The Welsh Streets Part 2 – ‘Peaky Blinders’

This article follows on my last post from December 2014 about Madryn Street where Ringo Starr of the Beatles lived in his early life.

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As I explored the ‘Welsh Streets’ I wandered into the next street to Madryn Street – Powis Street.  I wondered why all the terraced houses were painted black.

Not being a great follower of TV series I subsequently discovered that the facades of the abandoned terraces in Powis Street are painted black after posing as Birmingham’s slums for the filming of the BBC series ‘Peaky Blinders’.  The second series of the programme was screened on BBC 1 in the Autumn of 2014.  The show is set in post First World War Birmingham and draws audiences of around 2.4 million.  The story is centred on criminal gangs in Birmingham and their battle with a local chief inspector of police who is tasked with cleaning up the city’s streets.

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Producers used Liverpool to recreate the show’s historical setting, with locations including Stanley Dock and Rodney Street as well as Powis Street.  The story begins in 1919 and focuses on the Shelby family who make up the fiercest gang of all – the Peaky Blinders of the title.  Peaky Blinders takes its name from the gang’s habit of wearing flat caps with razor blades hidden in the peaks.  The Shelby family are headed by Irish actor Cillian Murphy as gang leader Thomas who is attempting to expand their criminal empire beyond the Midlands.

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Sam Neill stars as the chief inspector and the second series also featured Hollywood star Tom Hardy and new wife Charlotte Riley.  According to the local press they were spotted several times in the Hope Street Hotel whilst filming was on-going in early 2014.

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The derelict houses in Powis Street were apparently given three identities in the series – the lawless slum neighbourhoods of Birmingham, ‘Little Italy’ and ‘Watery Lane’.  Whilst shooting took place in Birmingham and Leeds as well, Liverpool was chosen because of its towering buildings and striking architecture.  The location managers wanted locations which would give a Victorian industrial heartland.  The Liverpool Film Office have brought a number of film and TV companies to film in Liverpool before and they secured the buildings for filming, which were then painted black and stripped of their TV aerials and steel security screens.

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As the picture extract from the TV series shows below, Powis Street has been transformed with the actor Sam Neill along with other policemen on horseback charging up the terraced street which has a period industrial backdrop put in place at the end of the street with a little bit CGI.

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I commented in my earlier post that walking around the mostly abandoned Welsh Streets has an eerie feeling but with the sinister mat black finish given to the houses in Powis Street the feeling is heightened even further.

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I did wonder if the houses would still be standing if they make a third series of ‘Peaky Blinders’?  But on 16 January Eric Pickles, the Government’s Communities Secretary, blocked Liverpool City Council’s planning application to demolish 271 terraced Victorian homes in the area which he had ‘called-in’ last year.  He said that this was because of the “effect on the appreciation of Liverpool’s Beatles heritage as the birth place of Ringo Starr”.  Mr Pickles ruled demolishing the streets would be “short-sighted as regards the future tourism potential of Madryn Street”.  But Joe Anderson, the Labour Mayor of Liverpool, said the ruling was a “kick in the teeth” for people who wanted to see new homes built in the area.  SAVE Britain’s Heritage who want to see the existing homes restored have supported Mr Pickles decision but the ‘Welsh Streets Home Group’, the local residents’ organisation, said Mr Pickles’ decision was “shocking news” and they have called on authorities to resolve the problem “to end our 11-year purgatory”.  They are worried about “the continuing community stress, and the antagonism between Liverpool City Council and central government that this decision creates.”

I wonder if a solution will be found soon?

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Ringo’s house in Madryn Street

I visited the ‘Welsh Streets’ district in Dingle on the outskirts of Liverpool city centre on yet another wet and rainy day.  A debate on what should become of the eleven ‘Welsh streets’ has raged for eight years following the declaration of a renewal area under the then Labour Government’s Housing Market Renewal initiative.  The debate has had the City Council, its partners and some residents on one side saying the houses should be demolished and the land developed, and some local residents and heritage campaigners on the other claiming the Victorian terraces should be restored to their former glory.

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The properties are called the Welsh Streets as they were built and lived in by Welsh workers in the late 19th Century and named after Welsh towns, villages and valleys and include Rhiwlas Street, Powis Street, Madryn Street, Kinmel Street and Gwydir Street which adjoin South Street close to Princes Park.

