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Before The Windrush: How did Liverpool become such a poorly-integrated city?

Updated Friday 10th April 2015

A century ago, Liverpool revelled in its cosmopolitan character. Nowadays, though, the city is far less ethnically mixed. What happened?

Laurie Taylor:
The now-defunct Martin's Bank in Liverpool featured a fresco depicting slavery Creative commons image Icon Rodhullandemu under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license The former Martins Bank building in Liverpool still has its controversial fresco, depicting two African children in chains. I'm joined in the studio byJohn Belchem, who's the author of Before the Windrush: Race Relations in 20th Century Liverpool. And John, who is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Liverpool begins his book with what to me was the surprising news that Liverpool has now become one of the least ethnically varied cities in the country.

John, expand on this a little bit. I was very, very surprised to read this.

John Belchem:
Well yes I was surprised too, in the sense that I had the honour of doing the history for the 800th anniversary in 2007, so I obviously looked back at the history, which had been written in 1907 for the 700th thing, which really celebrates Liverpool as the great cosmopolitan city, the great second city of Empire. And I thought well why has it changed because I looked at the 2001 census which clearly shows that the proportion of people from the New Commonwealth and so on was much, much lower in Liverpool than in other cities. And I suppose my first thought was well migrants, immigrants are extremely rational people would they come to Liverpool because the 100 years between 1907 and 2007 of course had seen that great second city of Empire descend into the shock city of post-colonial post-industrial Britain and so perhaps just simple economic factors there.

But then I'm not a sociologist but historians have sort of gone away from straightforward socioeconomic explanations, gone a little bit cultural and so I thought well there must be some cultural factors in there. And that led me to have a look at race relations and seeing that although Liverpool was very much a pioneer in this because it had coloured colonials before anybody else did, decades before the arrival of Empire Windrush, it's whole approach to race relations was so ambivalent and ambiguous that it left an unfortunate legacy and I think that is as important as the economic downturn.

Laurie Taylor:
I want to just pick up to underline that a little tiny bit because as you say this is – when you're looking at the story of black British people here there's a tendency for it to almost start post-Windrush isn't there, I mean whereas here you go back much further and say that really perhaps in a way that your book is a lesson to other people looking at black British identity that don't just start post-Windrush, there's a story to go before.

John Belchem:
Yes. Well indeed I mean the difficulty you have though when you're writing about Liverpool history is you have to go a long way back and you can't ignore obviously the slave trade which does leave an appalling legacy of that infamous heinous trade, which we should never forget that. But I've been trying to argue that really what we – if we really want to understand the roots of racism in Liverpool we need to look from the turn of the 19th into the 20thCentury, that's when things really begin to go awry in Liverpool.

Laurie Taylor:
And when you're talking about black citizens in Liverpool you're mostly talking about West African seaman are you?

John Belchem:
Well – yes but I mean let's not forget I mean the Empire is very much like the European Union now in the sense that the free movement of labour was absolutely integral to it. And I mean this was irrespective of colour, creed or whatever and it was held to be absolutely fundamental, so that people did have a right, as British subjects, from wherever they were, whether it was West Africa, West Indies and so on, to come to England.

And they come to the great sea port, which is Liverpool, only to discover that thinking that they were in this great British Empire, sort of internal migration in the British world, they get to Liverpool and soon discover there ain't no black in the Union Jack.

Laurie Taylor:
Well let's go back to the 1930s because I was talking about the sort of romantic ideas of cosmopolitanism, I mean other people saw this – I mean here – this is a reading from 1934, it's from JB Priestly and he's describing how a primary school in Liverpool appealed – appeared to him:

A miniature League of Nations assembly gone mad … All the races of mankind were there, wonderfully mixed … Looking at them, you did not think of the riff-raff of the stokeholds and the slatterns of the slums who had served as their parents: they seemed like the charming exotic fruits, which indeed they were, of some profound anthropological experiment.

