The Proper Gander TV column from the February 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard
‘When we live in a house, we’re just passing through. People have occupied it before us and others will take our place when we leave’.
The interesting documentary series A House Through Time (BBC2) tracks the history of a single town house in Liverpool from when it was built in the 1840s onwards. Presenter David Olusoga pieces together the lives of 62 Falkner Street’s past residents from clues in legal documents, newspapers, the census and Gore’s business directory. A property in Liverpool was chosen because, as Olusoga explains, ‘more than any other British city, Liverpool’s ride on the rollercoaster of national fortune has been a bumpy one. No other city has been more buffeted by the cycles of boom and bust and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the place that once proudly saw itself as the ‘second city of empire’ suffered more than any other when that empire suddenly evaporated’(Guardian, 31 December). In the middle of the 19th Century, Liverpool’s economy and population were expanding due to the increases in trade centred around its docks. Ironically, although much of the city’s wealth came through the port, those living in the area were among the city’s poorest. The houses on Falkner Street were built for the developing merchant sector who wanted to live away from the dock’s cramped squalor. So, when it was built, 62 Falkner Street would have been something similar to the well-kept, expensive town house it remains today.
The address’ first resident – Richard Glenton – was a ‘louche bachelor’ who worked in the Customs department at the docks and supplemented his income by taking in lodgers. A few years later, James and Ann Orr moved in after achieving the rare feat of leaving domestic servitude. James became a manager at a Gentleman’s Club (the sort where businessmen went to read newspapers) and died leaving £16,000 (£1.5million in today’s money) to his widow. Olusoga says that the house’s early residents were ‘strivers’, who benefited financially from the increases in trade as capitalism expanded. Like Glenton, many of the house’s residents worked in businesses which centred around the docks, such as cotton trader Wilfred Steele and his wife Eliza who moved there in 1853. By then, a quarter of a million tons of cotton passed through Liverpool each year, most of it coming from slave labour plantations in the American south before being transported on to the textile mills of Manchester and Lancashire. As Olusoga notes, the cotton trade was ‘steeped in blood and exploitation and evil’ because of its reliance on slave labour. The trade boomed until an economic crisis in America which had a knock-on effect in Britain. Steele went bust and was sent to a debtor’s prison, later leaving his family to travel to America, where he returned to the cotton trade and also fought in the Civil War. Olusoga is surprised that he fought on the Union side, whereas his links to the slave trade would have perhaps made him more likely to fight for the Southern states. Other residents’ livelihoods were also shaped by wider events. Edward Lubin sold space for cargo on ships until his trade was hit by the Long Depression of the 1870s; by 1875 he was declared bankrupt. And one of the lodgers during the 1890s – Nathan Hart – sold tickets for the cramped bunks in which emigrants would spend weeks during their voyage to America, until a cholera outbreak limited travel and he changed jobs to become a ‘financial agent and picture dealer’.
The lives uncovered by Olusoga’s research would otherwise have remained forgotten in dusty old archive rooms. He says ‘the version of history I was taught at school was largely one of great men and great deeds, a history that took place in palaces and battlefields. It was silent about our shared, inner and domestic histories, the stories of the rest of us, the ungreat, who live quietly and privately in anonymous terraced houses’. (Guardian, 31 December). The ‘great man’ view of history is still prevalent, including on TV. Every week on BBC4, there seems to be another documentary about the monarchy, usually an excuse to film in telegenic stately homes or for presenters like Lucy Worsley to dress up as Elizabeth I. And of course this perspective has its place, to describe the effect which people in authority had. But it’s still the history of the ruling class, told in a way which downplays the economic forces changing society. Exploring the past through the lives of people without much status has only really been a strong tendency among historians for around fifty years. This approach - social history - tells us a lot about societal changes by the impact they had on the majority. As historian G M Trevelyan wrote, ‘without social history, economic history is barren and political history unintelligible’ (English Social History: A Survey of Six Centuries from Chaucer to Queen Victoria). The characters in A House Through Time were shaped by major events such as economic downturns, cholera outbreaks, wars. Past events come to life when they can be related to the people who lived through them. For Olusoga, empathy is an important part of his research: ‘it is all too easy to start caring about figures from the past if you find yourself reading the documents that record their lives while sitting in what was once their kitchen. Or having just walked up a staircase, holding the wooden banister that their hands once gripped’(Guardian, 31 December). Studying history - or doing it vicariously through programmes like A House Through Time - reminds us that we’re all part of a longer story, and subject to wider economic trends whether we like it or not.