Guild News: Senate House opening special

14 May 1969

A broadsheet special providing background information on the issue of the University and slum housing, financed by the Guild and Liberal, Labour, Socialist and Communist Societies,has been distributed across the campus in advance of  tomorrow’s Mass Meeting to vote on action in support of the tenants.  It contains a number of articles on recent developments, as well as having stapled to it the following statement from the University:

At the request of Mr. Hugh Higby, the University Estates and Development Officer, we have been asked to point out several inaccuracies in the story which should have appeared here . Mr. Higby has pointed out that the real facts are that the University only owns slum property because it requires land for University redevelopment.

It has, he pointed out, not in any way desired to become a slum landlord, although inevitably the University owns some slums around the University in the course of its redevelopment .

During the process of redeveloping the University precinct area the University has become a landlord of some slums. At present it owns about twenty houses inside the precinct boundaries. Besides property in Melville Place (since sold to the Corporation) and Vine Street, the University also owns houses in Chatham Street and Grove Street.

The precinct – the sketch of the future shape of the University – extends from Pembroke Place across to Myrtle Street and down to Grove Street.

The fate of the tenants in Vine Street is now clear. The University is responsible for four houses on one side of the street – the Corporation for nine houses on the opposite side .

The University has no plans for taking over the odd side of Vine Street in the near future – not for three or four years when they plan to develop a general Arts Library on the site. The University also wishes to make it clear that the figure of 130 houses in the precinct area, quoted in a leaflet earlier this week, refers to houses in the precinct area which the University may buy in the future for development, and not to the number of houses they own at present. At the moment, the University owns about 20 houses inside the precinct.

Senate buys up slums

by Gerry Cordon

During the process of redeveloping the University precinct area, the administration has become a slum landlord. At present it owns about twenty houses inside the precinct boundaries.

Besides property in Melville Place (since sold to the Corporation) and Vine Street, the University also owns houses in Chatham Street and Grove Street.

The story of the University’s excursions into the slum property market is a strange one. The motive behind purchases is the administration’s need to obtain the land within the bounds of the University precinct. The precinct – the sketch of the future shape of the University – extends from Pembroke Place across to Myrtle Street and down to Grove Street. Its boundaries are marked at present by the Medical Faculty, Senate House and the Social Studies building.

The true facts of the University’s precinct development policies are only just coming to light, but it is now possible to piece together a story of chaotic planning, distorted priorities and bureaucratic heartlessness.

Why did the University buy Melville Place and then sell it back to the Corporation? Why is the University now delaying the rehousing of people in Vine Street whilst purchase contracts are completed?   The answers lie with the men in Senate House and their priorities.

In the early fifties, when the University began buying up houses in Melville Place, its plan seems to have been to develop the area as the site of a new Social Studies block. Why then did they sell the houses back to the Corporation last November?

Because a situation had arisen on which the University’s plans collided with the city’s plans. Last November, when the Melville Place tenants were on rent strike – refusing to pay their rents to the University’s collectors until repairs were done – and when the Melville Place issue began to embarrass the administration was an opportune moment to sell out.

For Melville Place no longer fitted in with the University’s plans. This was because the city’s plans for an inner ring road through the Grove Street area made the University’s purchase of Melville Place irrelevant – there could no longer be any development there.

So Melville Place was sold to the Corporation and the responsibility for neglected repairs and rehousing transferred too.

The fate of the tenants in Vine Street is now clear. The University is responsible for four houses on one side of the street – the Corporation for nine houses on the opposite side.


The University wish to make it quite clear that the leaflet issued yesterday – ‘Our University – slum landlord” – contained certain inaccuracies, due to misunderstanding on the part of the Abercromby tenants and students.

The University has no plans for taking over the odd side of Vine street in the near future. It remains for the present in Corporation ownership, and it is the Corporation which is responsible for repairs.

The University will be buying the odd side of Vine Street, but not for three or four years, when they plan to develop a General Arts Library on the site.

The University also wishes to make it clear that the figure of 130 houses in the precinct area, quoted in yesterday’s leaflet, refers to houses in the precinct area which the University may buy in the future for development, and not to the number of houses they own at present. At the moment the University own about 20 houses inside the precinct.

