In the summer of 1964 my father bought a large red brick house in Southport, a seaside town north of Liverpool. My sister and I were small children, three and four years of age. When we first moved in, the house was so large that we always played in the same room, preferably with our mother there too. Safety in numbers! After all who knew what was lurking in the shadows at the top of the stairs.
The house had four floors including a complete range of cellars that my father referred to as ‘the basement’. There was a wash room, coal cellar, wine cellar, workshop and a vast room containing a boiler for the central heating. The boiler had been installed in about 1920 and heated the whole house. The previous occupants of the house also had two daughters. Although my sister and I never met them we always called them by their family name ‘The Gerwyches’ and nodded knowingly as if they too were strange and mysterious. The girls had decorated the huge cellar room with funny little sayings and ditties from the 1950s. For example…It’s a long way to Tipperary……..I’m not as think as you drunk I am…………………and so on.
Years later my sister and I would hold teenage parties in this cellar – they were the talk of the school. Even if you weren’t invited you could turn up and be let in. Simpler times then, there was never any trouble, just a bit of tinsel in my sister’s horse box in the garden. My mother would appear with trays of mince pies (the parties were always in December), and these would be eaten before she even got into the main room. Usually around 11 pm when the beer and cider had run out my father would appear at the top of the stairs with a collection of half empty bottles from the cocktail cabinet. Eagerly consumed by the waiting throngs. We’d dance to The Pretenders, David Bowie, Roxy Music. We thought we were cool teenagers. The next day we’d spend hours clearing up and filling bin bags with beer cans. It always amused me to find bottles, still full, carefully secreted behind chairs and in dark corners.
Next door to our house lived our very elderly neighbours, a couple called The Bechs. The Bechs were ancient as far as my sister and I were concerned. They had a house keeper to look after them. She served old Mr Bech scrambled egg on a white plate with silver cutlery. She delivered it to him on a tray – I remember he always had a linen napkin tucked into the collar of his shirt. He wore a jacket every day, tweed in winter, cotton in summer. Occasionally he would have a short walk down the road to the post box, a distance of 100 yards, it took him forever. My sister and I would watch secretly from our gate and roll our eyes. His progress was impossibly slow, you could measure it by looking at the individual blue-black paving stones that covered the pavement.
As children we didn’t think about The Bechs or wonder about their lives. We kids just didn’t do that. They were our neighbours, they were very old, that was it. I do remember that in 1979 I got a phone call from St Hugh’s College, Oxford to say that I’d been successful in the entrance examination and they’d like to offer me a place at the university starting the following October. I was so delighted that I went next door to tell The Bechs. Mrs Bech, who by this time was really very old indeed, took me down into the cellar and showed me her ancient bicycle. A huge black metal frame, a leather seat, truthfully a leather seat, and a massive basket on the front, attached to the handlebars with leather straps. She gave the bike to me as a gift – there and then. I was delighted. When I left for Oxford in October, 1980 I took the bike with me. Now it’s thirty five years later. I’d forgotten all about Mr and Mrs Bech until just a few days ago.
Thirty-five years later and I live just outside Chester, about an hour south from my childhood home. I’d taken an American friend, Mary Lou Peters, on a tour of the area. We decided to visit the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight. This is an amazing private collection of art, furniture and sculpture assembled by Lord Lever from 1890 onwards. Lever Brothers were successful Liverpool industrialists. They imported palm oil from West Africa into the Port of Liverpool, they owned factories that processed the palm oil and made soap. They owned the ships that brought the palm oil to Britain, they owned the plantations, they probably owned the advertising agency that convinced the population that they should use soap every day. Lord Lever was a wealthy Victorian gentlemen and as soon as he had large amounts of spare cash he started to buy art. He bought paintings by Leighton, Rossetti, Millais, Holman Hunt and Burne-Jones. He even commissioned a neo-classical Temple-style building in the 1920s to house his art collection. I love visiting the gallery, the collection is small and interesting, the Pre-Raphaelite paintings are world class and they’ve got a great cafe in the basement. on my recent visit the gallery had a temporary exhibition called ‘Putting on the Glitz’.
This is a small and wonderful exhibition featuring elegant clothing and evening gowns from the 30s and 40s. The dresses are velvet, satin, silk and lace. They are beautifully displayed complete with shoes, evening slippers, hats and hand bags. Names from the past assault the ears; Marshall and Snelgrove – a fine department store, Russell and Bromley – high quality shoe makers, Browns of Chester – the department store in Chester. All British brands, brands that staggered into the 1960s and maybe even the early 70s before exhaling their final rasping breaths. The exhibition is a tiny glimpse of the social history of this area and reflects the dynamism of the City of Liverpool at the time.
I was mesmerised by a midnight blue velvet evening gown in the exhibiton. I was wondering if it would fit me, probably not. It had a simple scoop neckline, long sleeves, fitted waistline and finished delicately at the ankle. Elegant, simple, stunning. I started to read about the dress on the display card. The card read……A gift from Mrs Hilda Bech of Birkdale, Southport…..I couldn’t believe it. I almost spluttered with surprise. Mrs Bech, the very ancient old lady who used to live next door to me had given this dress to Liverpool Museum in 1964. The exact year that my sister and I had started peering over the hedge or around the gate to observe our totally ancient neighbours. The same Mrs Bech who’d kindly given me her bike. I actually went back to the gallery a few days later. It turns out that not one but two of the dresses in the exhibition were given to the Liverpool Museum by Mrs Bech in the 1960s. The two outfits belonging to Mrs Bech are shown here.
What a small world! These dresses were worn by Mrs Bech in the 1930s, later she donated them to the Liverpool Museum. She was our next door neighbour! The ‘Putting on the Glitz’ exhibition has been curated by Pauline Rushton. She explains that Hollywood-style fashion arrived in England between the wars, probably around 1935. Film stars like Joan Crawford were enormously popular. Society ladies wanted to copy the gowns worn on the silver screen. Whilst mere mortals could visit the cinema once or twice a week to watch the ‘movie stars’ of the day dressed elegantly and attending glittering parties.
For me the coincidence of finding my former neighbour’s dresses in this exhibition reminded me of what a small world we live in. I’d like to offer a sincere thank you to Pauline Rushton who curated the ‘Putting on the Glitz’ exhibition at the Lady Lever Art Gallery. Pauline you took me on an unexpected and thoroughly pleasant trip down Memory Lane. Thank you so much!
Mary Lou and Janet looking less than glamorous, but having fun at The Lady Lever Art Gallery:
- I probably wouldn’t have been at the Lady Lever Art Gallery last week if it wasn’t for my friend, the talented artist Mary Lou Peters. Click here for Mary Lou’s web site
- Click here for more on Lord Leighton and The Pre-Raphaelites
- A big thank you to Pauline Rushton for her carefully curated exhibition
- The houses at the top of the article are very similar to the house I grew up in.
- As always you can contact me here Janet’s e-mail
- I welcome memories, comments and observations