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Transcript of the Magical History Tour exhibition tour

In this podacst Jon Murden, the curator of the Magical History Tour exhibition, and Liz Stewart, curator of archaeology, give a guided tour of the highlights of the exhibition, which is at Merseyside Maritime Museum until 27 September 2009.


Jon Murden: Hello. My name's Jon Murden and I'm curator of Liverpool history at National Museums Liverpool. I'm going to tell you something about 'Magical History Tour: The Story of Liverpool', the special exhibition at Merseyside Maritime Museum that has been put together to celebrate the 800th birthday of Liverpool's foundation

[sound of a car starting and voice of taxi driver interactive]

"Alright mate. Fancy the drive of your life eh? Through the 'Pool your tourists don't see. Right, first off the Iron Age. A left turn by way of your Normans and Tudors, up through your cotton boom and right into Empire. Nice hand brake turn into your swinging 60s and back round before you know it eh? Ah stop messing about, hop in"

[sound of taxi door closing and car driving off]

On our journey we'll be encountering the people and events that have made Liverpool what it is today and one of the special things you should look out for is our time travelling taxi driver who will give you his unique view on the history of Liverpool as you venture round the gallery. For younger visitors there's a secret furry family hidden through time in the most unlikely places and an activity booklet to help them go round.

Now although Liverpool is 800 years old, for thousands of years before the town was founded different peoples lived around the River Mersey and the first section of the exhibition, 'Life before Liverpool', explores some of that history. I'm going to hand you over now to Dr Liz Stewart, our curator of archaeology, who's going to tell you more about this first section of Magical History Tour.

Life before Liverpool

Liz Stewart: Hi there, I'm Liz Stewart, I'm curator of archaeology for the Museum of Liverpool. I'm just going to tell you a little bit about this first section of the gallery, Life before Liverpool'. This is where we really start to explore the very early history of Liverpool because although we're celebrating our 800th anniversary this year [sic 2007] since the Liverpool Charter or 'Letters Patent', there were actually people living around the Mersey for around 9,000 years.

The Mersey itself, or the Pool of Liverpool was formed around 8,000 years ago as the ice receded after the last Ice Age. That pool and the one over on the Wirral started to become the key areas where people started to settle in the Prehistoric period.

Stone Age

The first evidence that we have of people around the Mersey is around 9,000 years ago. Excavations in Greasby on the Wirral have revealed small stone tools of the Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age and also some evidence for the types of food that people ate in that period. On the interactive microscope in the gallery you'll be able to see some pieces of burnt hazelnut which were found in Greasby and are evidence of the sorts of things people were eating around 9,000 years ago.

Calderstones Park in Liverpool contains the Calderstones which are the remains of a burial chamber which would have stood in Merseyside around 5,000 years ago. The stones themselves have been moved but the markings on them give us a lot of evidence about the links that there were between people in Merseyside and people more broadly across the British Isles. The types of patterns, the spirals and ring patterns that you see on the Calderstones are very common in North Wales and in Ireland so it seems likely that there were some links around the Irish Sea 5,000 years ago.

Bronze and Iron Ages

Moving through time, people started to use metals around 2,000 BC – about 4,000 years ago and we have some evidence of the Bronze Age and the Iron Age around Merseyside. In the gallery you can see a beautiful Bronze Age burial urn about 4,000 years old. This small urn would have been used to contain cremated remains of individuals and in fact where this one was found in Wavertree there was a group of about half a dozen of them all buried together, perhaps a family group. It's very difficult for us to know exactly who these people were but we're starting from about 4,000 years ago to get a little bit of evidence of individuals in the past.

Leasowe Man

The first actual individual that we can really identify is Leasowe Man. This is a skeleton who was buried around 2,000 years ago on the north coast of the Wirral and was actually excavated by a labourer in 1864 who was building the embankment along the waterfront at Leasowe and Meols. Initially this labourer dug up a skull but didn't recognise it as such, in fact thought it was a bucket and only when he turned it over realised that it was in fact a human skeleton facing him. Originally the Leasowe Man was thought to be Prehistoric, much much older, but recently he's been carbon dated and we now know that he is around 2,000 years old.

Roman period

From around Merseyside and the North West we have a little bit more evidence about the sorts of things that people would have been wearing and using day to day around the time when Leasowe Man was alive. We have some Roman shoes which were found up in Cumbria. We have some coins, a sort of currency that people would have been trading in in the Roman period. We even have things like a mortarium, which was a bowl used for grinding food, which just gives us a little bit of information about how people lived their everyday lives in Merseyside around 2,000 years ago.

