Liverpool: A Great Historical Port City
Simon Marcus Gower
“What do you think of if I say the name Liverpool to you?”
Most male respondents to this question would say the Liverpool Football Club, while a more diverse demographic might mention The Beatles. Both are entirely reasonable as the football club and John, Paul, George and Ringo are known all over the world; but arriving in the city of Liverpool, it is the city’s mighty and majestic architecture that makes the greatest impression.
The city’s architecture is largely a product of its remarkable history as a leading port. Indeed it might be said that its position as a world renowned port contributed to the development of a great sports team and a cultural scene that was ripe for the development of ground-breaking music. The port brought a diversity of cultures together to create a fertile mix of people and ideas.
Today the heyday of Liverpool has long passed, but there are numerous reminders of the city’s port history. Pride in the city’s history is also evident, even when that history has a darker side, such as the link to the appalling slave trade. Perhaps the greatest reminder of Liverpool’s port history can be seen in the Albert Dock.
When they were first opened in the middle of the 19th century, these docks, with their ability to handle massive amounts of cargo being shipped in and out of the city, were world leaders in industrial innovation. They were a huge investment for the city and it is estimated that their construction cost the equivalent of about $65 million.
Liverpool had been gaining prominence as a port since early in the 18th century, but all of this business was based on sailing ships. Indeed the Albert Dock was specifically constructed for sailing ships, and this proved to be its downfall. Within 20 years of its completion the Albert Dock was becoming obsolete thanks to the advent of steamships.
Steamships were much larger and required greater space. The entrance to the Albert Dock was too small and its basin too shallow for the huge steamships that were becoming the norm in the 1860s. The Albert Dock’s warehouses, once its greatest asset, were soon left empty and redundant. For a long time these docks were terribly underused but thankfully never demolished.
Today they are protected and preserved as buildings of historical and architectural importance. They have also become a center for tourism in the city, housing a range of stylish shops and restaurants as well as the Tate Liverpool, The Beatles Story and the Merseyside Maritime Museum.
The Tate Liverpool houses the national collection of modern art in the north of England and is reportedly the most visited gallery of modern art in the United Kingdom outside of London. The Beatles Story is an exhibition space that tells the story of the founding of the Beatles in Liverpool and how they rose to world prominence.
The most appropriate occupier of the former warehouse spaces in Albert Dock is the Merseyside Maritime Museum. Through interactive exhibits, the Maritime Museum illustrates the development of maritime trade and significance for the city. Particular highlights are the spaces dedicated to three great ships that were all associated with the city and were all sadly lost: the Titanic, the Lusitania and the Empress of Ireland.
Most famous of the three, and returned to prominence since the recent 100th anniversary of her sinking, is the Titanic. It is quite eerie to see artifacts that came directly from the ship. A passenger’s dress is on display, as well as a life jacket that was worn by a survivor who made it on to one of the lifeboats that carried people away from the sinking ship.
The Titanic was connected to Liverpool as it was owned by the White Star Line which was founded in the city, so the Titanic was registered in Liverpool.
Most of the crew of the Lusitania came from Liverpool, and like the Titanic, she was registered in the city under the ownership of the Cunard Line. It was an unarmed passenger ship that, in the midst of World War I in 1915, was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-Boat submarine with the shocking loss of 1,198 lives.
The third ship commemorated here was called Empress of Ireland and like the other two she was registered in Liverpool. In May 1914, she was sailing for Liverpool from Quebec when she collided with a Norwegian ship. This led to the loss of 1,012 souls on the Empress.
In just three years, Liverpool saw three great ships sunk with massive loss of life. It is said that this further heralded the demise of Liverpool as a great port city.
Just a short walk from the Albert Dock are reminders of what a great city Liverpool became thanks to the wealth that poured into the city through its docks. In an area known as the Pier Head stand three regal building that are so honored and respected they are referred to as the Three Graces of Liverpool. They are the Royal Liver Building, The Cunard Building and the Port of Liverpool Building. These three buildings combine to provide an elegant waterfront that has something of a twin in Shanghai with its Bund waterfront.
Elsewhere, another huge building dominates Liverpool’s skyline. Set upon a slight hill known as St. James’s Mount stands the mighty Liverpool Cathedral, a truly remarkable structure that is quite literally awe inspiring.
It is a great building that seems to look down over the whole city. Also looking over the city, down from the Royal Liver Building, are two huge copper birds, standing tall at about 5.5 meters. Known as the “Liver Birds,” they have become mythological symbols of the city.
Liverpool Football Club has a Liver Bird on its crest and the two that stand atop the clock towers of the Liver Building are said to look down and protect the city. It is also said that should they fly off one day that would mean the end of the city, so the copper birds are chained to the domes on which they stand. Although the chains may be for more practical reasons, to keep the birds from being blown over in the high winds and rains that can buffet the waterfront, let us hope the Liver Birds, along with the remarkable and unique city of Liverpool, long remain.