Monday, 15 June 2015

"Lowlands"

Lowlands
13 Hayman's Green
West Derby
Liverpool, 
L12 7JG  





Familiar to Beatles fans as the other place in Haymans Green where the group played, "Lowlands" has quite an interesting history and today is far more important architecturally, though perhaps not culturally, than the nearby Casbah.

The successful architect and builder Thomas Haigh lived at No. 6 Gambier Terrace, not far from his busy office in Bold Street. It was 1844 and as Liverpool's docklands continued to expand the town was thriving with seemingly endless business opportunities. At the age of 39, Haigh was raking it in.

Thomas and his wife, Jane, wanted healthier surroundings to raise their five children, away from the smoky town centre where life expectancy was just 19 due to the terrible conditions endured by a large part of the population forced to live in damp overcrowded cellars and court housing where disease spread easily.

Looking for a site away from the hazards of the town they found a suitable site in Haymans Green situated in leafy West Derby Village. Leasing two adjacent plots of land from Lord Salisbury, Lord of the Manor of West Derby enabled the Haighs to build an impressive house and have enough room for a splendid woodland garden.

In 1846 they moved into their new home, a striking mansion built in the Italianate style which today is Grade II listed. No doubt something of a status symbol, its light and airy 38 rooms would have impressed Haigh's potential clients as much as his family and friends. Jane Haigh would bear a further four children here.


Stephen Guy, author and a Director of Lowlands admires the main hall

Several other families lived there - the Dunns and the Tappenbacks - but undoubtedly the most distinguised resident was Thomas Randles Withers, chairman of the Liverpool Stock Exchange, well known as a Victorian grandee, connoisseur and social benefactor who supported the Children's Infirmary and the Blue Coat School. His father Richard was also a former chairman of the Stock Exchange and lived in another nearby mansion "Uplands" which still stands today, housing a children's nursery. I imagine it was Withers who named the house "Lowlands" in recognition of his father's home.

When Thomas Withers died in 1899 he left a widow and nine children ranging in age from five to 20. Mrs Margaret Withers was the last resident at Lowlands and passed away in 1930.


At one point it seemed that "Lowlands" would go the way of many of West Derby's mansions and be demolished to make way for new housing. Luckily, Alderman Ernest Cookson lived next door and recognising the importance of "Lowlands" bought the mansion thus saving it from developers.

When India Buildings in Water Street, part of Liverpool's commercial district, was damaged during the Blitz the Inland Revenue temporarily moved out to "Lowlands", remaining there for some time after the war.


After they vacated the premises Alderman Cookson sold "Lowlands" to the West Derby Community Association in 1957, and it is said he did so for a very reasonable fee. The mansion quickly became their headquarters.



In early 1958 teenagers started using the basement as a youth club which naturally attracted young musicians needing somewhere to perform. 

Typical of most mansions the basement extended the entire depth of the building from front to back. 


The Pillar Club, like the Morgue in Broad Green, opened in March 1958. Brick pillars supported the cellars low ceiling and inspired the club's name. Up to 400 teenagers would cram into what was, like the Morgue and other similar venues of the time, a serious fire hazard, with very limited means of escape. Bands would only play on Sunday evenings. For the remainder of the week the premises operated as a members only youth club with its own integral coffee bar and played recorded music. Table tennis tables had to be removed before the Sunday night gigs. 


The Morgue had operated outside of the law and was quickly shut down following complaints from the neighbours. With the backing of the West Derby Community Association, "Lowlands" was well organised and operated efficiently. Doormen enforced a strict dress code - men were required to wear suits and ties - and the groups were generally similarly attired. 

For a time during the first half of 1959 the fifteen years old George Harrison was, in his own words "freelancing", not only being in a band with John and Paul but joining another group, becoming the fourth member of the Les Stewart Quartet.

Les played banjo, mandolin and guitar. I met him through a fella who worked in a butcher's shop. I'd got a job there as a delivery boy on a Saturday; the guy there had a Dobro guitar (the first one I ever saw) and knew Les. (George Harrison: Anthology)

George had taken the butcher's job as a means to pay for his new Hofner President guitar. One of the other lads there, Tommy Askew had the Dobro resonator guitar, and he went to the Technical College in Old Swan with Les Stewart. Thus introductions were made and George joined Stewart's group when another lad left.    

