Thursday, 7 January 2010

St. Martin's Cottages

St. Martin's 'Cottages', Liverpool

Last time I mentioned 'St. Martin's Cottages' 'making history' involving the residence there of a McIlhagga family, Crawford and Elizabeth and their children. In 1869 Liverpool Corporation built the first ever municipal housing estate in Europe with the construction of 124 purpose-built flats in Silvester Street in the Vauxhall District of the city. The term 'Cottages' was an intentional misnomer, for they were in fact large tenement buildings. In an article in 2001 in the Daily Mail Newespaper, Adam Powell wrote:

'As he peered into the squalor where thousands were forced to live, the good doctor knew something had to be done. Victorian Liverpool was bursting at the seems as its bustling docks and factories attracted hoards of immigrants from the countryside. Appalled by what he saw, local physician William Henry Duncan campaigned for the Corporation to combat the misery. Today, the innovative solution - Europe's first council houses - is being commemorated with pride by the local authority that dreamed it up. It was an invention born of necessity. By the 1840s the city's worst districts of Vauxhall, The Exchange and Scotland Road had been branded the unhealthiest places in England. Yet newcomers were still pouring into the overcrowded slums looking for work. The 1801 Census had shown that 2000 people lived in the cramped, dank cellars of Liverpool, usually sharing outside toilets. By 1841 their numbers had increased to 38,000, each courting disease and early death in windowless, bare-walled rooms dripping with damp.

'Although spartan, the tenements set standards which were to be copied around the world. Until their demolition in 1977 the flats, known as St. Martin's Cottages, became home to tens of thousands of people and today Liverpool City Council unveils a plaque on the site, commemorating the visionary fathers of 132 years ago.

'Yesterday current Lord Mayor Gerry Scott said: "The cottages may have been very basic and stark by modern standards, but at the time they were revolutionary. For the first time poor families had homes with running water, gas lighting, inside toilets and basic cooking facilities. Liverpool should be proud that the enlightened thinking of our city fathers contributed so much to improving the quality of life of ordinary people".

'Martin's Cottages were divided into six four-storey blocks. Each flat had two or three bedrooms, a living room and a scullery. Their basic interior was matched by their barrack-like appearance but, to the early inhabitants, they must have been dream homes.

'A latter day tenant, Rose Murphy, was born in one of the flats 68 years ago. She shared a bedroom with her mother and two sisters while her father and two older brothers shared the other. Apart from when she was evacuated to Nantwich in Cheshire, Mrs. Murphy lived in St. Martin's Cottages for 22 years until 1956, when her family moved to another estate a few streets away. Yet, despite the cramped conditions, she remembers her former home with fondness. "Everyone was very hard up", she said, "but they were good neighbours. They did not live in each other's pockets but were there if you needed them. The flats were very basic, just bedrooms and a living room with another bedroom off the 'back-kitchen' which was just a sink's width and 6ft. long. There was no room for a cooker, just a hob on the living room table and a coal fire and oven for cooking. In the evenings we had gas lamps. There was no bathroom but there was a toilet halfway between our floor and the one above, but each family had its own, which was something." For more than a century since Liverpool launched the concept, governments have blown hot and cold over council housing. But now the pendulum is swinging back as the need grows for social housing to allow the less well-off to live and work in areas where (sic) they otherwise could not afford.'

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