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rsz_old_church3Stick a pin at random into the city map and, grimly, you’re as likely to find a street named after a slave trader than some topographical quirk.

As Liverpool expanded north of its seven original streets, a network of lanes began to fan out from the H-shaped medieval plan of the city. Many rose from the fields owned by the Moore family (owners of Moore Hall on what’s now Old Hall Street).

Tucked away from the main arteries of the old city, and hunkered beneath the monoliths of today’s St Paul’s Square, Earle Street is a tiny slither of a street with a curious history.

The street was laid out in 1712 – with fine villas and townhouses, and its own leafy square – by the Earle Family. One of Liverpool’s leading slave trading dynasties, the Earles gave the street their family name: the name behind successive generations of slave ship owners, captains, and Caribbean plantation landlords.

John Earle came to Liverpool from Warrington in 1688 as a clerk for a local MP – and a well-known merchant. By 1700, he’d set up his own business, trading in wine, tobacco and sugar. It was a lucrative (slave enabled) family business that kept The Earles in clover for over a century, and elevated them to the highest offices in the city: in 1709, John was elected Mayor of Liverpool.

John’s youngest son, William, captained a slave ship and his grandson, Sir Hardman Earle, was the Director of the London & North Western Railway (Earlestown near Newton le Willows is named after him).

Hardman also helped fund the Liverpool-Manchester railway. It’s a line we’ve come to think of as the world’s first passenger route. But Earle funded the railway to transport slave-produced cotton to the mills of Lancashire, rather than allow for daytrips to the Trafford Centre.

Perhaps to assuage our collective guilt, the growing city agreed, by the middle of the 18th century, to go on a church-building spree.

Liverpool already had five churches in 1763 when King George III ordered two more to be built. The grandest by far was St. Pauls, on Earle Street – and on 4th April 1763 the Mayor of Liverpool, William Gregson esq., laid the foundation stone of St. Paul’s Church.

The building was completed in 1769, with huge dome (which, from the river, did indeed look like its London namesake) and soaring granite columns. Within the grand design was accommodation for 1,800 people.

The Church Times was impressed: “From the simplicity of its architecture, and the massiveness of the parts, the exterior of this church possesses a solemnity and sublimity of character strikingly adapted to the nature of its holy services, and contrasts, in a marked manner, with some of the more modern and lighter specimens that adorn the town,” it said, on its consecration.

A little over a century later, the congregation had dwindled to only about 22 adults and the same number of children. By the turn of the 20th Century the building and its churchyard had fallen into such disrepair that the Corporation of Liverpool ordered its closure as a dangerous building.

3643958-tmc081211stadium1_jpg-nopRefYet, while the congregation was dwindling, over the road, another building was seeing huge crowds flock to it every weekend.

Cross’s Menagerie of Earle Street was one of the country’s most popular inner-city zoos: with animals garnered from all corners of the world by its colourful proprietor, William Cross.

A major importer of animals for the zoological gardens of Victorian Britain, Cross had agents in all parts of the globe.

Improvements in foreign travel, added to by the huge rise in trade at Liverpool’s docks meant that exotic animals were involuntarily finding their way to our city. And, as the slave trade ended, it was the animal’s turn to be exploited for our benefit.

Cross based his businesses close to the docks not just to make his menagerie’s transportation easier: he did it to encourage trade to flock here. The Menagerie was a lucrative exhibition hall too: an ACC Liverpool, with additional curious creatures. Or the Echo Arena with Little Mix.

The attraction must surely have tempted neighbour, artist George Stubbs (who lived on the corner of Earle Street and Prussia Street) to come and study its captive cargo: although there are no records of this, the Menagerie was in full flow at the same time that Stubbs was dissecting horses to study their muscle and ligaments in an abattoir at the docks.

The Menagerie’s days were numbered when, in 1898, a huge fire tore through its innards – with four lions and several tigers burnt to death.

Fast forward to 2005 – Liverpool is on the rise again, and Earle Street is to see a major new development at its northern end: the new St Paul’s Square.

Archaeological Evaluations by the Oxford Archaeological Society saw a trench built to evaluate the site – as the development was to rise over an old burial ground where 13,000 souls lay.

Church records show merchants, paupers, aldermen and market traders buried together in what was undoubtedly one of the city’s most cosmopolitan neighbourhoods.

Under the ground, hundreds of disarticulated human bones, the truncated remains of post-medieval buildings and a subterranean crypt – comprising of 23 two-storey red-brick vaulted bays – were discovered. St Pauls was, by all accounts, one of the city’s most impressive lost ecclesiastical buildings.

rsz_liverpool-stadiumWith the church demolished in 1930, a menagerie of another kind was built – the world’s first purpose built boxing arena: The Liverpool Stadium. The promoter, Johnny Best, was a retired boxer who, ahem, fought off opposition to its construction on consecrated ground. Planning consented, within a year, the £30,000 build was complete.

Within, 5000 spectators flocked to ‘The Graveyard’ (the nickname was ominous enough – as the stadium had a reputation of unseating champions). But it wasn’t only a place for combat – Louis Armstrong, The Beatles and Led Zeppelin all played here, before the grand old building was demolished in 1987.

It’s a bloody and brutal history, and enough to drive anyone to drink. Who’s for a pint in the Cross Keys?

  • Old Littlewoodian

    Thank you for the history lesson! I worked in that area for thirty years and knew nothing of its history. The Stadium lay empty and unused for years but was used by Littlewoods as a site to locate staff in the event of fire alarm – and one year held the Miss Littlewoods competition in the stadium!

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