Dark Ages

After the Romans left Britain we move into the Dark Ages, a period which traditionally we've known rather little about. But in Merseyside we have certain different types of evidence that start to tell us about life in the Dark Ages. So for example in the Anglo Saxon period and the Viking period we have different place names that start to map out for us where different types of peoples were living in the early Middle Ages or the Dark Ages.

Viking silver

We also have some very special finds from the Viking period. On display you'll be able to see the Huxley hoard or the Cuardale hoard, one or the other, which are both hoards of Viking silver buried around 905 – 910 AD. This was a time when Vikings were coming from Dublin to the North West of England, probably settling in Wirral. They brought with them some wealth in silver but the Vikings and also the local people sometimes had to store their wealth somewhere and obviously not having banks they chose to do so by burying their silver. Then on occasion obviously they couldn't come back and retrieve it so we do occasionally as archaeologists find hoards of Viking silver. Both the Huxley hoard and the Cuardale hoard contain pieces which were decorative, things like bracelets, but they were folded flat or cut up into pieces so they were obviously actually being used as currency rather than as jewellery in around 900 AD.

The Domesday Book survey

Some of the first documentary evidence in Britain is from the early Medieval period. Liverpool itself wasn't mentioned in writing until 1194. Even the Domesday Book, which is one of the key sources for the formation of a lot of places across Britain doesn't mention Liverpool by name. It mentions West Derby, at the time a much more important place, and it's likely that at the time Liverpool was a small village or 'berewick' farm within West Derby, which is described in the Domesday Book.

What's in a name?

In the gallery you'll be able to see the 'What's in a name?' interactive, which is a computer station where you can find out about different places around Merseyside – how they became named, what the names mean in old English, old Norse or more recent languages and a little bit about some of the key historic sites in different areas across Merseyside. Take time to explore this interactive and learn a little bit more about the places near where you live. There is also a version of the interactive on the National Museums Liverpool website so take a look at it there.

Now we've explored the archaeology of Merseyside and we've reached 1207 – that key point in Liverpool's history. So now I'm going to hand you back to Dr Jon Murden, curator of the Magical History Tour exhibition.

Immersive video presentation

[Background music]

Jon Murden: As you leave the 'Life before Liverpool' section of Magical History Tour you enter the main theatre space where there's a chance to see a 15 minute show that tells you the whole story of Liverpool in an accessible and enjoyable way. It's a fast paced story showing all the ups and downs, the rollercoaster ride of the city's history over eight centuries; how it was founded, how it grew and prospered, the setbacks it faced and how it became the city it is today.

Power and politics

As you then continue on your Magical History Tour you enter a section of the exhibition called 'Power and politics' which looks at life, society and goings-on in Medieval Liverpool.

The making of Liverpool

The star attraction here is the actual 1207 charter that founded Liverpool, signed by King John on 28th August 1207. King John planned Liverpool as a place from which troops and supplies could leave England to invade Ireland. The new town had seven streets laid out near the old pool. It provided John with both a safe harbour and a source of income from his tenants.

For some people it was a chance to start a new life away from the control of local lords and many settlers made the short journey from West Derby to live in the new borough. The better off were attracted by the promise of burgage plots. Here they could pay the king a rent of 12 pence a year and they received land for a house, a place to trade and an acre in the town field. Settlers could use the town's mill, chapel, Saturday market and annual fair. All of these were granted by King John to help kick start Liverpool's growth.

Liverpool Castle

Liverpool grew and prospered in its first 20 years and in 1235 Liverpool Castle was built by William Ferrers, the Sheriff of Lancaster. It became the largest and most important building in Liverpool for nearly 300 years. Within the gallery we've built a model based on the archaeology of what that would have been like.

The castle once stood where the Victoria Monument in Derby Square is now and excavations in the 19th century revealed the outline of what the building would have been like. It was a large scale building with three towers and a square keep in the middle, all surrounded by an outer wall and a moat. It was a symbol to everyone in the area of the military strength of the crown. Its use as a base for royal fleets and the security it offered encouraged trade and strengthened contacts around the Irish Sea.

