Reflecting on how things could have been different

It is not often that we stop and think about how our lives in Liverpool could be different, but there are many ways in which this could be so.

It is not often that we stop and think about how our lives in Liverpool could be different, but there are many ways in which this could be so. What if the Empire Theatre hadn’t been saved, the infamous Penny Lane no longer existed, we became a floating city, and Liverpool hadn’t been awarded the City of Culture? Our deputy editors explore a few of the ways Liverpool could have been drastically altered…

The Empire Theatre

Over the past three centuries, The Empire Theatre has been through a very long and precarious, but enchanting journey to become the grand and successful business that it is today, being one of the most significant features in Liverpool’s Cultural Quarter and one of the most famous theatres in the city.

Decades ago, The Prince of Wales Theatre, renamed the Alexandra Theatre and Opera House following the marriage of the Prince of Wales, opened on the site of the current Empire Theatre in 1866. Lit by gas light, with all the stage mechanisms powered by steam, it was Liverpool’s largest theatre albeit being only a fraction of the size of the theatre that stands there today.

The theatre’s productions included a number of notable names, such as Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and George Formby, to name a few. At the end of the 1800’s, however, it was almost bankrupt. The staff went to great lengths to delay its repossession; they stood outside the building with fire hoses to prevent the bailiffs from entering. In 1895 the company was bought by Moss Empires, and managed to survive throughout World War I. Nonetheless, a couple of decades later it was decided that the theatre wasn’t grand enough and so was closed down.

The theatre that stands today was created in 1925, rebuilt and enlarged so as to match the theatres of the day. It had the widest auditorium in Europe, with a seating capacity of 2,381, making it one of the largest two tier theatres in the country.

At the beginning of the Second World War, the government decided that all theatres and cinemas should be closed down, it being far too dangerous for people to congregate during the threat of air raids. However, it came to light that people needed the entertainment now more than ever, and the theatre became increasingly successful. It was later hit by an incendiary bomb, but this damage was quickly repaired, and the popularity of the theatre persisted.

By the 1960’s, the style of the theatre had changed, playing host to concerts as well as opera, ballet and musicals. The theatre saw the likes of big names such as Julie Andrews, Frankie Vaughn, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland. In 1965, the Beatles returned to Liverpool to perform there, cramming the theatre with more people than ever before.

Despite this, by the 1970’s, the theatre’s future was again looking bleak. Audiences were diverted by other forms of entertainment, and there were no potential buyers; it was almost demolished and replaced by a car park for Lime Street Station. Luckily, Merseyside County Council didn’t agree with this, and, with the help of the Arts Council for England, were able to save the theatre by handing it over to the council.

In 1996 the Government decided to restructure local councils, so yet again the future of the theatre was precarious. The newly formed Liverpool City Council didn’t want the financial responsibility of the theatre, and eventually chose Apollo Leisure Ltd to manage it. They carried out extensive repairs and refurbishments in 1998 in order to bring it up to date, funded by the Arts Council for England Lottery. This included the extension of the stage, which is the reason why Disney chose the theatre to launch their first ever theatrical tour of the UK with Beauty and the Beast.

Now, the Empire Theatre is owned by Clear Channel Entertainment, and has become a Grade II listed building by English Heritage. Fortunately, due to its reputation as the place to go in Liverpool, its future is looking bright.

Penny Lane, or just any lane?

An uncomfortable link to the Transatlantic Slave Trade is an undeniably important aspect of Liverpool’s history. The 2007 opening of the International Slavery Museum, in time for marking two hundred years since the Abolition of the Slave Trade in Britain, was a testament to the city’s decision not to attempt a cover-up of its past. With increased interest surrounding Liverpool’s role in slavery as a result of the bicentenary, attention turned to reflecting on the legacies of the era elsewhere in the city.

As the second city of the British Empire, and arguably the first of the British institution of slavery, Liverpool was home to key abolitionist figures, as well as those making considerable money from the trade of Africans. Having contributed greatly to the city’s accumulation of wealth, many of the streets are named after these controversial men.

In 2006, an appeal was made by a local councillor, Barbara Mace, to change these street names to be named instead abolitionist individuals. This would have seen popular and historic city centre streets such as Parr Street, Seel Street and Bold Street expelled from the map. The proposal had some support, though many councillors agreed that changing street names was just a form of airbrushing the negative aspects of the city’s history.

The main blow to the plan arose due to the problem of Penny Lane. Named after James Penny, a slave trader who spoke out against abolition to a parliamentary committee in 1792 (and received a silver table for doing so), the street is considerably more associated with The Beatles’ 1967 hit. Could Liverpool justify removing one the world’s best known streets? Apparently not. Although the proposal was due to be discussed at a council meeting, it was swiftly withdrawn, showcasing the power of Liverpool’s tourism industry.

