Mass meeting challenge

14 October 1969

This article, from today’s Guild Gazette, documents the growing debate about the role that mass meetings should play in Guild decision-making:

The main argument in the unofficial mass meeting of Guild last Wednesday [8 October] began after Mr Jack Straw had given his speech and left.

The lady chairman, Deputy President Caroline Farmer, then announced that a motion had been proposed that ‘this meeting would prefer mass meetings to Guild Council’.

Mr Swingler declared that “the individual student has no say in the running of student affairs and feels no sense of participation.  Each student belongs to an A Society, which elects a representative to the Guild Council – which only meets twice per term, which is sheer folly!”

Mr Swingler then alleged that Guild Council spent 80% of its time discussing what he termed ‘trivia’ such as the price of chips or the lighting in the hall. […]

“Representatives, once elected, are there for their own point of view, not their society’s views, and do not report back to their societies, so no-one knows what goes on,”  he argued.

Mr Swingler then described his attempts to bring to general notice the slums owned by the University in Vine Street, on which, he alleged, “the University spent nothing, but instead built a new Senate building costing over £600,000”.  Mass meetings were held, and … expressed approval of action supporting the tenants, but nothing could be done.  The Guild Council had met some weeks before and no further meetings were held.

“We are classed together according to our subjects, and voting tends to follow the same pattern.  We are all equal members and ought to have an equal say in what goes on – no-one knows what to do to influence policy decisions, even if they know any policy exists,” stated Mr Swingler, his remarks emphasised by roars of agreement from the meeting.

In conclusion Mr Swingler asked: “Are we going to stick to this University or care about things going on in Liverpool itself, such as tenants’ troubles and redundant workers?”

Mr Sandy Macmillan, President of the Union, opposed the motion strongly. […]

“A mass meeting of 700 people represents only 10% of the student body, but the 70 people on Guild Council represent the opinions of 7000 students, and therefore their decisions must count.

“How can 7000 people be collected together in a suitable place and controlled?” he asked.  “Conduct of the meeting would be extremely difficult.  Every single committee meeting is open for all to go along.”  Mr Macmillan said he gave his full support to the representative system.

Vine Street – the reasons why

24 June 1969

In this week’s Guild Gazette this rather obsequious letter from a local Tory councillor to Princess Alexandra is reproduced on the Letters to the Editor page:

Vine Street – the reasons why – by a Tory Councillor

H.R.H. The Princess Alexandra,
Buckingham Palace
London

17th May 1969

Your Royal Highness,

I am one of the three City Councillors elected to represent the interests of the people of  Abercromby Ward, and I would first like to offer my regrets and apologies that l was not present during your visit to the houses in Vine Street.

This was because apparently no-one saw fit to advise the three Councillors of the time of this visit, and we only knew of it through the Press Publicity the following day. I was however at the tea, though again I was not on the list to bc  introduced to you personally.

May I bring to your attention the fact that in the past year since my election I have s pent an enormous amount of time in trying to alleviate the sufferings of the people i n the area, and indeed I believe the people there would bear this out if asked. I attended the meeting of the Abercromby Tenants Association the evening before your visit, and stated publicly that  I supported their efforts to draw attention to their plight, though I would not, and could not support any demonstration which could be interpreted as antagonistic to your personal visit.

I believe the loyalty and affection shewn [sic] by the people to Your Highness’ person shows that these people arc responsible, and that my advice was heeded.

You will I am sure be aware that the problem is not by any means a simple one. Indeed it is as a result of events over a very long time that the situation has become as it is. I would wish you to know that whilst the City Authorities would be the last to claim that they are the paragons of virtue and efficiency, nevertheless they are making remarkable progress against an almost insuperable problem.

I wish, and I think my colleagues on the Council wish, that it were possible to rehouse everyone in sub-standard homes overnight. We wish that we could build the new homes alongside the old, and at rents the people could find completely satisfactory.

But this is not possible and in the fact that much of the new building must be done on the City’s outskirts, where land is available lies the seed of the reasons why so many people in Vine Street and elsewhere are not moved more quickly.

