When King John signed Liverpool’s Charter, on 28th August 1207, he created a 13th century ‘new town’ and a medieval enterprise zone. Liverpool was then a small fishing hamlet on the banks of a muddy ‘pool’, an inlet from the River Mersey. It would become one of the world’s most important ports and trading centres.
King John wanted to rule Ireland. He needed a new port under his control so that he could ship out troops and horses. Settlers were offered two-acre plots of land and low rents.
“John by the grace of God King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitane, Count of Anjou, to all his loyal subjects who may have to wish to have burgages in the township of Liverpul greeting. Know ye that we have granted to all our loyal subjects who shall take burgages in Liverpul that they shall have all the liberties and free customs in the township of Liverpul which any free borough on the sea has in our land. And therefore we command you that in safety and in our peace ye come hither to receive and occupy our burgages. And in testimony hereof we transmit to you our letters patent. Witness Simon de Pateshill. At Winchester the 28th day of August in the ninth year of our reign”.
For a long time the town and its port developed slowly. For over 400 years there were only seven short streets: Castle Street, Juggler Street, Bank Street (now Water Street), Moor Street (now Tithebarn Street), Dale Street, Chapel Street and Mylne Street (now Old Hall Street). Its population was 500 to 800 and the main occupations were fishing and farming. There were outbreaks of the plague in 1361, 1540, 1548 (when 250 died), 1558 (another 250), 1651 (200), and 1665. The borough’s trade expanded over time. In 1611 a salt refinery was built. England’s main trade was with European markets. Liverpool’s dozen or so ships traded with Ireland and the Isle of Man and along Lancashire and Welsh coasts.
In the late 17th Century Liverpool benefited from the French blockade of southern English ports and was able to develop trade with Spain, Denmark and Hamburg. Progress was halted during the Civil War when Liverpool was divided in its allegiance. The local aristocracy; the Stanley, Molyneux and Norris families, were Royalists. However the Burgesses and traders generally supported Parliament. In this period, the town was attacked and taken by both sides.
By the beginning of the 18th Century Liverpool’s population was 5,714 and its main exports were salt from Cheshire, coal from Lancashire and manufactured goods and glass from the newly industrialised villages nearby. Liverpool’s greatest period of commercial prosperity and growth began in this century. Its population was already around 20,000 by 1750 and 53,853 in 1790. The opening up of roads and canals increased trade and in 1715 Liverpool built the world’s first wet dock. The greatest change to Liverpool’s trade came when technological advances led to larger ships being built. They were able to bring new cargoes from further away. Trade expanded from the European, Baltic and Mediterranean ports to North and South America, the West Indies and Africa.
Eventually Liverpool became England’s largest slaving port. Its ships took coal, salt and manufactured goods to the West Coast of Africa where they were traded for slaves. The slaves were taken across the Atlantic to the West Indies where they were traded for the products of slavery; cotton, rum, tobacco, sugar, indigo and spices. These cargoes were brought back to Liverpool for processing or re-export. The ‘triangular trade’ produced profits of up to 400% for ship owners. The whole town was involved from MP’s and Mayors to ironworkers making chains and manacles. The growth of the slave trade led to increased ship-building and the introduction of sugar refining.
Liverpool had a population of 77.708 by 1800. New streets were laid out as the town expanded. The Exchange Building was destroyed in a fire in 1795 and replaced with a grand new Town Hall. The Industrial Revolution led to Britain developing as a manufacturing nation during the 19th century. Liverpool remained a centre of trade. Its industrial base remained small scale, low-technology, and labour-intensive.
Liverpool’s population grew as improved agricultural productivity brought people into towns and cities looking for new work. Significant numbers of people came from the rural areas of Wales and Scotland. The biggest numbers came in the 1840’s following the failure of the potato crops in Ireland. Irish people came into Liverpool hungry, ill, penniless and looking for work and somewhere to live. Half the new arrivals migrated abroad or to other towns and cities. The 1851 Census showed that the majority of Liverpool’s population had been born outside the city, including 25% who were Irish born, 6% Welsh and 4% Scottish.
Between 1830 and 1930 about 9 million migrants came through Liverpool on their way to America. Some stayed, together with foreign sailors they added to Liverpool’s cosmopolitan make-up and outlook. Liverpool’s Black and Chinese communities are both long established in the city. The city became a place of the world.
The 19th century was a time of great contrast. Liverpool was the British Empire’s second port and city. It had more millionaires then anywhere else outside London. Liverpool also had some of the worst poverty and mortality rates in the country. The city was always overcrowded as people arrived looking for work. The casual labour system operated on the docks, in the building trade and in manufacturing. Employers took on the labour they needed by the day or half-day. The system was highly profitable for the employer but led to poverty and uncertainty for the workers.
In the mid-century Liverpool Corporation began to look at ways of cutting it’s high death and sickness rate. The Corporation had grown as the city grew. It was rich and powerful and owned vast estates as well as controlling the port and much of the business in the city. Liverpool became a pioneer of social welfare and appointed the first Medical Officer of Health (1847), introduced slum clearance programmes (1864), and built the first public housing (1869).
Between 1830 and 1860 trade through the port trebled and it trebled again between 1860 and 1914. Many industries located in Liverpool in order to be near the port. Bryant and May imported timber from the Baltic for their match factory, Tate and Lyle imported sugar from the West Indies, Ogdens imported tobacco, Hartley’s used sugar and fruit for their jam. Processors of food located near the port and used its imports to make biscuits, bread and cakes.
In 1900 the population was 685,000. The depression in world trade in the 1930’s hit Liverpool’s trade, and unemployment rose to twice the national average. Liverpool began to lose population and jobs. The city had benefited from Britain’s early industrial revolution because it imported the raw materials and exported the finished products. These benefits were lost as other countries began to industrialise. Liverpool also profited from Britain’s exploitation of its Empire, and then declined after the loss of this source of cheap raw materials and captive market for finished goods.
Liverpool Corporation realised that action had to be taken to change the city’s economic base. In 1936 it pioneered the building of new industrial estates at Aintree and Speke. These attracted new industries including light engineering, chemicals and pharmaceuticals. In the 1960’s Government incentives brought car production to Liverpool and manufacturing became a growth industry for a short time.
Employment in the port and its associated industries was still in decline. Thousands of jobs were lost when containerisation was introduced. Britain’s membership of the EU left Liverpool once again on the ‘wrong’ side of the country, away from the main European markets. Liverpool has lost 43% of it’s jobs since 1961. It has also lost 34% of it’s population. The public sector has remained important in the city with Liverpool City Council providing 25,000 jobs, 12% of the city’s total.
Along with economic change, there has been social change. Liverpool’s post war legacy of bad housing led to extensive slum clearance programmes. People were moved to new homes on outer-city estates or in new towns outside the city. In the city high and low-rise flats were built. Both strategies have led to housing and social problems. Liverpool people also experienced changes at work as traditional port employment declined. It was replaced with assembly-line work and later with service sector work in shops and offices and financial institutions.
The city’s past has left it with a valuable legacy. Fine docks and buildings echo the past but will also help to build Liverpool’s future.