Paid for ceremony

Mrs. Singleton has been paying the University 30 shillings rent a week to live in a slum in Melville Place. The University bought her house eight years ago for £75. Since then Mrs. Singleton has paid £624 in rent. She has paid eight times more money for her house than the University did, and has more than paid for the £500 opening ceremony.

Vine Street – derelict and decaying

by Bill Hooper

There are now only 15 houses left standing in Vine Street. The south end is derelict, and the University has expanded across the north end.

The street used to extend from Paddington to Sir Howard Street. There used to be a grass playground where Senate House now stands; now there is nowhere for the kids to play.

The people in the street can remember being brought up there, getting married there, and having open air parties in the street. Now the houses are derelict and beyond repair, but still inhabited.

The lead has been stolen from virtually all the roofs and rain pours in quite freely. A house with a habitable top floor is a rarity. In Vine Street entire families have to live and sleep in the basement. They live in the basement at number 130. A hole gapes in the ceiling and water pours in. Some years ago they were threatened with eviction by the Corporation because living in basements is illegal. Last week the Corporation put the rent up eight shillings a week.

Old shirts are stuffed under the floorboards of the upstairs rooms to soak up the water because the lights always fuse when it rains. Panes are deliberately left out of windows to prevent the wind blowing the whole frame in. If you are lucky enough to have a lavatory in the back yard the chances are that you will be able to see the daylight through its walls. The backyard doors are often broken and housewives have had their washing stolen before now. Many of the tenants keep cats as a more effective deterrent against mice than the Health Department’s poison.

Yet still these people are left in an administrative limbo in which no-one accepts responsibility for them. The derelict and decaying houses of Vine Street are on the very doorstep of the luxurious new Senate House. The plight of the families in Vine Street first came to light about three months ago when the Abercromby Tenants Association pressured both the University and the Corporation to rehouse an old lady living in the street.

Neither body would accept responsibility for the rehousing, both vigorously denying that the obligation was theirs. Representations were made to the University Estates Officer, who revealed that the University had no immediate plans for building on Vine Street. In other words the street is likely to remain in its present state for at least two years. The Corporation, too, has no plans for the street. In anticipation of the University taking over the street, the Corporation has not included it in its rehousing plans.

At the Guild mass-meeting last week, Mr Higby, the Estates Development Officer, arranged to meet Mrs Singleton, the ATA Secretary, the following day, when he hoped to be able to make a definite statement concerning the rehousing of Vine Street tenants.

The Friday meeting failed to produce this written statement, and failed to satisfy the tenants. There was only a hint of probable rehousing for 130 Vine Street, a leaking basement.

Bid for prestige

The official opening of Senate House on Thursday was designed as the first shot in a big prestige campaign to bring the University to the people. But it misfired.

In fact the people living closest to the University soon realised that the face the University was going to present to the country on the opening day was not the face they knew. So they organised a picket to coincide with the prestigious occasion.

Senate House has already been opened once this year. But the University decided that for the small sum of £500 a great deal of  prestige and publicity could be gained from an official opening, involving visiting royalties and dignitaries.

That is why Princess Alexandra will be arriving at Senate House on Thursday afternoon. Her itinerary as planned covers two hours. She will arrive at Senate House at 3 pm, where she will enter by the second entrance on Oxford Street. This leads into the new Senate Meeting Room – the round structure on the far side of Senate House – and here the Princess will be presented to officers of the University.

She will already have run the gauntlet of student and tenant pickets outside the entrance, and  no doubt have been forced to read placards and slogans embarrassing to the University bureaucrats. A few minutes after three o’clock the Princess and her retinue will enter the main block of Senate House via the large and spacious ground floor Exhibition Hall. Here there will be a short ceremony in which a commemorative plaque will be unveiled.

Present in the Hall will be an audience representing all the University. The plans were originally designed to include student representatives amongst the audience. But the motion passed overwhelmingly by last week’s mass-meeting puts paid to these hopes.

Princess Alexandra will also be opening the Oliver Lodge building, the new physics block across the road from Senate. So following the ceremony in Senate House she will cross to the Lodge building via the ”bridge” over Oxford Road.

The final stage of the Princess’s route was planned as a reception in the Union at about 5 o’clock. A reception had been arranged in the Childwall Room where Princess Alexandra would take tea with visiting dignitaries, officials from the city and University, and student representatives. However, the vote at Thursday’s mass-meeting means that no student representatives will be present at this function.

