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Transcript of 'Liverpool in the eighteenth century: a town of commerce and taste'

Benedict Nicholson described Joseph Wright’s Liverpool sitters as being engaged in the process of becoming refined, comparing them somewhat unfavourably with the greater gentility of the Derbyshire gentry, whom he described as more at ease. Liverpool in the 1770s, he suggested, was a tough, seafaring place; much unlike the genteel and well bred surroundings of the cathedral city of Lichfield, to which Wright moved after his Liverpool sojourn.

There is a sense that Wright caught Liverpool and the Liverpool elite, who were his sitters and patrons, at a pivotal point: Liverpool was on the cusp of becoming a town with pretensions to taste, refinement, politeness. In the nineteenth century, when local historians looked back upon their town’s rapid rise to wealth, prosperity and commercial dominance, they saw the last quarter of the eighteenth century as a key period, when liberty, commerce and the arts of civilization came to fruition. It became an established orthodoxy, for example, that the arts first began to flourish at precisely the time that William Roscoe published his famous ‘Ode on the Foundation for the Society for the Encouragement of Arts’ in 1773. Wright then, was in the vanguard, of this cultural efflorescence.

Liverpool was also about to enter upon a period of particularly rapid growth – of commercial expansion and population increase – growth which would be accompanied by increasing prosperity but also intensification of pressures on housing, welfare and infrastructure. But at this point the severity of the problems which would be consequent upon such rapid growth were only beginning to be anticipated and could not, as yet, dim the optimism and confidence with which Liverpool’s panegyrists viewed the town’s ascent up the urban hierarchy. On a national scale, the balance of population between provincial urban England and the metropolis was now beginning to shift decisively towards the provinces; and towards the midlands and the northwest as opposed to the home counties and the southeast. One consequence of this was that provincial towns and cities were becoming increasingly self-confident of their own importance in the national economy, and also increasingly conscious of the need to establish a reputation for something more than the pursuit of filthy lucre. Yet although Liverpool led the way in trade and commerce, its pretensions to leadership in the arts of civilization were rather harder to sustain. And yet it was a contemporary common place that commerce and the arts should flourish together where freedom and liberty reigned. There was an expectation, therefore, that Liverpool, and other cities like it, had to live up to, that the fruits of civilization should be apparent in urban society. But equally there was another powerful tradition that insisted that true politeness and taste could not flourish amongst those whose primary concern was pecuniary gain. The fact that much of this profit derived from trafficking human beings added a further twist, of course, to this debate, particularly towards the end of the century. There was an air of defensive pride, therefore, in much that was written about Liverpool in this period.

These were the tensions that shaped the way in which Liverpool was praised, celebrated, ridiculed or vilified in the literature of the day and which I want briefly to explore today.

The first published account of Liverpool came out only two years after Wright had left the town in 1773 . The volume in question was William Enfield’s History of Leverpool. In national terms, Enfield’s history was following in a well established tradition: there were, by this date, over 50 published urban histories (not all of different towns it should be). But the three decades following Enfield’s history saw a significant expansion. Another 93 were published between 1771 and 1800 – by the end of the century almost every town of any size had become the subject of a history. This boom in local history was itself indicative of the interest which contemporaries had in marking and chronicling the dramatic changes that were so apparent in provincial urban society and of which Liverpool, with its dramatic expansion, was a shining example.

William Enfield, a Unitarian minister, better known outside the context of Liverpool for his theological and political writings, was not in fact the author of the 1773 history; rather he was the editor of a manuscript which had been compiled and left largely finished by George Perry, an industrialist who originally hailed from Shropshire. Perry had been active in the literary and cultural scene in Liverpool, being an early subscriber to the Liverpool library, said to be the first provincial circulating library in the country. The timing of the publication is indicative of the increasingly upbeat and confident culture of Liverpool society, at precisely the time that Wright had chosen to settle there and seek employment amongst the wealthy merchant classes of Liverpool and the surrounding area. Liverpool was now of a size and wealth that it was important to assert the town’s civilized and urban credentials in printed form.

Perry had been working on the volume since the 1760s or earlier; his correspondence with the Derbyshire antiquary, Samuel Pegge, to whom he referred for advice on matters historical and genealogical still survives in the Bodleian library Oxford. From it, it is apparent what an uphill struggle Perry faced in establishing the towns claim to antiquity, a quality which more than any other enhanced any town’s prestige in the eighteenth century. In 1768 he had confessed to Pegge that

‘it is my desire to rescue from oblivion every anecdote relating to Liverpool; and the thinner they are scattered thro’ the waste of Time, the more precious they seem. But I fear, with you, that all I can collect will make but a slender chapter.’

