Maps, music and fire

Image of a map of Liverpool city centre with areas marked

© Brett Lashua, courtesy of the Institute of Popular Music

In every city there are buildings that have at one time or another played an important part in the city's musical life. They include buildings that have provided venues for live music performance, for recording and rehearsal studios, for record shops and music management, and so on.

These buildings make up an urban musical landscape that is always changing. In fact this landscape could in one sense be described as fragile because it is vulnerable to fast-changing trends affecting music and the music business, shifting social and economic circumstances, and changes to the physical environment - whether buildings going up or down or changes to roads and transportation routes. In addition to this many music venues have been vulnerable to fire, as illustrated by the map featured here.

The map shows the sites of several music performance venues in Liverpool that were destroyed by fire. Some of these venues caught fire accidentally. Others were deliberately set on fire by arsonists, rioters and enemy bombing raids on Liverpool during World War II. Most were subsequently demolished but the more prestigious ones were rebuilt, most notably the Philharmonic Hall and the Royal Court Theatre.

For many city residents and visitors these music venues are unknown or forgotten but they may live on in the memories of others, providing pleasurable, distasteful or haunting reminders of the music events they once hosted. In Liverpool, for example, dance halls and clubs have been places at which couples have met and courted. They are thus part of family histories and connected to intense emotions and memories. Meanwhile some local music halls and theatres have appeared as symbols of local pride on websites devoted to their memory.

In addition to this the burning down of clubs, discotheques and rock venues has become part of local music folklore. Musicians of a certain age often relate familiar stories of professional arsonists such as the legendary 'Fiery Jack' and 'Tommy the Torch,' who set fire to local music clubs at a time when the city's economic problems were severe and the clubs' owners wished to benefit from subsequent insurance claims. Music venues and sites may thus be very much present in their absence, evoked through story-telling and through traces and echoes from the musical past.

Of course the burning of local venues also raises questions about fire regulations. Music venues often bring many people together under one roof so there is a danger of large-scale loss of life if they catch fire. During the 19th century there were fires and loss of life in many British theatres and music halls. Fire safety consultants have argued that it usually takes a mass tragedy to trigger the tightening of fire regulations, yet fire regulations are frequently breached and many fire precautions are inadequate.

In 1976 Liverpool's Shakespeare Theatre went up in flames 88 years after it opened and was subsequently demolished. The building caught fire despite various preventative measures that had been put in place:

"Special attention has been paid to the prevention of fire, concrete being largely used for the construction of the theatre and over the stage are two large water mains called 'sprinklers.' The stage is separated from the auditorium by a patent asbestos and iron fire proof curtain weighing five tons and by iron doors." (Kelly's Directory of Liverpool 1894)