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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CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

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