Modern Liverpool's birth

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old print showing many ships in the docks

Image courtesy of the Liverpool Daily Post and Echo

I met the late Lord Sefton (1898 – 1972) several times walking around his country estate with his dogs in West Derby when I was a child out with my father. The 7th Earl was the last of the mighty Molyneux family who dominated Liverpool for centuries until merchants successfully challenged their power. After that they more or less retreated to their estates. I am involved in preserving their memory on the committee of the Friends of Croxteth Hall and Country Park supporting Liverpool’s own stately home.

Liverpool remained virtually the same size for hundreds of years – seven streets dominated by its medieval castle. For the first time the town started to grow quickly – and it was all down to ships bringing trade and prosperity in their wake. After the Civil War, when Charles I lost his crown and his head, big changes started happening in the growing port. The townspeople rebuilt their homes and their livelihoods while incoming entrepreneurs encouraged the expansion of trade.

A small group of wealthy merchants became the most important citizens and started to dominate the borough, setting a pattern that would continue into modern times. They believed Liverpool’s future success depended on its political freedom. The merchants resisted the influence of the nobility and landed gentry with few interests in trade. They refused to elect the local landowner Sir Edward Moore as either Mayor or the town’s MP in 1660. In 1668 they challenged Viscount Molyneux’s rights to land close to Liverpool. Their victory over him in 1672 gave the borough a large rental income.

The Magical History Tour exhibition at Merseyside Maritime Museum charts the exciting early growth of Liverpool and beyond. Confidence increased with success. Many wanted a more open style of local government and in 1695 they secured from William III a charter establishing Liverpool Corporation. This new civic authority confirmed the merchant elite’s power. The first imports of American tobacco arrived in Liverpool in 1648 and the first sugar from Barbados in 1666.

In order to raise the £12,000 (£1.4 million today) needed to build the first dock in 1715, the merchants who controlled Liverpool Corporation mortgaged the whole town.

In 1799 alone Liverpool ships transported more than 45,000 enslaved Africans across the Atlantic. Between 1801 and 1901 Liverpool’s population mushroomed from 77,693 to 685,000 – an increase of almost 800%. An 1847 print (pictured) shows St George’s and Albert Docks on the busy waterfront as Liverpool boomed.

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).