Thursday, March 21, 2013

Website tribute to the memory of Liverpool high diver Professor Tommy Burns

It is 120 years since Liverpool-born athlete, swimmer and diver Professor Tommy Burns reached the high point of his professional career … diving 100 feet into a shallow tank of water at the Royal Aquarium, a lavish palace of Victorian entertainment in London.

The baker's son from Farnworth Street in the Kensington district of Liverpool honed his skills by diving 85 feet into the Mersey from Runcorn Bridge. Later he dived from the Tay Bridge, Forth Bridge, London Bridge and many other structures around the country where he attracted crowds of up to 20,000 spectators to marvel at his performances.

He was 26 when he was hired to take part in the Easter programme at the Royal Aquarium in Westminster where he arrived on Monday 20th March 1893 for a press preview dive which made headlines in newspapers at home and around the world. On that occasion he dived from 83 feet but for his public performances from 2nd April, the diving platform was raised to 100 feet.

One newspaper of the day (The Era) told its readers: 'The holiday programme at the Aquarium was forty inches long, and it was literally crammed full of good things – sensational performances, of course, claiming the greatest share of attention, and commanding enthusiastic acclamation for such daring entertainers as Professor Thomas Burns …'

Burns excelled at many sporting activities and by the age of 21, he was said to have collected 400 awards for diving, swimming, running, walking and boxing. And at the time of his death nine years later, he was reported to have saved 42 lives from drowning, bravery rewarded with medals and awards from the Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society and the Royal Humane Society.

In February 1895, times were extremely hard in Liverpool where unemployment was high, partly due to severe weather, and many people were destitute and starving. In the afternoons, hundreds gathered outside St George’s Hall in Lime Street where soup, bread and beef were handed out from vans. Burns decided to help the cause by pushing a wheeled collecting box on a 100-mile fundraising tour of Lancashire towns.

The Sheffield Evening Telegraph told how he started his journey after stepping out of a soup van wearing tight woollen pantaloons and a jersey with the words ‘For the Liverpool Unemployed’. It continued: 'He was preceded by a large crowd of the unemployed, one of whom carried a red banner, the words inscribed on which gave out to the world that the Liverpool unemployed “demanded work”. Thousands of spectators assembled in Lime Street, and for a considerable distance lined London Road, along which proceeded Tommy amid the cheers of the crowd.'

Burns drowned at the age of 30 when a simple dive witnessed by 3,000 spectators went badly wrong in North Wales where he had been booked to make a series of appearances in the 1897 summer season. A leader article in the following day's Liverpool Echo stated:

'The sensational method of Tommy Burns’s death yesterday at Rhyl was in unison with his dare-devil exploits all through his life. The ever popular Tommy was one of those erratic geniuses who are never content unless bent on extraordinary enterprises. Had he chosen the profession of arms his courage and coolness must have won him long ago the coveted honour of the Victoria Cross. He had all the rough material in his composition out of which heroes are made.'

The story of Burns's life is being told on a new website – – which will be launched on Wednesday 20th March, the 120th anniversary of his arrival at the Royal Aquarium.

The website has been compiled by retired journalist Les Powell who has been studying old records and newspapers to piece together the life story of the man who became known as  'The Champion Diver of the World'.

He says: “It is a fascinating story about a highly talented young athlete who captured the hearts of the nation.”

Tommy Burns factfile

In 1884, 17-year-old Tommy dived into the Mersey from the Rock Ferry steamer to rescue a passenger who fell overboard.  The Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society later awarded him a silver medal and 13s 6d (about £67 in today’s money) for damage to his clothes.

On 1st February 1893 he took part in Everton’s Grand Football Gala at Goodison Park in Liverpool to raise funds for the Royal Infirmary and Stanley Hospital.

On Saturday 19th October 1889 police were out in force in Lime Street, Liverpool, to control well-wishers who turned out to welcome Tommy at the end of a nine-day challenge which the Liverpool Echo referred to as ‘Burns’s Great Feat’.

