The Eldonian Village
The Eldonians – Better Together
This case study looks at the story of a remarkable group of people who resisted pressures to break up their community through slum clearance and went on to create a pioneering housing project and award-winning village. It is impossible to tell the full story here, but it is told elsewhere. Rather this account focuses on the role of the church – both local priests and the Church Leaders, notably Archbishop Derek Worlock and Bishop David Sheppard.
Planning the neighbourhood: Tony McGann, Chair of the Eldonian Association, Bishop Sheppard and Archbishop Worlock with some of the Eldonian community.
The Eldonian Village is in the Vauxhall area of Liverpool, about a quarter of a mile north of the city centre, close to the docks. The first phase was finished in 1989, when it was “an oasis surrounded by derelict land and run-down housing that had not yet been reclaimed and redeveloped”. Then the whole of the Vauxhall area was redeveloped with public, private and community sector investment and today the village is a mix of housing and facilities to cater for everyone in the community from cradle to grave.
The Eldonian organisation has three elements:
- A Community Trust was formed in 1987 and run by elected local people from the whole community of 2,500. Its objectives are to advance education, provide leisure facilities and residential accommodation for elderly people.
- The Eldonian Group is a development trust employing over 50 people and delivering the physical, economic and training projects, including a number of social enterprises.
- The Community-Based Housing Association (CBHA) is a registered social landlord providing affordable social housing, elderly care facilities and management for leaseholders who have bought apartments. Chaired by Tony McGann, it started as a housing co-operative in 1984, which developed Phase 1 of the Village on the former site of Tate & Lyle sugar refinery. It changed to be a CBHA in the 1990s so that it could work in the wider area and enter partnerships with private developers. Tenants comprise 75% of the management board. Of the 523 properties, the CBHA owns 376 and manages 147 on behalf of owner occupiers.
Looking back at Vauxhall
Most Eldonians are descended from Irish migrants who came to Liverpool in the mid-nineteenth century as a result of the potato famine and settled along the docks to the north of the city, including Vauxhall. At the time, Liverpool’s growing economy was founded upon port-related industries, including sugar, tobacco, salt and cotton, and by the early twentieth century, a third of all British exports and a quarter of imports went through Liverpool, making the port second only to London. The docks also dominated the labour market. Reliance on port employment was disastrous following the collapse of the international economy and the depression after the First World War. The decline in the port continued and even when fortunes revived towards the end of the twentieth century, the total of jobs went on falling as mechanisation enabled far fewer people to handle a much greater volume of goods. Then by the 1980s, the last two large industries in the Vauxhall area closed, Tate & Lyle and British American Tobacco.
The majority of the early arrivals were Catholic and their settlement along the docks “drove the Protestants up the hill”. The dominance of the Catholic Church changed little over about the next one hundred and thirty years. Even by the 1970s, parish priests around Scotland Road could point to “a list of streets – not a list of addresses – and say ‘that’s what the parish consists of . . “ The Catholic Church was central to the community for worship and the sacraments, for the pastoral role of the priest and for their pride in the church building.
Doing the rounds – Archbishop Worlock and on the right, Fr Jim Dunne, the Parish Priest of Our Lady’s, Eldon Street.
Learning to organise
During the 1970s, the local priests, Jim Dunne and Michael Lane, were committed to improving living conditions in the parish. Their approach made them “catalysts in developing the skills and confidence of the people who went on to become the Eldonians”. Jim Dunne had grown up nearby and could identify with local people and be seen as ‘one of them’. They both understood the social problems and ‘stood up’ alongside their parishioners when it mattered. At a time when Tony McGann was emerging as a local leader and community activist, Jim Dunne and Michael Lane profoundly affected his understanding and respect for the role of the Church. He remembers Jim Dunne telling him about a visit to Gerard Gardens in St Joseph’s parish:
“I [Jim Dunne] was standing on the fourth or fifth landing, having walked up flights of stairs strewn with broken glass, smelling of urine and with walls covered in graffiti, and looking down at the square with broken flagstones, litter and broken swings. I asked myself the question ‘is this shit God’s Kingdom?’ And the answer was ‘yes’.”
“The ‘social agenda’ of the two priests was to be an important factor in the emergence of this new community group.”
When Derek Worlock became Archbishop of Liverpool in 1976, as well as wishing to understand the issues of deprivation in the city, he wanted to reorganise the diocese because there were too many churches serving too few people. This was exemplified in Vauxhall. Although a small geographical area, it had eleven parishes and residents were extremely parochial in outlook. However, the external threat of church closure and the loss of local priests brought them together to mount a campaign. This was important in the development of the community, partly because it galvanised local people around an issue that was important to them and partly because it brought Tony McGann to the fore as a leader. “His leadership then, and up to the present day, is key to understanding the Eldonian story and all that they have achieved.”
