It must be awful

16 May 1969

Even the Daily Express today has coverage of yesterday’s Senate House demonstration, though obviously attracted by the royal angle; nevertheless, it’s only the Express that devotes extra space to a background article on the work of the Abercromby Community Council:

Princess Alexandra, talking to housewives living in slum homes in Liverpool yesterday, told one of them: “It must be awful.”

She went to talk to the disgruntled wives in Vine Street after opening new buildings at the city’s university nearby. A banner greeting her said: ‘Come and visit the slums of Vine Street.’

The Princess, accompanied by Lord Rhodes, Lord Lieutenant of Lancs, left her car and did just that. Some of the homes are owned by the university, and others by the council.

Mrs Ethel Singleton, 35-year-old secretary of the Abercromby Tenants Association, who lives in nearby Melville Place, said after talking to the Princess: ” I wrote asking her to visit us in the slums so she could see the way we live.

” She said she thought it was dreadful that we do not have proper amenities, especially when we have children. She thought something could be done in this day and age to improve the situation. When I told her about the sanitary conditions – outside toilets and no hot water – she said : ” That must be awful.

” The Princess asked if she could go through one of the houses and I said that she would be welcome.”

But as the Princess was about to go into one of the homes, Lord Rhodes spoke to her and she then went to talk to other housewives standing on the pavement.

Mrs Singleton added that the Princess inquired about the students. “I told her they had been wonderful, giving us practical help, as well as speaking for us.”

Earlier, Dr Winston Barnes, Vice-chancellor, said during the opening of the Senate House: ” There is a problem of finding new homes for those families living in the precinct.

” I think we can be justly proud of the measures we have taken to solve the problem. In the last 20 years we have rehoused more than 300 families at a cost of £430,000 – no mean achievement.”

There had been some booing when the Princess arrived to open the Senate House and the Oliver Lodge physics laboratory. Nearly 400 students picketed the new buildings. They were protesting about the housing conditions and the “waste of money” on the opening ceremony.

Professionals go into action

Abercromby, Liverpool 7, is a place where the phones don’t work. ” That one does, but it will be smashed by Saturday.”

Delinquency breeds in the rubble. It is a place where the doodlings on the wall and the jangling procession of ice cream vans provide almost the only diversions. The outside world caught a glimpse of it yesterday with the reports of Princess Alexandra’s visit to the area.

As she went around she heard housewives and students tell of overcrowding and decay – of houses without bathrooms and homes where the only water supply came through a single cold tap.

But there is also hope in Liverpool slumland today. It springs from an organisation with the uninspired name of the Abercromby Community Council. There is nothing quite like it in Britain.

The community council seeks to give a voice to people who before had no voice ; to promote action where before there was none. Although only one of 14 community councils in Liverpool, the Abercromby Council has a peculiar purpose and a peculiar origin. All the councils are encouraging a greater participation in their own affairs by the people of the area. But in Abercromby there is a greater involvement by ‘the professionals’ in the achievement f this end.

It was significantly the professionals who started it. Two years ago a group of those most closely involved through their work in the area got together. A teacher, a probation officer, a policeman and a priest all became convinced at about the same time of the futility of the way that much of their social work was operating.

Vandals, overcrowded courts, vice, broken marriages, bad housing; all these problems were barely being touched. What was needed, they said, was to give the people a voice: to induce them to identify the problems, their causes and solutions, and together to achieve some action.

And so the Abercromby Action Group was formed. It consisted of the professionals and they met to discuss its aims. From this nucleus developed the Abercromby Community Council.

Its keenest advocates today include the probation officer for the area, Ken McDermott, a bespectacled, dedicated man who will talk on the subject of community councils for hours with scarcely a pause; council chairman, Kenneth Vaux, headmaster of a local comprehensive school; and Philip Doran, the area community warden, a professional social worker employed by the education department to co-ordinate educational and recreational services in the area.

And they are meeting with a striking success. If the malaise of modern life is the loss of a sense of community, their council and the residents’ associations fostered by it are restoring that sense and harnessing  It for social good. In Myrtle Gardens, a 358-flat tenement in Abercromby, the residents’ association has its own architect, accountant and lawyer.

If there is bad workman ship in a flat the Housing Department is told – through the community council – and action is demanded. In 18 months the tenants have raised over £1,000 for the betterment of their lot. “It is giving us new hope to face the future.” says resident George Lunt. Who runs a five-a-side soccer competition for the youngsters.

Since the Myrtle Gardens Residents’ Association was formed vandalism has been cut dramatically. Says Philip Doran: ” This is the first time that the whole community – from shopkeepers to policemen – have been involved in a movement of this kind. We felt that the total population was getting a second rate deal.

The growth is a slow one. But the professionals are optimistic. In the midst of the half-demolished slums and ever-present rubble the foundations for something more dignified and hopefully, more permanent, have been laid.

Philip Aris

Footnote from the future (2009)

Go here for a mapshowing 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.

Footnote from the future (5 September 2014)

We received an email today from Kim Singleton, daughter of  Ethel Singleton, who was the secretary of the tenants association in 1967-69, informing us of her mother’s death: ‘After battling Alzheimers for a number of years, Mum died last night, peacefully in her sleep aged 81. The material on the site is one of a number of internet tributes to her life and work. I am grateful to you’.

You can see a video from 2009 of Ethel and Kim Singleton discussing Nick Broomfield’s films Behind the Rent Strike and Who Cares here. This extract from Behind the Rent Strike features Ethel:

And what better way to remember Ethel that with than these perceptive words from the film:

Ethel Singleton: “Maybe it’s just, Nick, that I’m so sceptical…that the working-class position will ever change. I know it could change, in actual fact – the working-class position could change, but it won’t change through the media. And that’s why I’m so sceptical about the media. It won’t change through films, television, papers — it will not change because as you’ve just said it’s middle-class views. It’s controlled and owned by the middle-class who put across what is in their best interests, so in actual fact I’m very ckeptical about them ever changing the working-class position. They just cannot. The only people who can change the working-class position are the working-class themselves.”

Nick Broomfield: “Well what do you think of me making a film down here?”

ES: “Well I don’t think anything about it. You can come in, you’ll make it and it’ll have no effect. It’ll make people think for a few minutes and that’s all. But the position of the working-class won’t change. It won’t change by you making a film, or for that matter any other film-maker coming in. It just won’t make any difference. There’s been dozens of film-makers we’ve seen on local estates.

NB: “Why do you think I’m making it then?”

ES: “I’m asking you that! Why are you making it? It’s only personal self-satisfaction, that’s all that it must be. How can you get the injustice of it all unless you actually feel deeply enough about it? And the only way to feel deeply enough about it is for it to be bloody well happening to you — and it’s not happening to you, because at the end of the three months you know that you can go back home.

I mean, how many of the working-class are actually working at something that they want to do? We have this constant economic pressure on us all the time, of trying to make ends meet, of trying to give your kids the best that you can, and the best is very little, believe me. The process of it never changes. They live a constant illusion all the time that somehow, someday they’re gonna get out of it. Or maybe their children will do better than them. And that’s why there’s that constant struggle by many parents to try and get their kids out. But it is just really an illusion, because our position never, ever changes. Never.”



Author: Gerry

Retired college teacher living in Liverpool, UK.

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