Liverpool Tram, Brompton Avenue c.1900

Having written about the tram travelling up Park Road and past the Ancient Chapel recently (click here to view that post) I recently acquired this modern print of a photograph dating from about the same period of a tram taken on Croxteth Road.

For me it is very easy to identify this as being taken on Croxteth Road just at the junction with Brompton Avenue. Just out of shot on the right was Sefton Park Presbyterian Church, then still the church of John Watson, otherwise known as best selling author Ian Maclaren. This tram stop was, according to a number of accounts, identified by the conductor to passengers as “Dr Watson’s Church”. I have written about this Church before here.

Tram Brompton Avenue 03 crop 01

It must have been an important junction, the trams seem to have made relatively long stops there, they certainly appear on postcards of Sefton Park Church, the crew happily posing for the photographer, so they must have had reason to hang around.


Detail of a postcard view of Sefton Park Church, showing a tram waiting in the same spot

There are also clearly extra crew members included here in the photograph, with an inspector stepping on to the tram. Was this, perhaps, a place where crews changed over? On the top deck you can see the seats that could be pushed to face the other way when the tram got to the end of the line.

Tram Brompton Avenue 03 crop 03

And to the right of the tram stand an elegant Edwardian couple.

Tram Brompton Avenue 03 crop 04


Images of Rev John Watson


In 1893 B. Guinness Orchard in Liverpool’s Legion of Honour declared the Rev John Watson to be “the successful pastor of the most important and active among our local congregations.” In (by his standards) fairly restrained prose Orchard outlined the minister’s achievements: every sitting in the church was let, the number of communicants had risen from 133 to 949, three new causes had been founded, £70,000 raised for congregational activities. The list of achievements was a long one and, Orchard added rather cryptically, “To his congregation his doctrinal teaching is quite acceptable”.

John Watson had already achieved a position of some eminence in his adopted city. In his twenty five years in the ministry at Sefton Park Presbyterian Church he also became centrally involved and prominent in civic life. But Orchard was writing just on the cusp of a new departure for John Watson; his first novel – Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush – was published in the following year. As Ian Maclaren he became a top selling novelist whose fame stretched around the English-speaking world.

As a clergyman/novelist he reached an extraordinary level of fame. He published theology under his own name which sold exceptionally well resulting in highly popular lecturing tours of the USA and honorary DDs from St Andrews and Yale.

As I have mentioned in a previous post

his fame was such that his image was reproduced on a cigarette card. It is a very small card but it is very cleanly printed.


I recently discovered that a separate series of cigarette cards was also issued in Australia by Ogden’s in about 1905 which also included an image of John Watson. I don’t possess an example of this card although it was less well printed than the British one. It re-used a photograph taken by top London photographers Elliot & Fry. The same image was published as a postcard in the ‘Star Series’:


There was a great demand for images of John Watson. Popular prints of him were sold but with the sudden impact of the postcard at the turn of the century his image became rather more widely diffused. Market leaders Rotary sold this postcard of John Watson:


Taken probably for a magazine in what is almost certainly the front room of the manse in Sefton Drive he leans against the fireplace in front of a picture of the Last Supper. It is interesting how the different aspects of his character blended into one. He was an effective and highly successful minister with extensive involvement in many aspects of local life and national church life. But he was also a much sought after author of popular novels. Yet although his novels are still in print and although something of a niche area are still read, his theology, which also sold in tens of thousands, is now forgotten.

His fame was tied up with his church. I have many examples of postcards of his church in Sefton Park, it was a popular subject. The one at the top of this post shows the church in the background but suggests the importance of its site on a main arterial route through the suburbs. Tram conductors would call out the name of the nearby stop as Dr Watson’s church and the detail on this postcard shows a tram stopped near the junction, its driver and conductor hanging around to be in the photograph:


Another feature of all photographs of the exterior of the church is that someone (or sometimes two people) always stood in the middle of the road slightly to the right of the main gate. Was this something demanded by the photographers to give some idea of scale? It is strange how that space is always occupied. Sometimes by a young person staring at the camera other times by someone with their back to the camera and sometimes by a couple in animated conversation. But the title always takes the same form, it is ‘Dr Watsons’s Church’ or ‘Ian Maclaren’s Chapel’. The terms are used interchangeably even by local publishers Wrench.

