Archive for the ‘city of radicals’ Category

Liverpool Hall of Science, Lord Nelson Street

In this, the City of Radicals Year, we remember here one of the city’s less well-known figures, John Finch. Radicalism is often associated with calls for wholesale structural changes – the word radical comes from the Latin for ‘root’ and suggests getting down to the basics rather than the branches or leaves; a famous example of radicalism is Marxism which seeks to change the whole capitalist system – root and branch. But it is well to remember that one of the most prominent radicals in recent British History was Margaret Thatcher who is associated with monetarism and weakening of Trade Unions. Certainly in the nineteenth century, it may be better to see key figures as radical reformers. Before the end of the year. we’ll look at many of these figures; some of them will be described on Hope Street Chronicles (several relate to the reform of health and conditions in the workhouse). The description of John Finch below is based on an essay by Professor R.B.Rose, details after the piece:

John Finch: Radical?.

John Finch is largely forgotten today yet his work in Liverpool during the mid-nineteenth century, as well as nationally, although it ended usually in failure shows him as a visionary for much of what he attempted to start took root shortly after his death. Born to a poor but respectable working class family in Dudley, he received a basic education at a charity school. From there and through several clerical jobs he became a self-made and successful businessman after entering the employ of Irvin and Sons, iron merchants of Liverpool in 1818. During the rise of the industrial revolution when iron was needed for engines, machines, railways and ships he began his own business in 1827.

Early co-operative movements in Liverpool largely dependent on Finch’s initiative, failed (although ten years after his death the Rochdale Co-operatives proved the soundness of the idea). Finch, as a Unitarian Christian, understood Christianity to mean practical action to lessen suffering, poverty and injustice. He was a fervent adherent of the Temperance movement, travelling great distances in the North and into Scotland to get people to take the pledge. Further, he wanted to understand what lay behind drunkenness, and sought its economic and social causes. Among the Liverpool docks he discovered that about 120 “Lumpers”, men who were given a certain sum to load  and unload ships took to ‘subcontracting’ the jobs at a lower rate. These secondary hires were done in pubs, so in order to have a chance of getting work men had to patronise the pubs; indeed, some of the lumpers kept pubs themselves.

Finch organised the setting up of a Dockers’ co-operative. He pointed out, successfully, to employers, that erecting shelters for men overseen by “a steady person” who would keep lists and assign work would remove what Rose calls ‘the endemic dishonesty of desperation, and the shoddy work of drunkenness.’ The Dock Labourers’ Society began successfully, recruiting 2,000 of 6,000 dock and warehouse workers. Wealthy merchants and sympathisers contributed so that the fixed wage went from two shillings a day to three shillings, and the cutting out of the middle man’s take also increased income. Branch offices were equipped with libraries and school equipment, and literate dockers were to instruct their mates during slack periods. (more…)


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Albert Lipczinski: Self Portrait

Art in Revolution at the Walker until 25 September is a wonderful display of paintings reflecting The Sandon Studios Society exhibition of Modern Art including work by the Post-Impressionists which ran at the Bluecoat a hundred years ago. Paintings on display include the work of van Gogh, Gaugin, and Matisse. Also Albert Lipczinski who had made his home and studio in Liverpool, and was deeply involved with the city’s ‘bohemian’, intellectual, cultural, political and activist life. SeeNerve for a good account of him.

The exhibition brings out some of the (mainly negative) responses of the art establishment: respectable people do not like revolutions. The revolution in art on display in Liverpool, 1911, followed from the 1910 Grafton Galleries exhibition, Manet and the Post-Impressionists. Of this, Virginia Woolf said, “On or about December 1910 human character changed.”

But there were other revolutionary movements afoot beyond the art world (although the exhibition subtly shows how they were connected). The great Liverpool Transport Strike of 1911 which we have covered earlier is also considered in the Walker exhibition with displays, audio, newsreel footage, photographs, and a short documentary presented by Eric Taplin whose book Near to Revolution is discussed in an earlier post. Photographs and the archive footage are available online, as is more information about the exhibition. There is a superb review on Gerry Condon’s brilliant site That’s How the Light Gets in.


We were lucky enough when we attended to see a short re-enactment of discussions between strike leader Tom Mann and unionist James Sexton, performed by Breathe Out Theatre’s Hugo Chandor and Anthony Crank.