After a tempestuous public meeting, the Archbishop decided not to proceed, and the experience had shown local people that, if they stuck together, they could beat the authorities. It gave them confidence and it demonstrated to Tony McGann his own influence and standing in the community. His leadership role afterwards was recognised not only by local people, but also by more formal leaders.
Housing in Vauxhall mainly comprised tenements built from the late 1860s through to the 1930s. Some were demolished in the 1960s, but others generated a strong sense of community and belonging, which was a significant reason for the resistance to Liverpool City Council’s demolition proposals in the 1970s. The plan was to house displaced families in tower blocks in outlying parts of the city. Although most residents would have conceded that the housing stock and the local environment needed improvement, they did not want to be uprooted.
In the campaign that followed, again the priests played a part. First, at a public meeting with the councillors, a question from Jim Dunne asking who had given them the authority to say the tenements should come down “unlocked an hour and a half of abuse that people threw at these councillors”. As a result, it was agreed that there should be a survey canvassing residents’ views. As Tony McGann told the meeting “Well that’s the first time we’ve ever been asked what we want”. The priests offered help in drawing up the survey and turned their lounge and dining room into a meeting room for the organisers.
The exercise also consolidated Tony McGann’s position as leader. The survey results gave a mandate for action and it was recognised that they needed a more formal organisation to take things forward. Taking the name from Eldon Street, at the heart of the area, the Eldonian Association was formed in the early 1980s, with Tony McGann elected as Chair.
Phase 1: The start of a long journey
This began a phase during which Portland Gardens Housing Co-operative was formed and Portland Gardens was to be reshaped from four storey tenements to two-storey terraced houses, with one block redesigned as sheltered housing. However, in 1983, the Labour Party won an overall majority in the Council elections, following a decade in which there had been hung councils, minority and coalition administrations. Ironically it had been the unpopularity of Labour’s slum clearance programmes in the 1960s that led to the return of the Liberals in 1974. Now the new Council was committed to a large municipal new-build housing programme and was not interested in housing co-operatives.
The closure of Tate & Lyle in 1981 was “a blessing as well as a curse”. It meant the loss of 1,700 jobs, mostly local ones. Only later did the ‘blessing’ emerge when the 22 acre site offered the opportunity to rehouse the 145 families being displaced by demolition but who wanted to stay in the area. Securing the land and funds was a protracted process and not without struggle. It entailed a Planning Inquiry which resulted in the Secretary of State overturning the Council decision. After that, it took nearly three years until the first people could move into the Eldonian Village in July 1988, with various practical hurdles to be overcome on the way. The Village was formally opened by Prince Charles in May 1989. The last family to move in was the McGanns in September 1989.
Visit of Government Minister, Patrick Jenkin, also showing Dr John Newton, Free Church Moderator, Archbishop Worlock, Bishop Sheppard and Tony McGann.
Breaking new ground: Archbishop Worlock operating the bulldozer with Tony McGann.
Bishop Sheppard laying the first brick with Archbishop Worlock.
Phase 2: Reaching out
In the 1990s, George Evans became Director of Housing for the CBHA. He had worked with the Eldonians since the 1980s as the Council Housing Officer for the area. The new housing was popular but more was needed both for former Vauxhall residents keen to return and for a younger generation to avoid them having to move away. So, plans were set in train for another 150 houses on the remaining space on the Tate & Lyle site and on adjoining land owned by the Merseyside development Corporation (MDC). Max Steinberg [now CEO Liverpool Vision] from the Housing Corporation gave crucial support as he had also done earlier on in the project. Eventually the necessary steps were taken, such as extending the boundaries of the MDC to include Vauxhall and securing investment. Work on Phase 2 began in 1993 and Prince Charles returned to open it in December 1996.
Such was the success and reputation of the Eldonians that they were approached by a developer wanting to build houses for sale on adjacent land and to use their name to help to sell these properties.
Subsequently, the Eldonian Development Trust led on other schemes: a children’s nursery, the village hall, sports facilities; and a number of training, employment and health-related projects. The most recent project was a care home for the elderly that has 36 units and offers round-the-clock care.
Support from the Church Leaders
Jack McBane wrote about the support the Eldonians received:
“Throughout the period of trying to convince the council to allow the co-op to proceed, the Eldonians received considerable support from around the city, and in particular from their old friends, Archbishop Derek Worlock and Bishop David Sheppard, the Anglican leader. These two men stood together on a wide number of issues, despite some public criticism. Both had expressed their public support for what the Eldonians were trying to achieve, mainly on the basis of David Sheppard’s long-held view that inner cities could only survive and prosper if the skilled residents stayed there. He recognised in Tony McGann just such a person, and when Tony and I met him in his office, he committed to help to keep this community together. The title that Derek Worlock and David Sheppard gave to their book in 1988 was, of course, Better Together, which was by then the motto of the Eldonians.”
