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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Everything you ever wanted to know about the Seoul Metro System but were too afraid to ask

Gwanghwamoon subway station on line 5 in Seoul, 2010. Image: Getty.

Seoul’s metro system carries 7m passengers a day across 1,000 miles of track. The system is as much a regional commuter railway as an urban subway system. Without technically leaving the network, one can travel from Asan over 50 miles to the south of central Seoul, all the way up to the North Korean border 20 miles north of the city.

Fares are incredibly low for a developed country. A basic fare of 1,250 won (about £1) will allow you to travel 10km; it’s only an extra 100 won (about 7p) to travel every additional 5km on most lines.

The trains are reasonably quick: maximum speeds of 62mph and average operating speeds of around 20mph make them comparable to London Underground. But the trains are much more spacious, air conditioned and have wi-fi access. Every station also has protective fences, between platform and track, to prevent suicides and accidents.

The network

The  service has a complex system of ownership and operation. The Seoul Metro Company (owned by Seoul City council) operates lines 5-8 on its own, but lines 1-4 are operated jointly with Korail, the state-owned national rail company. Meanwhile, Line 9 is operated jointly between Trans-Dev (a French company which operates many buses in northern England) and RATP (The Parisian version of TfL).

Then there’s Neotrans, owned by the Korean conglomerate Doosan, which owns and operates the driverless Sinbundang line. The Incheon city government, which borders Seoul to the west, owns and operates Incheon Line 1 and Line 2.

The Airport Express was originally built and owned by a corporation jointly owned by 11 large Korean firms, but is now mostly owned by Korail. The Uijeongbu light railway is currently being taken over by the Uijeongbu city council (that one’s north of Seoul) after the operating company went bankrupt. And the Everline people mover is operated by a joint venture owned by Bombardier and a variety of Korean companies.

Seoul’s subway map. Click to expand. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The rest of the lines are operated by the national rail operator Korail. The fare structure is either identical or very similar for all of these lines. All buses and trains in the region are accessible with a T-money card, similar to London’s Oyster card. Fares are collected centrally and then distributed back to operators based on levels of usage.

Funding

The Korean government spends around £27bn on transport every year: that works out at 10 per cent more per person than the British government spends.  The Seoul subway’s annual loss of around £200m is covered by this budget.

The main reason the loss is much lower than TfL’s £458m is that, despite Seoul’s lower fares, it also has much lower maintenance costs. The oldest line, Line 1 is only 44 years old.


Higher levels of automation and lower crime rates also mean there are fewer staff. Workers pay is also lower: a newly qualified driver will be paid around £27,000 a year compared to £49,000 in London.

New infrastructure is paid for by central government. However, investment in the capital does not cause the same regional rivalries as it does in the UK for a variety of reasons. Firstly, investment is not so heavily concentrated in the capital. Five other cities have subways; the second city of Busan has an extensive five-line network.

What’s more, while investment is still skewed towards Seoul, it’s a much bigger city than London, and South Korea is physically a much smaller country than the UK (about the size of Scotland and Wales combined). Some 40 per cent of the national population lives on the Seoul network – and everyone else who lives on the mainland can be in Seoul within 3 hours.

Finally, politically the biggest divide in South Korea is between the south-west and the south-east (the recently ousted President Park Geun-Hye won just 11 per cent of the vote in the south west, while winning 69 per cent in the south-east). Seoul is seen as neutral territory.  

Problems

A driverless train on the Shinbundang Line. Image: Wikicommons.

The system is far from perfect. Seoul’s network is highly radial. It’s incredibly cheap and easy to travel from outer lying areas to the centre, and around the centre itself. But travelling from one of Seoul’s satellite cities to another by public transport is often difficult. A journey from central Goyang (population: 1m) to central Incheon (population: 3m) is around 30 minutes by car. By public transport, it takes around 2 hours. There is no real equivalent of the London Overground.

There is also a lack of fast commuter services. The four-track Seoul Line 1 offers express services to Incheon and Cheonan, and some commuter towns south of the city are covered by intercity services. But most large cities of hundreds of thousands of people within commuting distance (places comparable to Reading or Milton Keynes) are reliant on the subway network, and do not have a fast rail link that takes commuters directly to the city centre.

This is changing however with the construction of a system modelled on the Paris RER and London’s Crossrail. The GTX will operate at maximum speed of 110Mph. The first line (of three planned) is scheduled to open in 2023, and will extend from the new town of Ilsan on the North Korean border to the new town of Dongtan about 25km south of the city centre.

The system will stop much less regularly than Crossrail or the RER resulting in drastic cuts in journey times. For example, the time from llsan to Gangnam (of Gangnam Style fame) will be cut from around 1hr30 to just 17 minutes. When the three-line network is complete most of the major cities in the region will have a direct fast link to Seoul Station, the focal point of the GTX as well as the national rail network. A very good public transport network is going to get even better.