He appeared at theatres around the country, demonstrating athletic talents from speed walking and running to comic boxing.

He became a master of disguise to outwit police and railway officials who tried to stop him diving from bridges. He dressed as a farmer, miner, newsboy, old woman, and a female market worker.

On several occasions, he made death-defying dives from moving trains into rivers and docks.

On Derby Day 1896 he dived into the Thames from three London bridges before jogging 14 miles to Epsom in time to see the big race.

He stayed underwater in the sea at Douglas, Isle of Man, for 4min 2sec. In a contest in Liverpool, he remained underwater for 3min 58sec.

He swam with an alligator in an exhibition tank at Liverpool and in 1892, he killed a shark which attacked him during his swimming display in the sea off New Brighton.

He appeared before the Lord Mayor of London in 1896 after being arrested for diving off London Bridge. He was let off after promising not to do it again.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Rwandan Deputy High Commissioner in Liverpool Town Hall

Yesterday the City of Liverpool laid a memorial stone in St John's Gardens to commemorate those massacred in the Rwanda Genocide of 1994.

The city's small Rwandan community commemorates the atrocities every year in a service in the Town Hall and it was suggested last year that it would be very positive and supportive if we could create a permanent memorial for people to visit.

To pay tribute to the City for its thoughtful act, the Deputy High Commissioner, Mrs Linda Kalimba today visited the Lord Mayor, Councillor Sharon Sullivan to convey a message of thanks from her country.

Mrs Kalimba was accompanied by Philomene Uwamaliya who was a survivor of the massacre and now lives in Liverpool. Philomene was a friend of Kensington Remembers for many years and it was lovely to see her again. I attended the visit on behalf of Mayor Joe Anderson and it was a real pleasure to sit with these strong women, a few days after International Women's Day, and hear about their tremendous hard work to rebuild the country.

Mrs Kalimba gave a gift to the city, through the Lord Mayor, of an Agaseke, a peace basket. These baskets are traditional Rwandan items, every home would have one for the woman to keep her private household papers in. However, since the massacre these special baskets are now woven by groups of women survivors, sitting together, some them being victims having lost loved ones, and others being relatives of their murderers. And the women use this weaving opportunity to talk to each other about their hurt and to learn to heal the rifts between them. The baskets are sold through co-operatives to help these women to earn a living. You can make a donation to the project via the link above.

I also took the opportunity to tell  Mrs Kalimba about the speech from Aime-Claude Ndongozi who talked about his experiences as a Rwandan at the 2012 Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration in the Town Hall.

The Chief Executive was represented by Simon from the Regeneration Team.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Visiting FareShare Merseyside: Food Bank Distributor

My two ward councillor colleagues and I visited the FareShare Merseyside distribution centre recently to help us understand how food banks work and where they get their food from. We are interested in using some of our devolved budget to support the establishment of food banks in the Kensington and Fairfield area because we have heard that currently our residents who are in need are having to travel or walk several miles to the two nearest ones. 
We have been in touch with some local churches who indicated they might want to help with this so we thought a visit to the FareShare project would be useful. 
We took two of the Council’s Neighbourhood Ward Support Officers with us too so that they could spread the word while engaging elsewhere in the city. 
We learnt that FareShare is a national organisation with depots around the country. Each depot receives a share of food from the national depot, which has been sent to them from supermarkets and manufacturers where for some reason they are not able to put it on their own shelves. So for instance a tray of beans may have been labelled as having 450g of beans but the conveyor belt in the factory might have blipped and only filled them with 430g. Or the line might have been discontinued, or there may have been a production over run so that 2000 jars of sauce were made when an order only required 1500. The surplus food and foodstuff is then given away to FareShare rather than thrown away, put into landfill or incinerated.
They have no say what they will receive, when we were there there had for example been a recent delivery of masses of apple juice, but this might be a one-off, they may never receive apple juice again.
The foodstuffs are then appropriately stored in the depot and hard working volunteers sort it out according to its use by date. We marvelled at some of the food that had found its way to FareShare, there were tins of soup and beans, pasta and sauces, coffee and cereal but also obscure things like half a dozen tins of Pannetone cake and a crate of windscreen de-icer. We even spied a couple of bird boxes!
FareShare then parcel up an agreed amount of food for each of the food banks and subsidised luncheon clubs that they serve, and other volunteers drive vans every day to deliver the food to them ready to distribute to those in need. 
Some food banks collect extra food from shoppers in local supermarkets to supplement the food they have delivered from FareShare.
It costs something in the order of £700 per year for a food bank to buy into the service and to have the food delivered to them as required. 
We were extremely impressed with the dedication of the staff and volunteers and will be delighted to fund two or three of these memberships to help local people in need to eat. 
You can keep up with the good work of FareShare by following them on Twitter @faresharemersey 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Huge Wavertree Jobs Fair this Friday

