The grand dream and 200-year legacy of Liverpool’s failed suburb

The name Harrington barely registers today - but it was once envisioned as a 'New Liverpool'

Dear Post readers — welcome to our weekend read. It’s by the historian Dr Thomas McGrath, who studies how people in the North West used to live, and has spent years digging through archives for new clues about old houses, neighbourhoods and the secrets of domestic life in Liverpool and other cities.

The name Harrington barely registers in Liverpool today, yet Toxteth is well-known. Had history played out differently Toxteth could have been synonymous with elegant Georgian townhouses and villas, an easy rival to the architectural splendour of Bath, Edinburgh or London.

Instead, the plans and fantasies of Cuthbert Bisbrown, an eighteenth-century cabinetmaker-turned-architect, for a “New Liverpool” in the heart of Toxteth failed. Not only did the project end in bankruptcy for Bisbrown, it also dragged the suburb of Toxteth down with it, spawning generations-worth of misery and economic decline. This is the story about a dream of a suburb — and how it went wrong.

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By Thomas McGrath

During the eighteenth century, Liverpool was a town in transition. The construction of the world’s first enclosed wet dock between 1710 and 1716 had propelled the city’s fortunes as the port became a centre of global shipping. Steady growth over the following decades served to strengthen existing trade links with Ireland and America, and new connections to the West Indies were forged, allowing for the exploitation of resources from sugar to enslaved peoples. By the end of the century, Liverpool’s importance had surmounted other port-towns in Britain such as Bristol and Glasgow.

Daniel Defoe had recognised this many decades earlier, during his travels around Britain in the 1720s. He was extremely complimentary about Liverpool, referring to it as “one of the wonders of Britain” and writing that “there is no Town in England, except London, that can equal Liverpoole for the Fineness of the Streets, and Beauty of the Buildings.” Defoe did not give praise lightly; neighbouring Manchester was described as “the greatest meer Village in England.”

Despite Defoe’s tributes, the Liverpool Corporation, the governing body of the town, controlled by a merchant oligarchy, wanted to improve the appearance of the town. To them, Liverpool did not necessarily look like an important town. The network of streets still followed the seven main streets which were laid out in the thirteenth century: Bank Street (now Water Street), Castle Street, Chapel Street, Dale Street, Juggler Street (now High Street), Moor Street (now Tithebarne Street), Whiteacre Street (now Old Hall Street).

The infrastructure of the town was almost entirely replaced through a series of improvement acts between 1771 and 1832, costing some £645,891 (well over £65 million today). To generations of Liverpool’s inhabitants, this period would have been a sensory overload. Narrow lanes became spacious boulevards. Castle Street alone was widened to three times its original size. Brilliant white stone and symmetrical brick buildings replaced wonky timber, wattle and daub structures. The streets echoed with the sounds of demolition and construction, mixed in with the various global accents of workmen and labourers, particularly the Welsh and the Irish. Such was the scale of the developments that in 1801 it was noted that the air in the town was “impregnated with the aromatic effluvia of tar and pitch.”

Moreover, as noted by the historian Jane Longmore, the developments gave the Corporation a chance to represent the changes in local power structures by sweeping away any tangible legacies of the feudal landowner. Symbolically the stones from the ruins of Liverpool Castle were used to build smart townhouses for merchants on Moor Street.

The growth of the suburbs

This decades-long process of improvement, along with the expansion of the docks pushed the wealthier residents towards the fringes of the town. In the late-eighteenth century these were roughly marked by Leeds Street to the North, Mount Pleasant to the East and Great George Street to the South. Some pushed the boundaries further, moving to the Wirral Peninsula or outlying villages such as Everton.

The suburbanisation of Liverpool is often misattributed to the early decades of the nineteenth century, for example with the development of Prince’s Park in the 1840s. However, Jane Longmore has shown that members of the Liverpool Corporation were already moving to the countryside around the edges of the town by 1800 and my thesis has demonstrated that even the middle classes were moving from urban to suburban environments by the early 1820s, thus firmly setting patterns of suburbanisation in Liverpool some decades earlier than previously thought.

By the start of the 1770s, only the countryside to the south of Liverpool remained relatively untouched. Toxteth, or Toxteth Park as it was known back then, was the last vestige of the power of local gentry in the town. When we cross the Upper Parliament Street today, we cross the boundary into Toxteth without even realising it. Several centuries ago, this would have been impossible as Toxteth Park was once a royal forest.

The Park has a long and illustrious history. In the Doomsday Book it was recorded as Stochestede (the wooded place). In the eleventh century it was given by Roger de Poitou, the first Lord of Lancashire to William de Molines, the first Lord of Sefton and founder of the Molyneux line. The lands were later purchased by King John, given back to the family under King Henry VI, briefly acquired by the Stanleys before passing back into the hands of the Molyneuxs.

The Park was deforested in 1604 but over a century and half later it was still completely shut off from the rest of Liverpool. Until this point, Lord Molyneux, now upgraded to the Earl of Sefton, had been successful in keeping his lands from being developed. Yet at the same time he wanted to cash-in on the economic growth of the town. In 1770, the park wall, the last physical barrier between the gentry and the public, was removed and this signified that change was coming.

The speculator: Cuthbert Bisbrown

In 1771, Cuthbert Bisbrown, a local cabinetmaker who also dabbled in speculative development and architecture, approached the Earl of Sefton with a plan to develop a 52-acre site which bordered the edge of Liverpool. Bisbrown persuaded the Earl that developing his lands as an upmarket residential suburb would increase his reserve rent sevenfold and that he would eventually benefit from ground rents and from rent renewals. The Earl was taken and sold the lease to Bisbrown for £1,575.