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Opposite the Philharmonic Hall stands the 1930s extension to the Blind School, next to the now empty Greek style building that once housed it (until recently the Trade Unions and Unemployed Resource Centre). Earlier the school had been at the site of the now demolished Odeon on London Road.  It is now the Royal School for the Blind, in Church Road, Wavertree. One of the schools’ founders, Edward Rushton, is a great Liverpool example of the the waves of radical reform that were beginning to sweep over Europe.

This is taken from the excellent  Nottingham Trent University, Labouring-Class Writers Project:

Rushton (1756 – 1814) was a poet, slavery abolitionist and co-founder of the first school for the blind in the country. Born in John Street, Liverpool, Edward was the son of Thomas Rushton, a victualler. Apprenticed to a Liverpool shipping company by the age of eleven, Edward was promoted to second mate around five years later after demonstrating outstanding courage in guiding a vessel – which the captain and crew were prepared to abandon during a storm out in the Mersey Estuary – back to port.

While on a slaver bound for Dominica in 1773, Rushton grew so appalled by the sadistic treatment of the captives he remonstrated with the captain to the point of being charged with mutiny. As the only member of the crew willing to tend to their suffering, Rushton contracted the highly contagious ophthalmia, which left him blind.

Rushton’s Aunt took him in shortly after his return – his father having now remarried a woman antagonised by Edward’s presence. The injustices Rushton observed at sea led to the publication of his first book-length work, The Dismembered Empire (1782), a denunciation of British rulers and merchants in the framework of the American War of Independence. Furthermore, in the same year as he published a poetry volume on the tragic neglect of Thomas Chatterton, his disgust at the slave trade was given further voice in The West Indian Eclogues (1787). A decade later he wrote to his former hero George Washington, pointing up the hypocrisy of retaining slaves while fighting for freedom: ‘In the name of justice what can induce you thus to tarnish your own well-earned celebrity and to impair the fair features of American liberty with so foul and indelible a blot’. A similar letter was dispatched to Thomas Paine, but neither he nor Washington tendered a reply. Nonetheless, Rushton’s bold reputation prompted Thomas Clarkson to credit his contribution to the abolitionist cause upon visiting Liverpool. (more…)

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Mry Bamber, mother of Bessie Braddock, commemorated by the sculpture here, now housed in St George’s Hall, and the work of  Carrie Reichard  and Nick Reynolds. (Well worth looking at the links to them by the way!)

Liverpool Discovers is a site worth the visit. The extract below is from their work on Mary Bamber. There’s also a great article by Pat Ayers in Nerve Magazine, Autumn 2006 from Catalyst Media.

Born in 1874, to a prosperous, middle-class Edinburgh family, privately educated and living in one of the best parts of that city, Mary’s early life was, though, a world away from the poor of Liverpool she was ultimately to live among. However, when still a girl, her lawyer father took to the drink and one day walked out on the family never to be seen again. Her mother Margaret Little’s life up until then had been poor preparation for the rigours of single motherhood with six children to provide for. She worked hard charring and in other jobs to support her family, making a close
acquaintance with near destitution and, when her eldest son got a job with a printer in Liverpool, the family came with him.

The winter of 1906-7, with the usual misery of working-class subsistence exacerbated by severe trade depression, found Mary on the rota of women who made soup to sell at a farthing a bowl from a Clarion caravan parked on St. George’s plateau. She visited the sick, collected for the unemployed and kept open house for travelling socialists. She frequently spoke at outdoor meetings, often at Liverpool’s Hyde Park corner – the Wellington monument – but equally so on street corners or anywhere she could gather an audience. Sylvia Pankhurst described her as the
“finest, fighting platform speaker in the country”. In a city dominated by sectarianism, she refused any religious identification and was a regular heckler at both Catholic and Protestant political rallies.
It was, though, through her work as a trade union organiser that she became best known and where she becomes most visible. In the years leading up to the First World War, she worked tirelessly as an official for the Warehouse Workers Union. She travelled the length of the dock road, organising women from Johnson’s Cleaners and Dye Works in the North end to Wilson’s Bobbin Works in the South.

It was her attempts to organise those in the worst sectors of the female labour market, however, which perhaps command most respect. This was an incredibly difficult and thankless task. She was often up before dawn to catch bag women as they walked to work. They made and mended the millions of sacks used to contain and transport the products which passed through the port. Like employment in rope manufacture, which also drew Mary’s attention, this was heavy, filthy, poorly paid work often undertaken by only the most desperate – women caring for dependents, married women or those old and single.