If you are looking for work and you live in Liverpool and particularly in Kensington, Fairfield, Old Swan, Childwall, Penny Lane, Smithdown, Wavetree, then you need to put this date in your diary

Friday 15th March 2013

10am - 4pm

Devonshire House Hotel on Edge Lane

Luciana Berger MP has set up a big Jobs Fair.

She has arranged for over 50 exhibitors with over 460 jobs/apprenticeships on offer.

These are real jobs at real places - like Alder Hey Hospital for instance or Barclaycard

There is also going to be an advice hub where people can talk about benefits/ child care/ setting up their own business and so on.

There will be help with putting together a CV and some facilities to allow you to apply for jobs there and then, online, if that particular employer prefers it that way.

Luciana has arranged for 25,000 fliers/posters to be delivered around the constituency and has been on several radio shows, talking about the jobs fair so that people who are looking for work will find out about it. And there is a dedicated website for the Wavertree Jobs Fair

Please spread the word!

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Bedroom Tax: Could a Social Landlord Hardship Fund make the difference?

As a member of the Board of Venture Housing Association in Liverpool I have been looking with colleagues at the resources available to us to protect our tenants from hugely damaging Welfare Reform changes. 

This year VHA have committed £30k to fund independent Welfare Benefits Advisors and Benefit and Income Maximisation teams who are available for and proactively contacting our tenants.

It is a great service but I still think we could do more.

So yesterday afternoon I was sitting with a group of our rent team and housing officers and asking them to help think of ways in which we could protect those tenants for whom life is about to become absolutely unbearable. We tossed lots of ideas around, but most were ruled out "Illegal", "Dishonest", "Unfair". And then one of the staff who has been with the Association for nearly 30 years suggested that - like the old days - we could set up our own hardship fund. A fund where we set aside a chunk of money to help people who have been unable to access the (woefully inadequate) Discretionary Relief Fund and where we think they have a strong case for support; perhaps people to whom we have no smaller properties to offer and are only a year short of receiving that all important Pension Credit, or whose children will be 10 years old next year and will be forced to move out of the area and away from their schools. And perhaps people who cannot pay their council tax or are hugely affected by the changes to non-dependent family members status could be helped while we wait to rehouse them.

I have put the idea to the Director of Housing and asked her to look at the figures, work up some suitable criteria and a scheme plan if at all possible. She will hopefully be in a position to report to the Board on the viability of the idea before the end of the month at our Strategic Away Day. I don't know whether we will be able to find the money or make the figures stack up in the business plan, but my instinct tells me that we are on to something here. I also take heart from the fact that she sits on the RP Welfare Reform Group for Liverpool (all of the Housing Associations getting together to pool ideas and resources to protect their tenants) and can discuss the idea with them, perhaps some of them already do this, in which case it needs advertising more widely.

Venture is not a big association, we only have 1300 properties and we don't have huge reserves, but I like to think we are big on social values. If any association can do this, I believe Venture can and I will be pushing very hard for this if it is viable.

