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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Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.