Hungarian nationalism in Liverpool (2), or, Further Plaques of Liverpool

It seems the Hungarian Consulate on Rodney Street in Liverpool is still going. With words and coat of arms beautifully rendered in relief on brass, the plaque has a permanence that indicates the Consulate is going nowhere. Further confirmation that the Hungarian Consulate has not been replaced by the German is given by the panel for the doorbells adjacent to the entrance, an intercom-system box whose highly polished surface is undermined by the strips of card on which names and titles are hastily recorded in thick black marker pen. ‘Sweet Smiles’, another of 35 Rodney Street’s occupants, puts the honorary consulates in their place.

In the dark, which is when I first noticed any difference, the yellow announced the presence of the German Consulate loud and clear.

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By contrast, the sign of the Hungarian Consulate blends in sensitively with the brick, with the effect that it is barely noticeable at night. The brick itself looks like one of those wallpapers fashionable these days emblazoned with simulacra instead of the patterns more recognisable as wallpaper design. Perhaps this appearance of falseness has something do with the vulnerability that age brings. In a certain light the facade becomes a shimmering patina on the point of melting.

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This very real brick was the first to be laid on what was to become known as Rodney Street. An example of the bricks-and-mortar development of the city, but equally of urban evolution coterminous with the exponential increase of private ownership as well. The building in which the German and Hungarian Consulates are housed was built at the instigation of William Roscoe, slave abolitionist and philanthropist, who leased it to residents. The plaque below the German Consulate sign reads:

BUILT C. 1783-1784

35 RODNEY STREET

FIRST HOUSE TO BE ERECTED

ON RODNEY STREET ON A SITE

LEASED BY WILLIAM ROSCOE

I expect the terms of this lease were along the lines of private property rather than rental, i.e. that the leaser became its owner for a fixed term. Given the prestige of the street and the burgeoning life of Liverpool as a space of wealth accumulated by largely nefarious means it is unlikely that the building’s residents were renters in the sense dominant today. (I may have to write yet another post to correct this misunderstanding of capitalist property relations in the C18, but I would like to retain the speculative register for now. And yes: pun intended there.)

It struck me on reading the plaque on 35 Rodney Street that Roscoe had a significant part to play in the origins of what was to become, on account of the doctors who lived there, the ‘Harley Street of the North’. (One such doctor was William Henry Duncan, who revolutionised sanitation for Liverpool’s poor, helping them fight against the infectious diseases afflicting the city’s slums.) It is therefore ironic that it is not Roscoe after whom the street he helped to build is named but George Brydges Rodney; not, in other words, the slave abolitionist but the slave trader. Rodney was commemorated in all likelihood for his successes as a naval officer, from the American War of Independence to his victory over the French in the Battle of Saintes in 1782 (source: Wikipedia, I’m afraid). Or was he? Rodney Street was laid out in 1783-4, whereas Rodney himself died in 1792. The act of commemoration through street-naming therefore roughly coincided the death of the one being commemorated. By this time Rodney would have symbolised much more than his naval exploits. In the context of the slave-trading city, he was one of the men who contributed to its wealth and ‘greatness’. Roscoe’s contributions were also financial, but he failed to chime with the reigning ideology of his time. Anecdotal evidence of gangs attempting to drown abolitionists in the Mersey strongly suggests that this counter-ideology was not welcome in Liverpool. The force of Roscoe’s humanitarian impulses would eventually prevail as the status quo; for much of the city’s history, though, progressive ideas threatened the continuing dominance of a port that believed accumulating capital on the backs of enslaved peoples was all for the good.

In present-day Liverpool, Roscoe is mentioned far more than Rodney, who is invoked only to the extent that the street that bares his name is uttered. Immortality lives or dies, so to speak, by the force of repetition: an individual is commemorated inasmuch as their name trips off the tongue, perpetuity guaranteed until the street is renamed or the earth gets sucked into the sun.

Roscoe is mentioned more than Rodney in the fuller context of historical reference. But this requires attention, whereas immortality is achieved by mere passing reference, ‘Rodney’ popping into the mind once the eponymous street enters into consciousness. Situated behind Rodney Street, however, is Roscoe Street, a literal thoroughfare formed mostly by the backs of Rodney Street and the block stretching from St Luke’s (officially unofficially the ‘Bombed-Out’) Church to Upper Duke Street. The benevolent humanitarian appears to have been shunned in favour of the courageous ex-officer-cum-slave-trader. The sordid hierarchies of remembrance. A politics of history would caution against renaming Rodney Street since such a process of erasure ultimately distorts our image of the past. In the city, proper names are history’s shifting tectonic plates. Every step revivifies the dead.

Few buildings on Roscoe Street were created as addresses in their own right; instead the street seems to be comprised of the stables and other ‘out-buildings’ that would have supported the life of the townhouses beyond it. As capitalist property relations in the twenty-first century squeeze renters and even willing owners farcically into ever smaller units, the spaces in which horse-and-carriages were stored and only tradesmen would go now pass for home. Double gates and such like have been replaced by ‘front’ doors with numbers, the bracing energy of horses launching out onto a literal thoroughfare replaced by residents stepping out onto ‘our street’. An important part of the city’s infrastructure, if you like, and in the style of the back-end of anywhere, Roscoe Street has become just another short-cut for hurtling taxis, ambulating addicts, and as is the everywhere in Liverpool, students. The small node in the city network at the intersection of Leece Street next to the site of the ‘Bombed-Out Church’ is charged with competing rights of passage: belligerent taxis failing to slow down or even indicate their direction of travel for the quick-footed but loose-witted pedestrians moving downstream from Hope Street to Bold Street. In the fluctuating economies of human and vehicular movement in the city, Roscoe the historical figure doesn’t get a look in as both jostle for dominance over public space. At the controlled crossing only a block away, however, walker and driver alike can engage in the act of waiting, observing the grand dimensions of a street and taking note of a name.

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