Dockers and seafarers, merchants and shipowners – all of them formed and shaped by the unpredictability of maritime trade – created a city dependent on the sea that has long been one of the most cosmopolitan, culturally fertile places in Europe. Liverpool's famously independent spirit expressed itself in the city's turbulent, occasionally violent, politics and almost every other aspect of the city's life. With an unusually high proportion of the male population away at sea at any given time, women played a much more important role than they did elsewhere, creating a culture quite different from that in other British cities.
This revised and updated e-book version of Tony Lane's highly praised Liverpool: City of the Sea takes the city's history into the twenty-first century, proving once again that Liverpool continues to inspire argument and passion like nowhere else.
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Praise for Liverpool
City of the Sea
By Tony Lane
Serif BooksCopyright © 2015 Tony Lane
All rights reserved.
CITY OF THE SEA
If New York is the Empire State Building and Paris the Eiffel Tower, Liverpool is the Royal Liver Building. Although attacked by some architectural critics for its vulgarity – 'swagger though coarse', says Pevsner – painters, poster artists and television producers needing an instantly recognisable image of Liverpool always have the building somewhere in frame.
When the Liver Building was opened in 1910 its clock mechanisms were boastfully presented as being the largest of their kind. By way of underlining such a trivial fact, the Royal Liver directors ate dinner off one of the clockfaces before it was put in place. That flamboyant gesture was of a piece with the times and the assertiveness that was even then so characteristically Liverpool.
The city was at its peak in 1910. Victoria, only recently dead, had not long been translated from mere monarch to Empress. In Liverpool, especially, the promotion must have seemed right. Red -ensigned merchant ships carried half of the world's entire water -borne international trade and the most potently famous ships of British mercantile power, the Cunard and White Star liners, were operated from grandiose head offices on the Liverpool waterfront. Liverpool was the western gateway to the world.
So many and so large were the fleets of passenger and cargo liners crewed by Liverpudlians, swarmed over and serviced by tens of thousands of other citizens, that the scale and intensity of ocean -going and coastal traffic made Liverpool a city-port like none ever seen before. A local journalist and politician said in the 1920s that the Pierhead, where the Liver Building stands, was a 'threshold to the ends of the earth'. A permanent reminder of the truth of that statement were the huge, verdigrised cormorants (reclassified locally as 'Liver birds') atop the Liver Building's twin cupolas, their wings outstretched to the Atlantic winds.
Calling at Liverpool in 1770 during his tour of some of the northern counties, Arthur Young said little of the city except that its glory was 'the docks for the shipping, which are much superior to any mercantile ones in Britain'. Remarks to that effect were common then and continued to be so in the century that followed. Liverpool's people became accustomed to thinking of themselves as belonging to a city with a place in the world. Horizons were seldom lower than that. Never down to the region, and unthinkably not to the south-west corner of Lancashire.
The shipowners, merchants and bankers who epitomised Liverpool wealth were global operators who regularly needed to turn their backs on Lancashire and look outward to the countries bordering the Atlantic, Pacific and the Indian Oceans. Liverpool's seafarers, who brought the world home with them at the end of a voyage and stayed but a short time before embarking upon another, were no less cosmopolitan. Writing lyrically, but none the less accurately, Dixon Scott said of the port in 1907 that it was
the city's raison d'être, the chief orderer and distributor of her people's vocations; and in that way ... interweaves class with class, provides merchant, clerk, seamen, and dock-labourers with a common unifying interest.
Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century visitors were naturally impressed by the volume and tempo of shipping movements and cargo-handling, but what unfailingly overawed them was the engineering coup involved in impounding almost one-third of the breadth of the river to create a tideless waterway. The long line of the river wall enclosing the docks on the Liverpool side of the Mersey once marked the limit of low tide. Herman Melville was a typical admirer. Arriving in Liverpool on his first seafaring voyage in 1839, Melville began with slighting remarks on New York's port facilities and then compared Liverpool's dock with the Pyramids and the Great Wall of China. And if this now sounds extravagant, it was a commonplace comparison of its time.
