Jesse Hartley, dock builder

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Graveyards and cemeteries have fascinated me since childhood because of the stories each stone tells – some simple, some complex, all emotionally moving. Jesse Hartley, a colossus in the history of the Port of Liverpool, lies under a simple stone next to his wife at a desolate churchyard in Bootle’s docklands.

oil painting showing sailing ships tied at a busy dockside, with men and horses loading and unloading cargo.

Canada Timber Docks, Liverpool. Towards close of day by Robert Dudley (active 1865-1891)

A bustling scene is captured by Robert Dudley in his painting 'Canada Timber Docks, Liverpool, Towards Close of Day' in the collection of Merseyside Maritime Museum. Sailing ships crowd a dock as hordes of workers unload tons of wood which is carted away by horses and stacked neatly on the quaysides. The atmospheric 1872 view of Canada Dock vividly captures the hustle and bustle of the port. The number of horses in the painting underlines the importance of horse-drawn carts in carrying goods from docks to warehouses.

Canada Dock, opened in 1859 when Canada was Britain’s major source of timber, was the last dock designed and built by Hartley (1780 – 1860). He was the Port of Liverpool’s most prolific and famous engineer. Hartley’s greatest single achievement was the Albert Dock (1846) which now houses the Maritime Museum. He was the world’s first full-time professional dock engineer.

Hartley’s appointment was characteristic of the many risks taken in Liverpool during its history. He had no experience in building docks and beat 13 rival applicants, several of whom were well-known engineers. No doubt the port authorities were impressed by Yorkshireman Hartley’s strong personality, grit and determination which later paid great dividends.

Sir James Picton - the renowned Liverpool historian, architect and contemporary of Hartley – described him as: “A man of large build and powerful frame, rough in manner and occasionally rude, using expletives which the angel of mercy would not like to record”.

During his 36 years as Liverpool dock engineer, Hartley added 140 acres of wet docks and 10 miles of quay space. He either altered or constructed every Liverpool dock and during his career worked on other projects including the Liverpool end of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal and the Bolton to Manchester rail and canal system.

Hartley and his wife Ellen lie buried in St Mary’s churchyard, off Irlam Road, near where they lived. St Mary’s was flattened during the 1941 Blitz which devastated Bootle, with hundreds of lives lost and thousands of buildings destroyed or damaged. The graveyard, containing the mortal remains of nearly 19,000 people, was made into a park in 1960 but many of the tombstones were preserved.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. More on Hartley and his construction of the Albert Dock can be found on our main site.