The Walker Art Gallery has two contemporary portraits of John Watson but these are not on show and I suspect have never been on show. They are both striking examples of late nineteenth-century portraiture and can be found online. But his likeness still circulates on postcards and cigarette cards, a continuing reflection of his late Victorian and Edwardian fame.

Rev John Watson: Ogden’s ‘Guinea Gold Cigarettes’

Some people like collecting things, other people discard anything that has no practical usefulness. For some collecting is a bug and whether it is stickers containing the likenesses of premiership footballers or paintings by Picasso costing millions of pounds or anything in between there is no shortage of those who, in the search for completeness or because of a desire to own something rare or unique, will buy things, sometimes at any price. While the artistic merit of a Picasso may (or may not) be appreciated by all and sundry the wonders of a sticker book containing all the footballers of the 1970 World Cup, for instance, will appeal only to the cognoscenti. But little things, small objects, printed ephemera and all the material that so many people would condemn as junk do tell a story, they can be interesting and open up another view of the world and who we are.

Rev John Watson
Rev John Watson

The picture above is a cigarette card. Starting before the end of the nineteenth century these became keenly collected, often by children and no doubt they helped to introduce new generations to smoking. They faded away in the 1950s and wouldn’t be allowed now, but old sets are still collected, early and rare examples attracting high prices of over £1,000 per card. Some of the early series are very informative, and others are very attractive in their design. But this card, once given away free and now worth a couple of pounds, is both a symbol of the early development of the modern cult of celebrity and an illustration of how important non-conformist churches were 100 years ago.

The card depicts Ian MacLaren an incredibly popular writer in about 1905 when the card was printed. He was one of the members of the kailyard school, writers of sentimental stories of Scottish rural life which enjoyed great popularity at the time. Their title came from a line of Burns quoted in MacLaren’s most popular book Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush:

There grows a bonnie brier bush in our kail-yard

And white are the blossoms on’t in our kail-yard.

J.M Barrie (the author of Peter Pan) was the most notable of this group but MacLaren’s books sold in Britain and America in their tens of thousands, indeed some are still in print today although read by a fairly specialised audience. But MacLaren’s fame as an author was closely bound up with his career as a Presbyterian minister. Ian MacLaren was a pseudonym and as John Watson he ministered to the Presbyterian Church in Sefton Park, Liverpool for 25 years with great success, from 1880 to 1905. He assembled an enormous congregation, those who held seats in his church had to be in place half an hour before the service began or else their seats would be given to visitors who queued up outside. Developing out of his ministry he became the most popular writer on theological topics of his day, certainly from within the non-conformist churches. His theology was quite liberal and at one point he was threatened with a charge of heresy from within his denomination (the Presbyterian Church of England). He was certainly liberal enough for the Rev John Hamilton Thom to complain about the removal of the Renshaw Street Unitarian congregation to Ullet Road – a location very close to Ian MacLaren’s church. He claimed that a number of Unitarians had already joined his church without changing their theology and that a move to the suburbs might result in further drift away to hear such a successful preacher.

But above everything else John Watson was the most prominent of all the Presbyterian Church of England ministers of his day. He assisted in the establishment of the University of Liverpool (which brought him into the orbit of many Unitarians) and his leadership and fundraising exertions resulted in the establishment of Westminster College, Cambridge in 1899, which became the main Presbyterian theological college. The following year he was moderator of his church. Invited to tour the United States and lecture in Yale University and other places his theological publications also became best sellers and his influence spread far and wide within the churches. And so famous was he that when Ogden’s produced a new series of ‘Famous People’ Cigarette Cards in about 1905, a set that possibly included actors, actresses, generals, politicians, sportsmen and writers they couldn’t leave out John Watson/Ian MacLaren. It was all part of the level of fame he had achieved in his day and age and so his portrait, in his clerical collar, was printed to go inside packs of Ogden’s Guinea Gold Cigarettes and no doubt eagerly sought by those anxious for the full set. It is hard to imagine what the exact equivalent would be in today’s celebrity terms but we can be pretty certain that no member of the clergy, not even the Archbishop of Canterbury, could expect to reach such a dizzy height.