In making offers of suitable accommodation we have first to give priority to those in designated clearance areas to make room to build the very houses that are to replace the ones the remainder of the people have now to live in. Often this means giving priority to some in homes in better condition than those in non-clearance areas – and whilst this seems unfair it will not only mean newer homes faster but better designed and laid out residential areas.

Unfortunately the cost is that some must wait in unfit homes or longer than we would wish. In many cases, though, alternative accommodation IS offered – and turned down. This is not to say that it is turned down irresponsibly. But quite often the new home ls too far from the tenants work or from their relatives and friends, or refused for other valid reasons. However the City can only offer what it has, and often this is not what the resident wants.  His wants are often impossible. if proper reconstruction is to be undertaken, but it is not unnatural that he should show dissatisfaction with the system.

In Liverpool we have the second worst problem in the country – and for a long ti me yet it will not be possible to build as many homes as are needed, as soon as they are needed. Indeed I have pointed out to the tenants if all the money spent on the Senate House and your reception were available for new building it is entirely possible that there is insufficient building labour and materials to use it anyway.

Thus our officials are faced with the appalling task of having to pick names from enormous lists – all equally deserving – and allocate the offer of new, or relet houses to them. It is inevitable that this will suit hardly anyone, and a large number of people will become resentful , and indeed suspicious of how the allocations are made.

I feel sure that if they were able to meet the officials who have to make these agonising decisions, they would better understand why they have to stay as long as they do in these appalling conditions, and that these men are human beings doing a fantastically difficult job – which the tenants themselves I am certain would not want to have to do themselves.

I write to you so that you will know that the people arc not without those trying to help them against great odds. I only wish that those responsible for  your visit could have arranged that I and mv two councillor colleagues could have been present during your visit to Vine Street, so that you could have seen that the elected representatives are involved and attempting to do what they were elected to do – but this was not to be.

May I thank you, on behalf of the residents of  Abercromby Ward for taking so much trouble in visiting them which has enabled publicity to be brought to their problems. I hope this will also help to highlight the problems of other citizens of Liverpool – since Vine Street, and the A bercromby Ward are by no means unique, I regret to say.

I trust you will understand when I say that I am sending a copy of this letter to the Press, in the hope that it will receive publicity, and ensure that a balanced picture of the problem is presented.

I sincerely hope Your Royal Highness had a pleasant visit to our city, and that it will not be too long before we are graced with your presence again.

Your humble servant,

David E Daniel

A letter of support

24 June 1969

Today’s Guild Gazette publishes on its front page a letter from Mrs M Gallimore, secretary of ATACC, the Amalgamated Tenants’ Association Co-ordinating Committee, to which the Abercrombey Tenants’ Association is affiliated. The letter reads:

Dear Sir,
TV and radio coverage of Princess Alexandra’s visit to Liverpool seemed to suggest that because students of the university were involved, trouble was expected.  The Amalgamated Tenants’ Association Co-ordinating Committee think the students of the university have proved they are responsible persons by supporting such a worthwhile cause as protesting against slum housing conditions.  The members of this committee know how much the students have done for the people of Abercrombey Ward and we congratulate them.  If all students protested about such things, England would be a better place.

I take one look at Vine Street and I want to run away

17 May 1969

This morning the Daily Post follows up yesterday’s account of the Princess Alexandra demonstration with this interview by Post reporter Ann Cummings with Mrs Jane Parr of 111 Vine Street:

At home with Mrs Parr yesterday

Mrs Jane Parr, fifty-six-year-old mother of five, lives in a Liverpool slum house a Princess wanted to see. It has no bathroom, no hot water, the walls are crumbling, the roof leaks in the kitchen and there is only an outside toilet.

”But compared with many others in the area, it is a palace,” said Mrs Parr. This is why she wanted Princess Alexandra to come into her kitchen for a chat when the Royal visitor came to Liverpool on Thursday. The Princess accepted Mrs Parr’s invitation to see the inside of  her home, 111 Vine Street,  but was ushered away by officials because she was already thirty minutes behind schedule.

Last night Mrs Parr explained: “My house isn’t the worst, but I thought once I got the Princess inside my kitchen, I could tell her about the terrible conditions people are living in.  Most of them are ill and I’m sure it’s because of how they are forced to live. I’m not a glory-hunter – I just want to fight for others.”

