Small town to major port
Feb 16 2008
by Peter Elson, Liverpool Daily Post
Life in Tudor Liverpool is revealed in a new book about the 16th century town and port. Peter Elson reports
IT WAS a parochial place which was ignored and isolated, outshone by Manchester and other more prosperous northern towns.
No – this wasn’t Liverpool in the 1970s and 1980s, but the town in Tudor times. A small place even by the standards of the period with a population of not more than 1,000 inhabitants.
What it is difficult to imagine with hindsight is that the residents had absolutely no idea of the future fame and fortune that awaited Liverpool.
It was completely beyond their limited experience, which was of a place very much off the beaten track. The idea of Liverpool as Second City of the British Empire would have been incomprehensible.
Liverpool’s seven streets, laid out shortly after its foundation by King John’s letters of patent (charter) in 1207, were all still in existence, but not much had happened over the next three centuries.
With the town’s national importance no more than an occasional military embarkation point for fighting in Ireland, economic development or opportunity was not sufficient to generate urban expansion.
Just like the great cry of the 1970s, Liverpool’s west-coast location meant it faced the wrong way for the time. Instead of the easy trade access to continental Europe and the influence of London and the royal government, Liverpool looked out across seemingly endless sea.
However, besides the considerable inheritance from, and a continuity with, the medieval period, the seeds were being planted which would have big consequences in later centuries: an expansion of shipping from the Irish Sea into the Atlantic Ocean.
“Liverpool then, as now, tended to look outwards rather than inland and this led to a dependence instead on Irish Sea communication to Ireland, Wales, Scotland and the Isle of Man,” says Janet Hollinshead.
She has written a fine book about a hitherto forgotten period of the town’s history, called Liverpool in the Sixteenth Century –A Small Tudor Town. Surprisingly, the book is well-illustrated given the paucity of visual material.
Fortunately, this was the time when the town books and customs’ port books came into existence, setting down the foundations for the greatness that was yet to come.
“Really I’ve drawn together research that I started 20 years ago,” says Janet, who before retirement was head of history at Liverpool Hope University.
“Your heart could sink on realising how little information remains – there aren’t even any buildings from that time in the town centre. None of the city views go back that far.
“But you use your reason instead. In a painting of Carrickfergus harbour, in Ireland, there are ships anchored which must have come from either Liverpool or Chester, so there is an insight into the kinds of vessels owned by Liverpool merchants.
“Previous researchers concentrated on the big Tudor cities like Bristol, London and York and it occurred to me that not many little places had much attention paid to them.
“Luckily, you can piece together the human picture through probate records which begin to provide details of some individuals, their possessions and their occupations.
“The personal records and deeds, like those compiled by the More and Molyneux families, mean that the gentry influence and interests in the town can be seen more clearly.
“The dominant family was the Stanleys, headed by the Earl of Derby, whose archive is now at Preston. Other archives are at Liverpool and Sefton. However, there was not the great array of rich merchant families as in Tudor Exeter or Bristol.”
The Derby’s Liverpool residence was the Tower, on the Strand by Our Lady & St Nicholas’ Church, which was yet to be built.
The parish church’s Chapel Street site was occupied by the chapels of St Mary del Quay and St Nicholas. Instead of traffic, their walls were lapped by the river.
Archives for Crown possessions held by the Duchy of Lancaster are in London. Janet’s hunt for documentation included the British Library and Spain.
As the attempted invasion by the Spanish Armada wrecked Liverpool’s fledgling trade to its ports, Liverpool merchants tried to get round embargoes by importing from Spain via Ireland.
Having specialised in teaching 16th century history and studied numerous historic records through long term membership of the Lancashire and Cheshire Historic Society, Janet had much information at hand.
“The style of economy, trade and shipping activities in the town are quite well documented. The local marketing arrangements and range of occupations are evident,” she says.
“They reveal the town’s society with its merchants, craftsmen, ship owners, retailers, farmers, labourers and servants.
“The one really old landmark of more than local importance was the castle, but by the time of Queen Elizabeth I, it was in ruins and later pulled down.
“Given the predominance now of 19th century buildings, the castle would have given a focal point to the city and created a rather different identity.
“While Tudor Liverpool was not the most prosperous port in the country, it wasn’t one of the worst either. The climate was mildish, grain could be grown, the river fished and cheeses bought from south Lancashire.
“Because Liverpool was small, this meant that few of its population escaped the attention and recording by local tax officials. Even if the citizens didn’t appreciate their attention, historians do.”
LIVERPOOL in the 16th Century – A Small Tudor Town, by Janet Hollinshead, Carnegie Publishing, £11.99
Source: Liverpool Daily Post