Where did Liverpool start?

Liverpool waterfront, c1930. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

Continuing our occasional series of working out where major cities actually started.

London started as a river crossing, Birmingham as a village with a market, Manchester as a Roman camp. Liverpool, though – Liverpool started with its docks.

That, at least, is what I’d assumed. After all, a trip to the very fine Museum of Liverpool last autumn had taught me that Liverpool had once been home to the world’s first commercial wet dock, known various as Old Dock (for obvious reasons) or Thomas Steers’ dock (for less obvious ones; he was the engineer responsible). That same trip brought home something fundamental about the city to me: that its historic dependence on its docks explained both why a million people had chosen to move there in the first place, and why it’s no longer the economic powerhouse it once was.

Except on closer inspection it turns out that isn’t the whole story. For more than half of Liverpool’s history, in fact, there weren’t any docks. So – where did Liverpool actually start?

The name Liverpool first appears in the record in around 1190 as “Liuerpul”. The first bit of the name seems to have meant “muddy”, or possibly “full of eels”, but the second is pretty literal: the pool was a real inlet from the River Mersey.

The town itself seems to date from the early 13th century. Unusually, in fact, we have an exact date: 28 August 1207, a Tuesday, when the ever popular King John published letters patent inviting people to join a new settlement besides the pool. Being King John, his motives seem to have been to weaken the local aristocracy. A new port, he thought, would enable him to get troops to and from Ireland without the permission of the Earl of Chester, Ranulf de Blondeville, who had made clear he didn’t like him very much.

King John was dead within a decade, but the settlement he helped found thrived. By the mid 1230s, there was a castle; by 1257, a church, that of St Nicholas.

The church is still there; the castle is gone, though, neglected and demolished during the 18th century, though there’s a placard on the Victoria Monument in Derby Square to mark its site:

The Victoria Monument, Derby Square, Liverpool. Image: Irate/Wikipedia Commons.

What of the pool itself? That’s not there any more, either – but it did provide the city with its first dock.

I said earlier that Old Dock was the world’s first commercial wet dock. That’s true, but the key word there is “commercial”. Man-made docks had been built in India and Egypt as early as 2500BCE, and Howland Great Dock had opened off the River Thames in Rotherhithe, then in Surrey, in 1703. (It’s still there today, better known as Greenland Dock.)


What made Liverpool’s first dock special was that it was relatively high-tech. Howland Great Dock was basically just a man-made pond; Liverpool’s equivalent had quays, warehouses and all the other things industrial shipping lines would need to function.

The idea came from the town council, but the actual engineering was the work of Thomas Steers, a Londoner by birth. His plan was to partially fill in the pool, line it with quay walls, and build a lock to cut it off from tidal changes in the Mersey.

The 3.5 acre dock opened in 1715, with space for 100 ships, and, although the town already existed, it was the opening of the port that made it a city. As the century wore on, Transatlantic trade – including, upsettingly, the slave trade – boomed, and Liverpool boomed with it. In 1790, the new-born United States opened its first oversees consulate in Liverpool.

By then, though, Old Dock was already being left behind. The town needed more, and bigger, docks, capable of serving the newer, bigger ships. Ultimately, it would get 7.5 miles of them, stretching from Brunswick Dock in the south to Seaforth in the North.

So on 31 August 1826 (a Thursday), Old Dock closed, and was swiftly filled in: the original pool was no more. The site was reused: for a while it held Steers House, an office block; later it became a car park.

But part of the dock wall was uncovered during the construction of the Liverpool One shopping centre. The Merseyside Maritime Museum runs free tours; if you can’t make that, there’s a porthole.

The porthole on the aptly named Thomas Streers Way. Image: Mike Peel/creative commons.

So: Liverpool was named for a pool, which became a dock, which hasn’t been there for nearly 200 years. Which is oddly sad.

Anyway: here’s a map of the key sites of early Liverpool, laid onto today’s street plan.

The sights of Ye Old Liverpool. Click to expand.

If I was feeling mischievous, I’d note that the two key figures in Liverpool’s development were a London-born engineer, inspired by a project he’d spotted in the capital, and the worst monarch in English history. But people from Liverpool tend to write letters, so I won’t.

(Thanks to Gary Bainbridge for his help on finding Old Dock.)

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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A growing number of voters will never own their own home. Why is the government ignoring them?

A lettings agent window. Image: Getty.

The dream of a property-owning democracy continues to define British housing policy. From Right-to-Buy to Help-to-Buy, policies are framed around the model of the ‘first-time buyer’ and her quest for property acquisition. The goal of Philip Hammond’s upcoming budget – hailed as a major “intervention” in the “broken” housing market – is to ensure that “the next generation will have the same opportunities as their parents to own a home.”

These policies are designed for an alternative reality. Over the last two decades, the dream of the property-owning democracy has come completely undone. While government schemes used to churn out more home owners, today it moves in reverse.

Generation Rent’s new report, “Life in the Rental Sector”, suggests that more Britons are living longer in the private rental sector. We predict the number of ‘silver renters’ – pensioners in the private rental sector – will rise to one million by 2035, a three-fold increase from today.

These renters have drifted way beyond the dream of home ownership: only 11 per cent of renters over 65 expect to own a home. Our survey results show that these renters are twice as likely than renters in their 20s to prefer affordable rental tenure over homeownership.

Lowering stamp duty or providing mortgage relief completely miss the point. These are renters – life-long renters – and they want rental relief: guaranteed tenancies, protection from eviction, rent inflation regulation.

The assumption of a British ‘obsession’ with homeownership – which has informed so much housing policy over the years – stands on flimsy ground. Most of the time, it is based on a single survey question: Would you like to rent a home or own a home? It’s a preposterous question, of course, because, well, who wouldn’t like to own a home at a time when the chief economist of the Bank of England has made the case for homes as a ‘better bet’ for retirement than pensions?


Here we arrive at the real toxicity of the property-owning dream. It promotes a vicious cycle: support for first-time buyers increases demand for home ownership, fresh demand raises house prices, house price inflation turns housing into a profitable investment, and investment incentives stoke preferences for home ownership all over again.

The cycle is now, finally, breaking. Not without pain, Britons are waking up to the madness of a housing policy organised around home ownership. And they are demanding reforms that respect renting as a life-time tenure.

At the 1946 Conservative Party conference, Anthony Eden extolled the virtues of a property-owning democracy as a defence against socialist appeal. “The ownership of property is not a crime or a sin,” he said, “but a reward, a right and responsibility that must be shared as equitable as possible among all our citizens.”

The Tories are now sleeping in the bed they have made. Left out to dry, renters are beginning to turn against the Conservative vision. The election numbers tell the story of this left-ward drift of the rental sector: 29 per cent of private renters voted Labour in 2010, 39 in 2015, and 54 in June.

Philip Hammond’s budget – which, despite its radicalism, continues to ignore the welfare of this rental population – is unlikely to reverse this trend. Generation Rent is no longer simply a class in itself — it is becoming a class for itself, as well.

We appear, then, on the verge of a paradigm shift in housing policy. As the demographics of the housing market change, so must its politics. Wednesday’s budget signals that even the Conservatives – the “party of homeownership” – recognise the need for change. But it only goes halfway.

The gains for any political party willing to truly seize the day – to ditch the property-owning dream once and for all, to champion a property-renting one instead – are there for the taking. 

David Adler is a research association at the campaign group Generation Rent.

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