Ten fascinating facts about Liverpool's Old Dock

Hidden beneath Liverpool One shopping centre, the Old Dock may look like a modest brick structure at first glance, but these bricks were to change Liverpool's fortunes forever. Find out why it is so significant.

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1. A world first

The Old Dock was the world’s first enclosed commercial wet dock. Before it opened there were only limited times when it was safe to load or unload ships in Liverpool, due to the huge tidal range of the river Mersey. This video explains what a huge difference the dock made when it opened in 1715.

2. An expensive gamble

The construction of the Old Dock cost £12,000 - which is the equivalent of £3,000,000 today! The undertaking was a high risk commission for Liverpool as it would have led to bankruptcy for the city if the dock was not successful.

3. A major engineering project

Designed by Thomas Steers, the Old Dock took five years to construct. The finished dock was about 660 feet long by 330 feet wide and could accommodate 100 ships within its 3.5 acres.

4. A famous admirer

Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, was extremely impressed by the Old Dock - which would have been the very new dock when he saw it in 1715! He wrote:

"This is of so great a benefit and its like is not to be seen anywhere in England."

map of Liverpool in 1765, showing the earliest docks on the waterfront
Detail of the Eyes map of Liverpool, 1765, showing the Old Dock in the centre and new docks developing along the waterfront © Liverpool Record Office

5. An instant success

Defoe was not wrong, as the city’s gamble paid off. The dock was hugely successful and became a key catalyst for the growth of the city. Over time Liverpool required more docks to keep up with the increased demand for trade.

By the 19th century Liverpool was receiving 9% of the entire world trade through its many docks. This was only achieved due to the success and innovation of the Old Dock.

tour group on a platform, looking across at the old brick walls of the Old Dock
Tour group in the Old Dock © Robin Clewley

6. A significant location

The Old Dock is significant for another reason though, as it was constructed upon the reddish bedrock of the inlet to an old sea pool, which you can see as part of the tours. It is believed that the liver-coloured pool is what originally gave the city its name, so the Old Dock is quite literally the heart of the city!

7. The site of an iconic building

As the port of Liverpool grew, along with the ships that traded there, the Old Dock was replaced by newer docks along the waterfront. Liverpool’s huge Custom House was built on the site between 1828 and 1837 and stood there until it was bombed in the Blitz. You can see a model of the former Custom House in the Seized gallery in the basement of the Maritime Museum.

Wooden model of a large building with columns at the entrance and a large dome, in museum display
Custom House model © Pete Carr

8. A window on the past

The Old Dock remained hidden until archaeologists excavated the site between 2001 and 2008, ahead of the construction of Liverpool One shopping centre. They uncovered some extremely well preserved contents, including the complete skeleton of a pony that used to work on the docks, and a clay smoking pipe with ‘Liverpool 1’ etched into it. These finds provide fascinating insights of 18th century life around the waterfront. 

9. With an actual window!

Have you ever spotted the small window in the pavement of Liverpool One, just outside John Lewis? This gives you a tantalising glimpse of what lies beneath your feet.

3 young people looking over a railing at a round glass panel in the pavement
The porthole into the Old Dock © Gareth Jones

However there is an even better way to get close up to this historic site…

10. A new lease of life

Today the Old Dock is part of a different type of growth for the city - tourism. Rated one of the top things to do in Liverpool on Tripadvisor, the tours of the Old Dock attract many curious visitors to this secret heart of the city. 

tour guide talking to a group on a platform, looking across at the old brick walls of the Old Dock
Tour group in the Old Dock © Robin Clewley

The Old Dock tours

Of course, these facts are just the start of the story, which is brought to life in even more fascinating detail by our expert tour guides. If you haven’t experienced this 300 year old time capsule yet then why not book a tour?