Port talent

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Environment can help nurture talent and I think this is particularly true of Liverpool with its amazing architecture and maritime setting.

One of the great vanished buildings of the city was the Custom House (pictured below) which stood partly on the site of the new Liverpool One development. Bombed in the Second World War, this great sandstone pile was cleared in the post war rush to modernity.

Liverpool has always had more than its fair share of talented people who were either born here or settled for various reasons. For centuries Liverpool was little more than a village dominated by a castle. The 1660s and 70s saw big changes as the discovery and settlement of the Americas opened up different overseas markets.

At the same time a new breed of business people started arriving in the town. Some came from London to start again after the devastation caused by the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of the following year. Others were from the local area - all were keen to exploit new opportunities. Soon Liverpool was the fastest-growing port in the country after London, overtaking its local rival Chester in 1699.

Imports of luxuries such as sugar, tobacco, cotton and spices transformed the small fishing village into a thriving port with worldwide links.

Three remarkable watches on display in the Magical History Tour exhibition at Merseyside Maritime Museum illustrate how talented people settled and thrived in Liverpool. Two were made by Thomas Aspinwall around 1607 and 1620 and the third by his son Samuel Aspinwall about 1660. The Aspinwalls were the earliest recorded watchmakers in one of the first centres for the craft outside London.

Illustration of a domed building on a dockside

Liverpool Customs House. Image courtesy Liverpool Daily Post and Echo

By the late 19th century Liverpool’s port provided direct employment for 60,000 people – about one-in-five of the male working population. Work on the docks was dangerous and men were recruited on a mainly casual basis. The system offered workers the chance to earn high wages but it also brought uncertainty and poverty. Commercial clerks kept business in Liverpool moving. By 1906 they made an amazing 750,000 entries at the Custom House each year – all delivered by hand.

Other exhibits include the huge metal key to Heywood’s Bank from about 1800. The bank building still stands in Brunswick Street.

Bryant & May’s Lifeboat Matches were among specialist products produced in Liverpool to serve the maritime industry. They were specially produced in watertight Bakelite containers to be included in the emergency kit of ships’ lifeboats.

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).