John, I mean there did seem to be an effort to get rid of the ugly associations of slavery with Liverpool welcoming Commonwealth citizens prior to Windrush in 1948, tell me a bit about their experience when they arrived.

John Belchem:
Well I mean as you can gather even from that thing from JB Priestly I mean there are still words like riff raff, slattern of the slums and so on, so I mean I don't really regard this as a romantic celebration of cosmopolitanism. I mean if you – if you go through and deconstruct some of that language you can see the attitudes that you're getting. And of course the real thing I think which is so important about studying Liverpool is that you were talking, or JB Priestly is talking about primary school children look lovely, when they become adolescents and when they find that there are not going to be opportunities in secondary education, when they're finding they get even worse discrimination and disadvantage in the labour market you are building up troubles. And those troubles really I think were an object lesson, a sort of a siren call, to make us realise what was going to happen…

Laurie Taylor:
I mean the spatial segregation in Liverpool was really complete wasn't it? I mean I spent all those – many years there and really we never went to an area where we might, as it were, come across or routinely come across black British people.

John Belchem:
No I mean I think that Liverpool is sort of an exception within the UK, I mean it's a very different type of city but it's typical of a great sea port and those sea ports have these sailor town areas where you will find the transient [indistinct word] and so on, finding ways and means of surviving which caused some rather caustic comments from outside…

Laurie Taylor:
I mean I was very aware of the sort of Catholic/Protestant axis, even aware of firms that wouldn't employ Catholics and vice versa. I mean you say that this in a way almost – this sectarian history did much to exclude newcomers as well.

John Belchem:
Well I think in a way that it did. I mean what's so interesting there is that those who most historians have concentrated on as being sort of the outside most disadvantaged group – Irish Catholic migrants – actually are able to enter the white mainstream, not only enter the white mainstream but because they've been so discriminated against and so on they come to be the classic Liverpudlian, just as Liverpool itself as it slips down the urban hierarchy gets very concerned about misrepresentation and misperception and so on, so the Liverpool Irish slummy suddenly becomes the prototypical scouser. But there's no room in that for the Liverpool born black, the Liverpool born black remains outside and marginalised.

Laurie Taylor:
I want to bring in now my other guest, who's with me today, Nisha Katona. Asian parents... I mean you arrived in Liverpool I think Nisha in '68, you're a practising barrister in the city now, a government appointed Ambassador for Diversity in Public Appointments. I just want to ask you a little bit – I mean you were born in '71, time in racial discrimination was very acute, we'll touch on this in a minute, [indistinct words], you grew up in Skelmsdale, which housed the overspill, tell me about your – your experience, I mean you're pretty middle class – middle class Asian.

Nisha Katona:
Yes, pretty middle – and of course my parents came over in 1968 as doctors and so they were beckoned over and pretty short of bunting, it was a welcoming experience initially. We then moved to Skelmsdale which of course was the overspill town for Liverpool, it was a very deprived area and it was in terms of racism fairly horrific. We were regularly – my memories of childhood were being firebombed in the garden, bricks through windows, racist graffiti, it was absolutely a day to day occurrence. And then of course you joined school and it would just be horrifically racist day to day. And it's a very – what was striking about the book was how different I think the Asian experience is to the black experience. Of course I then joined the Bar, so that was about 1995, I remember going for my first mini-pupillage, which is where you go into sets of chambers and you shadow. And a head of chambers sent a note down, I remember, the first mini-pupillage I did, saying that you are female and Asian and therefore you have no place at the Bar, perhaps you don't want to return for a mini pupillage. He went on to become a judge. So it was very – it was very, very – the tales are horrific.

Laurie Taylor:
And I should point out that I mean you're from – I hate the expression – mixed race, but that was mixed race and so yes?

Nisha Katona:
No my parents were actually full Indian….

Laurie Taylor:
But your husband?

Nisha Katona:
My husband is Hungarian and his experience is fascinating. So he's white, obviously, Eastern European.