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9 Madryn Street holds special significance for Beatles fans as it was the birthplace of Ringo Starr when he was known as plain old Richard Starkey.  The nearly abandoned streets are eerily quiet apart from the passing taxis taking Beatles fans to 9 Madryn Street.  As I was taking photos a yellow ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ bus drives by the end of the street and stops for tourists to have a peak down the road in the rain.  Ringo’s childhood home remains boarded up and covered in graffiti left by Beatles fans from across the world.  The long running row between local residents who want to save the streets and those who want the streets demolished to make way for new homes has an added twist in Madryn Street where there is a further  balance between the need for decent modern homes and protecting a piece of the Beatles’ heritage in their home town.

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In the summer of 2013 the City Council approved a £15m regeneration plan for the Welsh Streets with a plan to build more than 150 new homes, demolish up to 440 homes and refurbish 37 houses.  9 Madryn Street was set to be knocked down as part of the City Council’s plans.  But in September 2013 the plans for the area were put on hold after the Government’s Communities Secretary Eric Pickles called for a public inquiry to consider the planning application.

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In June 2014 it was announced that Ringo’s former home had been saved from demolition following the intervention of the Government’s Housing Minister.  The house is one of 16 on the street to be spared, although 400 other homes in the wider area will be pulled down.  About 32 properties including 9 Madryn Street will now be refurbished and put on the market. The Housing Minister was responding to calls from many Beatle fans across the world who wanted to see Ringo’s house saved for posterity.

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However the wider public enquiry is still to report back on the wider plans for the area and walking down the streets you can see rows of tinned-up houses in most of the Welsh Streets with some houses leaning precariously as the chimneys; roofs and brickwork bulge out with green shoots sprouting out of the walls and gutters.  There are still some residents living in the streets as they are still fighting for their homes to be saved and refurbished and others who are waiting to be re-housed in new homes.

OK3A1121v2 The Housing Market Renewal initiative was set up to demolish areas of declining and unpopular housing and build new modern homes in better neighbourhoods in many towns across the north of England including Liverpool and Wirral.  The Housing Market Renewal initiative was eventually wound up in 2010 by the incoming coalition Government.  The City Council wanted to press on with plans to demolish Madryn Street along with many more homes but following the Housing Minister’s intervention the Council has been allocated additional funds to refurbish the houses in the street.

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Ringo lived at Madryn Street with his father, also called Richard, and his mother Elsie Starkey.  They rented the house for 10 shillings (£0.50) a week.   His parents separated when Ringo was three years old, and Elsie and her son moved to the smaller, less expensive two up, two down house at nearby 10 Admiral Grove, which remained his home until 1963 when he became famous as the Beatles shot to fame.

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Across from Ringo’s house in Madryn Street I am told there was a man who sold Beatles memorabilia from his house window but he hadn’t been given permission from the City Council to have a sign. So he had “Beatles” written in the brickwork!!  The house is empty now but the wall still tells the story.

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Other notable landmarks in the immediate area include the Empress pub on South Road which is still going strong serving pints and displaying memorabilia linked to Ringo and the Beatles.

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It featured on the cover of Ringo’s first solo album ‘Sentimental Journey’.  ‘Sentimental Journey’ was released in 1970 as the Beatles were falling apart. George Harrison and John Lennon had released solo albums already and Paul McCartney’s debut, ‘McCartney’, would follow three weeks after Sentimental Journey’s release. The album was completed in early March 1970 and it was rushed out a few weeks later to avoid clashing in the shops with the Beatles’ final album ‘Let It Be’ which was released in May 1970.

The cover from Ringo Starr's solo album 'Sentimental Journey' released March 1970

The cover from Ringo Starr’s solo album ‘Sentimental Journey’ released in 1970

‘Sentimental Journey’ was an album of standards that reflected his mother’s favourite songs.  Ringo had asked his mother and step-father and other members of his family to choose the tracks to go on the album.  To reflect the links to his past Ringo chose a photograph of the Empress pub, a tall old pub that stands almost opposite Madryn Street where his mother Elsie worked for a time.  The people pictured at the windows of the pub were members of Ringo’s family.

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Hopefully the fate of the Welsh Streets will be known soon.  Could there be a solution of selective refurbishment and demolition alongside new homes?

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Williamson Tunnels

On a very wet Saturday afternoon I ventured into Liverpool’s famous Williamson tunnels in the Edge Hill district of the city.

