10 December 1968
This week’s issue of Guild Gazette, out today, carries the following feature, spread across the centre pages, exposing the university as the owner of slum housing – properties acquired in advance of plans to extend the university campus. The paper also prints a front page statement from the University on the issue, plus an editorial.
Shocking conditions in university housing
By Gerry Cordon
Melville Place is about five minutes walk from the Union, the street of downcast houses, some of them boarded up and rotting, can be seen from the fourth-floor windows of the Social Studies Department.
The street looks much like the rest of Liverpool 8, and, like much of the area, houses people living in squalid and insanitary conditions reeking of the Victorian age.
But Melville Place is special, for a good number of these houses are owned by the University.
Between 1955 and 1960 the University bought up property in the street as part of its precinct-development plans, bought it apparently without inspecting it, and handed lt over to Liverpool Improved Houses Ltd to be managed until demolition in 1970.
Since then, the residents say, no one from the University has been round. They naturally feel bitter: “As far as they’re concerned,” says Mrs. Singleton, at number fifty, “we’re just a nuisance because we’re on property they want knocked down. ”
A few weeks ago the patience of the Melville Place residents finally snapped and about twelve of them stopped paying their rents to the University. Since then some repairs have been done by the University contractors – but only for those who withheld their rents.
Mrs. Singleton lives at number fifty with her husband and three children. Her house is one of those owned by the University and managed by Liverpool Improved Houses Ltd. It’s a three storey, 7-roomed house, but the family live in two rooms on the ground floor and sleep in one bedroom on the first floor. The top floor is a wreck: walls just crumble when touched, huge cracks gape in the walls, a door leans on its hinges, and the back bedroom floorboards dip perceptibly as the whole building leans outwards. Rain pours in through the roof.
“We had the University contractor round,” says Mrs. Singleton, ”He went through the top and had a look and didn’t like what he saw. He went round next door – which is a Corporation house – and came back and said, ‘this is fantastic, the state of her house next door’.”
These are the houses on the end of the row. At one time there were two more. Their demolition and unrepaired structural damage incurred during wartime bombing make the houses of Mrs. Singleton and her neighbour very unsafe. “The Corporation surveyor said they’d be lucky to stand till 1970.”
The children sleep with their parents in the same bedroom. Mrs. Singleton would like the University to repair the first-floor back bedroom so she can move the kids in.
“If we’re here till 1970 we think it’s only fair that the University should do something. On the other hand I can’t see them doing anything because it’s past repair.”
Mrs. Singleton and her neighbours complain that for years the University knew nothing of the state of the property.
“Nobody’s been round here, except the rent collector, because I had to say to her, ‘well, I’m sorry, I’m withholding my rent this week.’ And she said, ‘whatever for’?”
“So I said, we’ve had a meeting and decided to withhold our rent because we’ve been told now it’ll be 1970 before we go, which we think is fantastic considering the state of the property.
”So she said ‘what is it’, and I said repairs should be done – there are five of us jammed together in one bedroom. You’ve never really been in the houses and seen them. It was only then, when she went upstairs and had actually seen it that she realised – and then the University contractors were round here pretty swift.
“That’s how it all started- withholding rent – and mine’s still being withheld because I’ve had no repairs done yet. The collector thought this place was a nightmare – well I ask you, if she thought it was a nightmare, what is it for us who have to live here?”
Mrs. Singleton is most anxious about their chimney stack which is highly dangerous and almost certain to come crashing into their backyard with the next high wind.” It’s the kids I’m worried about – and it’s the same with the toilet wall – that’s leaning dangerously. Someone’s going to be hurt.”
There are nine children in the Doyle family at number fifty-four. Again a leaking roof has forced the family down to the first floor where there is one bedroom in which six of the children sleep. A little girl of three sleeps with her parents on the studio couch in the living room downstairs.
Four children – two boys and two girls – sleep together on one double bed in the upstairs bedroom.
