Imports and exports

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Gallery shot showing barrels with signs reading corn, salt and sugar.

The customs display in the Magical History Tour exhibition. Image courtesy Liverpool Daily Post and Echo

When I was growing up in Liverpool in the 1950s and 60s it was quite a common sight to see exotic animals including a large ferocious monkey that was kept chained up in a garage. Brightly-coloured parrots squawked and screeched in many homes and even businesses – one used to throw bits of fruit at customers in our local plumber’s.

Animals were brought in through Liverpool by traders and sailors to sell or keep as pets. There were less legal restrictions in those days.

Liverpool’s success was built on trade and the huge variety of goods passing through its docks illustrates the origins of its wealth.

In the Magical History Tour exhibition at Merseyside Maritime Museum there is a display (pictured) dominated by an image of the domed Custom House destroyed by enemy action in 1941. There is a cast-iron road sign for Custom House Lane dating from about 1920.

A small handcart of the standard Mersey Docks and Harbour Board pattern dates from around 1965. The letters PLS indicate that it was once used to trundle baggage around the Princes Landing Stage where the big transatlantic liners docked.

Luxury goods usually bring big profits and from 1600 there was a growing demand for tobacco, sugar and cotton in particular. The first tobacco arrived in Liverpool in 1648 and by the 1660s its ships were regularly sailing to Virginia, then a North American British colony, for cargoes. Imports rose from 200,000 lbs in 1670 to an estimated six million pounds weight in 1750, the trade growing rapidly as part of the triangular slave trade between Liverpool, West Africa and the New World.

Beginning with imports from Barbados in the West Indies in the 1660s, the trade in raw cane sugar was another of Liverpool’s most important trading relationships. Sixteen thousand tons was imported in 1785 as plantation sugar became another key component in Liverpool’s slave trading role. Until 1805 all sugar imports came from the West Indies but later in the 19th century other supplies came from Asia, USA and South America.

Raw cotton was shipped to Liverpool from America, Egypt, Brazil, Asia and the West Indies. By 1900 the city handled about 75% of British imports. Finished cotton goods from Lancashire and Manchester mills were shipped through Liverpool as exports to markets across the British Empire and the rest of the world.

Today about 60% of the world’s cotton is still traded under Liverpool rules.

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 the Mersey Shop website (£1.50 p&p UK).