Fifty years later Ramsay Muir, the University's professor of modern history, was no less impressed:
For seven miles and a quarter, on the Lancashire side of the river alone, the monumental granite, quarried from the [Mersey Docks and Harbour] Board's own quarries in Scotland, fronts the river in a vast sea wall as solid and enduring as the Pyramids ... Nor is this all. Immense ugly hoppers, with groanings and clankings, are perpetually at labour scooping out the channels of the estuary ... To a traveller with any imagination few spectacles present a more entrancing interest than that of these busy docks, crowded with the shipping of every nation, echoing to every tongue that is spoken on the seas, their wharves littered with strange commodities brought from all the shores of the oceans. It is here, beside the docks, that the citizen of Liverpool can best feel the opulent romance of his city.
River activity sent many writers reaching for their pens. Another American literary figure, Nathaniel Hawthorne, was installed as the United States' Consul in Liverpool in the 1840s. Living on the Birkenhead side of the river, he wrote in his diary that the
parlour window has given us a pretty good idea of the nautical business of Liverpool; the constant objects being the little black steamers, puffing unquietly along ... sometimes towing a long string of boats from Runcorn or otherwhere up the river, laden with goods; – and sometimes gallanting in or out a tall ship ... Now and then, after a blow at sea, a vessel comes in with her masts broken short off in the midst, and marks of rough handling about the hull. Once a week comes a Cunard steamer, with its red funnel pipe whitened by the salt spray; and firing off some cannon to announce her arrival, she moors to a large iron buoy in the middle of the river ... Immediately comes puffing towards her a little mail -steamer, to take away her mail-bags, and such of the passengers as choose to land; and for several hours afterwards, the Cunarder lies with smoke and steam coming out of her, as if she were smoking her pipe after some toilsome passage across the Atlantic.
Thirty years later the Reverend Francis Kilvert, better known now than then, wrote in his diary that he had been to Liverpool's Exchange:
one of the finest buildings of the kind in the world, and passing upstairs into the gallery and leaning upon the broad marble ledge we looked down upon a crowd of merchants and brokers swarming and humming like a hive of bees on the floor of the vast area below.
The next day Kilvert took to the river:
The Mersey was gay and almost crowded with vessels of all sorts moving up and down the river, ships, barques, brigs, brigantines, schooners, cutters, colliers, tugs, steamboats, lighters, 'flats', everything from the huge emigrant liner steamship with four masts to the tiny sailing and rowing boats. From the river one sees to advantage the miles of dock which line the Mersey side, and the forests of masts which crowd the quays.
Another clergyman, arriving in Liverpool from New York in the 1870s and writing for a New York newspaper, thought the city could be 'aptly termed the "Chicago of England" [being] without doubt, essentially modern, and its rise and progress is something wonderful'. In the docks the Reverend Bell found
a long vista of vessels alongside the quay, lashed together with planks, reaching far ahead. There multitudes of goods are shipped – all kinds of hardware, railway supplies, iron in all shapes, of all kinds and sizes, sheet, wire, bar, spring, etc.; bales, boxes, casks, wines, spirits, ales, for India, Madagascar, Asia, Persia, the Continent and America.
Major additions to the dock system appeared always as extensions of Liverpool's grandeur, as opportunities to reassert the role of the city as a port and trading centre. Of global importance. When the Gladstone Dock was opened in 1927, F. C. Bowering, Lord Mayor, shipowner and a major force in world-wide marine insurance, reminded readers that Liverpool was still the world's pre-eminent liner port and thought it appropriate also to remind the 'rest of the world' that,
Liverpool was called into being, not as a terminus for ocean tourist traffic, but as a junction for the landing, embarkation and storage of the vast wealth exchanged between the North and Midlands of England and the overseas world.