”We could move another bed into the second bedroom.” says Mrs. Doyle, “but we have to keep that space clear for when the water comes through the ceiling. This room is so damp that when we put hot water bottles in at night, the beds steam.
“My eldest son took a clean pair of jeans up with him the other night. Next morning he comes down and says, ‘Mum, I can’t wear these’ – they were soaking wet.”
The Doyles expected to be out by Christmas. In July, Mrs. Doyle bought a new suite of furniture and a sideboard. These now stand in the front room downstairs, but they are ruined. The damp has warped the sideboard so that one side has split away. The new armchairs are covered with green damp mould. You can squeeze the damp out of the carpet.
Like the rest of the houses on the row, the Doyles have no bath or hot water. “To get all our kids washed it’s a right carry on. It’s all done in a tub in front of the fire in the living room. You thought that had gone out with the Victorians? Well, that’s how we have to do it – and I’ve got boys and girls in their teens, so the boys have to carry the tub upstairs while the girls dry out down here”.
Like the rest of the row, too, the Doyles are menaced by rats. Mrs. Doyle remembers one incident vividly: “I saw this black thing on the floor by the door and I thought it was a shoe lace, see, and I gets up and I’d got my fingers about six inches away when it just vanished. I thought, that’s queer, and I fully expected to see our Ken or Terry coming in – the jokers-I thought they’d had a piece of string and were trying to frighten the life out of me.
“When I opened the door and saw nobody there, I just stood on top of the table, and there I stood till my husband came home and I said, “there’s a rat behind that couch”.
Mrs Kynaston, of number eight, recalls another rat incident with horror. She lives in the cellar with her aged mother. “I came in the kitchen one day and my mother was at the sink. What with it being dark in there, and she being shortsighted, she was standing there without knowing there was this huge rat just by her feet. ”
The rat was killed and thrown away – much to the annoyance of the Health Department, when they heard. They complained that Mrs. Kynaston should have wrapped up the rat and brought it down to their offices. Someone else on the row complained to the Health Department about rats, only to be shrugged off with the joke, ”well, you can all have rat pie.”
Mrs. Doyle complained in a similar way to the Housing Department that she didn’t have a bath. She recalls what happened when someone from the department came round: “I pointed to my son and said, ‘look at him, nineteen years old, and never even seen a bath’. All he says is – ‘well, he must be dirty’.”
Other houses in the row, owned by the University, tell similar sad stories. Mrs Kynaston lives in the basement at number eight with her mother. The kitchen is a shattering throwback to Dickens’ time, and is still being used in 1968. Part of the back of the house had to be boarded up with corrugated iron sheets. The University contractor complained about the cost.
All the houses are affected by dirty water and damp. Because of demolition nearby, the water mains have probably been fractured. There are complaints of spiders in the water, as well as layers of dirt and silt. The damp, resulting from roofs which are a write-off, affects the childrens’ school attendance. Mrs. Doyle has one of her kids off school with cold or flu every other week.
It’s a dangerous environment for the kids. The road outside is dimly lit by one gas lamp and is used during the day by heavy lorries as a short cut to Grove Street .
Mrs. Doyle knows the dangers well: ‘”A little girl was run over by a hit and run driver outside my own front door. She was in the Childrens’ Hospital for a fortnight and awarded £26 damages.”
The residents have repeatedly asked for the street to be made a play-street, but the Corporation has repeatedly said no.
Other dangers exist – walls lean and threaten to collapse. And at Mrs. Doyle’s the University contractors came and demolished an unsafe wall – only to replace it with a new corrugated iron fence which she was told to keep her children away from, as its edges were dangerously sharp.
What is being done for these families, living in conditions which would have appalled a social worker a hundred years ago?
The Corporation is responsible for the rehousing of this area. The Housing Department say they hope to clear the area by September 1969. But a Corporation official pointed out that they are dealing with 44 slum clearance areas throughout the city – involving the rehousing of some seven or eight thousand families. For this reason the clearance date was not absolutely rigid, and depending on events, may have to be moved.