Mrs Parr is a member of the Abercromby Tenants’ Association, as the representative of Vine Street, a cobbled, grimy street of old, sagging terraced houses a stone’s throw from the university. On the side of the street where the houses are being demolished, the doors are broken, window panes are smashed, and rubble is piled on the pavements.

“It makes me feel sick to look at it every time I put the milk bottles out,” said Mrs Parr. ”When I go away to my daughter’s in the Lake District, I dread coming home again. I take one look at Vine Street and I want to run away.”

Mrs Parr moved into the house twenty-six years ago, and brought up her five children there. Her husband, Mr Fred Parr, aged 60, was a Japanese prisoner-of-war at the time they moved and, as a result of his experiences in captivity, he now suffers from heart trouble, peptic ulcers and bronchitis.

“I dread the winter,” he said. ”I have to keep warm, so the fires have to be blazing all day long and I sit on two hot water bottles.”

Because they have no hot water, the Parrs have to boil kettles all day long – ”It takes four kettles just to wash the front steps,” said Mrs Parr.

The couple’s two sons, Derek, aged 21, and Gordon, aged 19, who still live with them, go to the public baths every week, for a bath. Their parents make do by boiling two kettles of water to fill a bowl and carry it up to wash in their bedroom. Every day, Mrs Parr has to clean out the drain in the yard with a hose pipe and plunge her hands into the slimy water to get rid of the blockages.  “I’ve told the Corporation about it,” she said, ” but nothing has been done yet.”

The tiny kitchen has a leaking roof – and a bad smell because of the faulty drain. Mrs Parr keeps a cupboard full of disinfectants to try to get rid of the smell – “it cost me a small fortune,” she added.

The gas cooker is kept in the sitting room because there is no room in the cramped kitchen. Mrs Parr is very proud of her toilet. She won it through a church sweep. “I won a ticket for £15,” she said, “and my first thought was, God, I’ll be able to get a new loo.” But it’s still only an outside toilet and the family have to go out in all  weathers to use it.

”You can’t ask anyone to stay when you’ve got no inside loo or a bathroom”,  said Mrs Parr. “I think if  I ever had a bathroom and toilet, I would practically live in it.

The big sitting room is cosy and warm, with a cheerful, open coal fire, and a teapot which is always full – “I seem to make tea for people all day long,” she said. There is also a smaller front room, and four bedrooms.

The Parrs have obviously gone to a lot of trouble to make their home nice – “We’ve spent our lives, and our money on it,” said Mr Parr. They have put in new fireplaces, plastered the walls, built sinks, wallpapered and painted. But the house is still crumbling about them, and they can’t do anything about that – or the bulges that appear in their wallpaper.

The Parrs pay £2 2s 8d a week for the rent – it was £1 8s 11d when owned by a private landlord, but went up after the Corporation took it over in 1967. ”We’ve been told we’ll be moved out in 1973, when the houses are demolished for building,” said Mrs Parr. ”But I’m very disheartened sometimes. I keep thinking they’ll make us hang on here.”

Mrs Parr talked about the conditions in some of the neighbours’ houses. “You can see why I wanted to get over to the Princess the terrible state these people are living in,” she said.   “I’m sure she would have been very sympathetic.”

University as slum landlord

17 May 1969

This week’s issue of Freedom, the Anarchist Weekly, has this report about the planned picket of the opening of Senate House on the front page:

Students at Liverpool University voted last week to support local tenants in picketing the official opening of a new Senate House. Their protest was against the University as a slum landlord.

The University Administration may own up to 130 houses inside the campus. The property is bought up as a prelude to new University developments. Recently tenants in two streets owned by the University have attacked its failure to keep the property in a fit state for human habitation.

In Vine Street, just bought by the University, the roofs gape and water pours in quite freely. A house with a habitable top floor is a rarity. Entire families have to live and sleep in the basement.

For over 8 years in Melville Place, the University failed to keep the houses in a fit state of repair, to combat the dangers of damp to children, to alleviate squalid overcrowding, or to fight the problem of rat-infestation. The houses were declared unfit for human habitation by the Corporation.