Stewart was the lead guitarist and main vocalist, Ray Skinner was on drums and George and a third guitar player, Ken Brown played rhythm. George, coming up to 16 was the youngest but because he was so good on the guitar his age was overlooked by Stewart who was closer to 18.  Stewart told Mark Lewisohn: 
I never thought about George being younger, he was just a neat guy. I liked him a lot, and he was a pretty decent guitarist: he used to practice and practice and practice until he got things note-perfect. This was something I never did - I just used to wing it all the time and didn't have much patience. (Mark Lewisohn: Tune In) 

George had similar good things to say about Les, although he couldn't remember the name of the band they were both in (!): 
Les was a good player: Leadbelly tunes and Big Bill Broonzy and Woodie Guthrie - more like rural blues and bluegrass, not rock'n'roll. I'd play along with his band - I don't even remember its name - and we did a few parties. (George Harrison: Anthology)

With little knowledge of the blues George had to work hard to keep up but it broadened his repertoire and further sharpened his guitar ability. Shelagh Maguire - Les Stewart's girlfriend (they would marry in 1961) remembers that George added one or two Carl Perkins songs to the set, which he sang. Matchbox is likely to have been one of them. The highlight of their act was a bluesy adaptation of You Are My Sunshine.


The few parties George remembered actually included regular appearances at the British Legion Club in West Derby (25 Marlborough Road, above), and a Sunday night residency in the Pillar Club.

With George living in Speke, playing at "Lowlands" or rehearsing at Stewart's home (32 Ballantyne Road) required several changes of bus to get him to an area he was quite unfamiliar with. Perhaps that's why he often took John with him for company (and sometimes Paul). John attended regular rehearsals at Les's house and on occasion joined them on the little stage at the Pillar Club.   


This was likely to have been in either February or March 1959, a time when it has long been rumoured that George's other group, the Quarrymen, auditioned at Lowlands, and failed. Perhaps in someone's memory, John and George together on stage with Les Stewart's band was later recalled, incorrectly, as a Quarrymen try out. It is also said that in some committee member's opinion the Les Stewart Quartet were only of fairly ordinary ability, so maybe the bar wasn't set too high.



32 Ballantyne Road (left) with brown fence and hedges: Les Stewart's house where both George and John rehearsed in 1959

Around May 1959 the Best family moved into number eight Haymans Green. With so many friends dropping in to see Pete and his brother Rory their mother, Mona ("Mo"), suggested that they turn the cellar of their home into a place where they could all hang out. Over time this idea evolved and, no doubt inspired by the neighbouring youth club where Pete attended, it was decided that they would turn their seven adjoining basement rooms into a coffee bar-style venue.

Mo, her two sons and their mates began work on converting the basement cellar. Following the formula established by "Lowlands" they too decided to run their club as a coffee bar with a jukebox during the week, but feature live music on Saturdays.

One of the helpers was Ruth Morrison, who'd known Pete Best since Primary School and was a Lowlands regular. She was also George Harrison's girlfriend, and naturally recommended the Les Stewart Quartet to the Bests as a suitable act for their new club. 


Ruth Morrison (left): Photo © Roag, Pete and Rory Best

Ken Brown would later recall: George and I spent hours practising in the Lowlands Club in Haymans Green, but the most we ever earned was £2 for a wedding! We would probably have gone on playing at the club but for George's girlfriend, Ruth Morrison. George had never really been keen on girls. He was still only sixteen and at the Liverpool Institute with Paul McCartney. George suddenly seemed to go head over heels for Ruth, a lovely girl with long auburn hair ...they went everywhere together. 

Taking Ruth's advice Mo approached the Quartet one Sunday evening outside "Lowlands". She explained that she was opening a new club 50 yards away at number eight and wanted a group to perform there. Did they fancy having a look around? 


Ken Brown (left)


After sizing up the place the group agreed to get involved, Shelagh Maguire recalling that Mo Best promised that "if we would help convert her cellar into a club then she would give the group the weekly residency. So Les, Ray, Ken, George, me and one or two others all started to paint the place and get it ready, working evenings and weekends".

The residency never happened. George had gone hitch-hiking with Paul McCartney in mid August but planned to be back in time to meet an engagement with the Les Stewart Quartet on the evening of Saturday 22 August 1959 at the British Legion Club.  They didn't get back until late and by the time George reached West Derby the Quartet was in pieces. Ken Brown had also failed to show, leaving Stewart to perform accompanied only by Ray Skinner on drums.