Laurie Taylor:
And so, John you point out the attitudes which are taken towards mixed race people in Liverpool; you had a very large population you say of these single men presumably didn't you in Liverpool, I mean the seaman – the black seaman who were there – and presumably so therefore you're going to have a large number of mixed race children appearing.

John Belchem:
Indeed and I think that's really when we get to the heart of the problem I think is a sort of sexual jealousy in the sense that these people who – the West African and the West Indian seaman who arrive and so on – are single, they're not bringing huge great families with them to become benefit scroungers or whatever, they're after work, they like there – they make arrangements and they develop liaisons with white women who suffer terribly. I mean these people are really ostracised, despised, maligned and so on but they genuinely fall in love with these people and we get the so-called mixed race children coming out of that who in an age of eugenics and so on are really seen as undermining the purity of good old Anglo Saxon stock. But I mean I mean I find this staggering – I mean isn't that a tremendous indication of how well people are getting on together and that you have inter-marriage but inter-marriage is held to be miscegenation and you get – or the term which is used at the time which is really offensive is half caste.

Laurie Taylor:
Nisha has talked about Asian but you also talk about the experience of being Chinese in Liverpool don't you? I wonder the extent to which the attitude in Liverpool towards the Chinese was somewhat similar to that that Nisha experience like being Asian, I mean it was discrimination but not of perhaps the kind that was experienced by…

John Belchem:
But I mean the difficulty that you have there is the sense that it's easier to label the Chinese as alien because they fall, for the most part, they fall outside of British jurisdiction and so that when you're getting a hardening of attitudes towards migration and immigration and so on the Chinese are the first to suffer. And yes I mean they are really presented in quite terrible ways by some of the trade union leaders, councillors, at the time of the beginning of the 20th Century. But then when they investigate it and the police get involved they find that alright they gamble but apart from that they don't hit their wives and they don't fight on the streets, they're really model citizens.

Laurie Taylor:
We have to say, don't we, that I mean the idea of Liverpool being this sort of cosmopolitan city was pretty well fundamentally undermined by the Toxteth riots in 1981 wasn't it and I mean Lord Gifford I think who brought out a book on the city's racial problems said it was uniquely horrific because you've got the militant tendency there now who you might have thought from a left wing point of view were going to be interested in race relations but not so.

John Belchem:
Well I mean actually without trying to be sort of dialectical on all of this the Toxteth riots are an example of cosmopolitanism because these are not like the riots of 1919, 1948, 1972, this is not black against white, black and white out on the streets together. But the key point is it was police harassment of black teenagers which was the trigger. And thereafter we get this great problem of some people trying to jump on the bandwagon and say oh well it was a riot of the dispossessed, the unemployed, it's part of the great working class struggle whereas those in the black community are saying well look the essential issue is not urban regeneration and fighting multiple deprivation, we've got to do something about that terrible police harassment which is indicative of that institutionalised racism which has built up over the decades in Liverpool.

Laurie Taylor:
Nisha, when you look around Liverpool today how much has it changed?

Nisha Katona:
Well there is still very little integration. What – speaking to the black community, obviously I'm a trustee of the museums including the International Slavery Museum, and there's a great lot of dialogue, a deal of dialogue, with the black community there and what they feel very strongly is they're very under-represented in retail, for instance, I think the stat is about 10% of Liverpool is BME, which is black minority ethnic, there I think is represented point one per cent in the high street shops in terms of shop assistants. So it's as basic and as visceral as that – when you go into town and you do not see other blacks. There is something that retains this sense of alienation and it is fascinating. There is still and there always has been this conception that you only see black minorities within the Liverpool 8 area and there is still a real lack of integration, we still don't see many blacks in the city centre and blacks would say that themselves.

Laurie Taylor:
Good, well let's wait and see if we have some responses from Liverpool to what we've been saying.

This discussion was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Thinking Allowed on June 18th, 2014. You can listen to the full episode online.

 

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