In at least one instance the University bought a house for £75. Since then the tenant has paid a total of £624 in thirty shillings a week rent.

Pressure on the University and the Corporation intensified last autumn with the formation of a Tenants’ Association in the area. In its few months of existence the Tenants’ Association has been successful in fighting cases of repair or rehousing against the University and the Corporation.

The picket of the University’s new Senate House is a protest by the tenants about the conditions in which they are forced to live, many of them with the University as landlord. Senate House cost £600,000 and the opening ceremony – featuring Princess Alexandra- will likely cost £500.

The demonstration by tenants and students will question and condemn the distorted spending priorities of both the University and society as a whole. It will embarrass the University on a prestige occasion.

Gerry Cordon (For the Tenants’ Association, University Soc-Soc, Anarchist and Labour Groups.)

Princess Charming ends the boos

16 May 1969

Even the Daily Mail reports prominently on yesterday’s Senate House protest:

Princess Alexandra meets housewives in Vine Street

Princess Alexandra was greeted by boos and catcalls from housewives and student demonstrators yesterday.

But the protests turned to cheers when she had impromptu heart- to-heart talks with some of the wives about their slum homes. The Princess went to Liverpool University to o p e n a £l million senate building and physics research laboratory – and found herself surrounded by housewives and students in tumbledown Vine Street near the university.

Mrs Ethel Singleton, 35, secretary of the Abercromby Tenants’ Association, which organised the demonstration with students’ help, said : “The Princess need not have come to talk to us about our grumbles, but she wanted to find out what the demonstration was all about. I explained that the demonstration and the ba nners we were carrying were nothing personal against her. She said she understood. Then we got down to talking about the conditions in our homes.

“When I told her there were no bathrooms, that we had to use outside toilets, and our only water supply was a cold tap, she was really taken aback. She asked how we bathed our children and I told her we did it in a tub in front of the fire.”

Mrs Martha Dempsey, 58, who has lived in Vine Street for 28 years, told the Princess that her family had made their own bathroom. Princess Alexandra said: “Conditions must be unpleasant. I hope you will soon be rehoused.”

When the Princess left after 20 minutes she told the wives: “I am sure something in this day and age should be done for you.”

Mr Herbert Burchnall, the university registrar, said the university owned only four of the 15 houses about which there had been complaints. “Essential repairs are being undertaken,’ he said. A Liverpool corporation spokesman said the tenants’ complaints were being investigated.

‘Slums this way’ eyeopener for Princess

16 May 1969

Along with most of the other national dailies, The Sun this morning has this account of yesterday’s Senate House protest:

Princess Alexandra followed signs saying: ‘Slums this way’ after she had opened a £1 million extension to Liverpool University yesterday. The signs had been painted by students who say the £630,000 spent on a new Senate House and the £500 spent on a tea party in honour of the Princess should have been spent rehousing the University’s tenants.

Princess Alexandra talked to the slum dwellers of Vine Street less than 100 yards from the new Senate House and physics research laboratories. She asked Mrs Ethel Singleton about sanitation. ” There is nothing” said Mrs Singleton, 35-year-old secretary of the local tenants’ association.

The princess replied sympathetically : “It must be awful.” When Mrs Singleton told her that they had to heat up bowls of cold water the Princess said: “It must be dreadful in winter.”

Mrs Singleton had written a letter inviting the Princess to visit the street when it was announced that she would open the university buildings.  The princess told Mrs Singleton:  “It’s very kind of you to invite me.”

Princess Alexandra was presented with a bouquet by four-year old Carol   Scoullar. Then the Princess, wearing a navy blue coat and tassled hat, listened to the householders’ grievances as young   children tugged at her.

She    assured    Mrs    Pauline Nolan, 66,   who   has   spent   all her life in  Vine  Street:  “I’m sure everything will be done as soon as possible.”

University vice-chancellor Dr Winston   Barnes told   guests   at the Senate House opening that they had spent £430,000 in the last 20 years rehousing 300 families. Mr Herbert Burchnall, the university’s registrar, said later that between 50 and 100 families were being rehoused each year. He said that money made available for university buildings could not be applied to repairs or rehousing tenants.

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 remained 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.