Liverpool’s docklands used to be wafted by the aromas of the world before containerisation sealed them off hermetically, so to speak. I remember particularly the smells of spices, fruit and wood mixing together to create a feast for the nose.
Liverpool had the world’s first commercial wet dock and helped pioneer dockside warehouses, fire-proof dock buildings, hydraulic cargo handling and internally-linked dock systems which all eventually assisted in transforming the way cargoes were handled worldwide. The vast and innovative port was critical to Britain’s development in the 19th century and played a vital part in the growth of the British Empire.
Almost 300 acres of enclosed docks were built along seven miles of the Liverpool waterfront. Under engineers like Jesse Hartley and George Lyster the port played a key role in the development of dock technology.
In 1857, by creating the non-profit making Mersey Dock and Harbour Board to oversee the docks’ growth, Liverpool also led the way in port management. By the late 19th century Liverpool’s port provided direct employment for 60,000 people – around one-in-five of the male working population. Its mariners, port officials, dockers and carters handled almost one third of Britain’s trade.
Work on the docks was dangerous and men were recruited on a mainly casual basis. It offered workers the chance to earn high wages but also brought insecurity and poverty. This period is examined in the Magical History Tour exhibition at Merseyside Maritime Museum.
By 1900 one-seventh of the world’s shipping was registered in Liverpool. Ships owned by Liverpool companies travelled to all parts of the globe. They were the essential link between Britain, its trading partners and Empire.
Maritime exhibits include a sextant made by J W Ray & Co of Liverpool about 1910. The Liverpool area held a prominent position in the supply of clock components until the 20th century. As Liverpool grew, the skills needed for clock-making were also used to make navigational instruments for ships.
A Liverpool-made Dinky Toy from 1934 -1940 depicts the legendary liner Queen Mary, including the New York skyline, in its original box.
A James Watt medal for engineering was awarded to shipowner Alfred Holt by the Institute of Civil Engineers in 1878. Holt, founder of the Blue Funnel Line in 1865, earned recognition for his development of a compound steam engine.
A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from www.merseyshop.com (£1.50 p&p UK).