Life in Medieval Liverpool

We've moved on to a section of Magical History Tour that looks at life for everyday people in Medieval Liverpool. Around about 1,000 people lived in Liverpool in 1300 and it remained that size until the 1600s. This is because Liverpool was a port and it was more at risk from the spread of disease. The Black Death in 1361 wiped out whole families and their bodies had to be buried in a mass grave at St Nicholas's churchyard. When the Plague struck in 1558 a third of the townspeople died. This is why it remained with a static population over all that time.

This section of the exhibition also looks at some of the things that they did, who they traded with, the farming they were involved in. There's a display of the archaeology from the region in terms of the discoveries of farming implements from that period, the implements that are left from trade and industry, with the voyages that were made by local traders to Spain and France and with the local ports on the Lancashire coast, Wales and Ireland. Some of the craft industries, the brewers the tanners, the weavers and the blacksmiths who served the local community. There's a display of some of the artefacts we've got related to the fishing industry which was one of the main employers in early Liverpool reliant on herrings caught from small boats between September and November. There's also information about the role of the church in Medieval Liverpool, the chapels of St Mary del Quay and St Nicholas.

Talking portraits

To accompany the artefacts about everyday life there's also a presentation showing the relationship between the three classes of Medieval society; the nobles, the burgesses and the peasants. How they related to one another in terms of their business, how they related in terms of crime and punishment and how they related in terms of who held the power in Medieval Liverpool.

[Excerpt from 'Talking portraits' presentation]

"You mean who rules the roost in Liverpool? Well, I look up to him, so that he'll look down on him, which leaves me free to make a groat. You know, in a borough like Liverpool having a little money can make you a real somebody"

The idea of the presentation is that it's three portraits who come to life and tell you a story of their relationship. Some of you might remember the Frost Report sketch about the three classes that had John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett in and it's loosely based on that except transplanted to Medieval society rather than 1960s Britain.

The three characters are all real characters who actually lived in Liverpool at this time. The lord and noble is Thomas Stanley, the first Earl of Derby, whereas the burgess is William Moore, the mayor of Liverpool in the 16th century. The third and final character is a man by the name of Thomas Ansloe who was a commoner in Liverpool. We know about him from his record in the Liverpool town books because in 1565 he was charged with selling bread without permission from the town's founding fathers and was fined as a punishment, something he'll tell you about in the presentation.

Liverpool in the Civil War

We've moved on now to look at the experience of Liverpool during the English Civil War. At the time of the outbreak of the war in the early 1640s Liverpool was still quite an unimportant place in terms of the English political scene but during the war the people of Liverpool became severely divided over whether to support Parliament or the King.

One of the key objects that you can see in the exhibition is the charter that was given to the townspeople of Liverpool by King Charles in 1626. In this document he increased the power of the burgesses against the local dominant nobility families, the Stanleys and the Molyneuxs. Yet at the outbreak of the war in 1642 many of the burgesses, who were led by a man called John Moore, supported Parliament instead. Within a few months Parliamentarian forces took the town.

People in Liverpool tried to carry on as normal as best they could while the war swept through the country but Moore demanded that the burgesses train as soldiers. In fact by early 1644 he commanded a garrison of around 1,000 men in the town. The Royalists decided that this situation couldn't last as Liverpool was by then the only Parliamentarian port on the Irish Sea. In the May of 1644 a Royalist army under Prince Rupert invaded Lancashire. First of all they committed an atrocity, killing most of the townsfolk at Bolton before setting their sights on Liverpool.

Prince Rupert's army was extremely mobile and they were aided in this by some of the modern artillery that they carried with them. You can see an example of the sort of guns and weaponry they had in the exhibition. The most exciting thing is possibly the 'Robinet' light cannon that would have been used by Prince Rupert's forces to besiege the town of Liverpool. The invention of gunpowder had made old style castle fortifications obsolete. Guns like this were used to break down the defences of the castle and to act as sniping guns to pick off the townsfolk as they went about their daily business.

By the summer of 1644 Prince Rupert's Royalist army had arrived on the outskirts of Liverpool. John Moore had ensured that the town was protected by a ditch, a high mud wall and as many cannons as he could lay his hands on, while Prince Rupert set up camp on the top of Everton Brow overlooking the town where he declared it was "a mere crow's nest, which a parcel of boys may take".

He'd underestimated Moore's forces though because the castle was stacked with gunpowder and arms and his first attempt to take the town failed. But under relentless and terrifying artillery attack Moore and his forces fled by ship at night. Finding the town undefended, Rupert's men stormed in, massacring 400 of the townsfolk.