No exaggeration was involved when another writer in the special supplement of the local daily newspaper said, 'Worldwide interest is aroused by the completion and opening of the greatest dock which the world has ever known.'
The world role or claims to size measured on a global scale were a recurring feature of articles written about one or another of Liverpool's firms in the local press which was not then, nor subsequently, parochial. The Journal of Commerce was the more important of the two national daily shipping papers and far superior to the London-published Lloyd's List. The Liverpool Daily Post was one of Britain's great Liberal newspapers, if obviously inferior to the Manchester Guardian.
The constant juxtaposition of Liverpool and the world was not made extravagantly. It was presented quietly and confidently. Running through a list of the commodities imported through Liverpool, the chairman of the Liverpool Steamship Owners' Association, ends by saying: 'Almost all the world pours in its tribute.' Another shipowner points out that the frequency of sailings from Liverpool to Calcutta is 'not excelled in any other long-distance trade in the world'. An advertisement for the Cotton Exchange accurately presents it as simply 'THE WORLD'S GREATEST COTTON MARKET'. In like vein, the Stanley Dock tobacco warehouse is 'the largest and most up-to-date in the world'; the Liverpool Grain Storage and Transit Company is 'one of the leading grain handling concerns of the world'. Waring and Gillows, meanwhile, have so 'exquisitely furnished and equipped' Liverpool's passenger liners that the city's fame 'as a centre for the manufacture of the highest class of furniture has spread all over the civilised world'. The city's merchants have also been busy, tapping
huge consignments of cotton, corn, raw sugar, provisions, oil -bearing seeds, timber, fruit from over the seven seas of the world to the port of Liverpool.
These cargoes and the ships carrying them were insured in Liverpool, making it one of the world's greatest insurance centres. Surveying all these activities in 1927, the general manager of the Bank of Liverpool and Martins, said:
It is fitting that reference should be made to a characteristic of Liverpool which impresses a newcomer. Expressed briefly, the cosmopolitan outlook and worldwide interests which exist make it the least parochial of our cities, and Liverpool may well be proud of her commanding position.
Novelists, poets and memoirists writing of their Liverpool connections place port, river, ships, merchants, shipowners and seafarers so firmly in the foreground that other activity appears secondary or absent altogether. As if to prove a once popular contention that Lime Street led to all parts of the Empire, there stands over the main entrance of the old Lewis's department store a large bronze figure by Sir Jacob Epstein: poised like Ulysses on a ship's prow, a muscular nude looks purposefully seaward.
John Brophy's novel City of Departures is set in Liverpool at the end of the Second World War. His protagonist Charles Thorneycroft is returning to the city after artistic success in the metropolis and reflecting, that had he stayed in his native city, he would have become 'a "local painter", deriving most of his income from formal portraits of aldermen and shipowners and cotton-brokers'. Describing his city, Thorneycroft recalls that there was hardly ever a day without wind and that that, too, spoke of the sea and the port.
The city air was fresh, it blew perpetually, strong or mild, off the sea and the river, and channelled its gusty way through every street. It ought to be a healthy air, and it had the tang of health, the odour of tidal salt water, edged with smells from mud flats and sandhills and shores strewn with seaweed. But it was not healthy. It was laden with smoke and soot and grease, and with smells from tanneries, breweries, oil-cake factories, margarine factories, smells from the engine-rooms of ships, from dockyards, from thousands of warehouses where every sort of cargo was stored.
Walking through the city streets, noticing the grime and dirt, the dinginess and the unrepaired bomb damage, Thorneycroft is depressed by the contrast between what he sees and his boyhood memories of a proud, thriving place. But once on the river he rediscovers Liverpool's urgency.
Here where the ships sailed in and unloaded, loaded again and sailed out once more to all the oceans of the world, here was visible all around him a continuing magnificence. Here was no sign of lethargy or despondent regrets for the prosperities of the past. Here Liverpool was laying claim with a brawny fist to its own important place in the world.
