Home Liverpool Liverpool social history – Gazing into the Pool of Life

Liverpool social history – Gazing into the Pool of Life

by J. C. Greenway
Liverpool Docks - social history
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‘Nothing ever lasts forever,’ sang Echo & the Bunnymen and sometimes that’s fine. Nostalgia for the recent past can stop us enjoying the moment and generate fear for the future. Let your phony Beatlemania bite the dust. Just a band.

Once they paved paradise and put up a parking lot, but in a story common in Liverpool social history, Liverpool Football Club bulldozed my mum and dad’s first house to make a car park. We don’t mind too much if it means we all get off the season ticket waiting list. All cities are constantly in motion: Liverpool, as a port, perhaps slightly more so. I read recently – prompted by Anna Seghers’ novel Transit – that in their heydays, Marseille was only doing about a quarter of the trade of Liverpool (according to 1850s figures). After the Second World War came the decline and now? None of us are really sure. Regeneration seems to be going great guns, but whether it will stay the course is probably too soon to say. It still feels a little fragile, built on the shifting sands of tourism, shopping and real estate.

The latest round of rebuilding is full of intentions to avoid the missteps and correct a few of the faults of the last one.  Post-War town planners with huge swathes of the city to play with ran wild. Making use of bomb-sites and demolition crews to put in flyovers and high-rises and dual carriageways everywhere they could. In common with a few other cities in the Sixties, Liverpool got a massive tower, officially named St John’s Beacon. Originally it had been a revolving restaurant with breathtaking views of the city, the river and across to North Wales, but when we were kids it was closed and unloved. My brother had dreams of living in it like a Bond-esque super-villain, surveying everyone beneath him. Before he could though, local station Radio City took it over to use as their studios. It must make doing the weather reports a doddle! There is also a viewing platform that is open to the public. Shamefully, I still haven’t been…

So you can imagine how made up I was to find these postcards in a box of family photos on a recent visit home:

Liverpool social history St Johns Beacon from Williamson Street


It looks completely alien. Not much of an attempt to blend in with its surroundings. But what a view!

Liverpool social history view from St Johns Beacon towards Anglican Cathedral

Liverpool social history St Johns Beacon towards Lairds Shipyard

Liverpool social history St Johns Beacon towards Liver Buildings

Liverpool social history St Johns Beacon towards RC Cathedral

St Johns Beacon towards Tunnel entrance

We only managed a guess as to dates based on half-memories of Liverpool social history and a quick internet search to fill in the gaps. The tower itself was built in 1969. The Stork Hotel in Queen’s Square – popular with actors performing at the Royal Court and Playhouse theatres, as well as part of Liverpool’s unofficial gay quarter from the ’40s to the ’60s – was demolished in 1975. The high-rise flats labelled as Everton Heights were built in 1965, before being so memorably sound-tracked by Peggy Lee’s song The Folks Who Live on the Hill in Terence Davies’ exquisite Of Time and the City.

Henderson’s department store is also marked on the map. This was rebuilt in 1962 following a fatal fire that prompted a change in the law relating to fire safety in big stores. It traded under this name until 1975.

The College of Commerce became part of Liverpool Polytechnic, now Liverpool John Moores University, in 1970.

That would mean the postcards are from after 1970, but before 1975.

I have always been fascinated by UK and Liverpool social history of the late Sixties and early Seventies. Initially believing the hype that the Sixties was swinging all over the country, when you watch films like Withnail & I, the 1971 Get Carter, or the recent adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, you realise how great the myth-making was. Much of the country was living so far away from the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll that it might have been happening on another planet. I remember watching Get Carter for the first time and remarking to my Dad, ‘Wow, every woman over 16 and under 60 really did wear miniskirts then.’ To which he replied, half-sad, half-wistful: ‘Yeah, but it was never the ones whose legs you wanted to see.’

Then there is Danny’s lament from Withnail & I:

They’re selling hippy wigs in Woolworths, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over. And as Presuming Ed here has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black.

Perhaps the reason we cling so hard to the Sixties mythology is it was one of the last times we had that confidence, that perceived unassailability. Shankly would spend the late Sixties and early Seventies rebuilding the Liverpool team, to the extent that there is a brief gap in the roll of honour. The Beatles split in 1970. The Albert Dock would close in 1972 and come dangerously close to being knocked down, filled in, or used as a rubbish dump.

These days Liverpool seems much more at ease with its past, although there will always be disagreements about where the line gets drawn in respecting our history and being hidebound by it. While the views from 450 feet up are spectacular, it does you good to get your head out of the clouds every once in a while. A city is an arrangement of bricks and stones, sure – and Liverpool is blessed with beautiful buildings – but it’s also a collection of stories and the backdrop to lives lived, by those who are settled there, those who came and passed through and those were there once but are now far away.

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odonnelljack52 20 October 2015 - 12:29 am

Liverpool like Glasgow seems constantly to be in decline. As soon as they get the dreaded ‘garden city’ award you know your time is up. yeh, sex was always happening somewhere else (or so I heard).

J. C. Greenway 26 October 2015 - 5:04 pm

It’s difficult to tell – the CIty Centre is genuinely quite lovely with some gorgeous old buildings that have been restored to use very carefully. Then you go up the road from that and it’s as grim as it’s ever been. At least we escaped the managed decline that Thatcher had in mind…


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