In 1775 the Earl obtained an Act of Parliament to grant building leases, and these were divided into 28 lots, the majority going to Bisbrown, who had also purchased 14 acres of land for himself. The rest were purchased by three merchants, an ironmonger, a silversmith and a sailmaker who were also looking to capitalise on Bisbrown’s vision.

Bisbrown wanted to create a “New Liverpool” and it was even suggested that this could be the intended name for the development. This was eventually eschewed in favour of the name Harrington, which was a deferential nod to the local gentry, as Lady Isabella Molyneux, wife of the first Earl of Sefton, was the daughter of Lord Stanhope, the Earl of Harrington.

Isabella Stanhope, later Countess of Sefton (1748-1819) painted by Catherine Read. The development of Harrington was named after Isabella's father who was the Earl of Harrington.

Harrington covered the land now bounded by Mill Street, Parliament Street and Northumberland Street. Bisbrown deliberately planned large, wide streets which would be “spacious and airy and the lots deep enough for gardens and other conveniences would induce gentlemen not obliged by business to reside in the centre and bustle of the town of Liverpool to resort thither [to Harrington]”.

A poem was also commissioned from J. Shewell to advertise Harrington. It first appeared in print in August 1775:

From small beginnings if great cities rise,
And raise their loft turrets to the skies,
Sure Harrington beneath th’ auspicious care
Of Sefton, shall her spacious fabric rear;
And as she rises in the lists of fame,
Th’ illustrious found to the world proclaim.
Let Liverpool, still like a faithful friend,
Her infant sister from each wrong defend.
Here be the sacred olive’s bough displayed,
To both the kindred towns a peaceful shade;
So shall their riches from their union grow,
As stream with rivers joined, more copious flow.

Unfortunately, Harrington did not “rise in the lists of fame” and within six months of the publication of the poem, Bisbrown was forced to declare himself bankrupt. His vision was over, the investors had pulled out and Harrington had failed.

Whilst Bisbrown delivered on his promise and laid out a gridwork of spacious streets such as Stanhope Street, Grafton Street and Hill Street, he lacked the foresight to strictly impose the conditions of the building leases. There were leases for three different styles of houses: for the main streets there were front houses, which faced the street and as larger properties could command a higher rent; for the streets and alleyways behind there were leases for back houses, often subdivided amongst different households, and back-to-back court housing. This was not an unusual layout of housing, even in developments controlled by the Liverpool Corporation.

A section of a map from 1806 showing the failed Harrington development. Note how many of the streets had been laid out but very little development had taken place. Photo: A Plan of Liverpool and Environs, 1806 by Gregory.

According to historian Christopher Chalklin, the building clauses in Harrington did not specify certain time limits regarding the erection of the different standards of houses, and this was the downfall of the development. Greedy speculative builders realised that they could throw up the poor-quality houses without having to build the front houses at all. The areas quickly stagnated, and the wealthier classes were put off by the clusters of slum houses in an otherwise bleak landscape of overgrown wasteland.

By the early-nineteenth century Toxteth was described as a series of “mean, narrow streets, filled with close, gloomy courts, into which as many dwellings as possible were packed, irrespective of light and air.” Harrington was a long-forgotten pipe dream, and the only tangible legacy of the development today is the name bestowed to Upper Harrington Street and in St James’s Church, which was designed by Bisbrown in 1774-5 and where the architect was eventually laid to rest in 1788.

Whilst north Toxteth descended into an inner-city Victorian slum over the nineteenth century, the distance between it, the docks and south Toxteth allowed the latter to rise into a number respectable, middle-class suburbs that Bisbrown dreamed of. This is especially true of the areas around Prince’s Park and Sefton Park, which still remain affluent today.

The failed legacy of Harrington tarnished Toxteth for over 200 years. Many of the back-to-backs were cleared later in the nineteenth century but these were replaced with low-cost terraced houses for the working-classes. Whilst these were only intended to last a few years, most were still just about standing after the Second World War. Years of neglect from landlords and lingering damage from air raids meant the post-war inhabitants were living in conditions little different from their Victorian forebearers.

It is therefore of little surprise that Toxteth became home to many Commonwealth migrants during the 1950s and 1960s, as racial barriers in housing and employment, as well as the unofficial segregation of communities, prevented many from finding better quality housing. These social tensions, coupled with police discrimination and rising unemployment, came to a head during the Toxteth Riots of July 1981.

The links between the events of 1981 and the failed dreams of a Georgian cabinetmaker may seem tenuous, but there is clearly a thread which connects these throughout the history of the area. Indeed, the situation was not too dissimilar in other districts which saw tensions that year. Moss Side in Manchester had shifted from a middle-class semi-rural district in the early-nineteenth century, to a working-class suburb by the end of the century and an inner-city council estate by the 1980s. The story of changing residential classes and qualities of housing was almost identical at Chapeltown in Leeds.

Fortunately, one of the positive outcomes of the events of 1981 was the regeneration of these areas which swept away years of neglect. Today, Toxteth it is arguably one of Liverpool’s most famous inner-city locations, despite being the first failed eighteenth-century suburb. Once again, the area is under redevelopment and the Baltic Square construction project is situated at the heart of Bisbrown’s Harrington.

Only time will tell what this means for the area, and whether or not, in a reversal of history, the long-standing working-class community will be displaced by the new urban elite.

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