Redux: The Welsh of Liverpool

Redux: The Welsh of Liverpool

2022 marks ten years since the launch of Wales Arts Review, and as part of our celebrations, throughout this year we’ll be revisiting some of the best and most loved features, interviews, and reviews from our archive of nearly five thousand published pieces. Today, we revisit a piece by Jim Morphy, reflecting on the connections between Wales and Liverpool.

‘Liverpool has always been called the capital of North Wales. For a lot of people there, Cardiff is a foreign city, it was Liverpool that was their city’ – Liverpool-born, Ceredigion-resident Niall Griffiths

The fate of the Welsh Streets of Liverpool hangs in the balance. In September, the UK Government ordered a public inquiry into the council’s planned re-development in the Toxteth area. The proposals would see nearly 300 houses demolished, with 150 new ones built and around 40 others renovated. The council say such wholesale change is needed, with many of the existing houses boarded up and others damp and dilapidated. Campaigners argue against demolition and for greater refurbishment. Whatever is needed, one suspects it isn’t the mistitled Secretary of State for Communities Eric Pickles now getting himself involved.

The Welsh Streets get their collective nickname – as well as their individual forenames, such as Powis, Madryn, Gwydir, Rhiwlas and Pengwern – as a result of being built by Welsh workers towards the end of the nineteenth century. In fact, right across Liverpool you’ll find streets such as Denbigh Road, Snowdon Lane and Barmouth Way that are a legacy of the Welsh builders who put up much of the city. But the Welsh relationship with Liverpool goes far beyond bricks and mortar.

There’s long been a to and a fro between the areas. As far back as the early 1500s, a Welsh mayor, Dafydd ap Gruffydd, ruled over Liverpool. In the late eighteenth century, many North Walians travelled to the expanding Liverpool in search of employment. They would often end up as sailors, dockers or canal-diggers. By 1813, around eight thousand (or ten percent) of Liverpool’s residents were Welsh.

The main reason for Liverpool’s growth and its influx of migrants – not just from Wales, but from all quarters – over the centuries is simple: the port. As Paul Du Noyer says in Liverpool: Wondrous Place: ‘Liverpool only exists because it is a seaport. Its virtues and vices, its accent and attitude, its insularity and its open-mindedness, are all derived from that primary fact.’ The port can be traced back to the thirteenth century, being used for journeys to and from Ireland. But the dark practices of ‘Empire’ would bring about the port’s major growth. By 1800, around three-quarters of all European slaving ships left from the city. Overall, Liverpool ships took about half of the three million African people carried across the Atlantic by British slavers. The port’s heavy involvement in the slave-dependent cotton industry became even more integral to its prosperity following Britain’s abolition of slavery in 1807. Timber, tobacco, sugar and grain were other commodities being carried off the boats. It is thought that in the early 19th century, 40% of the world’s trade passed through Liverpool’s docks.

Liverpool, melting pot. Liverpool, gateway to the Atlantic. A city looking out as much as it was looking in. The route to and from The New World. Of course, it was this port from which the Mimosa carrying around one hundred and fifty Welsh people set sail for Patagonia in 1865. Huge numbers of Irish people, escaping famine, passed through Liverpool en route to new lives in America. As the port expanded, so did the city and its immigrant numbers. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Irish, Welsh and Scots accounted for around a third of Liverpool’s population. The Irish-born made up about 90,000 of that. Estimates vary on the size of the city’s growing Welsh population, not least due to differing geographical definitions of Liverpool. Official census figures put the Wales-born population in the city to be near twenty two thousand in 1851 and 1871. The actual figure is likely to be higher. Some estimates put the Welsh population at around fifty thousand in the 1870s, and others say it peaked at over seventy thousand as more poured in through the decades. And some suggest that one hundred and twenty thousand people moved  from Wales to Liverpool and the surrounding area in the sixty years following 1851. Although, of course, many would have returned to Wales after time.

The Welsh migrants created communities in areas such as Vauxhall, Anfield, Everton, Dingle and Wavertree that were, in effect, pockets of Wales. In these parts, Welsh was the dominant language. In fact, there were more Welsh speakers in Liverpool that in any Welsh city. Religion was another key factor in both binding the community together and setting it apart from other groups. At one point, there were over seventy Welsh Methodist chapels in Liverpool.

The founder of Plaid Cymru, Saunders Lewis, lived in one such Welsh community on Merseyside. He was born, in 1893, just over the Mersey from Liverpool in Wallasey, Wirral, and educated at Liverpool University. He said: ‘The idea that because I was born in Liverpool I was born an exile from Wales is completely false… I’m pretty sure that there were about a hundred thousand Welsh-speaking people in Liverpool during the period of my boyhood. And I should say that at least half of those were monoglot Welsh speakers who could hardly manage a word of English… I wasn’t born in English England but in a totally Welsh society.’

In his book Our Liverpool, J.P. Dudgeon speaks to a Toxteth resident who grew up in the area in the early twentieth century. She  says: ‘the whole street was Welsh, because the chappie who built the houses was Welsh and he only let the houses out to Welsh people. It was really strange. In the mornings everyone in the street was talking in Welsh, and I didn’t know there was another language until I went to school really, because I went to a Welsh chapel and everything was in Welsh there, too.’

The Welsh influence on Merseyside was so strong that the National Eisteddfod was held in Liverpool in 1884, 1900 and 1929 and in Birkenhead in 1917. For the 1900 event, the choirs of the Welsh chapels on Merseyside joined together as one. So was created the Liverpool Welsh Choral Union, which survives to this day, with Karl Jenkins as its patron. Liverpool even had its own Welsh language newspapers.

