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Industrial Liverpool

The rise of Liverpool as a major port began when the first commercial wet dock opened for business in 1715. The dock was built by Thomas Steers, regarded as Britain’s first civil engineer.  Steers was also the undertaker of the Mersey and Irwell navigation, Douglas navigation and Britain's first proper canal, the Newry Canal which opened in 1742 (In Ulster). He was also the undertaker of Liverpool's Salthouse dock, but died before its completion.

The problem with Britain's rivers is that they are tidal. The Mersey at Liverpool rises up to 6m between high and low tides. A ship which docked at high tide could be grounded just 6 hours later. This makes loading and unloading difficult and puts a lot of stress on the ships’ keels. It would be far better if the water level remained the same throughout the day, and that is what the Lock Gated Wet Dock does. The gates are opened during high tide, and closed before the tide recedes. The ship now remains at the same height throughout its stay, making loading and unloading easier, and reducing the strain on ship's keel.

What is a Port, really?

We think of ports as places where ships are loaded and unloaded, but Thomas Steers noticed that the cargo went into and then out of the port. It never stayed in the port. He thought about cargo in the same way as we think about passengers. A passenger going on holiday might take a bus to the port than take a ship to another country. Then, on the way home, the passenger would get the ship to the port, then take the bus home. The problem was, there were no busses. In fact, the roads at that time were not very good. So he worked on the  Mersey & Irwell rivers to make an inland navigation so that more passengers and cargos could get to and from the docks.

The combination of wet dock and inland navigation worked so well that, by 1769, Liverpool had a large system of docks. The original Wet Dock (Old Dock) and Salthouse Dock are outlined in red and yellow respectively on this map, and the shape of the Canning Dock is clearly visible.

The "New dock" on this old map is long gone. It is under the "Pier Head", with the Leeds and Liverpool Canal link being the only water there. (Note: North is to the left on this map).  When this “New Dock” was complete, Liverpool needed another canal.

How the Leeds and Liverpool Canal Began

In 1766, the merchants of Liverpool were approached by the merchants of Leeds and Bradford, who wanted to build a canal that connected the River Aire to Liverpool. The Yorkshire men wanted to get their woollen goods to a West coast port so that they could sell them around the world. For their own reasons, the Liverpool men agreed, and work began on cutting in 1770.  By 1774, fresh water from the River Douglas had reached Liverpool and the canal was opened to business in February of that year. By October, it was possible to reach Wigan via the old Douglas navigation, and trade between the two, and all the villages and towns in between, began in earnest.  The canal brought two very important things to Liverpool. Two things that Liverpool needed to grow:

  1. Clean Water
  2. Coal

Getting a canal over the Pennines was always going to be difficult. But it was made more difficult by political and economic problems, this meant that the link between the two cities was not completed until 1816, 42 years after it was begun! By that time, the original vision of selling wool around the world  had been overtaken by the huge triangle trade, in which raw cotton was carried on the canal to mill towns in East Lancashire, and cotton goods were carried back to Liverpool for export.

The cotton mills had been built in the Pennines to because they could use water power, but coal power later meant that mills could produce much, much more and the mill towns that grew up very quickly. Liverpool, on the other hand, did not have water power, but coal was now very cheap, so industries that could use the coal from Wigan and water from the River Douglas sprang up around the canal.

The First Big Change

The canal originally end at what is now the junction of Old Hall Street and Old Leeds Street in Liverpool, It was a simple waterway, because the canal company always wanted to connect to the docks, and load and unload cargo there.  But the dock companies and the canal company could not agree to a deal for several decades. So, until the Stanley Lock flight was completed in 1848, the demand for canal side space increased rapidly. By the time the first OS maps were published around 1850, the canal basin had grown, with major branches running parallel to Leeds Street and Charter Street, and minor branches off the three major branches.

When the lock system into Stanley Dock opened in 1848. The original canal terminus was no longer used, and canal company was thus able to close it, and sell the land to the railway companies for a big profit. In 1864, the OS map shows the old arm, while the 1891 map shows it completely gone, and replaced by a railway goods yard.  Over the same period, most of the industries on the rest of the canal basin have changed, too.

1908 SNAPSHOTIndustrial Liverpool 1908

It would be very difficult, and tedious, to document all of the changes along the stretch of canal that ran into Liverpool over its entire history of more than 240 years.  Instead, I have taken a "snapshot", showing those businesses that appear on the 1908 OS map.  Unlike the Bootle map, I've included railway sidings here, because they take up so much space along the canal banks.  They're coloured slightly darker pink. I've also included the exact location of the WW2 bomb damage near Bankhall (red X and arrow showing the direction of the flood). Google Maps gives its location as 53.44N -2.99E.

As with Bootle, the canal side industry is very varied, with many businesses taking advantage of canal water. There’s even a hydraulic pumping station that pumped canal water all over Liverpool city centre to power lifts etc. Click on the image on the right to display the full size image.