Her work as an organiser though central to her politics was interwoven with other activity. She was present at the August 1911 Bloody Sunday demonstration. In 1919, she stood as the Labour Party candidate in the Orange stronghold of Everton. Accompanied by a bodyguard – hustings often ended in violence and the hurling of abuse; fruit, bottles and other missiles were common occurrences. Campaigning on everyday issues such as milk, education and municipal laundries, she won by a tiny majority. The same year, she became a founder-member of the local Communist Party and, in 1920, attended the Second Congress of the Third International in Moscow.


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Well be looking at George Garrett’s own account of this  event and the two preceding mass gatherings, shortly. In the meantime here’s an extract from Civil disobedience and political agitation: the art museum as a siteof protest in the early twentieth century by Suzanne MacLeod who is a Lecturer in the Department of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester where she is also Programme Director for the Art Museum and Gallery Studies Programme).

(Note that Mary Bamber and her daughter Bessie Braddock were both there. We’ll be looking at each of them separately in the City of Radicals strand.)

In September 1921, the Walker Art Gallery was ‘rushed’ and occupied by the National

Unemployed Workers’ Committee Movement (NUWCM). The NUWCM was formed in the years following the First World War when thousands of men had returned from the trenches to mass unemployment and poverty in cities such as Liverpool. Resentment set in and, led by the Communist Party of Great Britain, the NUWCM organized itself under the slogan of “Work or Maintenance” and an agenda for action centred on non-violent protest, tolerance and passive demonstration (Braddock and Braddock 1963: 32; Garrett 1999; Pridmore 2002). Its principal aim in Liverpool was to raise levels of Poor Law relief for families facing starvation. These, as illustrated here by the West Derby Union Board of Guardians, barely met the requirements of subsistence:

Minimum disbursement for those accepted as in need of Poor Law relief was a food order for 7/6d., but because the guardians often bought goods under contract and in bulk, its true value might be nearer 10/-. The minimum order for a man, his wife and three children was 13/2d. The goods actually handed out to a man for himself, his wife and one child were: 6 oz. of cocoa, 16lb. of bread, 1lb.of syrup, 2lb. of rice, 1 lb. of soap, 1 lb. of margarine, 1 lb. of sugar and 4 oz. of tea.

No meat. No fuel. No money for the rent. The unemployed sold their possessions until all that remained were the clothes they wore (Braddock and Braddock 1963:32; quoted from Garrett 1999: 186).

A series of demonstrations was organized in Liverpool. The first involved the occupation of the Exchange Flags, the paved area behind the Town Hall where the merchants conducted their business. The second protest took the form of a military-style march through the streets of the city. A third demonstration was planned for Monday 12 September 1921 on St Georges Plateau, the paved area to the front of St Georges Hall and adjacent to the Gallery. Participants, Jack and Bessie Braddock later recalled that following the speeches and frustrated by their lack of progress, the organizers of the protest, who included Bessie’s mother, Ma Bamber, decided to take everybody to have a look at the pictures in the Walker Art Gallery. They were intent on staying there until the Lord Mayor gave permission for them to hold meetings in comfort in St. George’s Hall. The crowd, reported to be ‘the largest meeting yet held’ (Garrett 1999: 198), was addressed by one of the organizers who is reported to have said:

I think we’ll go for a walk… A short walk. It’s too late for anything else. We’ll all   be art critics this afternoon. We’ll go across and have a look at the pictures in the Gallery. Those places are as much for us as anybody else. They belong to the public (Garrett 1999: 199). (more…)

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George Garrett’s name weaves through the history of working class activism in the 1920s and beyond. As well as being a prominent organiser and  totally determined fighter for what he believed in, he was an extremely gifted writer. His short stories are wonderfully formed and on a par with anything that may be considered to show ‘literary’ genius; he also wrote plays and was a well-read and more than competent literary critic. This is the more remarkable considering the conditions he was working under, the lack of formal education, his total commitment to and involvement with political actions, and the grinding poverty and injustice all around him. He was also an extremely gifted chronicler of events. His Liverpool 1921-1922 gives intensely human insight to what was happening at a time when unemployment in  Liverpool had topped 60,000. The Workhouses was turning away the starving from their doors. Ex-servicemen who had been heroes a while before were selling their medals to survive.

