An Oriel Prospect

Liverpool must have presented a magnificent prospect to visitors in the second half of the Nineteenth Century, whether arriving by sea or rail. They could hardly fail to be impressed by the city’s gigantic dock complex, the immense worldwide trade it quite evidently supported, and the grandeur of its civic and commercial buildings. It was second only to London as the great port of empire. But there was, of course, an opposite prospect to the city, in which the superlatives applied to everything that was debased and distasteful.

I have written here before about the journalism of Hugh Shimmin. In an article in the Porcupine, printed in January 1863, Shimmin wrote about what he termed ‘An Oriel Prospect’. Oriel Street was (it is still there) a street leading eastwards off Vauxhall Road, close to the docks of the North End and the terminus of the Leeds and Liverpool canal.

Shimmin counted thirty courts on this street, each leading off between every two houses fronting it, with “ten, and in some cases, eight houses in each court – five or four on each side, – and for the use of each court there is an open ashpit at the top, and a very small privy on each side of this. One may perhaps form some idea of the foulness of these places…”.  

Shimmin visited Oriel Street just after Christmas when, “the vegetable refuse, broken mugs, and filth of all sorts bore evidence that the people here, in the expressive language of Mr. J.L. Toole [a comic actor], had been ‘a-going it’.” In one court, “The roofs are all now leaking;” and “There is not a whole pane of glass in any of the windows, – hardly a whole frame.” “In some cases the skirting boards have been torn off for firewood, the handrails have been found extremely useful in case of a ‘row,’ and the boards have been known to be ripped from the floor…”. Shimmin heard the obscene banter of women and girls “quite indifferent to a sense of shame” and saw “men lounging about here who evidently didn’t like to be looked at.”

And Oriel Street was not exceptional. A glance at an ordnance survey map for 1864 reveals the whole Vauxhall area to be a tightly packed matrix of such thoroughfares, many of them having courts narrower and meaner than those of Oriel Street, some with the houses facing each other only a few feet apart and accessed only through enclosed alleyways. The population density was astounding. A look at the 1861 census shows that many of these small terraced houses (without bathrooms, kitchens, indoor toilets or running water) were occupied by more than one family group. For instance Number 20 court on neighbouring Paul Street, with only six houses, contained sixty people in nine family groups. Most of the menfolk were casual labourers, either on the docks or in the numerous local factories existing cheek by jowl amid the housing.

In the immediate vicinity there were soaperies, alkali works, potteries, foundries, saw mills, chemical works, cooperages, breweries and tanneries. All these would have been highly polluting establishments, whose effluvia must have mixed with the ubiquitous coal smoke to produce an unimaginable miasma.

All of this is long gone, though some of the previous street pattern remains. I see that a measure of gentrification has taken place. There are blocks of nice-looking flats along a southern section of Paul Street where many of its courts would have been. These are no doubt well-appointed, gated, and convenient for those working in city centre offices. I wonder if the present residents have any idea of the tumultuous history they are sitting on.

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