It was long thought that the siege of Liverpool was an unimportant factor in the English Civil War, but recent studies have begun to change views on this. It is now understood that it took more effort to besiege Liverpool than Rupert had expected and he failed to secure the castle's supplies as he'd anticipated. Rupert soon had to leave Liverpool for Yorkshire and could leave only a small garrison to secure the port. What happened was that he wasted his effort on Liverpool and was defeated at a turning point of the war because of this.

Exhibition trail

It's probably a good time to mention something for our younger visitors to Magical History Tour, a small furry family of Liverpool notables that they can find in a trail around the gallery. To accompany the section dealing with the English Civil War, younger visitors can spot Oliver and Rupert hiding in the case amongst all the arms and armour from the period.

Medieval marketplace

As we continue on the Magical History Tour you'll come across a recreation of the Medieval market that used to be held each week on Castle Street in the centre of the town. Here is an activity area for children to explore and to play. They can try on some of the Medieval costumes, they can be put in the recreation of the stocks that used to exist on Lord Street, they can try out some Medieval games such as Shove Ha'Penny which was once very popular in the town's taverns.

The birth of modern Liverpool

As people in Liverpool began to rebuild their homes and their livelihoods after the end of the Civil War Liverpool began to grow quickly for the first time. Incoming entrepreneurs encouraged an expansion of trade and a small group of wealthy burgesses became the most important people who dominated the life of the borough. They believed Liverpool's future success depended on its political freedom and resisted the influence of noble families with few interests in trade.

Their eventual success in winning the argument is reflected in the charter that was issued to the townspeople of Liverpool by King William III in 1695. It's a beautiful document and it's on display in the exhibition. This gave them the ultimate power to decide the future of the town. It formally established Liverpool Corporation as the authority and confirmed their elite status.

With their elite status they decided that the future was undoubtedly to turn the old tidal Pool into a proper dock. That was one of the very first things they did and where the exhibition goes on to look at next.

A great world city

Risking it all

Increasing trade in the 1690s and early 1700s meant that the old tidal Pool of Liverpool was struggling to cope with increasing amounts of trade and shipping. In 1708 the merchants who now controlled Liverpool employed Thomas Steers, one of the country's leading canal engineers, to find a solution.

He converted the Pool into a dock with quaysides and a river gate. Competed in 1715, the dock made it possible for ships to load and unload whatever the state of the tide and was the first commercial wet dock anywhere in the world. Constructing this was a huge risk and almost bankrupted the Corporation but its success encouraged further rapid increases in overseas trade through Liverpool.

Some of the things that were traded through this dock can be explored in a reconstruction of it. There are staple goods of Liverpool's success scattered all over the dockside in barrels, bales, crates and cartons. You can find out more about the commodities and more about the position of the port and Liverpool in a global business network.

Liverpool: capital of the transatlantic slave trade

Of course one of the most important things that underpinned much of Liverpool's growth at this time was its significant role in the transatlantic slave trade. You can find out about some of this in Magical History Tour and in the new International Slavery Museum, also at the Maritime Museum.

Boom town

Some of the displays around the dock reconstruction explain how Liverpool became a boom town in the 18th and 19th century. There's exhibits that look at Liverpool's role in the development of the railways and the canals, in the development of dock technology, in shipping lines and in shipbuilding.

There's also a reconstruction of an 18th century shop with some of the things that were made, bought and sold in Liverpool, from matches in the matchmaking factories that were important in Liverpool, to the importation of tobacco and sugar and Liverpool's role in the development of banking, insurance and finance.

Living in Liverpool

At the time that Liverpool was experiencing this great economic success in the 18th and 19th century it was also a city that was undergoing tremendous social upheaval. As you continue on your visit to Magical History Tour you'll eventually arrive in a reconstruction of a 19th century street. This explores how Liverpool grew from a town of around 77,000 people in 1801 to a bustling city of almost 700,000 people in 1901. It explores some of the impacts that this tremendous growth had in terms of health, in terms of jobs and in terms of education and in terms of housing.

This section of the exhibition also looks at the experience of some of the people who flooded into this booming city in the 19th century. It looks at the experience of the Irish, the most significant migrant group to settle in 19th century Liverpool; what they experienced in terms of escaping famine and arriving in Liverpool. How many came as part of a journey to the New World but remained, forming strong communities that would have a significant impact upon the city's accent, culture, politics and religious beliefs.