But why bother to establish these early anecdotes of the town at all when quite clearly Liverpool’s reputation hinged upon its recent past? This nervous anxiety to establish antiquity in a town so manifestly modern was, in fact, nothing unusual in the eighteenth century. In Birmingham too a few years later, its garrulous and idiosyncratic historian, William Hutton, celebrated the modern manufacturing culture of the town in a History of Birmingham (1781) but even here he found it necessary to establish ancient British origins for the town and claimed to have found evidence for ironworkings amongst the ancient Britons – a kind of iron age chariot works. Again, Daniel Defoe, whose tour of Great Britain celebrated the modern commercial and manufacturing growth of the nation’s towns and cities found himself unable completely to ignore the historical origins and antiquities of the places that he described. The eighteenth century celebrated the modern, but was deeply rooted in the past. It was a society which was governed by precedent, by common law and where respect for antiquity commanded deeply rooted allegiance. Towns, with their rapid growth and constant flux and instability could appear to challenge these values. The importance attached to antique origins, therefore, spoke to this deep seated conservatism which tinged all but the most brazen celebrations of modernity. Only the most iconoclastic individual dared to challenge the authority of the past and the respect that antiquity was able to command, and so Sarah Clayton chose to have her portrait painted with a plan of the propylaeum at the Acropolis before her.

Despite Perry’s best efforts, the actual historical material is somewhat slender – this volume – and indeed all the other ‘histories’ of Liverpool from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries show a very obvious imbalance towards more recent past. The granting of the charter in 1207 was almost the only landmark until 1555 when the corporation started to keep records. Like landed families, however, who traced their lineage back to the Norman Conquest in the numerous county histories of the period, the urban historians of the eighteenth century traced the origins of their settlements back to the record of Domesday book. Unfortunately for Liverpool, however, Domesday book was disappointingly reticent on the region around the Mersey, and Liverpool was not even named. Such was its insignificance that it must have been subsumed within the parish of Walton of which it remained a part until officially separated by an Act of Parliament in 1699. Native pride excused this on the grounds that the region was so disturbed – resistance to the tyrannical rule of the Norman usurper – that the officials had been unable to collect full information.

Thus the pride of the inhabitants of Liverpool in the historic rise of their city was nothing unusual, if based on somewhat more flimsy foundations than, for example, the better documented past of its commercial rival Bristol. For those keen to celebrate Liverpool’s modern rise to greatness, however, such humble origins presented no serious drawback, rather they showed to set in even higher relief the astonishing metamorphosis of the eighteenth century. This was, in fact , where Perry’s interests and those of his editor William Enfield, really lay. The recent and rapid increase in population was well documented – Liverpool, unusually amongst provincial towns of that time, had conducted its own census, and Enfield could, therefore, with some confidence, elaborate upon the spectacular growth in population that Liverpool had undergone since the start of the century. By 1773 the population had reached 34,407 – upwards of six times the size of the population at the start of the century, and showing a doubling over the last 25 years. Enfield took issue with the gloomy prognosis of political economists such as Richard Price. He provided a sophisticated statistical analysis of population growth calculating the annual decennial increase in population and comparing Liverpool’s growth with that of other British and European cities. Liverpool, the reader was told, was admittedly crowded, but it must be healthy, particularly if one were to take into account the numbers who died through being exposed to the hazards of the sea.

A decade or so later, overcrowding was becoming ever more problematic and the environmental hazards of pollution were harder to ignore, but even in the face of this adversity the apologists for Liverpool were reluctant to see the growth of commerce and manufacture as anything other than a social good. The aromatic effluvia produced by the tar and pitch, argued the Liverpool surgeon William Moss in his Familiar Medical Survey of Liverpool in 1784, were a positive health benefit – particularly calculated to obviate and resist the power and progress of many infectious diseases. Moreover, the sulphurous fumes of the salt works, he claimed, had antiseptic properties that heightened the body’s resistance to malignant and contagious diseases.

But Perry/Enfield were also anxious to celebrate cultural milestones as well as the economic prosperity of the town. It was an eighteenth-century common place that the arts could only flourish in a free society; the fact that literature, art, music and theatre were being patronised was proof of the liberty and freedom which all Britons enjoyed under the Hanoverian regime. It was the wealth generated by commerce that in turn generated the income with which such models of taste could be patronised. According to theorists such as the third earl of Shaftesbury, the continual process of interaction with others smoothed the roughness of manners and developed the proper qualities of complaisance and civility: ‘We polish one another and rub off our corners and rough sides by a sort of amicable collision.’ Even in 1751 the inveterate traveller Bishop Pococke noted that industry bred civility and obliging behaviour amongst the inhabitants of manufacturing and commercial areas. Or, as a guide to the town published in 1797 argued ‘the commercial intercourse of the inhabitants induces a general harmony and sociability.’

