Granby : A brief history
Madeline Heneghan & Tony Wailey
The Granby triangle, running from Upper Parliament Street, along Princes Avenue and Kingsley Road, with Granby Street at the centre, represents the historical focus of the black community in Liverpool. Before them were the merchant bourgeoisie of many countries, artisans and shipping clerks alongside waves of European immigrants, Welsh builders and office workers. More recently it has become the centre of newly settled Somali and Yemeni communities. It has always been an area of historic importance whose beating heart was based upon the movement of people, markets, music and the sea.
Walking along Princes Avenue to Princes Park gives you an idea of the area’s former affluence. It is not so much the cosmopolitan collection of religious buildings that you pass at the beginning of your journey: the High Anglican, the Welsh Congregationalist, the Jewish Synagogue and the Greek Orthodox, but the spaciousness of the wide boulevard itself. Princes Park between 1870 and the end of the First World War was dominated by merchants and commerce; its wealth coming from the port and shipping. There were more millionaires here than in any part of the city. The streets immediately around and behind Princes Avenue contained smaller houses which were still a good size, with basements and attic lofts, built by Welsh builders between 1870 and 1900. They serviced the shipping industry and were built for the workers, artisans and the army of clerks who could walk to work in the city centre at the great shipping companies.
Built on a leased-out section of Toxteth Park (once a royal park and hunting forest), this was a sedate area pre-war, where pubs, workshops and factories were disallowed. It was old fashioned, quiet, and safely conservative. It was these streets that became the centre and the symbolic home to the black community from the 1920s onwards. The Liverpool-born black and mixed heritage population were in turn joined by the Somali and Yemeni communities. A small Mosque was added to the list of religious buildings. The Granby Triangle and Liverpool 8 soon replaced Toxteth Park in the vernacular of its new citizens.
After the First World War the wealthy began to leave the area, leaving behind huge houses that were ripe for being split up for cheap multiple occupancy. The middle classes also began to drift from Granby as artisans and shipping clerks moved out across the city. In 1919 the black community was shaken by the race riots that followed the First World War. The level of anti-black hostility and violence was unprecedented, with organised gangs of up to 10,000 searching the city for black men and attacking them in their homes and on the street. Black boarding houses were ransacked and set alight and black men and their families were forced to move to the local Bridewells (police stations) for their own protection.
Through the 1920s and ‘30s black families continued to move up the hill to Granby from the southern docks. The city’s ‘Sailor Town’ attested to Liverpool’s history as a maritime city, and was home to a huge variety of nationalities - mainly West African, Chinese, Indian and Caribbean, living alongside the Irish population.
In common with its population, Granby buzzed with an international flavour. There were more than sixty shops lining Granby Street, often selling food and goods that could not be bought elsewhere. The street represented a culture that had its base in the flow of goods and people.
The constant arrival of ships made Granby glorious. Commodities from around the world could be found in the international shops that lined that street.
Jacqueline Nassi Brown, Dropping Anchor, Setting Sail: Geographies of Race in Black Liverpool, 2009
British shipping boomed briefly during in the post-war period, and immigrants to Liverpool in the ‘40s and ‘50s came mainly from seafaring communities, iincluding many from the Caribbean (mainly labourers and transport workers), West Africa (overwhelmingly seamen), smaller numbers from Somalia and Yemen (all seamen), Pakistan, (boarding house keepers and seamen), India, and China (specialising in catering).
The rhythm of the sea beat through Liverpool 8; which with its clubs, music, cafés, and out of hours drinking was quite different to the rest of the city. Granby was desperately poor, but still dancing in spite of it. There was a feel good factor here in the two decades that followed the Second World War. Richard Whittington-Egan’s book, Liverpool Roundabout (1957), describes over twenty-three clubs and ‘shabeens’ in the Liverpool 8 area during the 1950s. The clubs were also place to eat out and celebrate social and family occasions: and included the Ibo, the Yoruba, the Nigerian, the Federation, the Somali, the Sierra Leone and Silver Sands. Granby’s night clubs were frequented not just by the black community, but by white locals, bohemians and music lovers from across the city. Music was the life-blood of Liverpool 8.