The exhibition also looks at the other communities who arrived in Liverpool at this time and made it one of the most multicultural cities in Britain by 1900. The role that Liverpool ships played on the emigration routes to America meant that millions of migrants passed through the city. Some came from Africa, some came from Russia and China. Others came from closer to home, from Wales and from Scotland and from the Lancashire area. This made Liverpool a truly world city because escaping famine, persecution or in search of work, many diverse communities chose to make Liverpool their home.

The Sloey family album

Tucked away in the corner of the street reconstruction is a family photo album that documents the story of three generations of one real ordinary Liverpool family, the Sloeys. Their lives were touched and shaped by events in Liverpool during the 19th and 20th centuries and as a result, fascinating parts of the social history of the city can be traced through their real story.

They first settled in Liverpool during the 1840s, the first generation, James Sloey, arriving from Ireland. The second generation of the Sloey family was made up of two children, Thomas and Jane. While Thomas continued his father's business as a cab driver to achieve prosperity and move from the poor housing of Scotland Road up to the relative prosperity of Falkner Square, Jane's life took a very different turn and towards the end of her life she died in poverty in the workhouse.

The third generation of the Sloey family was made up of Joseph and Margaret. Joseph fell in love with Australia and eventually migrated to Tasmania before returning to England at the outbreak of the First World War. He joined the King's Liverpool Regiment, the Irish Battalion, and became a sniper before being killed on the Somme in 1916. His sister Mary eventually found work in the British American Tobacco Company on Commercial Road like many women at that time. She eventually married a policeman from Scotland before being re-housed from Bootle into one of the new estates of the 1930s at Norris Green.

Archive film footage

Just coming round the corner on the street reconstruction, there's an opportunity to see extracts from old archive footage of Liverpool. There's stuff shot by Mitchell and Kenyon in the Edwardian period and by the Lumière brothers in the 1890s. Some of this includes a long extract of a film shot on a train journey on the Liverpool Overhead Railway and a tram ride up Renshaw Street taken in 1925, just to capture some of the character and some of the street scenes of Liverpool in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Great wealth and poverty

Part of the Magical History Tour in this section of the exhibition also looks at the diversity of experience in 19th century Liverpool. How there were the merchant princes, the merchants and entrepreneurs who amassed huge fortunes to the extent that only London had more millionaires than Victorian Liverpool. You can see some of the grand things from their homes that once lined Prince's Park and Sefton Park or the country estates in the Wirral.

You can also contrast this with some of the experiences of people from the poorer parts of Liverpool who had only a life expectancy of around 25, whose employment as casual labourers on the docks or in the maritime industries meant that their families had no regular income and often found themselves in great poverty.

'Well I never knew that'

As you continue to explore the Magical History gallery young and old alike should look out for the sections entitled 'Well I never knew that', which look at some of the stranger facts relating to the history of Liverpool. Things like the fact that there are mile of mysterious tunnels under the city, things like back-to-back court dwelling having no running water and shared outside toilets, or that there are 14 places around the world called Liverpool.

Impressions of Liverpool

Well we're coming towards the end of the Magical History Tour now and the last section of the exhibition looks at impressions of Liverpool, Liverpool's image in the media over the course of the 20th century.

[Jazz music plays in the background]

It starts by looking at Liverpool's place as the second city of the Empire in Edwardian times, this cosmopolitan prosperous port city that was self confident and happy to celebrate its wealth and status.

But the main part of this section of the exhibition is an AV presentation looking at some of the famous names, some of the famous faces from Liverpool after the Second World War. There's a chance to spot some of your favourite characters from Liverpool, be they Jimmy Tarbuck or Cilla Black, be it Red Rum or Devon Lock, some of those famous programmes, famous songs, famous TV shows, famous sporting events that have kept Liverpool high in the public consciousness for the last 50 years.

The very last section of the exhibition looks at the experience of Liverpool over the last 20 years; how its changed since some of the initiatives in the mid 1980s tried to reposition it as a centre of tourism, things like the rebuilding of the Albert Dock and the holding of the International Garden Festival in south Liverpool.

It thinks about how Liverpool's changing now, how the regeneration is gathering pace and how we can take optimism and hope for the city's future from being Capital of Culture in 2008.