We’ll be looking at his stories from The Collected George Garrett edited by the late Michael Murphy (whose premature death deprived us of bringing back to attention yet more of those parts of the city’s history so often forgotten or glossed over).  Nerve Magazine from Catalyst Media, Autumn 2006, has an excellent and concise overview of Garrett’s life and significance by Francis Boyce. So important is his place in history and Liverpool literature that we shall be giving several posts to discussing these.

Born in 1896 in Secombe where his father had a confectionary business, after hard times fell the family moved to Park Lane where his father became a stevedore. In a city riven with sectarian anger, Garret’s father who was a Loyal Orange Lodge member and his mother who was of Irish Catholic stock, the boy became sickened by the ongoing antagonisms. At school he witnessed the desperate poverty of many children wearing deceased grandparents’ hand-me-downs, and the disgusting humiliation, violent assaults and general bullying handded out by priests and teachers. His short story Apostate is a semi-autobiographical tale of such religious abuse.

He first became involved with industrial action during the Transport Strike of 1911 when he worked as a coal barrower on the docks.  A year later, propelled by the sectariaan atmosphere at home, he stowed away on a ship bound for Buenos Aires. The next four years saw him visit many places as a crew member, and he returned to Liverpool in 1918 only to discover that the land fit for heroes was a mass of poverty and unemployment. he went to the United States and there joined the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies). Still a young man, his travels and experiences, and his belief in fellowship among all peoples of the world would lead him to address fellow workers in Liverpool in 1921 with these words:

Fellow workers, it is all very well criticising the alien as one of your speakers has been doing, and telling you that he is the cause of your unemployment. It is not so. The present rotten system is the cause… All workers are slaves to the capitalists no matter what their race, colour or creed is, and there is more slavery under British Imperialism and the Union Jack than under any other flag. You Britishers, you sometimes give me a pain. I don’t tell people I’m a Britisher. I had no choice in being where I was where I was born. How many of you have the guts of the Indians who are following Ghandi in India today, or following Michael Collins in Ireland? There people are only trying what we should be doing, breaking the bonds of their serfdom.

Such a speech would have been as radical then as, for some, it would still be today.

Garrett was one of the organisers of the Liverpool section of the 1922 ‘Hunger March’ to London. In his eye-witness account of the march, Garrett reported how the marchers came upon the local workhouse at one town on their way:

A high-wire netting divided the workhouse grounds into sections. Through this, wives conversed with husbands, and children with their fathers. Some of the marchers stared in amazement as little tots pressed their lips to the wire in awkward kisses for their fathers, stooped low on the opposite side of the wiring.

After the march, as one of the organisers Garrett was blacklisted. He went back to the United States where he wrote plays, returning to Liverpool in 1926 as the General Strike was petering out. In the next five years he worked  nine months as a casual docker. During the next five years he only found two weeks’ work.

We’ll return to looking in more detail at Garrett’s life and times during this period. To conclude this introduction, here’s George Orwell’s assessment of the man:

I was very greatly impressed by Garrett. Had I known before that it is he who writes under the pseudonym of Matt Low in the Adelphi and one or two other places, I would have taken steps to meet him earlier. He is a biggish hefty chap of about 36, Liverpool-Irish, brought up a Catholic but now a Communist. He says he has had about nine month’s work in (I think) the last 6 years. He went to sea as a lad and was at sea about 10 years, then worked as a docker. During the war he was torpedoed on a ship that sank in 7 minutes, but they had expected to be torpedoed and had got their boats ready, and were all saved except the wireless conductor, who refused to leave his post until he had got an answer. He also worked in an illicit brewery in Chicago during prohibition, saw various hold-ups, saw Battling Siki immediately after he had been shot in a street brawl, etc. etc. All this however interests him much less than Communist politics. I urged him to write his autobiography, but, as usual, living in about two rooms on the dole with a wife (who, I gather, objects to his writing) and a number of kids, he finds it impossible to settle to any long work and can only do short stories. Apart from the enormous unemployment in Liverpool it is almost impossible for him to get work because he is blacklisted everywhere as a Communist.


(George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier Diary, in Ian Angus and Sonia Orwell, eds. George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Volume 1.An Age Like This, 1920-1940 London :Secker & Warburg, 1968, p 187.)

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