Far more contemporary, saturated with recent memory, is Matt Simpson's anthology of poems relating the benchmarks of childhood and adolescence in a waterfront district.
Leaving the city to go to college, Matt Simpson says he was
... the sailor's son who never put to sea.
I left the city like
the Cunard liners and returned
to find their red and black
familiar funnels gone from gaps
between the houses where I'd lived,
those girls become as vulgar as
tattoos along my father's arms.
And he recalls the streets of childhood:
Salt winds keep these ocean-minded streets
voyaging. There are men here who, landlubbered
(wedded, winded, ulcered out), still walk as if
steel decks were rolling underfoot; riggers
and donkeymen, dockhands and chandlers,
shipwrights and scalers, who service ships
with something of love's habits, insisting on
manhood and sweet memories.
Look in one bedroom. On
the glass-topped dressing table stood
a carved war-painted coconut Aztec head –
to me, memento mori, shrunken thing,
who watched death dredge this bed.
And yet for years it was a trophy,
souvenir of all the thousand miles
of furrowed brine, of fragrant isles.
Cheek-by-jowl with Liverpool's heroic feats of dock engineering, world-scale organisations of commerce and finance, and the sights and sounds of ships and cargoes there were less reputable institutions. As much a part of Liverpool as the respectability of business and other productive employments was the sailors' Liverpool, discreetly evoked here by a young ship's doctor in 1911:
The sailor is the real king of Liverpool. Everybody in Liverpool loves the sailor, and is only too anxious to show him how to have a good time and spend his money while he is ashore; and it is he is the great man there till he has spent it.
The young Dr Abraham, about to embark on his first voyage, was carefully echoing a rowdier rhetoric of the second half of the nineteenth century – that merchant seamen were essentially innocent, noble savages, preyed upon by a vicious class of semi -criminals when ashore. So apparently effective were these beliefs that in Liverpool, as in other ports around the world, Sailors' Homes were being built from the 1830s onwards to provide sinless shelter. The oratory that might be employed to finance the construction of these Homes could not often have been more eloquent than that of the Reverend Hugh McNeile at an inaugural meeting in Liverpool in 1844:
If every sea is whitened with our canvas – every foreign harbour crowded with our ships – if from every country, and from every clime, there flows into our native land a full tide of all that ministers to the comforts, the conveniences, and the embellishments of life, to the materials of our productive industry, and the sinews of our national strength – it is to the energy and enterprise of our seamen that we are indebted for these blessings ... And what is the return we have made? What is the social and moral condition of that class to who we acknowledge these obligations? ... They return, indeed, from distant scenes and barbarous climes to the bosom of their countrymen, but they return to be plundered and pillaged, seduced and betrayed, by sharks and harpies ... they are so helpless and so confiding ... they have had so little of the habit or the means of becoming provident, that they dissipate their hard- earned wages in a few days and are obliged to engage in any service, or embark on any voyage, by which they may extricate themselves.
Charles Dickens was visiting Liverpool at this time, 'keeping watch on Poor Mercantile Jack' and, as if not to be outdone by the Reverend McNeile, records a seaman
with his hair blown all manner of wild ways, rather crazedly taking leave of his plunderers. All the rigging in the docks was shrill in the wind, and every little steamer coming and going across the Mersey was sharp in its blowing off, and every buoy in the river bobbed spitefully up and down, as if there were a general taunting chorus of 'Come along, Poor Mercantile Jack! Ill-lodged, ill-fed, ill-used, focussed, entrapped, anticipated, cleaned out. Come along, Poor Mercantile Jack, and be tempest-tossed till you are drowned!'
Excerpted from Praise for Liverpool by Tony Lane. Copyright © 2015 Tony Lane. Excerpted by permission of Serif Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1: City of the Sea,
Chapter 2: The Old Families,
Chapter 3: Natural Democrats,
Chapter 4: Boss Politics,
Chapter 5: Arrival and Departure,