‘Liverpool in the 1980s’

The destruction of Tommy White Gardens.

Dave Sinclair’s photographs make it look like a war zone. And Dave Sinclair’s photographs tell the truth. Liverpool in the 1980s felt like the front line of a war zone, a class war where a working class city stood up to a manifestly unfair and provocative Conservative government and fought for its survival.

This is a story told from the inside of one of the main organisations involved in the fight. Dave Sinclair was then the official photographer for Militant, the entryist organisation that managed to get hold of the Liverpool Labour Party and so take on Margaret Thatcher’s Tories. I too was a member of the Liverpool Labour Party at the time and so the story the book tells feels very personal to me.

Dave and I come from the same place, around County Road in Walton. And many of his pictures are of the Vauxhall and Everton areas, where I’d begun my housing career in the decade before this book. So if you’ve been around this blog for any amount of time you’ve already walked with me around many of these streets where Dave and his camera spent the 1980s.

Though terrible in much of what they show I find the photographs extremely beautiful as well as important. Often showing Liverpool at precise moments of its destruction and rebellion. Some of which I was at, somewhere in the mass of marching Trade Unionists. But I never thought to bring a camera, and even if I had I doubt I’d have matched these.

So let’s take a black and white walk round Liverpool in the 1980s with Dave Sinclair, with occasional modern day colour interludes from me.

Everton Park.

Everton Park.

I think this is looking down the hill towards town between Mazzini and Garibaldi Houses (There was a third block in the trio called Cavour). These were off Roscommon Street and I’d walk up to work in the Housing Sub-office in Netherfield Heights several days a week past them. A friend I’d meet a few years later at Liverpool Housing Trust, John Westerside, was growing up in Garibaldi at the time.

Where they were

Where they were. Mazzini Close now.

Anglican Cathedral and the Piggeries.

Anglican Cathedral and the Piggeries.

This is Haigh Heights and there were two other Piggeries, Canterbury and Crosbie. When I started working here, in 1972, they were only seven years old:

“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. Crosbie, 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.”

In 1988 the Piggeries were demolished. Barely twenty years old.

Liverpool from St George's Heights, Everton.

Liverpool from St George’s Heights, Everton.

All 3 Piggeries here, Prince Edwin Walk (‘Prinny Eddie’) in the foreground.

Where they were. The Piggeries now.

Where they were. The Piggeries now. Trees where Haigh Heights stood.

As you can see, a densely populated area has been almost stripped of people since Dave’s 1980s photographs.

Again, from the top of St George's.

Again, from the top of St George’s.

On the left is Netherfield Heights where I worked.

How it looks now.

How it looks now. The curved bit of rear wall from above.

Sarah looking down the hill.

Sarah looking down the hill.

From all that remains of Netherfield.

From all that remains of Netherfield.

Dave Sinclair05Like Dave Sinclair I get my photos of Liverpool by relentlessly walking around, keeping my eye on the place I love. Unlike him I don’t come home and carefully develop them myself. The borders you see on his photos aren’t some Photoshop effect, they’re the real things from Dave coming home and developing the film from his Olympus OM2. Carefully preserved by the publishers and adding, I think, to the sense of the time they were made and the feeling that they were all carefully hand-crafted.

In fact, at my request, the publishers have sent me high resolution copies of all the photographs I’m using from the book. So you can see how beautiful they are. Some of the most beautiful  and resonant photographs of Liverpool ever taken by anyone, in my opinion.

The destruction of Tommy White Gardens.

The destruction of Tommy White Gardens.

Dave was doing news photography for the Militant newspaper, so was particularly skilled at being there at the moment things came down.

The Braddocks.

The Braddocks.

Tate & Lyle's.

Tate & Lyle’s.

It wasn’t just the housing being destroyed. The jobs were too. As the economy was turned towards Europe and Margaret Thatcher’s Tories pursued the ‘managed decline’ of Liverpool after the 1981 riots.

But what about their future?

But what about their future?

We all decided we wouldn't stand for it.

We all decided we wouldn’t stand for it.