Bishop Sheppard talking with Barrie Natton, Chief Executive of Merseyside Improved Housing. MIH acted as development partner for the Eldonians.
“After the heavy blow of the closure of the Tate & Lyle factory, the Eldonians, as they came to be known, set their eyes on the site and began to plan their Eldonian Village. With the help of architects from Merseyside Improved Housing, who agreed to design the houses and superintend the building operation, they prepared plans for 145 dwellings of one or two storeys, with associated access roads and a limited number of local shops. As their dreams took shape, they were able to point to plans and explain just who would live in each unit and why. On the initiative of the Secretary of State for the Environment, Patrick Jenkin, the site had been acquired on behalf of the Government in 1982 by English Industrial Estates. Now the Eldonians took an option on the site as a location for the co-operative housing scheme, subject to planning permission being granted. Just as all seemed settled, and with £4m available from the Housing Corporation, the City Council refused planning permission in May 1985 on the grounds that the Eldonians’ proposals did not coincide with the Council’s plans for the area, and that the location was a hazard to health. The Eldonians decided to appeal and, as we had often put their project on our agenda in meetings with the Secretary of State, they asked us earnestly for help.
DEREK WORLOCK: It happened that the public hearing of the Appeal was held in Liverpool at a time when we had had to declare ourselves openly against the confrontational tactics of the Militants. This coincided with Neil Kinnock’s public challenge to Derek Hatton at the Labour Party Conference in October 1985, so it was at a critical time that I was called to the hearing as a witness. In the temporary courtroom in the City Library, which was filled for the occasion with applauding Eldonians, I assumed the mantle of a prophet as I testified on their behalf: ‘I share the view of many that the next decade will see the further development of the riverside area bordering the Mersey. The work of reclamation, begun at the Garden Festival and the Albert Dock, will continue along the waterfront below Vauxhall. It would be an injustice if the present families in the Vauxhall community were to be denied the opportunity to share in the benefits of this facility.’
In the following month the Secretary of State upheld the recommendation of the inspector who had conducted the enquiry, and directed that approval be granted to the project by the local planning authority. There was much rejoicing in Vauxhall, but still further delays occurred as other detailed examinations of the site proceeded. During that time we made several visits to the Department of the Environment and the Merseyside Task Force to try to press the matter forward. Meantime the Council’s officers did their best to persuade the families, who were growing increasingly frustrated by these delays, to accept new housing elsewhere in the city. Somehow the people held firm and resisted this tempting bait, designed to achieve their dispersal. It was not until the late autumn of the following year, 1986 that finally clearance was given and the financial allocations confirmed.
One of us was invited to break the ground of the site with a bulldozer, the other to lay the first brick. A great celebration took place in the packed church in Eldon Street in mid-November. Then in pouring rain a procession formed to go, as it were in pilgrimage, to the site which was to be the cherished Eldonian Village. Elderly housebound people were brought in local taxis and vans to witness the scene of their dreams. Schoolchildren lined the route, waving their flags. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of this act of thanksgiving for the success which had marked the solidarity and perseverance of the local people, was the wording of the great banner across the road. In this area in the heart of Scotland Road, where sectarian bitterness was for so many years at its worst, banners across the street and slogans in the windows had always been a familiar sight. The occasion of the breaking of the ground for the Eldonian Housing Co-operative was no exception. But the content of the slogan said much for the different spirit. Across the street, in the windows, on the back of the service booklet, the message was plain: ‘Our thanks to Archbishop Derek, to Bishop David and to all our friends. WE DID IT BETTER TOGETHER.’
The context and the wording of the slogan itself seemed to provide us with the right title for this book."
Click here for further information on Bishop Sheppard and Archbishop Worlock's partnership in Liverpool.
 See Jack McBane, The Rebirth of Liverpool The Eldonian Way, Liverpool University Press, 2008
 McBane, P.3
 Monsignor Jim Dunne, quoted in McBane, p.39
 Dunne, quoted in McBane op cit, p41
 McBane, op cit, p.44
 Quoted in McBane, p.44
 McBane, p.45
 McBane, p.64
 Dunne, quoted in McBane, p.79
 McGann quoted in McBane, p.79
 McBane, p.114
 McBane, p.101
 David Sheppard and Derek Worlock, Better Together: Christian Partnership in a hurt city, Hodder & Stoughton, 1988, pp 210-212