Nevertheless, the housing official said, “if there is something unusual that means we should look at them as something different, then we will.”
Yet there still remains bewilderment in Melville Place. Some of the tenants recently went down to the Housing offices and found they were not on priority for clearing – they were, in fact, on lists 63 or 64, and each list contains 200 names. “I think all our children will be grown up by the time we get out.”
If they inquire about houses at the Stonebridge Lane offices they are passed on to the Dingle offices. If they inquire there, they are passed back. “They pass the buck to each other,” says Mr. Singleton.
Mrs Kynaston asked for a place in Myrtle Gardens with her mother. The Corporation wrote back turning down her request and reminding her that she was not in a priority clearance area.
So at present the people of Melville Place are trapped – on the one hand their houses are beyond repair, and on the other the Corporation seems unable to rehouse them until next autumn.
Mr Higby, the University Estate Development Officer, says it is just a question of time: “These properties have been scheduled by the Corporation as being unfit for human habitation. They are in fact in a compulsory purchase order which means it is a matter of time in rehousing the occupiers.”
He does not feel the University can do more than maintain a holding operation until the Corporation acts: “We are not dealing with the rehousing direct, although we are still the owners of the houses, and we’ll do everything we can to keep them wind- and weather-tight.”
Mr Higby denies that – as the tenants maintain – for years the University did not know the state of the property. “Our housing managers call there every week. We get regular reports from them, and this is why we employ housing managers – to collect the rents and see to repairs. If there’s anything bad they write to us for authority to do the work. We know what the property is like.
”It’s the Corporation’s responsibility basically. The unfitness order has nothing to do with the fact that these places are in the area allocated for university development.”
This Christmas the families of Melville Place will, no doubt, still be living in overcrowded, cramped conditions. The roofs will still be leaking, the bedrooms still damp. The cracks in the walls will get larger, and maybe one or two families will have to move down another floor and squeeze up tighter still.
Their state is not unusual in Liverpool – and that is the tragedy. There are too many like the inhabitants of Melville Place, and too few homes for them.
But they wait and hope, resigned to the fact that it looks like another twilight winter. Maybe their hopes aim too high.
“Look,” one of the women said to a Doyle child when I called last week, “these students are here to help us – you might have a new house for Christmas.”
Do they hope for too much?
Footnote from the future (2009)
Go here for a map showing the location of the streets where the University and the City Council owned slum properties.
Jim and Ethel Singleton from Melville Place, who appear in this article, were active in the Abercromby Tenants’ Association and the events that led up to the protest at the opening of Senate House by Princess Alexandra. A year later, they would feature in the documentary film-maker Nick Broomfield’s first film, Who Cares? Made whilst he was a student at Essex University using a borrowed camera, it has been described as:
Honest, raw and confrontational … this 16-minute black and white observational film successfully communicates the resentment felt by a close-knit Liverpudlian working class community, angered at the demolition of their homes by the local council. Recipients of a compulsory purchase order were forced to leave a neighbourhood where the same families had been living for generations, relocating to alienating high-rise flats on the outskirts of the city.
Go here for more about the film – and to watch the film itself, which provides a vivid insight into the housing conditions that sparked the demonstration that greeted Princess Alexandra when she opened Senate House in May the following year.
The Singletons were rehoused and continued to be politically active: they feature in Nick Broomfield’s third film, Behind the Rent Strike (1974).
In December 2009, issue 15 of Nerve, the cultural and social issues magazine published in Liverpool by Catalyst Media, included an article by Jim and Ethel Singleton’s daughter, Kim, entitled Revolting Tenants: The Great Abercromby Rent Strike of ‘69. Kim has alerted me to the fact that in the photo of the Doyle children that appeared in the article above, ‘only four of the slum kids pictured are actually Doyles. The girl in the middle is me and sitting on my knee is my sister Jane’.