Mersey Docks and Harbour Board collection

The Mersey Docks and Harbour Board (MDHB) collection is the largest and most important in the Archive. It covers the history of the port of Liverpool from the 18th to the late 20th century.

Liverpool Town Council was the original port authority. In 1709 it promoted an Act to build the first enclosed dock on the site of the original 'pool', and acted as trustee of the dock estate until 1858. As the port expanded and its management became more complex its affairs were delegated to a committee. Between 1845 and 1847 permanent sub-committees were set up to cope with the main aspects of port business such as finance, harbour administration and building works.

From about 1850 the Liverpool Corporation came under increasing outside pressure from Parliament, Manchester and dock users to relinquish control of the port to a separate public body. This resulted in the establishment of the MDHB in 1858, the overall port authority for the lower Mersey. It took over the incomplete docks at Birkenhead but not the London and North Western Railway Company's dock at Garston.

The Board comprised 24 elected members and four nominated by the Mersey Conservancy Commissioners. It was served by paid officials, of which the Treasurer, Solicitor, Harbour Master, Marine Surveyor and Water Bailiff, Engineer-in-Chief and the Secretary (re-titled Secretary and General Manager between 1894 and 1963) were the most important. An elaborate administrative system developed, including nine standing committees to oversee the work of each major department. The system survived with some changes until 1972 when the Board became the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company, the present port authority.

The MDHB collection features not only written records but also thousands of plans of docks, buildings and ships, and hundreds of photographs. These are supplemented by the South Docks Surveys (1982-1984), which carry detailed documentary and field reports on the history and archaeology of the docks taken over by the Merseyside Development Corporation.

The collection includes approximately 5000 photographs and negatives. The Board used photographs to record the construction of docks, cargo handling, accidents and visual evidence for court cases probably from its inception in 1858. The principal part of the collection consists of some 276 prints and about 3000 glass negatives from about 1906 to 1939.

Please note that the MDHB collection is not yet fully catalogued, and whilst the most important records are available at the Maritime Archives and Library, lesser-used records are held at the Reserve Store available by prior appointment only.

See our online information sheets for further information on the collections described above.