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The Williamson Tunnels were built under the direction of a local businessman Joseph Williamson between 1805 and 1840.  Williamson was a wealthy tobacco merchant.

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The tunnels remained derelict, filled with centuries’ old rubble and refuse, until archaeological investigations and excavations were carried out in 1995.  Since then part of the tunnel system has been opened to the public from the heritage centre in the Old Stable Yard on Smithdown Lane.  The Williamson Tunnels Heritage Centre is owned and operated by the Joseph Williamson Society which is an independent charity that relies almost entirely on visitor income to maintain and develop the heritage centre.

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Various reasons have been cited for the building of the tunnels.  One theory is that Williamson was a member of religious sect fearing that the end of the world was nigh and that the tunnels were built to provide refuge for themselves and their families.  However the most widely accepted view is that it was Williamson’s attempt to help the unemployed following the Crimean War as he stated that his workers “all received a weekly wage and were thus enabled to enjoy the blessing of charity without the attendant curse of stifled self respect”, his prime motive being “the employment of the poor”.

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The tunnels are in the Edge Hill area to the east of the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral in a rectangle bordered by Mason Street, Grinfield Street, Smithdown Lane and Paddington. Their full extent is not known and many of them are still blocked by rubble. They vary in size from the “banqueting hall”, which is about 70 feet (21 m) long and around 25 feet (8 m) wide and 20 feet (6 m) high whilst the lesser tunnels are as small as 4 feet (1 m) wide and 6 feet (2 m) high.

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In 1805 Joseph Williamson acquired the land in Mason Street in Edge Hill.  It was then on the edge of the city and was a largely undeveloped outcrop of sandstone with a scattering of small-scale quarrying.  He started to build houses on the site from around this time. The houses were an eccentric design and built without any detailed plans.  The ground behind the houses dropped sharply and in order to provide the large gardens that were the fashion of the time, Williamson built arches over the quarrying on which the gardens could be extended.  When these were complete he continued to employ his workmen, sometimes to carry out apparently pointless tasks, such as moving rubble from one place to another, then back again. His major project was to build the labyrinth of brick-arched tunnels in various directions and over various lengths within the Edge Hill sandstone.  This tunnel-building continued until Williamson’s death in 1840.

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However by August 1867 the ‘Liverpool Porcupine’ newspaper described the tunnels as being “a great nuisance” because drains ran straight into them, in one place creating a cess pool full of offensive water 15 feet deep.  They were also used for dumping refuse and remained derelict for many years. The houses have long since gone and the light industry sites in the area are derelict.

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The Williamson Tunnels Heritage Centre opened in 2002 and has been visited by over 100,000 visitors.  Visitors to the Heritage Centre are able to take a guided tour through a section of the network of tunnels and view exhibits and displays which depict the life and times of one of Liverpool’s most eccentric characters.

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Re-claiming Mobil…

Residents of Wirral are starting to see activity on the Wirral Waters site on the Birkenhead docks system.

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In August there were announcements on two future developments.  A large office block development has been granted planning permission on Tower Wharf near Egerton House and Wirral Metropolitan College had been given planning approval for a new campus nearby close to their existing Twelve Quays campus. Both schemes should be complete by October 2016.

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There’s also been a lot of activity on the old Mobil site off Wallasey Bridge Road and Beaufort Road on the West Float.

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The Mobil Oil plant opened in the 1930s as an oil terminal and blending plant but was closed in 2001and lay empty for years. Earlier in the year some of the Mobil buildings were demolished.  A clearance and land reclamation scheme has been underway over the summer.  I managed to get a few photographs from the main road of the site.

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The Peel Group is planning to develop a manufacturing park for motor and rail industry suppliers on the 35-acre former Mobil oil storage site as part of the £5bn regeneration of Birkenhead Docks. The site is next to the planned International Trade Centre where a £3.8m land remediation project has already been completed.

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Peel hopes to attract suppliers of Jaguar Land Rover and General Motors, which produce cars at Halewood and Ellesmere Port, as well as Bentley in Crewe and Toyota on Deeside.

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Princes Dock

After the Christmas break I had a wander along the Liverpool waterfront around Princes Dock.  It’s an area still in transition: changing from the old industrial dock system to being part of a swanky modern new waterfront development.

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Princes Dock was named after the Prince Regent.  It opened on the day of the Prince Regent’s coronation as George IV in 1821.  The dock was built by John Foster between 1810 and 1821 to an outline design by John Rennie.

