Lost Liverpool #8: Trading Places, Holmes Buildings and the sweet smell of creativity

Holmes Buildings by John Johnson

Holmes Buildings (photo by John Johnson)

In the latest of his Lost Liverpool series, Getintothis’ Paul Fitzgerald looks back to a late 80s scene based in a sweet smelling location, where creativity and artistic collaboration blossomed over cups of tea and homemade Homity Pie.

In 1987, Wood Street was an untouched and slightly neglected part of town. The sort of place that felt damp and dank even when the sun shone. The only bar was The Swan, and a certain amount of bravery was needed for those passing through its portal. There was the odd factory, Mantunna Tea still had a factory in the building that latterly housed Korova, and at precisely 4.15pm every afternoon, an alarm would sound and hordes of women in pale blue work tunics would emerge, sparking up the minute their feet hit Wood Street, as they hurried off for the bus home. There were some warehouses still in use, others deserted.

Concert Square was a waste ground apart from a dodgy car park, and an even dodgier sweat shop, where cramped and unhappy workers toiled for ridiculously long hours, silently hunched over huge sewing machines. It was a grey and dark former industrial landscape, a darkened back street with an imposing and intimidatory feel and a certain level of unspoken threat.

Despite being just 100 metres or so from the slowly declining grandeur of Bold Street, it could feel at times as though that short walk through brought you to another time, a different place. A place where your presence could feel unwanted, and you’d be more than happy to leave. At once an architecturally impressive, but ultimately grim and colourless mix of former warehouses and merchant’s town houses. Fleet Street, Seel Street, that whole area behind Bold Street and through to Duke Street, some 30 years later to be rebranded and renamed the Ropewalks area, was the same. A sad representation of its former self.  Forgotten, held in stasis, a moment in time, where pigeons ruled and bands went for photo shoots, its depressing dereliction an all too often, and all too impressive, backdrop for the lens.

On the corner of Wood Street and Concert Street stands Holmes Buildings, a vast brownstone former warehouse, stretching right back to Fleet Street. For over 100 years, it had been a factory involved in the manufacture of flavouring essences for sweets. You could smell its history throughout the building, behind every door, in the floors, the walls, a thick heavy sugary sweet smell ingrained into its very fabric. Even now, for those who got to know the building well, the smell is the first thought, the initial powerful memory of Holmes Buildings.

In 1987, Andrew Erskine was an idealistic 20 year old with a plan, based loosely around the idea of bringing something similar to Manchester’s Afflecks Palace to his hometown. A cool hangout, shops, a cafe, somewhere to play great music, somewhere the ‘alternatives’ could call home. A base for the different, the unusual, the creative, independent thinkers, those who, like Erskine himself, possessive of a need to carve their own path, light their own highway, were driven by their passion and spontaneous energy, and not much else.

Donald Barnes had acquired the building with the settlement from his early semi-retirement from his job as a marine draughtsman, and though he was passionate about the place he had little idea of what to actually do with these four huge floors of sweet scented nothingness. After a none too lengthy period of negotiation, they agreed that Erskine should take the ground floor for his project, and work began on developing the space, a former security company’s office and sales area, into a cafe, and a handful of shops.

He had nobody else interested when I rolled up, but I thought this was the best location in town, Macmillan’s helped, as that was one of our main hangouts at the time’ he recalls. (MacMillans was a basement club and venue over the road). Cost was king at this point, but with limited funds, a curious and enterprising nature, and the help of a few friends, the plan began to be realised. The cafe occupied much of the area, facing onto Wood Street, and there were three shops initially, a second hand Levi’s shop, a one chair barber called Suedehead, a limited edition T shirt shop, Cause Without A Pause, and Prime Examples, an art and photography shop, owned by Liverpool photographer Mark McNulty, and his partner Jane Scott.

Trading Places opened in the Spring of 1987, with a rare Saturday afternoon acoustic gig by Shacks Mick and John Head, playing songs from their recent album, Zilch, to a cafe full of people enjoying endless cups of tea.

