Wednesday, 23 October 2013


A view from the Liverpool Royal Hospital looking towards part of Toxteth around the Anglican cathedral and towards the Mersey with Cheshire and North Wales in the distance. John Francis.


 Say the name Toxteth and immediately some will remember the riots of 1981. Like other districts of Liverpool the area had become run down and there was a lot of unemployment at the time. Yet Toxteth Park had not always been so. At the beginning of the 13th century, the area had been bought by King John to be used as a hunting park. Naturally over the years it changed. Pockets of land were sold and farmed and eventually some attractive houses were built on some of the land and a village came into being. There was an ironworks and a pottery in the area at one time. All was to alter completely during the Victorian era as Liverpool prospered and there was a desperate need for housing as people flooded into the city. A large number came from Ireland in the 1840s due to the potato famine but plenty of others came from different parts of Britain in search of work. The gap between the wealthy and poor was enormous and there was just not enough work for all those who arrived in the port. Living conditions especially down near the waterfront were horrific and mortality rates were high. Ragged, hungry children lived on the streets and crime, drunkenness and violence was endemic.   
     It came as something of a shock to me to discover that the Harrison family lived in Upper and just plain Mann Street, Toxteth. In LIVERPOOL, OUR CITY, OUR HERITAGE by Freddy O’Connor, it says that Mann Street was one of the most persistently unhealthy parts of a large squalid area since 1865 in which a year did not go by without deaths being recorded of the fever (noted in 1882) 
     I don’t actually know exactly when they came to live there but my great-grandmother, Mary, was born in Toxteth in 1846, although her father, James Harrison, first saw light of day 25 years earlier in Storeton, Wirral, Cheshire. According to the 1851 census, his wife Maria, on the other hand, was born in Cumberland Green. I presumed that was up north because their eldest daughter, Margaret, had been born in Milnthorpe, nr Kendal, in1842.
     I sent for James and Maria’s marriage certificate which citied that they had married in the parish church of Whalley, nr Clitheroe. The problem with that was James’ occupation was Calico printer. A very different job to that of carter as citied in the Liverpool censuses.
     I puzzled over this and eventually discovered that it’s always worth reading documents thoroughly. Living with the Harrisons in Mann Street in 1871 were a George Truman and his son. Apparently George was James Harrison’s widowed uncle, born in Chester. I found George and his wife, Mary, and children in the 1851 Liverpool census. She had been born in Storeton, Cheshire, the same place as James, her nephew and she and George had married in Toxteth in 1837: Her father’s name was James Harrison, too, and he was a farmer.

Grange Farm in Storeton, 2013
  Photograph:John Francis.
 Whether it is the same farm where my great-great grandfather James Harrison
was born I can't swear to. June 


       James Harrison was an extremely common name in Victorian times but I managed to find my James Harrison of Mann Street, in the BMDs but this time his Maria was a Myers and they had wed in St John the Baptist church, Toxteth Park, in 1845. James’ father was also a James Harrison and a farmer. Maria lived with her butcher father, Thomas, in Berry Street, Liverpool. 
      So what was I to make of daughter Margaret being born in 1842 up in Milnthorpe, Westmorland, and the other Harrisons in Whalley and thereabout? I did discover that several Harrisons in that area of Lancashire had been born in Cheshire and so I reckon they were related in some way to my lot.

I emailed a local historian in Milnthorpe and eventually we both came to the conclusion that my great-grandfather could have had the wanderlust and left his father’s farm to go travelling and found work at the twice yearly hiring fairs, possibly in Kendal and Penrith. As for Maria, she certainly wasn’t born in Liverpool but possibly in Yorkshire to where I traced a Thomas Myers. As for Margaret having been born before the wedding, she wouldn’t be the first baby born the other side of the blanket.  It is even possible that she was not James' daughter.

I visited Whalley ancient parish church and its ruined abbey, as well as Clitheroe library and the town of Milnthorpe. I set part of my fifties novel, IT HAD TO BE YOU in the Whalley area, linking it to Liverpool. Whalley also gets a mention in my next two Fifties novels: MEMORIES ARE MADE OF THIS and IT’S NOW OR NEVER as does Storeton on the Wirral peninsula. I found visiting these places quite emotional and wondered what my Victorian ancestors actually made of Toxteth and noisy, smelly, dirty ol’ Liverpool after leaving the beauty of the countryside. How did they managed to survive such a change of lifestyle?  
There are several sites on the internet about Toxteth. Here is one -  but there are others with old photographs. 

The most famous novel about Victorian Liverpool was written in Victorian times by a Cornish Methodist minister, Silas K Hocking, born in 1850 to a tin mining family. Its title is Her Benny. I first read it when in my twenties and found it a real-tearjerker. It sold over a million copies in its day but never made its author rich. On its cover are two barefooted children. Need I say more? Its author lived to be 85 and died in 1935.

More recently I read an old book about Father Nugent of Liverpool. He was born in 1822 in Hunter Street, one of nine children. His life story gives fascinating glimpses into 19th century and early 20th century Liverpool and the work of the Catholic church. As a priest he cared deeply for the children on the streets and did what he could to help them in Liverpool but the numbers were overwhelming. He could be said to be responsible for the movement of the orphaned and homeless to very different lives in Canada and the United States of America. Much has been said today against the transfer of children to the colonies years ago and that is understandable but I question just how we'd have dealt with child poverty if we've had lived in those times when so many mothers died in childbirth or of the dreaded fever and fathers in terrible accidents at work. No health and safety laws, no benefits. The numbers of people classed as paupers filled the workhouses. No wonder those on WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE weep when they learn of their ancestors being among their number. 
On a more cheerful note here are a couple of photographs taken on Merseyside in more recent times.  

This was taken at Crosby beach in 2011when the tall ships came to Liverpool. In the foreground can be seen one of the iron men of Antony Gormley's ANOTHER PLACE and in the distance is what is considered a modern atrocity by some - a wind farm. John Francis: photographer.

 A very modern gallery in Liverpool One in which the nearby buildings can clearly been seen through the glass plated windows. Photographer: Tim Francis.


  1. Fascinating. It's amazing what can be found when you start researching the past.

    1. So true! I'm so enjoying doing this but had to take a break to do check out the copy editing for my latest saga IT'S NOW OR NEVER. All done so can get back to blogging today.

  2. June,

    As a keen photographer I love the photograph of the two cathedrals taken from the hospital. Do you know exactly where the pic was taken from as I would love to add it to my growing collection of modern day Liverpool photographs?


    John Sewell