Quentin Hughes’ 1964 study of Liverpool’s architecture, Seaport, begins with the inimitable sentence, “The quality of Mersey is not strained”.
The book, reissued in 1993 but now out of print, is illustrated with atmospheric monochrome photographs taken just before the decline in the North and South Docks became terminal.
Nowadays, you can see where the great port started by peering through a porthole in the pavement of the glitzy shopping centre, Liverpool One, to glimpse part of the Old Dock, built by the pioneering civil engineer Thomas Steers (?1672-1750) between 1710 and 1716.
Steers’ career is shadowy, simply because the historical evidence is vague about his achievements. He came to the north-west from Rotherhithe, and constructed the Mersey & Irwell Navigation (1721-25), the Newry Canal in Ireland (completed 1742) and much else, perhaps more than is now recorded.
In Liverpool Steers was commissioned to build the world’s first commercial wet dock, using lock gates to provide protection from the tides so that boats remained at a constant level for convenient loading and unloading.
He adapted the natural inlet on which the port had developed, building a substantial twenty-foot-high brick wall directly from the bedrock to enclose a 3½-acre stretch of water large enough for a hundred vessels.
The whole project was made possible because the borough corporation had bought the manorial rights from Lord Molyneux in 1672.
Costing £12,000 – twice Steers’ estimate – it was a huge gamble which paid off and laid the foundations for Liverpool’s dominance as a port that grew rich on the notorious triangular trade of cotton, rum, sugar, spices and slaves.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century the Old Dock became too small to be useful and was badly polluted by the sewage of the surrounding streets. It was closed in 1826 and filled in.
On the site the architect John Foster Jnr (1786-1846) built his magnificent domed classical Custom House (1828-38) which was gutted in the 1941 Blitz and, regrettably, demolished soon after the end of the War: http://liverpoolremembrance.weebly.com/the-custom-house.html.
At the time of the Millennium the redevelopment of Liverpool One provided the opportunity to retrieve part of the site’s archaeology, so that visitors can see the literal foundations of the port on escorted guided tours arranged by the Maritime Museum: https://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/maritime/visit/old-dock.aspx.
The Old Dock tour is included in the Unexpected Liverpool (June 1st-5th 2020) tour. For further details please click here.