The progress of politeness and improvement exerted a very visible transformation over the townscape of eighteenth-century towns, and Enfield, using notes provided by the surveyor and friend of Joseph Wright, Peter Perez Burdett, provided extended commentary on the physical evidence for the improvement of taste in Liverpool, best seen through the architecture of its churches and public buildings. Burdett – not himself a native of Liverpool – composed highly detailed descriptions of the public buildings, and was unflinching in pointing out both the successes and the failures of Liverpool’s attempts to display architectural refinement. In architecture too, then, as Benedict Nicholson might have said, Wright would have seen Liverpool in the process of becoming refined. St George’s, allowed Burdett, showed evident marks of elegance and taste, but the windows in the nave were disproportionately large; the proportions of the Corinthian pilasters on the tower beneath the steeple had been miscalculated with the effect that the steeple appeared larger above than below; but the interior was fitted up with great elegance. On the one hand he dispensed praise, whilst on the other Liverpool’s architects and planners were show guilty of ignorance, a want of taste and a lack of understanding of the fine arts. Even the Exchange, designed by John Wood the elder upon the recommendation of Sarah Clayton, could not win Burdett’s unqualified approval. Wood, of course, was the architect of much of the definitive classical elegance of Bath, but in Liverpool his work was found wanting: the most culpable element was the dome covered with lead ‘which encumbers the building, and disgraces the Corinthian architecture which supports it’, but equally to blame was the town itself: the cramped situation in which it had been erected meant that there was no vantage point from which the building could be properly viewed and surveyed.

This combination of pride, with a consciousness of a certain provincial roughness, characterises subsequent publications too: William Moss who wrote a visitors’ guide to Liverpool first published in 1796 explained that the streets and squares of Liverpool did not possess all the regularity and elegance that might have been expected, because most of the builders had been born upon the spot and had had no opportunities of improving their style which was very limited. Hence the streets had been laid out in a parsimonious manner, with insufficient breadth or depth.

It is likely that Moss was responding to criticisms that have been levelled a year earlier in a far less charitable and anonymous history published in 1795: ‘ there are many squares in this town, but none of the deserving that name’ reported its author, ‘many of them are even below mediocrity’. Squares were designed to facilitate sociability and intercourse: they were the archetypal polite urban space, but in Liverpool they were gloomily secluded and seldom frequented by passengers. The quality of the pavements was a disgrace – grass was growing up in the interstices; there were no flagstones; and there was no regular rubbish collection – rather it was left to pile up in offensive heaps on the streets. The town of Liverpool, he claimed ‘affords no walks of amusement in its vicinity’. He too found fault with John Wood’s Exchange, although for different reasons: ‘the relief of the compositions is so bold, that it offends and eye and lessens the pleasing simplicity of the capitals’, whilst the inside of St Paul’s was pronounced a positive satire on order and design. He was equally scathing about Liverpool’s pretensions to any kind of artistic or intellectual culture – it was ‘but a wild barren waste’ and the public library was the ‘solitary tribute to erudition’. Liverpool was, he claimed, the only town in England of any pre-eminencey ‘that has not a single erection or endowment for the advancement of science, the cultivation of the arts, or the promotion of useful knowledge.’ I could go on – ‘their buildings and places for amusement may please the native, but they have neither novelty, nor a superior elegancy to attract the notice of the judicious.’

To be far to James Wallace, who is traditionally identified as the author of this piece, he did allow that some buildings – such as the Mansion House – were of ‘excellent taste and design’, but overall his assessment of Liverpool as anything except a successful commercial port was damning with faint praise. In the preface to his volume he had indicated that he intended to deflate the puffs which, in his opinion, gave a completely inaccurate and unduly flattering picture of urban society in places such as Liverpool, Birmingham or Chester. We might note too that William Roscoe’s Life of Lorenzo de Medici had been published to great acclaim in the same year, and there were obvious comparisons to be drawn between the Florentine city of culture and its Merseyside heir – that Wallace’s history implicitly undermined.

But he was also playing on well established prejudices which were deeply rooted in the reading public’s attitudes towards towns and urban society. The merchants, he said, were too busy to engage in literary life, and too intent upon making profit to expend the necessary sums in cultural and artistic patronage. His comments differed little from those charges which were frequently levelled against Liverpool’s West Coast commercial rival Bristol. If anything the critique that was directed against Bristol was sharper, given added force by the close proximity of Bath, the ‘theatre of the polite world’. Alexander Pope had dismissed it as ‘a very unpleasant place and no civilised company in it’ and another visitor was cruelly dismissive: ‘they endeavour to be polite and ‘tis then and only that they are eternally ridiculous: you might as successfully fish for turbot in a draw-well as for a rational Companion in the whole City.’

