Seventy years since the May Blitz, the spirit of Pitt Street lives on.
Seventy years ago this month, a devastating aerial bombardment struck Liverpool, ending lives, demolishing homes and displacing whole communities. It is in tribute to “the spirit of an unconquered people” that Liverpool’s Anglo-Chinese community were part of the effort to keep calm and carry on, piecing back together not just buildings but homes and livelihoods.
Pitt Street, 1915, shaped by tall converted warehouse buildings and cobbled streets, stretches out under the constant watch of St Michaels Church spire, busy with dozens of Chinese businesses, from boarding houses to grocers and tobacconists. This was the birthplace of Liverpool’s Chinese community, the destination for seamen from all over the world including Spain, the Philippines, Italy, the West Indies and Scandinavia – to name just a few. To the people who lived and grew up there, this was ‘world’s end.’ Pitt Street was the place to go, bustling with shops and cafes all within easy reach of the docks.
Kwong Shang Lung was one of the city’s earliest grocers to specialise in Chinese food, trading from 1915 until the bombs fell in 1941. During the Second World War the local population swelled to take on thousands of seamen working for Britain’s war effort, including up to 20,000 Chinese seafarers – risking their lives on Merchant Navy convoys. Pitt Street became a comfort zone for thousands of transient seamen to while away their two weeks of shore leave, and for the many resident Chinese to manage Liverpool life with their partners and children.
Elsie Kuloi was just six years old when Edward Chambré Hardman stopped to photograph her as she perched on an anonymous Pitt Street step. The family lived on Dickinson Street, and when the war came, their top floor flat was less than desirable when the sirens sounded. Elsie and sister Lan, then in their teens, were not evacuated but would go with their parents to stay at a neighbours on the ground floor. Out of curiosity Lan stayed behind, only to witness St Michaels Church take a direct hit from an incendiary bomb. She watched it fall, streaking down to earth and was terrified by what she saw. Hundreds were killed in Pitt Street and Cleveland Square alone, including 30 people at 14 Pitt Street, next door to where Kwong Shang Lung served his customers.
At the end of Pitt Street was a large open area called Cleveland Square where the RAF would inflate an enormous barrage balloon to ward off dive bombers and force enemy aircraft to fly higher into anti-aircraft fire. By 1940 there were 1400 similar balloons across the UK and the spectacle of watching it being lifted above its tether of thick metal cable was something the whole street came out to see. Barrage balloons however could not prevent bombs falling from higher up in the sky and in May 1941 Cleveland Square and Pitt Street were levelled to the ground. Merseyside was stunned by the loss of life and the enormous fissures of wasteland now riddling the city centre.
Similar to the famous “bombed out church” just round the corner, the spire of St Michaels survived a direct hit on the surrounding buildings and, what took German bombers minutes to destroy, took the City Council days to pull down completely. To many this was an even greater tragedy for the community. Built in 1816 at a cost to local parishioners, St Michaels was a part of local life which dominated the Pitt Street skyline.
Today the congregation survives, meeting regularly at St Michael in the City, on the spot where Pitt Street once thrived. The whole area is now given over to quiet residential streets, semis and bungalows. Instead of dispersal, the old Anglo-Chinese community shifted, making Nelson Street the new centre of activity. As early as 1944 proposals began to surface for a new Chinatown development, as architect C Z Chen stated regarding a permanent focal point for the 486 Chinese born residents: “The idea behind it was to express the community spirit – one big family. It would not mean the segregation of the Chinese, for an attractive Chinatown would encourage visits from their English friends and would help strengthen Anglo-Chinese friendship”.
This early Anglo-Chinese community, probably the oldest of its kind in Europe, was rocked further by repatriation events in 1946, where a combination of slashed wages and Home Office trickery forced or coerced many Chinese seamen to leave. Some, not knowing they had the right to stay, had homes, partners and children in Liverpool. At least 200 were ‘rounded up’ in night time raids. In the ‘50s, it was their children who played in the ruins of old Pitt Street.
In the 1970s, despite the arrival of families from Hong Kong, the area was again unsettled by City Council demolition programmes and many early 19th century buildings that had survived the war turned to rubble. What exists today in Nelson Street is the legacy of that early community, with the children of those first Anglo-Chinese families still meeting round the corner in what would have been Pitt Street. The strong Chinese character of that early global community is now firmly established within Liverpool with the regeneration of a Chinatown district in the 1990s after decades of slow decline.
The Chinese Imperial Arch, the largest of its kind outside mainland China, is a proud symbol of the growth of the Liverpool Chinese community from those uncertain days in May 1941 and marks the entrance to an area once home to seafarers from all over the world.