Shack Trading Places

Shack at Trading Places – pic: Mark McNulty


Trading Places soon blossomed, with Erskine adding extra rooms, record shops, poster shops, and live performances, including one notable recital in a back room by Benjamin Zephaniah. As time passed, the café at Trading Places increasingly became a target destination of some of the city’s creative heads, who sought solace, shelter and comfort behind its huge windows, with its Homity Pie, baked potatoes and cool playlists. A cultural community began to build, forged in this sweet smelling place, and in search of its own space. Donald Barnes could help. And he did. In fact, he relished the chance to be involved. Above the heads of the heads stood vast open spaces, huge empty and unused rooms. Barnes caught on quick, seeing and opportunity, and seizing it with glee, he began to let out areas, build walls, and to provide the infrastructure. These were exciting and interesting times, as the building sprang to life.

NACRO took a space at the rear of the building to teach music to ex-offenders. The Farm‘s Keith Mullin and Peter Hooton were both involved. The band’s drummer, Roy Boulter gave drum lessons in a disused giant walk in fridge. Mark McNulty first took a darkroom from fellow photographer Sol Popadopolous (now co-owner of Hurricane Films with Boulter), and then built his first studio, beginning by photographing the building’s growing community, and cataloguing the times. Indie club and gig promoters, Keith Curtis and Andy Mitchell took an office for their huge Temptation student nights. Eventually The Farm took space on the top floor for their label Produce Records. Urban Strawberry Lunch took the basement, renamed it The Bunker, and would spend hour after hour building instruments out of found materials, and banging out junk rhythms, bringing the beat to each and every day, a huge clanging industrial rhythm to soundtrack all this productivity. The very pulse of this busy, energetic, 24hr creative community.

Carl Hunter of The Farm recalls “I loved Holmes Buildings, it was a creative hub where bands, designers and photographers could work and hang out. The Farm had a rehearsal place in there, great memories, I can still smell vanilla when I think about it. I worked with Miles Falkingham when he had a design studio there. We’d artwork Farm record sleeves and other wonderful projects, then eat Homity Pie in the café on the ground floor. Happy memories.”

Find the city’s forgotten treasures with Paul’s Lost Liverpool archive. 

And so, bands rehearsed, artists worked long hours, theatre companies devised new pieces, promoters sent faxes and took deliveries of posters for their next big show, photographers worked on exhibitions, comedy promoters booked acts, there seemed to be an endless flow, a relentless surge of positivity. and in the café at Trading Places on the ground floor, collaborations were formed, ideas developed. Again, endless cups of tea.

It was a time and a place of endless creation, feeding itself on the energy, innovation and productivity of the participants, an organically grown community of like-minded artistic souls, a time of improvised thoughts, and a real celebration of the city’s artistically productive leanings. Bringing life, colour and light back into a previously unloved space, and sending shafts of creative inspiration out across the city centre, inspiring, motivating and stimulating. Anything seemed possible. Everything seemed possible. Attainable.

Looking at Holmes Buildings today, and the surrounding area, it’s nigh on impossible to visualise the harsh and dirty unloved environment, the backdrop against which this activity, these heady and wonderful times, took place.  As a result of that initial Shack performance, the Head brothers asked Andrew Erskine to become their manager, and off they went together to begin work on recording Mick’s new songs, which would become the classic Waterpistol LP. What is absolutely certain is that Trading Places was the catalyst for this creative community, the beating heart of the building, and that he, together with Donald Barnes‘ unbridled enthusiasm for the project, kickstarted the whole process. Further, it could even be argued that the redevelopment of the Ropewalks area was springboarded by the existence of Trading Places and the creative community of Holmes Buildings.

As we see time and again, the wheel must keep turning, and these moments become history soon enough, making way for other movements, other scenes, and that process in turn brings vitality and maintains relevance for every creative community.

Ambrose Reynolds, of Urban Strawberry Lunch, current (and hopefully future) custodian of The Bombed Out Church knows this all too well.

I remember Holmes Buildings so fondly, it was a place that typified everything that is great about Liverpool. So many different and diverse talents working away under one roof. Unfortunately Liverpool is a city that eats its young, it produces wonderful, inspiring places, then tears them down again. The Shiva syndrome, creation and destruction, hand in hand, is what makes the creative force of the city so irrepressible and dynamic.”

Now, maybe more than ever, that is so.

I can still smell the sweets.





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