The problem with Bristol – as with Liverpool -- was that the merchants were too successful: their souls were engrossed by lucre, the pursuit of which had made them so wealthy that they could afford to be insolent to strangers. Business consumed all their time and energies, leaving them little leisure for the pursuit of the polite arts, unless, of course, there was a profit to be made. As Jane Longmore has pointed out, the enthusiasm with which Liverpool merchants subscribed to the theatre in 1771 was not so much an indication of their refined literary sensibilities as their keen nose for a financial profit. It was an extremely shrewd business investment. The frugality of the merchants, who were more concerned with profit than the aesthetics of taste, was held responsible for poor town planning and the higgledy piggledy lay out of the streets and it was complained that the inhabitants were too mean to rebuild their houses in a modern and pleasant style. Internal convenience in domestic design was more important than external elegance, thus the entrances to the grand mercantile houses were deemed offensively high, being raised above the street in order to accommodate extensive cellaring.

Just as the tradesmen and nouveau rich merchant were stereotypical figures of vulgarity in the literature of the age, the perception of commercial and manufacturing towns amongst the reading public was one of similar vulgarity. The literate public was accustomed to assume that new wealth would be spent without taste and that the society of tradesmen and merchants could only be covered with what Samuel Johnson, described as the fine varnish of low politeness. To quote Wallace again ‘they recoil at the cultivation of a plant that will yield them neither profit nor amusement … the great improvements of the old town discover for the most part rather a solicitude to accomplish than a probability of producing the intended effects’.

Topographical literature of this kind was being used to rehearse the stock anxieties of the age: whilst rejoicing in the evidence for commercial success, commentators bemoaned the impact of luxury, new money and commerce on the manners and morals of society. These towns became something of a rhetorical anti-type. Their politeness or otherwise was not seriously assessed, rather the inhabitants were characterised as money makers, illiberal and impolite in order to validate the arguments that to be truly polite one needed the leisure and education of a gentleman, or at the very least to live in London. Politeness or lack of it became increasingly important as a means to translate anxiety about new wealth, social instability and the fragmentation of traditional certainties. Too much wealth, too much business actually inhibited the development of the finer arts of life: ‘Few commercial towns’ it was said ‘have in any considerable degree united a taste for literature with the pursuit of wealth’. True politeness could not exist in a place where money was quickly gained and lavishly spent. But would these commercial towns have been bothered at being thought rude and impolite? Only in so far as it damaged their trade.

It’s against this train of thought that we have to consider the publications of the early nineteenth century which were so resolutely upbeat and congratulatory on the achievements of Liverpool over the past hundred or so years, and in particular since the last quarter of the eighteenth century. There is a defiant note to some of these publications and a determination to assert a kind of cultural – not just political – independence from the metropolis. The majority of travellers judged every town they went through against London – and found them wanting – smaller, less elegant, less fashionable, less refined. Not so Liverpool where the shops in the fashionable centre, according to the 1808 Stranger’s Guide were large, handsome and fitted up in such a manner as would do credit to any street in London. Not only were the docks greatly superior and indeed a model for London to emulate – but the town itself was remarkable beyond any other in the Empire, perhaps even in Europe, for the rapidity of its improvements and the increase of its commerce. There was nothing in Europe, claimed the same guide, to compare with the Lyceum and – a quick stab in the back for Manchester and Chester – the spirit of emulation was spreading out from Liverpool to other towns which were following Liverpool’s suit.

Histories of Liverpool in the nineteenth century maintained a triumphalist narrative of the town’s achievement in this formative period of the late eighteenth century: its wealth, as one historian noted in 1810, was ‘equally the nurse of taste and commerce’. But we should also be aware that this kind of rhetoric was not a simple assertion of ‘politeness’ – according to the metropolitan expectations – what we see in Liverpool and other similar towns is that they partook of many of the general improvements associated with the eighteenth century: walks, squares, theatres, literary societies -- and fully bought into that concept that the arts would flourish in a prosperous and commercial centre, but rather than being condescended to by the self appointed metropolitan arbiters of taste and politeness they defined their culture on their own terms and distanced themselves from what they perceived to be the moral and social shortcomings of fashionable polite culture.

This provincial code of conduct was a more pragmatic, utilitarian, and professedly honest variant. It was less ostentatious and less irreligious. Rather than encouraging that descent into luxury and corruption that was so often identified with London or Bath – both sinks of iniquity –or, as the historian of nearby Macclesfield and Congleton put it in unequivocal terms, places , ‘that may justly be charged with communicating every species of moral taint and corruption to the provincial towns and the kingdom in general’, commercial and manufacturing towns such as Liverpool stressed their sobriety, morality, and religious observance in addition to their cultural pre eminence. Charity in Liverpool was recurrently celebrated as the ‘predominant’ feature of the town. Business and recreation, wrote William Moss, are happily blended. ‘Luxury and dissipation, and all excessive sensualities are discountenanced. And emulation in acts of benevolence and good will seems to actuate the whole’. It is this ethos which Wright depicts so well in his portraits of the Liverpool elite.