Exploring Liverpool and Southport

Historic Streets of Liverpool by David Paul (Amberley Publishing)

Southport History Tour by Hugh Hollinghurst (Amberley Publishing)

That excellent BBC documentary series The Secret History Of Our Streets showed how much we could learn about the history of London by considering the ways just six streets had changed over time. Closer to home, and even more narrowly focused, another BBC television series (A House Through Time) had David Olusoga explaining how Liverpool’s social and economic ups and downs were reflected in the engrossing history of a single house in Falkner Street.

David Paul, whose previous publications include books on Woolton and Speke, adopts a similar approach in Historic Streets Of Liverpool, looking at ten of the city’s most famous streets, chosen for their historical significance and the architectural interest of their buildings. Three of Liverpool’s original seven streets feature (Dale Street, Castle Street and Water Street – streets whose history goes back about 800 years), along with Lime Street, William Brown Street, Church Street, Hope Street, Gambier Terrace, Rodney Street and Abercromby Square.

Paul is an entertaining and knowledgeable guide, and fascinating facts about all of these locations are here in abundance. Lime Street, originally laid out in 1790, was so named because several limeworks were situated there. It had a reputation as a place where scores were settled, and as well as human fisticuffs cockfights and dogfights were common. When Lime Street station opened in 1836 – it was built on the site of a former cattle market – locomotives used to be decoupled at Edge Hill and carriages continued on to Lime Street powered by sheer force of gravity. Dale Street used to be known as Dele Street, derived from the Saxon word for valley. The first stagecoach to ever leave Liverpool departed from here in 1760, and Hitler’s half brother once managed a restaurant in the street. The earliest ferries across the Mersey landed at the bottom of Water Street, and William Brown Street used to be the centre of the city’s thriving pottery industry.

Then there are the many notable buildings in these streets, buildings rich in historical interest as well as architectural excellence. The Town Hall at the top end of Castle Street has been the scene of many memorable events. In the late 18th century the American War of Independence disrupted trade and the city’s shipowners laid off many sailors. In the protests that followed, cannons were fired at the Town Hall and a number of seamen were shot dead. A hundred years later there was an unsuccessful Fenian plot to blow the building up. The balcony on the north side of the building is known as the Queen’s Balcony, because Queen Victoria stood here in 1851. Gazing down at the city’s merchants, gathered below her on Exchange Flags, she’s said to have remarked that she’d never seen so many well dressed gentlemen gathered together in one place.

On Church Street, the grand building that now houses Marks & Spencer (who have been there since 1928) was once the luxurious Compton Hotel, especially favoured by wealthy Americans who were travelling on the steamships that regularly crisscrossed the Atlantic. Blackburne House on Hope Street was built by a slave trader but ironically was later sold to an abolitionist who also supported women’s rights – a link that continues to this day, with the building now a centre for women’s educational courses and related activities. Most people know Gladstone was born in nearby Rodney Street, but fewer are probably aware that Brian Epstein was born at No.4.

Many locals could no doubt find their way to these destinations blindfolded, but for others there’s a useful map, which shows that the streets in the book are logically ordered and would form the basis of a very enjoyable walking tour. The book is also very well illustrated, with contemporary or period photographs on just about every page.

As its title suggests, Southport History Tour is another publication that invites the reader to take a guided walk around the town, though you might need a car or bus to take you out to Churchtown and Birkdale, which also feature in the book. Churchtown is of course much older than Southport, and it’s appropriate that author Hugh Hollinghurst begins here. A picturesque village on the outskirts of Southport that’s missed by many visitors to the town, it has, Hollinghurst tells us, twenty thatched cottages. His tour of the village takes in the Botanic Gardens, Meols Hall and St Cuthbert’s Church, where the coffin of St Cuthbert himself may have rested in the ninth century, when it was carried round the north of England to protect it from invading Vikings. Churchtown’s main connection to Southport itself is to be found at the Hesketh Arms, the resort’s unlikely birthplace. Formerly known as the Black Bull, in the late 18th century the inn was owned by William Sutton, who used to arrange transport for guests who wanted to make the two mile journey to the beach. He also built them a bathing shelter, then a hotel near the south-west end of what is now Lord Street. It’s said that at a celebration to mark the hotel’s opening one of the guests declared, ‘This place shall be called South Port.’

Lord Street is of course now Southport’s main thoroughfare. One of the country’s most attractive streets, it may well have inspired the boulevards of Paris. Hollinghurst writes authoritatively about its many fine landmarks, such as the elegant colonnades with their attractive canopies, the war memorial buildings and the impressive examples of imposing commercial architecture, reflecting the town’s prosperity during the Victorian era. He also takes us along Nevill Street, once the main route from the railway station to the pier. A photograph from the Edwardian period shows a crowded scene, with children, smartly dressed women and men in cloth caps or boaters milling around a street full of pubs, tearooms and shops.

The period photographs are a great strength of the book. In the section on Southport pier, for example, we see that ships once used the pier, while another remarkable photograph shows a pier entertainer riding a bicycle off the edge and into the sea. There are also photographs of buildings that have now disappeared, such as the Birkdale Palace Hotel (the coach house survives as the Fisherman’s Rest pub) and the Opera House (which burnt down in 1929).

The book’s a handy pocket size and has a user-friendly map, making it the ideal accessory for anyone who wants to explore this splendid seaside town.

Historic Streets Of Liverpool by David Paul is published by Amberley Publishing, priced £14.99. Southport History Tour by Hugh Hollinghurst is also published by Amberley Publishing, priced £7.99.