The History of Liverpool
Not even mentioned in the Domesday Book, Liverpool went on to become the second city of the Empire at its 19th century peak; and in the second half of the 20th century was at times arguably more culturally significant than London .
It is thought a small fishing village existed where Liverpool now stands some 2000 years ago; but in 1086 when the Domesday Book was compiled it remained too small to merit a mention. The Normans , though, did build a motte-and-bailey fort at West Derby, a place that eventually came within Liverpool’s boundaries.
The name Liverpool most probably derives from Celtic words meaning ‘muddy pool’, recording the existence of a tidal pool near the Mersey ’s mouth, though alternative suggestions include a corruption of the self-explanatory Elverpool, and the combination of the Welsh words Llif and Pwll, respectively ‘flood’ and ‘pool’. Fittingly it was the settlement’s proximity to the sea that led to its development by King John , who in August 1207 formally invited settlers to move there as he developed a port to handle trade with and travel to Ireland – Chester being controlled by its Earl who just prior to this was suspected of plotting with the Welsh to revolt against John.
Liverpool Castle was built in 1235, marking the rapid development of the settlement in part thanks to the 1229 charter which placed significant power over Liverpool in the hands of its merchants, allowed to form a guild; a chapel dedicated to St Nicholas (tellingly patron saint of fishermen) followed in 1257, though it was dependent on Walton – indeed one of the anomalies about Liverpool’s history is that it did not gain a parish church – St Peter’s - until 1704, five years after it was finally made an autonomous parish.
Though it had a market, and benefitted from its Irish links – trade flowing both ways, and soldiers regularly despatched from there – Liverpool remained small, its population below the 1000 mark well into the 14th century. It was controlled by burgesses from John’s time, but eventually the nobility, especially the Stanley family, exerted some control over the town, seemingly to its detriment as its rival Chester thrived while Liverpool shrank in importance, its population accordingly declining to perhaps 500 or 600 by the middle of the Tudor period. But nature came to its rescue, silting the Dee to Chester’s detriment and Liverpool’s advantage.
During the Civil War Prince Rupert in 1644 besieged the town which had shown for his cause originally but fell to Parliament in 1643. His victorious force sacked it when its Roundhead garrison fled by sea.
In medieval times Ireland was the only major market significantly served by Liverpool; as the Americas were discovered and developed this changed radically. Liverpool landed its first American cargo in 1648; soon tobacco, cotton, rum and sugar were flowing into the town. But even more profitably, and shamefully, another trade began in October 1699 when the ship Liverpool Merchant sailed for Africa, whence it carried 220 slaves to Barbados, eventually returning to its home port in September 1700 with cargo from the West Indies.
Liverpool’s continued development as a trade port is symbolised by the building in 1715 of a wet dock there, a world first. With burgeoning trade came the need to handle the ensuing profits: Liverpool became a financial centre in the 18th century, its maritime trade helping the establishment of an insurance sector still significant today. Links between the insurance business and the slave trade were most dramatically and vilely demonstrated in the 1781 case of the slaver-ship Zong, whose owners claimed against the jettison clause in their insurance policy which supposedly covered them for the deliberate throwing overboard of more than 120 slaves.
The abolition within the British jurisdiction of the slave trade in 1807 and of slavery itself in 1834 put an end to one era of Liverpool’s maritime history, though away from prying eyes some of its ships were engaged in the business well after that. Another era had already overtaken it in importance long before then, as Lancashire’s cotton mills voraciously demanded raw materials from the Americas, and exported finished cloth to the entire Empire. This industrial boom saw Liverpool’s reach extended inland with the building of canals to Manchester in 1721, St Helens in 1755, and all the way across to Leeds and its textile trade in 1816. Add to this the impact that the ending of the East India Company’s monopoly on trade with India had in 1813 and it is easy to see how Liverpool became a boomtown, able to invest in one of the first inter-urban train lines linking it with Manchester in 1830.
Increasing dock trade (and dock building) required an increased work force: first in the mid-19th century the Irish fed this need, fleeing from poverty and eventually the Potato Famine ; then the Welsh flooded into Liverpool to such an extent that the Eisteddfod was held in the town in 1884 and again in 1900. Pre-dating the admittedly far more numerous Irish and Welsh immigrants was a black community in the 18th century; and in 1866 the first immigrants from China arrived. Liverpool has long been a cosmopolitan conglomeration.
City status was finally granted to Liverpool in 1880, though its provision of cathedrals took many decades more: the Catholic Cathedral consecrated in 1967; the Anglican Cathedral one fully ready 11 years later.
Though the greatest days of Liverpool’s maritime trade were already drawing to a close by the start of the 20th century its famous waterfront ‘three graces’ of The Cunard Building, Liver Building, and Port of Liverpool Building were constructed in the first two decades of that century, reflecting the continuing significance of its trade, most important of all perhaps as the point where the crossing of the Atlantic began for millions of British, Irish and mainland European emigrants to America.
During WWII Liverpool’s role as the main port of entry for vital supplies from the USA and Canada marked the city as a major target for the Luftwaffe, most famously during what became known as May Week in 1941. On May 3 1941 the SS Malakand, a cargo-liner loaded with munitions in the Huskisson Dock, exploded when a burning barrage balloon drifted onto it. The devastation caused by 1000 tons of exploding ammunition was enormous; some debris sent flying more than two miles.
The industrial face of Liverpool changed after WWII as containerisation meant the loss of many jobs, and increasing militancy in the workplace for a time saw the otherwise attractive location blessed with excellent infrastructure become an investment no-go area.
The city had changed physically too, German bombing having destroyed more than 10000 homes, and the need for slum-clearance leading to an outflow of residents to expansion towns like Skelmersdale .
But Liverpool in the second half of the 20th century, still cosmopolitan, with its university founded in 1881 plus a thriving art school, its continual influx of immigrants, and history of social mobility and political involvement, was fertile ground for cultural development even as its industrial counterpart struggled. The Royal Court Theatre , built pre-war, had its golden age in the 1950s. In the early 1960s the Merseybeat generation of bands changed pop music the world over, most famously of course The Beatles in the vanguard, but with Cilla Black , Billy Fury, Gerry and the Pacemakers and many others gaining chart success in their wake. In the same period the most influential movement in British poetry was based around the city, with Adrian Henri , Roger McGough and Brian Patten to the fore. In the 1980s the city again had a booming band scene: Echo and the Bunnymen, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and The Teardrop Explodes among many successes. This continuous cultural contribution was recognized by the city being awarded the accolade of European City of Culture in 2008.