If you are a member of a Housing Association Board, please talk to your SMT about this option too.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Taking the bedroom tax campaign nationwide

Labour Against the Bedroom Tax
I seem to have worked on little but fighting the bedroom tax for months now. I wrote about planned Welfare Reform in Housing in September 2010 when the idea first began to trickle through and of course we have been examining it in great detail at Finance and Resources which I chair, as well as within the Labour Group and on the Board of my Housing Association - trying to work out what we could do to mitigate it. But we have failed to excite people's attention until very recently and it was hard to get a debate going outside of those kinds of groups.

Now of course we are only 4 weeks away from implementation and it is the hottest topic around.

People often say things like "You are all the same, everyone out for themselves, nobody cares about us, nothing changes, it doesn't matter who I vote for, or whether I vote". 

That is the kind of comment that really challenges people like me who are elected representatives. It spurs us on to do more, to work harder, to make a difference and to prove we are worthy of the honour of public office. 

In tandem with that urge to make a difference, sometimes something comes up where you feel an absolute imperative to act. Not to shake your head and think "What a terrible situation this is, what a dreadful shame, what a pity that little old me cannot do anything about it" but instead to decide that you simply wont accept it and something must be done.

And so I have found myself drawing a personal line in the sand over the bedroom tax.

It seemed obvious to me that we needed to get some real momentum going behind a national campaign to fight this horrible policy; that we need to tell the real stories of the people who will be affected and ultimately force the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats into scrapping the policy through a combination of shame and electoral expediency. 

So I approached the Labour councillors in Liverpool and asked for their support to launch a grassroots Labour campaign to fight it. A campaign that would not just run in Liverpool - because no Liberal Democrat or Tory MP would care a fig about the people of our city, they have proved that time and again, but a campaign that would run in every town and city in the country. A campaign that would run in their own back yards with their own constituents telling their dreadful stories and bringing the message.

My Labour colleagues have been generous with their time and even more importantly with their money, and last week we launched Labour Against the Bedroom Tax. It is a simple campaign, to collect and tell people's stories and to provide petitions and posters to help local Labour members across the country go out and campaign in their own areas. We have a Facebook page and a Twitter account @LabourNoBedTax where we can share news of events and updates on the latest situation, any legal challenges and so on. 

I have been delighted with the response, Labour Party members everywhere are as angry as I am. We already have hundreds of followers and members and have sent out campaign packs all over the country, to Glasgow, Edinburgh, Luton, Manchester, Halifax, Hull, Eccles, Monmouth, Leeds, Reading, Cambridge, Dundee, Ashford, Corby, Chester, Cardiff, St Austell and Newquay, Stockton on Tees and many more. 

We have also been  handling dozens of cases where people are in desperate straits and need assistance with knowing what to do. I have been able to recruit volunteers who are mucking in, taking on cases, helping with the Twitter account and managing the Facebook page. We have a tremendous team of mainstream Labour Party members in Britain who are giving up hours of their time to get the campaign running strongly.

We are all absolutely clear that the Bedroom Tax is pernicious and must be scrapped. I am heartened by Liam Byrne's announcement of a national Labour Party campaign yesterday (who says members have no power or influence? We had only been running for a week when they started to listen!).

He said 

David Cameron’s Bedroom Tax tells you all you need to know about him and his government.

He’s hitting families of soldiers serving our country who will have to find extra money for their son or daughter’s bedroom, and foster families helping children in need of a home.

He is making disabled people in council and housing association homes pay more when they need more space due to their disability.

Divorced parents whose kids come to stay are being affected. Grandparents will pay more.

And at exactly the same time as the bedroom tax comes into effect he is giving thousands of millionaires a tax cut of £100,000 a year.
This isn’t about tough choices, it’s about the wrong choices.

It is not everything we want but it is a great start.

If you want to join our campaign, please follow the links.