Of people and place: the surprising stories of Canning Graving Docks

Working with Liverpool Black History Research Group, Curator Liz Stewart considers the human stories that have shaped the historic Canning Dock.

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Liverpool’s waterfront has a plethora of stories to tell – deep layers of history from the 18th to 21st century represent Liverpool’s growth, trade and global connections. Since 2020 the Liverpool Black History Research Group and National Museums Liverpool have been working together to uncover the history of the Canning Graving Docks. This important historical site is at the heart of the waterfront, the oldest above-ground part of the dock system which has borne witness to centuries of change.

The quaysides and graving docks form part of National Museums Liverpool’s Waterfront Transformation Project, and, over the next few years, will see several adaptations and interventions to improve access and connectivity, and enable people to explore Liverpool’s waterfront history in new ways.

Setting out to understand how the docks were used, researchers from Liverpool Black History Research Group have scoured historic newspapers, studied historic maps, and trawled the Maritime Museum archives to reveal a wealth of stories about the people of the docks – from tragic deaths to joyful unions.


Aerial view of Canning Dock including its two Graving Docks.
Vertical aerial view of the Canning Graving Docks and Quaysides


Built in 1765, Canning Graving Docks were used to enable the cleaning and repairing of ships, the word 'graving' referring to the 'scraping' of vessels. A form of dry docks, graving docks can be drained of water to provide a dry haven for ships to be washed, barnacles chipped from the hulls, and any damage repaired. Dry docks are such a crucial element of a working port that the first one was added to the Liverpool dock system only a few years after the ‘Old Dock’ - Liverpool’s first dock – opened.

Records reveal the busy docks were receiving a steady stream of ships in the 18th and 19th centuries. They capture information about the goods being unloaded and sold on the quays: teak, dried fruit and nuts; sumac (spice), rum, ale, sacking, tallow, cotton, fish, mother of pearl, coffee, bricks and copper ore. Gathering this list of products starts to build a picture of the character of the quaysides – noisy, full of people loading and unloading; fragrant, with rich smells of tallow, coffee and spices; surrounded by the masts of ships in the wet dock and dry dock.

As ships were readied to sail, they advertised space for cargoes on board, heading to destinations spread across the world. Some ships were merely headed around the Irish Sea coast to Lancaster or Belfast; others were bound for the Mediterranean (Gibraltar, Malta and Genoa); across the Atlantic (to New York, Havana and Newfoundland), to South America (Pernambucco (Brazil) and Buenos Aires) or Asia (Guangzhou (named Canton in Victorian newspapers)) or the west coast of Africa (countries or ports not named individually).


Dockworkers working beside a ship sitting within Canning Graving Dock.
The Canning Graving Dock next to the Great Western Railway Building.


Liverpool’s activity and influence reached out across the globe but was perhaps most keenly felt in Africa and the Americas. In the 18th and early 19th century, a substantial part of Liverpool’s trade and economy was associated with slavery. Liverpool’s merchants invested in the enslavement of people and traded in the goods produced by enslaved people. The town was inextricably linked with slavery, with Canning Graving Docks at the centre of this activity. As well as offloading slave-produced goods like cotton and sugar, ships were prepared there to start out on the triangular trade, transporting people from Africa to the Americas, from freedom to slavery. One advert about a ship docked at Canning chillingly describes it as being ‘suitable for the African trade’, a euphemism for the trade in enslaved African people.

Liverpool’s global connections were grown through the British Empire. The very name, Canning Dock, is derived from George Canning MP, who was embedded in Imperial British culture. He was raised by his uncle, and merchant, Stratford Canning and as an MP he supported the mercantile elite of Liverpool who would have been embedded in the slavery economy. Canning’s son, Viscount Charles John Canning was Governor-General of India during the First War of Independence in 1857 (historically known as the Indian Rebellion / Indian Mutiny) when around 800,000 Indians were killed.

The traumatic histories associated with the Canning Graving Docks reflect the connection of this place to countless people’s lives. For many, their connection to the Canning Graving Docks was one of being a place of work. Sadly, this is often captured in historical records when workers die in falls. Between 1800 and 1860, 67 references have been found to people dying at the Graving Docks, including seamen, labourers, carpenters, dockers loading goods, and apprentices.


Canning Dock containing docked ships, Custom House and Albert Dock can be seen in the background.
19th century photograph of the Canning Half Tide Dock, before the construction of the Pump House pub. Showing the Custom House and Albert Dock.


There were occasional surprising stories of this place being associated with periods of happiness; three marriages were announced in Liverpool newspapers where the Graving Docks were given as a residence. One announcement, in 1814, was for Thomas Ellis and Mary Brian. Both were living on separate ships at the time of their marriage: Thomas the captain of the ‘Favourite’ and Mary on the ‘Ben Jonson’. The couple had one daughter, Jane, who later married William Perry, and who in 1851 moved in with Mary and Thomas at 16 Freemason Row, Liverpool, along with their three children Thomas, Margaret and Mary Ann. Three generations under one roof.

This tapestry of stories of people’s lives connected to Canning Dock has been revealed through the Liverpool Black History Research Group’s meticulous research. As a historic space, the Canning Graving Docks are witness to unique individual histories and huge global resonance: the docks operating as part of the slave economy, enslavement and the goods produced by enslaved people. Through the Waterfront Transformation Project, National Museums Liverpool plans to reveal more of these stories and build greater understanding of our past.