I’m in that picture somewhere. Those days felt like one long demonstration. Against unemployment. Against Thatcher. And in support of the Council.

The City Council meet the media.

The City Council meet the media. On the front row Tony Byrne, Derek Hatton, Tony Mulhearn and John Hamilton.

As a Labour Party member and a Union delegate to the Trades Council I spent so much time with all of these people in those days. And never really got on with the Militant ones, thinking them humourless zealots for the most part. But looking back now I find it hard to disagree with what they all did. It was a class war and they fought for Liverpool as hard as they knew how. If it took the city years to get over the war, well that’s because it was a war.

Hello, by the way, to Tony Hood – back row second from right – worked with me at Liverpool Housing Trust and one of the 47 democratically elected Liverpool Councillors eventually made bankrupt by the Tories for refusing to bow down and set their vindictive budget for them.

Two words that will always go together in Liverpool

Two words that will always go together in Liverpool, and I don’t mean ‘Industrial Estate’

Even the school children were rioting.

Even the school children were rioting.

This is an anti Youth Training Scheme demo.

And

Viewed at the time as a form of conscription.

We thought we had the nastiest government we would ever see. How little we knew.

And as the 80s ended utter disaster struck in April 1989.

Anfield after Hillsborough.

Anfield after Hillsborough.

Peter Beardsley second from left here, stunned.

Peter Beardsley second from left here, stunned.

As Jimmy McGovern writes in the book’s foreword:

“A couple of days after the disaster, The Sun’s front page carried the banner headline, ‘The Truth’, and it went on to say that fans had urinated on the dead, stolen from the dead and beaten up policemen who were trying to resuscitate the dead. Kelvin McKenzie was the editor then, and he may or may not have believed the story but I am absolutely positive that he expected his readers to believe it. Think about that. By 1989, the end of the eighties, a huge slice of working-class society, football fans, was held in such contempt that a newspaper editor could expect his readers to believe that hey would piss on, and steal from, the dead.

No one believes it now. But plenty believed it then. That for me is the story of the eighties.”

A story beautifully, if sometimes tragically captured by Dave Sinclair in this essential Liverpool book. As you may know, I hardly ever buy books, preferring to borrow them from public libraries as I did this one the other day, the minute the librarian had put the ‘New Books’ out on the shelf. But I do buy books about Liverpool and I will be buying this. It’s part of my own life story.

And afterwards, up on the hill at Everton, where Dave spent so much of the 1980s?

The Braddocks, paved over foundations.

The Braddocks, paved over foundations.

St George's Heights, just sandstone now.

St George’s Heights, just sandstone now.

The hill full of tower blocks? Mostly grassed over.

The hill full of tower blocks? Mostly grassed over.

Down the hill and across Scotland road to the special spur of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal that served Tate and Lyle.

All is still now.

All is still now.

All is quiet.

All is quiet.

And where the great tenements stood on the edge of the city centre?

Gerard Gardens, all gone now.

Gerard Gardens, all gone now.

Thank you Dave Sinclair. In reminding me of what we lost you’ve reminded me why we fought.

All of the photographs by Dave Sinclair, so that’s all the black and white photos above are ©Dave Sinclair and are from “Liverpool in the 1980s” by Dave Sinclair, published by Amberley Publishing, 2014

You can buy the book from the publishers at the above link. And if you’re around Liverpool, well it’s the sort of book that pretty well demands itself be bought from one of our great independents News from Nowhere or Linghams. Or if you can’t get to them, Amazon.

Thanks to Alexandra Sore from the publishers for being so helpful and do please respect the copyright on the photographs. It is a very great privilege to be allowed to feature them on here.

16 thoughts on “‘Liverpool in the 1980s’

  1. stan cotter

    I had to collect a patient from top floor in one of those heights, I said to him youre only about 10ft from heaven here mate, he said its nothing like bloody heaven up here

    Reply
  2. Lou Faulkner

    I’m staggered at your admission that yourself and other council ‘comrades’ binned our repair requests regarding the Piggeries. While there was solidarity against Thatcher’s regime who wanted to screw the city, local council employees were screwing the residents of Everton. Rank hypocrisy!