Les Stewart: I had to do it all myself and it was really horrible. I was pretty steamed up about the whole thing, and just as we were leaving the guys showed up. I chewed them out about it and basically told them to get lost. (Mark Lewisohn: Tune In) 

It seems his main gripe was with Ken who he accused of neglecting the group. He had not made all of the rehearsals. Ken had become friendly with the Best family and had began spending a lot of time with them. Unfortunately Stewart's girlfriend Shelagh hadn't taken to Peter or Rory, considering them to be a bad influence. Ken tried to talk Les round, admitting that he had missed some rehearsals but never a show until that evening. His time spent at the Best's club had been for the good of the group, the residency. Ken finished by saying they had made a promise to Mrs Best, and he, at least, was going to keep it. Les was having none of it.

Mona Best's club was due to open the following week and they asked me what would happen about it, and I said 'Well you take it. I don't want to do it'. I broke up the group and gave up the residency at the new club, after all the time I'd put in cleaning up and painting that cellar. Les Stewart (Mark Lewisohn: Tune In) 

Skinner also decided to quit. George had sat quietly listening whilst Stewart and Brown argued but a day or so later decided to try and change Les's mind on his own, visiting 32 Bannantyne Road and asking him to reconsider. Unfortunately his multiple bus changes were for nought - the Les Stewart Quartet was finished. 

George and Ken were determined to keep their promise to Mrs Best but first they had to tell her the bad news. Not fancying themselves as a duo George offered a solution which would bring them back up to a quartet. He told Mrs Best he had a couple of mates who were also musicians and likely to be available for the residency. With the consent of Mo and Ken, he rang John and Paul who readily agreed.  


Mo's club, which she named The Casbah, officially opened on Saturday 29 August 1959 with the reformed Quarrymen as the resident band. From November the club opened on Sunday nights in direct competition with "Lowlands" and within a year it had enrolled 1,000 members. 

Two members of the Les Stewart Quartet George and Ken, occasional member John Lennon, and Paul McCartney (standing) on the opening night of the Casbah.

Bill Barlow and Chas Newby were friends of Pete Best and played in the "Lowlands" group The Barmen. They had watched George play with Les Stewart at the Pillar Club and Newby was similarly impressed with him when he saw the Quarrymen at the Casbah, especially the way they could all harmonise. Newby's path would cross with the Beatles again at the end of 1960, temporarily joining them for several gigs in place of Stuart Sutcliffe, who had remained in Hamburg after the group's first season there had fallen apart.


The Pillar Music Club operated at "Lowlands" until 1966, during which time it was attended by many groups of the day including Gerry and the Pacemakers, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes (including Ringo Starr), The Searchers, The Fourmost, The Hollies, and Billy J. Kramer. One of the most popular groups to play there was the Remo Four, at this point fronted by Johnny Sandon. Many "Lowlands" regulars thought them to be the most accomplished musicians, especially lead guitarist Colin Manley who attended Liverpool Institute with Paul and George. 

Reportedly Brian Epstein once visited the club to watch one of his acts and flew into a rage when he was asked to pay the admission charge. "Do you know who I am?" etc, etc. He stormed off, vowing never to allow any of his acts appear at the club again, and they didn't.






The over 21's coffee bar on one of the upper floors survives in its original 1962 state


In 2002, Stephen Guy helped to secure a £1.1 million grant from the Heritage Lottery and with the assistance of other charities and individuals this has facilitated the renovation and refurbishment of "Lowlands". Returned to its early Victorian appearance and featuring authentic external and internal colour schemes it re-opened in 2009 and is available for hire for receptions, corporate events and other meetings.


Notes:


Quotes from The Beatles' Anthology,  and Mark Lewisohn's Tune In


I found the interior and back garden photographs of "Lowlands" on line and subsequently discovered that they had been scanned from a magazine entitled Stephen Guy's Forgotten Liverpool (Buxton Press 2013) which also includes a good article on the property.  The photographs of Ken Brown and Ruth Morrison were also found on-line, the latter being the copyright of Roag, Pete and Rory Best.


Lowlands has a Facebook page and you can watch a video showing the various rooms and gardens here:


Contact "Lowlands" on 0151 226 5352  /  www.lowlands.org.uk


1 comment:

  1. Fascinating for one who lived a ten minute walk from Haymans Green and attended Sunday nights at the Lowlands regularly from about 1961-1963. The only 'group' I remember is the Toggery Five, though I have a vague recollection of the Hayseeds? Probably also saw Rory Storm and Hurricanes, although they do not stick in my mind - unless they sang 'Sea Cruise'.

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