Liverpool lift off

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portrait of white haired man in dark clothing

Detail from portrait of William Roscoe by Sir Martin Archer Shee

My Guy ancestors settled in Liverpool around 1700 as the port was expanding and I am proud that we have been involved in various ways throughout its changing fortunes.

British colonies in North America opened up new overseas markets with the result that Liverpool saw big changes from the 1660s. The town had been relatively unchanged for centuries. It was the growth in sea trade which turned Liverpool into a major world port.

New types of business people arrived in the fledgling metropolis. Some came from London after the devastation caused by the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire the following year while others were local. All were keen to exploit these new opportunities. The Guys, who were not in business, probably made the modest seven-mile journey from Melling.

Soon Liverpool was the fastest-growing port after London. The boom in importing luxuries such as tobacco, cotton and spices transformed the small fishing port into a thriving centre with worldwide links.

Stages of this exhilarating growth are examined in the Magical History Tour exhibition at Merseyside Maritime Museum.

Sarah Clayton was among the women who were active in 18th century Liverpool business. She had interests in coal exports and property speculation and developed Clayton Square (now the Clayton Centre) in the 1760s and 70s.

In Britain the campaign to end the slave trade began in 1787 and Liverpool – Europe’s leading slave trade port - was bitterly divided. Slave trader Banastre Tarleton, the town’s bullish MP, attacked the anti-slavery petitions of the 1790s as “the work of deluded fanatics”. He thundered: “Should the Africa trade be abolished … weeds will grow in the streets of Liverpool.” Tarleton’s views were shared by the Liverpool merchants whose profits were under threat.

In contrast, many of Liverpool’s citizens actively supported abolition. The most notable was William Roscoe, who defeated Tarleton to become the town’s representative in Parliament. He spoke in favour of abolition during the debate which ended British involvement in the slave trade in 1807. Liverpool’s prosperity did not collapse as many had feared. On display are several Roscoe items including a token with the inscription “Roscoe for Ever 1804” supporting his election campaign.

Abolition encouraged merchants to explore new opportunities offered by the industrial revolution. From the 1830s Liverpool became probably the biggest emigration port in world history.

More about Liverpool’s growth next week.

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 (£1.50 p&p UK).