While the proposal to change street names was not passed, it does highlight a desire to mask an unpleasant past. However, could renaming streets really have had a significant effect when such a high proportion of Liverpool’s finest buildings were funded with slave trade money? The Bluecoat, now a creative hub of local arts and culture, was originally a school for destitute children, built with money accrued in slave trading. Furthermore, many of the shareholders in the building of the Liverpool to Manchester railway invested money they had received as compensation for the loss of their slave workforce after the 1938 Emancipation Act.  Finally, Falkner Square, in Liverpool’s Georgian Quarter, was built around 1830 by the former slave trader Edward Falkner.

It is clear that even changing street names could not hide the investment that Liverpool experienced as a result of its Slave Trade involvement, and by keeping the names, it ensures that a Liverpool’s role in slavery is not forgotten.

The First Floor city

If plans proposed in the late 1960s for Liverpool City Centre had gone ahead, today’s pedestrian experience could have been very different. In 2014, cars in the city centre compete with pedestrians and buses. This was a future anticipated (and intended to be avoided) when General Motors exhibited ‘Futurama’ at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. This model design for the modern city was intended to be implemented in the 1950s and 1960s, as General Motors sought to create a society reliant on automobiles for transportation. Fast-forward to 1969, and the General Motors’ City of the Future was nearly a reality in a city in northwest England.

It would be fair to say Liverpool’s design lacks the glamour of its American counterpart. Not so much shiny metals and futuristic architecture, as a series of poorly-lit elevated tunnels. The premise was justified – keep pedestrians and vehicles separate. On ground level, cars were king, and they could pollute to their heart’s content whilst, in theory, reserving cleaner air and a right of way to pedestrians on the first floor. You could float from Mount Pleasant to the Dock front, all the time avoiding the busy streets below.

So, what happened, and why are our feet still on the ground? As a matter of fact, a fair amount of bridges and first floor entrances were built across the city centre. To enter Moorfields’ underground railway station, for example, passengers must first climb to first floor level before heading down beneath the surface to reach the platform. Elsewhere in the centre, St John’s shopping centre was built with an external raised precinct, designed to join a larger walkway network that would incorporate Mount Pleasant car park and various buildings of the late 1960s and early 1970s intended to have first floor entrances.

Sadly, the planners’ visions were never truly realised, with most of the walkways having been knocked down in recent years, yet perhaps it would be inaccurate to consider the first-floor proposal a failure. Liverpool ONE, anyone?

The 2008 Culture Award

The European Capital of Culture Award, granted in 2008 by Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell, significantly changed the public view of Liverpool, and vastly improved its prospects. That year, for the first time in many years, positive reports about the city’s cultural assets dominated over the traditional coverage of its bleak social issues.

David Henshaw, former Liverpool City Council chief, remarked “We’ve got history and we should be proud of our history, but in the past we’ve been prisoners of our history”. These negative preconceptions of Liverpool originate from far back in its past. The city was subject to successive economic declines throughout the 1800’s and well into the 1900’s. Unemployment was well above the national average as early as the 1920s, and the city became known for its sometimes violent religious sectarianism. The Toxteth Riots in the 1980s saw Liverpool’s fortunes fall to their lowest point – unemployment rates in Liverpool were amongst the highest in the UK, an average of 12,000 people each year were leaving the city, and 15% of its land was vacant or derelict.

The award resulted in the attraction of tourists, an increase in investment and the creation of jobs, significantly boosting its profile. The increase in tourism triggered a multimillion-pound boost to its economy; generating an impressive £753.8 million. Additionally, The Liverpool ECoC programme had a total income of £130 million over six years, which is the highest of any European Capital of Culture so far.

The European Capital of Culture Research Programme, which analyses the social, economic and cultural impact the title brings, revealed that the award caused Liverpool’s visitor numbers to increase by 34% in that year. There was a 10% rise each year in arts audiences across Liverpool and higher levels of interest in museums and galleries, and the visitor numbers at the seven largest attractions peaked at 5.5 million. Of the visitors questioned, a remarkable 99% said they liked the general atmosphere and 97% felt welcome. From 2005 to 2008 overall positive impressions of Liverpool increased amongst the UK population, while negative views dropped from 20% to 14%. University of Liverpool social scientist, Dr Beatriz Garcia, commented on this improvement: “The city has undergone a remarkable image renaissance locally, nationally and internationally”.

“It’s a momentous day for Liverpool because it’s about looking forward” David Henshaw notes proudly. Five years after the award, we can safely say that Liverpool’s prosperity and status has only grown. For us students, Liverpool has become a very popular choice, attracting multitudes with its bright social scene and its renowned cultural attractions, along with its student-friendly living costs and incredibly welcoming atmosphere.


So there we have it. I think it’s safe to say that we wouldn’t want Liverpool to be any different to how it is now, and the alternative visions of Liverpool with a new road layout, an extinction of historic buildings and roads, and no cultural celebration (along with the funding that brings), will not appeal. We hope that the inhabitants of Liverpool will continue to make the same well-informed decisions on the city’s future.

Article by: Natalie Ferrari & Alannah Trew

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