In fact, it is highly unlikely that the reception will take place in the Union at all, since a vast majority at the mass-meeting voted to prevent the use of the Union for this function.

The plans for the itinerary of the royal visit must therefore remain no more than provisional.

Only one of the many slum houses a few yards from Senate House. Will Princess Alexandra see houses like this when she comes to open Senate House tomorrow?

Open letter from a tenant

I feel I must write on behalf of thousands of mothers of children living in the same and even worse conditions as myself. We are sick of reading of grand schemes for piazzas, luxury flats, etc, that are proposed for this city by the council while there are thousands of young children living in twilight conditions, who carry permanent colds throughout most of their infancy, who never have a proper bath, who use old wooden toilets in winter that were being used by people over a hundred years ago, living with the risk of infected food by vermin and so on.

We are told by councillors and others that they are doing their best, and that 33,000 slums are to be cleared by 1972. And yet they know truthfully as we know that the slums will keep repeating over and over, unless national action is taken. The housing problem should be taken out of the hands of any one political party, and a national council set up with all parties included. Where is the politician who will give his all to this problem?  There isn’t one, because they have no experience of living in conditions like those mentioned above.

There is glamour in slums because the politicians believe they are an accepted part of our society. But every decent man and woman who looks at the facts must agree that the situation is intolerable.

There are 36,000 living in overcrowded conditions and 125,000 are living in unfit dwellings, and I would like to say to say to the University authorities: Don’t be part of this terrible sea of  suffering, stand by your obligations and rehouse those in your precincts, then maybe you will alleviate the misery and frustration they feel of being a secondary consideration to your future development.

E Singleton, Abercromby Tenants Association.

Picket official

Guild officials, including the President and Lady President, are to boycott tea with Princess Alexandra w hen Senate House is officially opened this Thursday. Guild is also organising an official student picket of Senate House to support local tenants in their protest over bad housing conditions.

These decisions were made at a mass-meeting of Guild last Thursday attended by over 700 students. They represent a massive indictment of the University administration’s spending priorities.

The subject for the meeting was a four-part motion drafted to condemn the University’s priorities, call for a peaceful picket of Senate House, and demand a boycott of the opening day reception.

The mood of the meeting became apparent during prefatory remarks made by Mr H Higby, the University Estates and Development Officer. There were cries of derision when he stated that it was in the interests of the tenants to allow houses to be rundown. This, he argued, would bring about quicker rehousing for the tenants. Some tenants were present in the hall and pointed out this just wouldn’t wash – some families had up to ten years to wait for rehousing.

One tenant from Vine Street described how insult had added to injury. Not only had the University refused to accept responsibility in Vine Street until the previous afternoon, but they had also dumped rubble in her street cleared from the Senate House landscaping.

If this wasn’t cleared by May 15th, she went on, she and her neighbours would dump it right back on the Senate site. This suggestion was met with cheers of support from the audience.

The proposer of the motion attempted to set the problem of the University as landlord in Melville Place, Vine Street and elsewhere, in its wider societal context.

“The problem of housing,” he said, “is not solely confined to the University’s tenants, but is central to the city of Liverpool and the country as a whole.”

As students we should not only back the Abercromby tenants in their picket line, but we should also expose the problem of housing generally and expose it to the visiting dignitaries at the opening Ceremony.

“That the sensibilities of  administrators and Liverpool city officials will be upset there is no doubt,” he continued, “but the sensibilities of the tenants have been hurt by the University landlords for the past ten years.”

Mrs Singleton, secretary of the Abercromby Tenants Association, pointed out that in their dealing with the University the responsibility for repairs and rehousing had been constantly bandied between the University and the Corporation. In the meantime the tenants became mere pawns in a bureaucratic game.

“There comes a point,” Mrs Singleton continued, “when tenants feel it is time their feelings and demands have to be put directly. This time comes when new University buildings are erected literally across the road from their slum dwellings.”

When the motion came to the vote it rapidly became clear that the issue of opening a prestige building for the second time was to be opposed by the mass of the students in order to highlight the squalor of the lives of nearby slum dwellers.

In summing up, Pete Archard urged students that in voting for the motion they should commit themselves to more than just raising their hands in support. They must commit themselves to active implementation of their decisions.

