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.
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.
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.
All 3 Piggeries here, Prince Edwin Walk (‘Prinny Eddie’) in the foreground.
As you can see, a densely populated area has been almost stripped of people since Dave’s 1980s photographs.
On the left is Netherfield Heights where I worked.
Like 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.
Dave was doing news photography for the Militant newspaper, so was particularly skilled at being there at the moment things came down.
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.
I’m in that picture somewhere. Those days felt like one long demonstration. Against unemployment. Against Thatcher. And in support of the Council.
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.
This is an anti Youth Training Scheme demo.
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.
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?
Down the hill and across Scotland road to the special spur of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal that served Tate and Lyle.
And where the great tenements stood on the edge of the city centre?
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.