meal. On his first night he managed to spill some boiling hot soup down one of the Benledi girls backless dress -they made them brave in those days -she never screamed nor did she try to subsequently sue the restaurant although she was severely scolded and may have ended up in hospital.
    Many happy lunchtimes playing shove half penny and cards.
    PS I too went to the Neil Young concert with the eagles as the backing group although no one ever believes me.

    Reply
    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      Thanks Malcolm, great set of comments here. Sorry we never coincided back in those days.

      Most of the character you mention were still there and some I knew for many years after. Delighted to hear about Dave Lambert and Rod Stewart! Though to be fair rod Stewart was very good back then.

      Couplw of name additions. It was Peter Riley and john, not Dave, Blackwell. Also Eagles were the support band, true.

      Great to hear from you.

      Reply
  9. Lin Friday

    Some great comments. I do wonder if Housing in the 70’s bred unusual characters or were they drawn to Housing? My manager when I started in’71 in Walton wore a 3 piece pin stripe suit and carried a brief case and had no idea about ‘real’ housing problems. Benledi’s Christmas parties were legendary. Did your ‘rent men’ go on the Friday nights out into town ? The tales they told were epic. Do you remember Alan Hardbattle or Hilary Jones? In those early days I maintained the slum clearance register in Walton Clubmoor..

    Reply
  10. Ronnie Hughes Post author

    I do remember them Linda. The Benledi ‘rent men’ were hppy to go out whenever there was a pub still open!

    Feels like this very post and its comments is becoming a serious history of north Liverpool municipal housing in the 1970s.

    Reply
  11. Malcolm McFarlin

    Ronnie, thanks for the amendment of names you are quite correct. One further amendment about the Roy Waring story which I now recall. His comment ‘where’s the ale then’ was when he first walked in to attend a promotion interview, he obviously must have known some of the interview panel!. Roy had left Benledi Street when I joined and maybe went to Clubmoor?? but the story remained within the legend of Benledi Street. I have more war stories to recount but I’ll need to check my memory bank and ensure they are almost correct!

    Reply

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