The following motions were all passed overwhelmingly; that this mass meeting:

  1. Abhors the complete lack of priorities displayed by the University in building Senate House at great cost, and indulging in a wasteful opening ceremony whilst, at the same time, failing to maintain University  housing in a fit condition for human habitation. (638 – 29 – 35).
  2. Demands that the President and Officers of Guild call for a peaceful picket of Senate House on May 15th in support of the tenants’ demonstration. (629 – 33 – 11).
  3. Calls on all officers of Guild to boycott the Senate opening reception  in the Childwall Room on 15th May. (564- 95- 25).

Exec reverses decision

At an emergency meeting of the Executive Committee of Guild held on Monday 12th May 1969, to consider the implications of the Motions passed at the Mass Meeting of the 8th May 1969, the following decisions were taken, acting in accordance with Bye Laws, Chapter 7, Section 5(c) of the Constitution.

  1. Executive agrees with the sentiments contained in Section (1) of the Motion passed at the Mass Meeting held on the 8th May. (Unanimous)
  2. Executive consider that it cannot mandate its officers to act in terms of Section (2) but confirms the right of individuals to act as their conscience dictates. (Unanimous)
  3. Executive, acting for and on behalf of Guild Council, reaffirms the right of the individual officers of Guild to accept or reject the invitation to attend the forthcoming Opening of Senate House by HRH Princess    Alexandra and the Reception following as their conscience dictates and would suggest that all members of Guild Council act accordingly. (Unanimous)

The President writes

I am writing as president of  the Guild of Undergraduates to state my position on the forthcoming opening of Senate House by Princess Alexandra.

Although the officers of Guild are not technically bound by the demands of a mass meeting, I feel that to have ignored the clear call of so many students would have been to go blindly on ostrich-like.

This is why I shall do my small part to organise and participate in the peaceful picket outside Senate House on May 15th. It is essential however that our issues are not obscured. The facts of the housing situation have been set out in this broadsheet and elsewhere. But we must remember the following outstanding facts:

  1. The action of the students is to follow, support and encourage the struggle of Abercromby Tenants Association.
  2. The picket to be successful has to be dignified, and above all, peaceful.

On those grounds – on the grounds that we have had recently the largest mass meeting anyone can ever remember – a meeting which had the benefit of facts from the Estates and Development Officer, the Secretary of the Tenants Association and students who have worked so much in this cause –  I would ask you to support the tenants and the Guild, and show both the University and the City that we cannot and will not tolerate the situation of Liverpool University as a slum landlord f0r much longer.

Richard Davies, President of Guild.

University answers allegations of waste

A statement from the Registrar:

The University has been criticised for the spending of money on preparations for the official opening of the Senate House and Oliver Lodge Physics Laboratory by Princess Alexandra. lt is contended that this money should instead be allocated to repairing houses at present owned by the University, or to buying other properties for rehousing purposes.

The first point to make is that the costs of this particular visit by Princess Alexandra are modest – about £500-and a small sum in relation to the amount which the University spends each year on rehousing.

It happens, furthermore, that the visit of Princess Alexandra and the opening of the Senate House and Oliver Lodge Physics Laboratory on May 15th precedes the Open Days on May 16th and 17th. The event was planned in order to arouse public interest in the University, interest which, it is hoped, will induce people to come to the University and find out more about it and what it does to benefit the community.

The second point to make is that money which is made available for University building cannot be applied to repairs or rehousing tenants who live in the area allocated for University development. Money for specific new buildings and money for rehousing are made available by the University Grants Committee on separate accounts. The two types of grants are quite separate, and building grants are rigidly controlled.

The University recognises that much of the housing in the area designated for its expansion is in poor condition. Virtually the whole of this area was owned by private landlords until 1949 when it was designated and it has been purchased stage by stage as it has become available. It is a regrettable fact that, having been built a century or more ago, the houses are deficient in modern amenities and too dilapidated to be renovated economically. However, the University can with full justification claim that its record in rehousing is a very good one.

Since 1949 more than 300 families have been rehoused by the University and the Abercromby Housing Association (an associated body) as the University has progressively bought properties. This latter body was formed by the University specifically in order to purchase and renovate alternative accommodation. In recent years, the University Grants Committee has provided money for this purpose. Financial help has, furthermore, been given to certain tenants who have decided to buy houses elsewhere themselves.

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 active politically; 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.


Author: Gerry

Retired college teacher living in Liverpool, UK.

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