Liverpool’s Welsh influence waned in the twentieth century’s second third. No doubt, this was largely as a result of the city’s declining industrial power and a general downward trend in the city’s number of residents. People were moving out, not in. Liverpool’s population peaked in the 1930s, with nearly eight hundred and fifty thousand people in the city. Numbers have fallen every decade since, with the city’s population now around four hundred and sixy-five thousand.

Many Welsh people moved back to the relative safety of rural Wales during wartime. Famously, Welsh-Scouse relations were strained by the flooding of the Meirionnydd village of Capel Celyn in 1965 in order to create the Tryweryn reservoir to supply water to Liverpool.

Liverpool City Council’s attempts to take the National Eisteddfod back to the city for its 800th birthday party in 2007 and its Capital of Culture celebrations in 2008 were rebuffed. Those opposed to the idea included the former Archdruid of Wales Dr Robyn Lewis, whose take on the bid was rather extreme: ‘I think it’s a stupid idea… what has Liverpool ever done for us? The last thing it did for us was to drown Tryweryn… It’s certainly not a city where the Eisteddfod would want to leave its Welsh-speaking stamp.’ Even the President of The Welsh Society in Liverpool, Roderick Owen, criticised the idea, if in distinctly more prosaic fashion: ‘health and safety demands and traffic would create a nightmare situation beyond all imagination.’ A golden opportunity to spread the word of Wales on Merseyside and much further afield would seem to have been missed.

Even if far from what it was, the Liverpool-Wales relationship is still there. Indeed, a strong Welsh contingent on Merseyside remains. The 2001 Census put the Welsh-born population of Liverpool at a small-sounding 1.17%. But this is a big city. And to include those with Welsh heritage would increase the figure considerably. In Niall Griffiths’s wonderful Real Liverpool, he talks to Reverend D. Ben Rees, author of a number of books on the Welsh influence on Merseyside, who says that the strongest Cymric communities are in Allerton, Mossley Hill, Waterloo, Bootle, Crosby and Litherland, ‘all healthy’.

But the modern-day Welsh influence on Liverpool does not solely rely on current residents. Nor does it depend on the continued existence of the Welsh Streets. For evidence, you need only look to the A55. The road has forever been full of hauliers, holidaymakers, daytrippers, shoppers, and football supporters travelling between North Wales and Merseyside. Coastal towns such as Prestatyn, Colwyn Bay and Llandudno, and the Denbighshire country park of Loggerheads, have long been destinations for hoards of holidaying families. Think of Eileen, Micky and Jingles in their summer jobs at a Pwllheli hotel in Terence Davies’s beautiful film of 1940/50s working class life in Liverpool, Distant Voices, Still Lives. And, to be more modern, think of Niall Griffiths’s novels Kelly + Victor, Wreckage and Stump, which all involve the mixing of Welsh and Liverpudlian cultures. You might even think of Anne Robinson, whose reasons for putting ‘the Welsh’ into Room 101 included her childhood memories of weekly trips to North Wales, as well as hearing so much of the Welsh language in her home city when growing up.

To come to money, North Wales’s trade route runs across the country from Holyhead to England, rather than through it to the South. Industry does not stop at borders. Nor does healthcare or any number of other public services. Nor do regional accents. And TV aerials around Deeside and Wrexham have long pointed away from Wales in search of local news.

Even today, take a ramble around any part of Liverpool and you’ll find imprints of the city’s Welsh stories. For one, have a drink in the student boozer the ‘Augustus John’ (the AJ), named after the Welsh painter who taught at Liverpool University. Or visit the site of Liverpool’s famous former department store, the ‘customer-friendly, working class’ Owen Owen, Clayton Square. The store was a weekly pilgrimage for many Welsh people in the city and from further afield. Owen, from a Montgomeryshire farming family, had opened a draper’s shop on Liverpool’s London Road in 1868, from which his enterprise grew in the city and across the country. Or visit the Bethel, Presbyterian Church of Wales, at Heathfield Road  – the new centre having replaced the recently-demolished, larger Welsh Chapel there. Or visit Pall Mall, where a plaque commemorates that that part of the city was once known as Little Wales. Or, of course, follow any number of Welsh football fans and head to Anfield for tales of Toshack, Rush and Owen. Or sit in the Gwladys Street End of Goodison Park and talk of Southall, Ratcliffe and Speed.

The Welsh influence, and the wider Celtic influence, on Liverpool also survives in a more intangible way: the essential spirit of this great city. Liverpool, the mongrel city. Liverpool, the outsider. Liverpool, the sparky city of disobedience. Liverpool is not London in the way that Newport is not Cardiff. As David Peace has Bill Shankly say in the magnificent Red or Dead: ‘Anfield is not in England. Anfield is in Liverpool. And Liverpool is not in England. Liverpool is in a different country, John. In a different country’.  Or, As Paul Morley says about this wonderful city of contradictions in his The North (And Almost Everything In It):

Liverpool is not part of England in the way that New York is not part of America. It is more Welsh, more Irish, more Scottish, more exotically international and defiantly local, a shifty, shifting outpost of defiance, determination and scouring kindness reluctantly connected to the English mainland, more an island set in a sea of dreams and nightmares that’s forever taking shape in the imagination.

We’ll have to see what happens to the Welsh Streets of the Toxteth and Dingle area. While all acknowledge that change of some sort is needed, let’s hope all sense of heritage and community isn’t lost to plastic flats in the search for filthy lucre in the way of so many urban developments.

But, no matter what, Liverpool’s Welsh influence will always run through the city. For the Welsh influence – and the Irish influence, and the entire world’s influence – runs through the blood and the spirit of the city and its people. The wrecking ball will never get at that.