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Access to the southern half of the dock system was originally via George’s Basin, George’s Dock and Canning Dock.  But this changed in 1899, when George’s Basin and George’s Dock were both filled in to create what is now the Pier Head.

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Princes Dock was used as a ferry terminal until 1981 when P&O Ferries closed their Liverpool to Belfast service.  Princes Dock then closed to shipping and the dock was partly filled in.

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Ocean going ships don’t come into the dock anymore but they do berth on the riverfront as between the Pier Head and Princes Dock sits the Liverpool Cruise Liner Terminal at Princes Parade.

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As I wandered around the site, the wharfs and warehouses that used to be here have long gone but some remnants of its industrial past remain: the perimeter wall, the cobbled streets, the old railway lines and a few signs of the previous century.  But a large proportion of the site has been redeveloped with the remainder roughly cleared as a car park.

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The dock has been divided into two sections spanned by a pedestrian bridge that was designed by the Liverpool John Moores University Centre for Architectural Research and Consultancy Unit.  In March 2009 a £22 million 1.4 mile extension to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal was built with a new lock and bridge at the northern end of Princes Dock.  At the south end of the dock, a new canal tunnel leads to the Pier Head and then onto Canning Dock and access to open water.

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On the front of the dock along Princes Parade and the river front sit three modern office block developments.  At the southern end of the dock are two upmarket hotels: the Malmaison and Crowne Plaza and at the northern end are two high rise residential blocks.  The taller of the two blocks, Alexandra Tower, was completed in 2008 and became the sixth tallest building in Liverpool with 27 floors and 201 apartments, reaching a height of 88 metres or 290 feet.

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Alexandra Tower is dwarfed by the West Tower, which sits inland across The Strand next to the Liverpool Daily Post and Echo building, standing 140 metres (459 ft), 40 floors high and Liverpool’s tallest building (not including antennas).  The first five floors are offices and the remaining floors, apart from the 34th which is a luxury restaurant, are apartments and penthouses.

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The large derelict patch that I wandered across has an uncertain future.  Back in 2006 the site received planning permission for a £130 million ‘New World Square’ development which was to comprise a 25 storey 76m tower including a five-star hotel, 385 apartments and space for shops and restaurants.  But following the financial crash in 2008 the scheme has been placed on hold as far as I can ascertain.

There’s no place like home

Wirral is an area of contrasts with leafy countryside, a varied coastline, affluent suburban areas and urban deprivation.

In 2003 the then government set up ten ‘Market Renewal Pathfinders’ across the north of England to deal with the high number of poor quality houses, problem neighbourhoods and abandoned homes in many of our inner city areas.  The ‘NewHeartlands’ pathfinder was charged with tackling the problems of low demand and housing market collapse in neighbourhoods across Liverpool, Sefton and Wirral.

Birkenhead had been chosen for intervention as it has been identified as an area suffering from severe social problems such as extreme anti-social behaviour and economic difficulties such as plummeting houses prices both of which were causing severe housing market failure.  The plans were to carry out significant clearance of older unpopular houses with the rebuilding of new homes to ensure that blighted parts of Birkenhead would be more attractive places to live for the future.

When the housing market renewal initiative was established in 2003 the programme was expected to last for 10 to 15 years.  Not since the 1960’s, when the landscape of many of our cities changed as councils tackled large scale slum clearance, had we seen such large numbers of homes being demolished to make way for new homes and the remodelling of some of our inner city neighbourhoods.  In Wirral the clearance of old houses with the replacement of new homes had taken place in the worst affected areas of Rock Ferry and Tranmere. The programme then moved on into Birkenhead.

However the programme came to an halt in March 2011 as the incoming coalition government withdrew the public funding as part of their austerity programme as a response to the severe national and international economic crisis.

Funds have been made available to finish off the clearance of the terraced houses in north Birkenhead.  I went along to the last site being cleared to take some photographs before the houses in the Carrington Street and Milner Street area are bulldozed to the ground.

Whilst further down the road the site between Brill Street and Bray Street the old terraced houses have already been cleared and a private developer is building an estate of new houses; up the road the large site cleared of homes on the old Rivers Streets’ estate remains vacant and overgrown except for one last remaining house standing defiantly on Ilchester Road.  The house is supported by two empty tinned up homes on either side and the Union Jack flag boldly flies in the front garden.