Back to the future01I don’t, on the whole buy books. We have splendid public libraries here in Liverpool and I’ve spent all of my life steadily reading my way through them. Knowing that by the time my life comes to its end there will still be many thousands of books, more than could be fitted into a typical Liverpool terraced house like the one I live in, that I still won’t have got round to.

The only regular exception to this non-purchasing policy I’ve made over the years is when the books are about Liverpool. I don’t mean those ‘Wasn’t life quaint in the past?’ picture-books that seem to get produced about everywhere. I mean books like the one I’m going to show you today. Interesting, quirky even and found, as often as not in second-hand shops.

Let’s go back to Liverpool in 1948.

The Water Front, Liverpool, 1948 - by Gordon Hemm.
The Water Front, Liverpool, 1948 – by Gordon Hemm.

The Cathedral is still far from finished and the river is busy with traffic. An apparently idyllic scene. Except of course that we’re three years after the end of the second great war of the 20th century and much of Liverpool is in ruins.

An apposite moment then for the City Council to publish its vision of the city of the future. How it made it up, I’ve no idea. This of course is long before the people of the place would even dare suggest they be be asked for their ideas. But here, knocked together by two architects, Gordon Hemm and Alderman A. Ernest Shennan, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, J.F. Smith, is the City’s 1948 vision of its future.Back to the future03As you can see from its title the book is divided into three parts. The first is a desultory and glowingly Official account of the City’s history that won’t detain us here (other than to note the absence of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade and the mass Irish immigration from the story).

So let’s get on with the present and the future.

Now in 1948 we’re three years into the most Socialist period of government we’ve ever had. Clement Atlee’s Labour government are transforming public services in a country that voted them in by a landslide. The National Health Service has been formed and though the war has nearly bankrupted the country, families like the one I’ll be born into a few years later are already feeling that life will now be better, that illness and doctor’s bills are no longer to be feared and avoided.

None of that’s mentioned here though. Perhaps because in 1948 Liverpool is still being ruled by a Conservative majority. (Labour won’t rule in Liverpool until 1955, ending 100 years of Conservative domination.) So what we have here is something unimaginable in more recent times, a Tory vision of Liverpool’s future.

But how is it’s present? How does it look in 1948?

Church Street.
Church Street.

Still recognisable today. Though this photo is taken from an artful angle that hides the bomb damage further down the road.

Abercromby Square.
Abercromby Square.

Reassuringly peaceful and with the now gone and lamented fourth side of the Georgian square still present.

St George's Hall, Lime Street.
St George’s Hall, Lime Street.

Again hardly any traffic and an eerie absence of people. Surely they haven’t all been killed in the war?

But an aerial photograph of the same area begins to tell a different story.

Lime Street and William Brown Street.
Lime Street and William Brown Street.

Look closely along William Brown Street and you’ll see that though their facades are intact, the Central Library and the Museum are bombed out.

And round in Lord Street?

Utter devastation.
Utter devastation.

South Castle Street here, completely gone. Though even this, as I’ve said, conservative publication, comments on the surprising and not altogether welcome survival of the (still much disliked) Victoria Monument here.

Back up into the air.

The City, 1948.
The City, 1948.

And centre-right of the picture, pretty much where Liverpool One will be built 60 years on, there is a huge gap in the city.

But it’s not all bad, we’re reassured. The city has long been a pathfinder in Municipal Housing and it still is.

St Andrew's Gardens.
St Andrew’s Gardens.
This one is captioned 'The Old and The New.'
This one is captioned ‘The Old and The New.’

And soon there’ll be a new Edwin Lutyens designed Catholic Cathedral too.

Though this of course never happens.
Though this would never get beyond its underground crypt.
The Airport's got a new 'station building' ready for the future.
The Airport’s got a new ‘station building’ ready for the future.
And the Council is opening factories in Speke.
And the Council is opening factories in Speke.

Isn’t that a bit Socialist?

Anyway and finally, we arrive at the future.

Beginning with the authors’ image of how it might all look. It’s so bizarre I put it at the top of the post. But let’s have another look at it here.

Liverpool, the future.
Liverpool, the future.

Clearly showing some architectural influence from Le Corbusier. But also a touch totalitarian, even Fascist?

Let’s look at some details.

A model of the future, 1948.
A model of the future, 1948.

So all’s not as swept away as the first vision picture suggested. The Liver, Cunard and Mersey Docks and Harbour Board buildings have in fact survived. Though not so the beloved Liverpool Overhead Railway. And look at that ring road.

“An Inner Ring Road, its main function will be to divert as much as possible of the traffic converging on the centre of the city, and to cause it to travel round rather than across the commercial core.”

Let’s look closer.

The Inner Ring Road, 1948 version.
The Inner Ring Road, 1948 version.
This section turning Hanover Street into a dual carriageway. Cutting Bold Street and even Lewis's off from the city centre.
This section turning Hanover Street into a dual carriageway. Cutting Bold Street and even Lewis’s off from the city centre.

