Liverpool's Old Dock and the Maritime Trade of the North West Print E-mail
By Jamie Quartermaine

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Improvements in transport played an integral part in the Industrial Revolution. Better transport capacity was essential not only to move raw materials to manufacturing sites, but also to distribute goods to market. As national and international markets expanded during the 18th and 19th centuries, both shipping and docks were the subject of sustained campaigns of development and improvement. The west coast of Britain was particularly important for trade with Ireland and the Americas, and OA North has been investigating the history and development of the ports of north-west Britain, of which the most famous is Liverpool.

The oldest port in the region was at Chester, which has the remains of a Roman quay just outside the Roman legionary fortress of Deva. Chester remained an important port throughout the medieval period, and was well-placed for trade with Ireland. By the 16th century, however, competition from elsewhere, combined with increasing silting of the river, had put the port of Chester into an irreversible decline. 

An engraving of Lancaster port in its eighteenth century heyday (courtesy of Lancaster City Museums)
An engraving of Lancaster port in its eighteenth century heyday (courtesy of Lancaster City Museums)
The port of Lancaster developed during the medieval period. In its heyday (between 1750 and 1800) its trade routes included the West Indies and the American colonies. Again there were problems of silting of the river and in an attempt to delay the inevitable a dock was built at Glasson on the south side of the Lune estuary. A natural anchorage at Whitehaven, in West Cumbria, was developed into a port in 1633 by Sir John Lowther to accommodate the export of salt and coal. The town and port reached a peak in the mid 18th century when Whitehaven was one of the larger ports in Britain, but it then declined because its shallow waters restricted the use of larger ships.
Sketch of original

Liverpool itself developed rapidly from very humble origins. It is first documented in 1190, and was granted Royal Borough status in 1207, but by the mid 16th century it was still only a small place, with a population of 700 people. The town was located adjacent to a natural shallow tidal inlet off the river Mersey, which was fed by streams and was called the Pool, the origin of the town’s famous name. The Pool provided a harbour for small-scale fishing and limited trading, but it was almost unusable for any maritime docking. Ships had to be unloaded on the shores of the Mersey itself, but its tidal range of as much as 30ft made this a lengthy and difficult process.

Plan of Liverpool by John Eyes (1765)
Plan of Liverpool by John Eyes (1765)

Liverpool’s fortunes changed decisively in the early 18th century, with the construction of the world’s first enclosed wet dock within the Pool. This was designed and overseen by Thomas Steers, and built between 1710 and 1716. The novelty of his scheme was that the dock was entirely enclosed with gates at its entrance and was able to maintain a consistent water level for unloading and loading. Ships and water would enter the dock at high tide, and the gates would then prevent the water running out of the dock as the tide ebbed. The effect of this was that a ship could unload in 1.5 days as opposed to the 12-14 needed when unloading was governed by the ebb and flow of the tides.

19th century aerial engraving of the central docks showing the Customs House in place
19th century aerial engraving of the central docks showing the Customs House in place
Steers’ innovative dock (now known as the Old Dock) was an enormous success, and became a major port for tobacco, slavery and later cotton. It took significant trade from Chester, Bristol and London and briefly became the greatest seaport in Britain around 1860, although London had overtaken it again by the end of the century.

The success of the Old Dock led to a huge programme of dock building at Liverpool, but even this could only just keep up with the demands of expanding trade. When the Old Dock was completed the annual tonnage of shipping being serviced by the port was 37,200. By 1800 this had increased to 400,000, and by 1900, inward shipping alone had risen to 12.4 million tonnes, by which time the docks extended along five miles of Merseyside frontage. In the space of less than a hundred years the Old Dock itself became too small to meet the ever-increasing needs of the port, and in 1811 it was backfilled.

A large Customs House was built on the site in 1826, which was itself destroyed in devastating bombing raids during the Second World War. In the 1960s a series of concrete buildings were constructed on the site, and demolished some thirty years later in 1999. 

North wall of dock
Although its history was well documented, it was not known if anything of the original dock survived, and when the site came up for redevelopment OA North were brought in to investigate. Remarkably, we found that the dock wall survives extremely well, but at considerable depth; in places the wall top is as much as 3.5 m below modern ground level.  We excavated a very deep trench, down to a depth of 6 m, in order to reveal the 3.7 m-high wall and a wooden fender against it. The wall itself is in very good condition, with two courses of large yellow sandstone blocks for a kerb, on top of courses of handmade bricks.

On the north side of the dock, the evaluation revealed organic deposits containing considerable amounts of worked timber and the potential for other organic material to survive. Unfortunately we were not able to investigate these deposits because of ground contamination.

View of the Albert Dock in the central part of the Merseyside frontage (copyright English Heritage)
View of the Albert Dock in the central part of the Merseyside frontage (© English Heritage)
The three Graces are central to the Liverpool City Council's bid for world heritage status for the site (© English Heritage).

Our work has shown that the Old Dock, the world’s oldest closed wet dock and the founding structure of Liverpool’s docklands, still survives. The significance of this and the other docks is reflected in the recent application by Liverpool City Council to UNESCO for World Heritage Site status.