As I set out on the first run of 2013 there is hardly anybody about. I could have crossed and recrossed the Smithdown dual carriageway at the end of our road several times before the first car appeared. And all the way round the rest of the run, apart from a Dad and his two daughters with their new Christmas bikes and a couple of dog walkers in the park, I see no one.
Later I persuade Sarah out on a walk. It’s cold, so it won’t be a long one.
Then, passing the student halls close to Plot 44, we catch a glimpse of something tantalising.
I’ve been there, but Sarah hasn’t and has always wanted to have a proper look. All’s quiet, the students aren’t here, doesn’t look like there’s anyone around, the gate’s open…
Here’s what Liverpool University, who now own it, say about the house:
“The original Greenbank House was built in the early 18th century on part of the Toxteth Park estate, which was at the time outside the Liverpool city boundary. In 1788 the house and estate were leased by the Earl of Sefton to William Rathbone IV and his family as a country retreat. Upon William’s death in 1809 the property was sold to his widow Hannah Mary, who carried out substantial alterations to the buildings in accordance with her husband’s wishes. A large part of the house was re-built as a villa in the ‘Strawberry Hill’ Gothic style, incorporating a fine cast-iron screen on the south face to form a verandah with a sheltered balcony above. The screen was manufactured at the Coalbrookdale iron works in Shropshire.
Greenbank was initially the Rathbone’s summer home but eventually became central to their family life and it was here that they extended their hospitality to numerous public figures including American artist and ornithologist John James Audubon.
Several generations of Rathbones lived at Greenbank, the last of which were Mr Hugh & Mrs Emily Rathbone, daughter of William Rathbone VI. Mr Hugh Rathbone was closely involved with the University of Liverpool and towards the end of their lives the couple donated parts of the Greenbank estate for use as student accommodation. Derby Hall was built on part of this land and opened in 1939. Hugh Rathbone died in 1940 and Greenbank House remained the Rathbone family home until 1944 when the house and gardens were given to the University by his widow and children, in accordance with his wishes. Greenbank House became an annexe to Derby Hall but was converted in the early 1960s for use as a club house for staff and students.
On 29 July 2001 English Heritage placed a blue plaque on Greenbank House:
Well that’s all pretty impressive and we’re clearly looking at a significant piece of history here. But what did these two Rathbones who were ‘social reformers do?
His daughter Eleanor Rathbone? Well, where do you start? She was a leading suffragette and negotiated the terms of women’s inclusion in the 1918 Representation of the People Act, she was councillor for Granby for 25 years, was responsible for setting up the Liverpool Personal Service Society, was an early anti-Nazi campaigner and pioneered Family Allowances paid directly to women. And that’s the briefest of summaries. An astonishing woman.
And the only time I’ve actually been inside Greenbank House was when I organised a meeting for the board of Liverpool Housing Trust there in the late 1980s. Margaret Simey, herself an astonishing woman, who was on the board then, turned to me and said ‘Do you know, the last time I was in this house I was having tea with Eleanor Rathbone.’
Sometimes we are standing right next to history.
And when the house was renovated in the 1960s, the architect responsible was Quentin Hughes. Not only the author of two of my favourite books about Liverpool, Seaport and Liverpool, city of architecture, but also a colleague and friend of Sarah’s dad, Frank Horton, at Liverpool University. And when the children were young, the Hortons would borrow Quentin’s holiday home at Criccieth in North Wales for the family’s summer holiday.
We cross the road and enter somewhere else that was once part of the grounds of Greenbank House, when it was in the countryside, outside of Liverpool.
Bought from the Rathbones for £13,000 in 1897, on the understanding that ‘the corporation maintain this land as open space or recreation ground for the general public’. Which, as you see, they have.
And in case it’s nagging at you, the song of this post’s title? By U2.