And further round?

'A Noble Civic Centre'
‘A Noble Civic Centre’

A considerable extending of what these days we call the ‘Museums Quarter’ which looks like it would have done for Gerard Gardens, however new and prized such municipal housing then was. Plus a ring of civic buildings for the City Council themselves over the entrance to the Mersey Tunnel.

“Like Rome, it will not, of course, materialise in a day but we can visualise it, and prepare accordingly for the day when redevelopment shall by sheer force of circumstances gather impulse and momentum.”

Of course much of this never happened. But it’s more than fascinating to look at these 1948 ideas, knowing  that they wouldn’t all in fact disappear. The later Shankland Plan, for example, would send that curving road above sweeping down into Dale Street. But on a Flyover.

What else?

Down at the Pier Head, 1948 version.
Down at the Pier Head, 1948 version.

Never mind the recent years arguments about a Fourth Grace, in 1948 there were going to be six.

And in the wider city?

Well the Cathedral was to have a grand approach and be surrounded by substantial housing.
Well the Cathedral was to have a grand approach and be surrounded by substantial housing.

And in this case I pause. Regretting that something more like this didn’t happen.

What about Speke?

There'll be a new Parish Church.
There’ll be a new Parish Church.
And look at this. There'll also be a stadium on the river front.
And look at this. There’ll also be a stadium on the river front.

Neither of these ever happened of course. But in 1948 the Council was obviously feeling a bit sensitive about Speke. It had begun building overspill ‘Residential Colonies’ (their words) with Norris Green in the inter-war years. But Speke, begun in the 1930s, had been interrupted by the war. Hence getting its own section in this post war vision.

The house where we live now isn’t missed out either. It would be gone.

“We anticipate re-development, during the coming fifty years, of the whole area within the Queen’s Drive Ring. The congested small cottage properties in the inner spaces will give place to blocks of flats, set in garden surroundings, and widely spaced to ensure ample air and sunshine.”

Thus anticipating the despised and destructive Housing Market Renewal Initiative by fifty years.

A fascinating, beautiful and frightening book.
A fascinating, beautiful and, in parts, frightening book.

I’m guessing they’ll have a copy in Liverpool Central Library, though I haven’t checked. And you can also get your hands on a copy for yourself from Abe Books.

Published by Ronnie

Writing about life, Liverpool and anything else that interests me. As well as working with others to make the world a fairer and kinder place:

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  1. I really enjoyed reading this, Ronnie. Part-visionary, part-spooky, it confirmed my belief that the worst things happen when power is exercised without any restraint. And isn’t it sobering that in 1948 (the year that I was born) areas of Liverpool had suffered the kind of devastation we’re seeing now in the towns of eastern Ukraine and Gaza?

    1. And how quickly the ‘Life’ll get better if we all stick together and get through this’ dreams of wartime, turn back to the usual domination of testosterone driven boss-politics that make human agitation and the repetition of wars so seemingly inevitable.

  2. Hi Ronnie,
    I didn’t realize that Liverpool still had a Tory local government after WW2, I would have thought that with a predominantly working class population that Labour would have won by a landslide, as it did in many other areas. Most of the people I knew who would have been of voting age at that time…my dad’s family, in-laws family, their friends etc. were staunch Labour supporters. What were the circumstances for a Tory local government to rule in Liverpool until 1955 ?

    1. Hi Barry, Though Liverpool later gained a bit of a radical reputation it hadn’t had a radical history. There were not many large factories for people to gather in and be radicalised. And of course the docks were basically a feudal version of self employment, queuing up at the gates for work every day.

      So the Labour Party here had a slow start. Religion also got in the way. The Labour Party in Liverpool only getting to real size when they merged with the Catholic Party. The almost inevitable result of this being that for a long while many working class protestants continued voting for the Conservative and Unionist Party. So a sectarian divide, in effect.

      This information and opinions from one of my other favourite Liverpool books, ‘Liverpool, city of the sea’ by Tony Lane – one of my University tutors, and my friend. Relevant extract here.

  3. Probably no surprise that this is right up my street! Had trouble finding good illustrations of the Shankland and Shannon plans for my Liverpool history book. Might have to grab a copy of Past Present Future.
    They were going to bulldoze the Blue Coat Chambers to build the ring road until the Conservative MP for Toxteth vetoed it. Lots of unrealistic ideas in that strange time. In Bristol they seemed to have been more successful in getting horrendous Road schemes built, and traffic is no better for it. This is why I’m against urban development that looks too far ahead, and reaches beyond itself. We just don’t know what a city will need in 20, 30, 40 years time.

  4. Great post! I I think it’s important to remember and appreciate the modernist spirit and Zeitgeist of the early postwar years. More nuanced approaches towards urbanisation, cautious urban renewal and heritage concerns only really appeared in the late 60s early 70s. By the way – have you seen this catalogue from an exhibition on historic Manchester infrastructure plans? Would be interesting to do something similar for Liverpool…

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