    Reply
    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      Yes, the cabinet papers when released show that. But it wasn’t just the government was expecting planned or managed decline and it wasn’t a secret. As I was starting work in Liverpool Housing Trust in the mid 1970s there was already much talk of it, as Liverpool’s inevitable future now Britain was entering the Common Market and Liverpool was facing the ‘wrong’ way. I was outraged at the bland acceptance people were showing. As were many others – in the end.

      Reply
  3. Steve

    Ridiculous propaganda from a former resident of a city full of angry, violent, “chip on the shoulder” millitants who systematically turned their own environments into “no-go” areas and slums, and blamed the government.

    Two words … Get Real.

    Fortunately, we’re now 3 decades on and most of them have either retired, or decided to “pipe down” significantly, and the city has changed a great deal for the better.

    Reply
  4. Glenn Aylett

    Liiverpool’s decline started several years before Thatcher arrived. The decision to join the EU saw trade decline through the docks, merchant shipping went into decline as well, and industries linked to the port like tobacco and sugar refining shed workers. By 1979 over 11 per cent of the workforce was unemployed, one of the worst figures in the country, and Liverpool seemed to be in deep decline with a falling population and an inner city that was becoming abandoned.
    However, a second severe recession in 1980-81 saw Liverpool go even further backwards, with unemployment doubling, riots in Toxteth and 50,000 jobs lost. As an outsider, Liverpool became known for unemployment and dramas like Boys From The Blackstuff about unemployment and despair. It wasn’t really until about 1987 when The Albert Dock was redeveloped and the city decided to promote tourism that any sort of revival took place in Liverpool and not until the mid nineties that the city started to revive and the population recover again.

    Reply
  5. Alex

    Explaining his opposition to Liverpool City Council in December of 1985, Tory Environment Minister Kenneth Baker said: “If the Government had decided in any way to give in to Liverpool, there would have been repercussive effects upon the whole of local government finance. Many councils made it clear that they did not want me in any way to accommodate Liverpool’s demands, and many of those councils are under Labour control.” “If I had not stood fast in this matter but had shown that I was prepared to negotiate or give way,” he continued, “[e]very council would have known that it could use such revolutionary tactics, the purpose of which was to create chaos in Liverpool and suffering for its people.”

    Several weeks earlier, in September of 1985, the Liverpool Echo had published testimonies from two victims of the City Council’s “revolutionary tactics”; namely, its house building program. Commenting on her new council house, a pensioner from Garston told the Echo: “This area is my home, and I wouldn’t want to leave. But our old houses were disgusting. Now I’ve got everything I want in life – my friends around me and a beautiful new home.” One of her neighbours, a young mother with two children – Peter and Stephen – offered the following comment on her new house: “We are one, big, happy family here, and I wanted Peter and Stephen to be part of that. We could never have been happy in the old slums, but now everything is perfect.”

    Those who really wanted “to create chaos in Liverpool and suffering for its people” were the Tory government – the leader of the Merseyside Task Force is even reported to have said that “there’ll be rats eating babies on the streets before we do anything to help Liverpool” – and the traitorous scabs in Labour Party-controlled authorities elsewhere who urged Baker not “to accommodate Liverpool’s demands”. The threat of a good example is the reason they opposed Liverpool in the 1980s, as Baker’s comments above make clear.

    Reply
  6. Glenn Aylett

    A strange time, we were in west Cumbria, but there were and are,a fair number of Liverpool fans up here, who said how desperate parts of the city looked in the late seventies and early eighties. I’m glad Liverpool has reinvented itself in the last 30 years and the photos on this blog serve as a reminder of how far the city has come.

    Reply
      1. Glenn Aylett

        Hello, Ronnie, it’s interesting that Liverpool used the same method in the eighties as it did in the thirties to create work, build council estates and improve housing. It’s ironic in one of the photos a thirties block of flats being demolished and possibly being replaced by eighties council houses. Actually I’m interested in the Lancelot Keays era of Liverpool as he did much to replace the truly awful housing in the north of the city in the twenties and thirties and developed a ring road system, where the city’s suburbia sprung up around.

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