A street that is now a handy cut through that helps avoid the traffic on Leeds Street was once a den of inequity in Liverpool. Chisenhale Street, which runs from Pall Mall to Vauxhall Road was once described as being a place that was a pestilential and crime haunted den which ‘nowhere in the world could parallel in moral and sanitary foulness.’
Looking at a map in the mid 19th century there was nothing to suggest that it was different than any other streets in the town. However a survey of the parishes by Canon Hume in 1850 found that there were 1539 people living there, making it one of the most densely populated streets. Over 80% were Irish born, most of those having fled the famine and arriving in Liverpool with barely a penny to their name. With population rising faster than amenities and regular work, these conditions made the street rife for crime.
Just over a decade after Hume’s findings journalist and social commentator Hugh Shimmin wrote in the journal Porcupine that things had improved there, telling readers that ‘the street is better now than it had been for years.’ Despite this observation, he described how there were ‘ruffians, the like of which could not be excelled’ and ‘brawny loafers skulked about.’ It begs the question if this was an improvement, just what had it been like.
The street did not improve though and twelve years later Shimmin used the pestilential and crime haunted den comments in the same publication. The event that had led to Shimmin’s rant was the murder of Mary Corrigan by her son Thomas in 1873. After seeing that his supper wasn’t in the oven like she told him it was, Corrigan kicked her, beat her with his belt and stamped on her. He then called a priest and said she had drunkenly fallen down the stairs, but this explanation wasn’t believed and the police were sent for. Corrigan, who was in his mid twenties, was sentenced to death with the judge telling him his mother had been someone he was bound to ‘love and cherish.’
Such a brutal unprovoked murder against a family member still divided the street though, with one neighbour being threatened by nine others for giving evidence. The defence of those charged was that the neighbour concerned had not intervened whilst Corrigan went about his violent outburst. Another neighbour who said Corrigan deserved to be hanged was hit over the head with an iron, her assailant being fined twenty shillings.
A labourer who bothered to go and look for work only one day a week or even fortnight, Corrigan was one of many in the street who spent their days drinking and intimidating others for money. The cornermen, as those who hung about intimidating others were known, were seen as a menace to society although it had to be distinguished between those simply wanting to keep warm and dry and those looking to intimidate others. Sometimes though there were cleansing operations by the police, with nearly sixty people from Chisenhale and surrounding streets summonsed for loitering in 1884. Most of those did not attend court, instead sending their mothers to pay the imposed fines which ranged from one to twenty shillings.Sometimes violence was exported from Chisenhale Street. In 1875 a prize fight took place at Aintree racecourse in which a man died, with some of those being involved in the organisation of it coming from the street.
One of the reasons why Chisenhale Street gained such notoriety was the fact it was the first crossing point over the Leeds & Liverpool canal that connected the docks and Scotland Road. Many were directed there unaware of the dangers they would face and would find themselves having to pay an unofficial toll to cross. Those who refused to comply with demands for money were at best not let across and at worst robbed or even thrown over the bridge (left as it is today), with no locals seeing anything. In 1873 a man was robbed of 15 shillings, a knife and handkerchief and when he offered to pay a passer by to fetch a policeman his request was refused.A Portuguese sailor was thrown over the bridge in 1853 after refusing to hand over money and had to be fished out of the canal by a policeman, but none of who the Liverpool Mercury described as ‘ruffianly looking fellows’ were traced.
Another occasion when nobody saw anything was in 1895 when a man was found unconscious on the canal tow path, having been seen leaving a pub shortly beforehand. He was taken to the Northern Hospital where he died and an inquest returned an open verdict. For those who weren’t subjected to violence they could instead be subjected to a common confidence trick. The first villain would rob the cap of a sailor, then another supposedly friendly man would offer to get it back for a small price. As the sailor got his money out the whole lot was then stolen. It wasn’t just the adults who acted criminally or anti socially. In 1875 a 13 year old asked an 11 year old if he could swim then pushed him into the canal without any provocation.
When sailors tried to stand up for themselves they often came out worse off. In 1870 a drunken sailor didn’t appreciate a 14 year old boy’s offer of help and hit him, only to be stabbed in the thigh. The sailor was in a dangerous state at the Northern Hospital for three weeks but when the case went to court the boy was let off with a caution on account of the provocation received.
There were plenty of non violent crimes in the street of a dishonest nature, such as the case in 1851 when a pub barmaid there was jailed for three months for hiding stolen shawls on the premises. Pub licensing hours were often not adhered to, the 10 shilling fine that was given to one landlord there in 1860 for remaining open on Sundays being less than the profits that could be made.
There were many in Chisenhale Street that sought to make an honest living but if prevented from doing so due to red tape would turn on the authorities very quickly. In 1868 a woman was selling onions on the corner with Vauxhall Road and was asked to move on by a policeman as she was causing an obstruction. Her and two others then punched the officer to the ground and kicked him, leading to them each receiving two months in prison.
By the early 20th century Chisenhale Street had finally shaken off its reputation, with the meaner streets now being further north in Kirkdale towards Bootle. Clearance of the insanitary properties meant that the 1891 census meant there were only 84 persons residing in the street as opposed to 2,000 ten years earlier. The corporation had cleared all dwellings except for four public houses. Nowadays there are no residents at all and it is just home to a few small businesses, although the notorious bridge is still present even if the canal is now re-routed.
Further Reading- John E. Archer: The Monster Evil; Liverpool University Press 2011.