In the 1970’s the area began to change with the closing of the south docks and the decimation of Liverpool’s already small industrial base. Still, Liverpool 8 continued to look outwards across the Atlantic. Historian Mark Christian refers to Liverpool as being a very Americanised city and this was especially true for its young black population. A new generation emerged in the 1960s and ‘70s, brought up with the influence of the Civil Rights movement: a young population for whom identity versus racism became central. While Councillor Margaret Simey argued that Liverpool 8 was not a ghetto in the American sense but a mix of dual heritage families, equally disinherited, black youth nevertheless identified with the black diaspora and appropriated the ideas and practices of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements in opposition to their own experiences in Liverpool.
Social and Economic Historian, Mike Boyle, with his own black and Irish heritage, talks of the decline of the area during this period: ‘Gone is the busy thoroughfare that once was The Street with its numerous general stores, ironmongers and local butchers, its international food stores, and cars lining the pavement.’ The 1970s saw a downturn in the fortunes, not only of Liverpool 8 but the city as a whole, with black youth hit hardest by rising unemployment rates.
Institutionalised racism in employment and education, set against the backdrop of decades of police brutality by an overtly racist force was the experience in Liverpool 8 in common with other inner city black communities such as Brixton and St Paul’s in Bristol. The resulting ‘Toxteth Riots’ brought Liverpool 8 worldwide media attention and defined public perceptions of the area for decades after.
The upsurge of anger that exploded onto the streets of Liverpool 8 in 1981 has been well documented. Much has been made of lawlessness and destruction, but an examination of events also reveals a high level of organisation and co-operation between those involved. This was neither an immigrant demonstration nor a race riot. The police were clearly the target.
With a community having been ignored, ostracised and isolated, the staff of Granby’s Methodist Centre reminded Lord Scarman, in the aftermath of the disturbances, that black residents of Liverpool 8 were British born: ‘they are of mixed racial origins, so white and black families are interwoven in a complex web of loyalties and friendships and kinship networks, a mutual lack of trust and feeling of isolation and rejection in relation to the rest of the city’. It was the absence of recognition that the Liverpool born black community was as Scouse as anyone in the city, that made the events of 1981 so angry.
It took nearly another decade of stagnation after the ‘uprising’ of 1981 for the whole area of the south docks to be seen as ready for ‘renovation.’ In the decades that followed the regeneration proposed for Granby Street and the Granby Triangle came in fits and starts. Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) of the classic streets dislodged the old resident community. Through these various phases people became sick of questionnaires, surveys and consultants - ‘like living in a zoo’ said one. Housing associations were building new estates further up Granby Street, but many of the resident black community were cleared away.
Writing in the Observer newspaper in July 2011, Ed Vulliamy commented that, ‘Thirty years on from the riots, one walks up Princes Avenue. When you turn left and along Granby Street, once the spinal cord of Toxteth, you walk into what feels like a tomb… The eerie streets are all but deserted, Victorian terraced houses of good solid stock condemned, abandoned and empty for 18 years now, their windows either bricked up or covered in steel sheeting, as though to obliterate any family or human life – any memory of Christmas, love, argument or sex the household may once have held.’
Civil war and famine have brought new waves into Granby and Somalis and Yemenis now make up much of the population. The area is changing accordingly, and the Granby Triangle shows signs of life. The maritime thread continues: The Somali Community Association was opened in 1989 by older men who had gone away to sea, counterparts to the Yemeni seamen who first arrived in 1948. But the shore-life of a seafaring community is largely missing; the shops, bars, nightclubs, blues clubs and music have gone from Granby Street.
In the past decade Liverpool’s black and racial minority communities have become more geographically spread across the city, and areas that were almost exclusively white are beginning to change as the city becomes more diverse. It is a development that is to be welcomed, but there is also a feeling that Granby Is a community that has lost its focal point, having been eroded by successive waves of failed regeneration.
The Granby Triangle recalls Henry Ford’s advice that failure is the opportunity to begin again only more intelligently. This history was written as part of the Four Corners Project, which aims to restore the empty shops on the corners of Granby and Cairns St to public use, part of decades of action by Granby residents determined to fight for their homes and for their heritage. Recent progress in re-populating and re-invigorating Granby is testament to the tenacity and creativity of these residents who have stayed and weathered the storm.
Madeline Heneghan & Tony Wailey
This history was written for What’s Your Granby Story, a collaboration between Granby residents and Writing On the Wall, commissioned by the Granby 4 Streets Community Land Trust as part of the Four Corners Project.