Commerce and civic administration continued through this period. In 1654, Liverpool’s first attempt at street lighting was undertaken. Lanterns set up at two of the crosses which graced street intersections. (One was the High Cross, where Exchange Flags now is, and the other the White Cross, at the modern junction of Old Hall Street and Tithebarn Street. (There is now no trace of either of these Crosses nor of St Patrick’s Cross, at the top of Tithebarn Street, nor the Town-end Cross in Byrom Street).
Chester’s misfortune in the silting up of the river Dee was Liverpool’s gain. By the seventeenth century, maritime trade was moving down the Dee to Shotwick, then to Neston. Later, ships unloaded in the Hoyle Lake, a sheltered part of the sea opposite modern Hoylake on the north Wirral coast, their goods going on towards Liverpool by barge or cart. In the mid-seventeenth century the little port by the Pool of Liverpool was getting bigger but there were still only about 300 houses in the seven streets with a population of around 1,500. In 1666, the Antelope, financed by Liverpool men, sailed for Barbados and returned the next year with a cargo of sugar. Transatlantic trade grew from this modest start. The population also grew, reaching 6,000 by 1708. In 1715 a four-acre enclosed dock, the world’s first, designed by Thomas Steers, was brought into use. It became known later as the Old Dock. More trade and more docks followed, the population rising to 34,407 in 1790 and 77,653 in 1801.
Rich and poor in a powerful city
Merchants became wealthy, partly through the slave trade and from privateering (government supported piracy against enemy ships). The first known slave ship here was the Liverpool Merchant which took 220 African slaves to Barbados in 1699. By the 1790s Liverpool ships controlled 80% of the British slave trade and over 40% of the European slave trade. Liverpool ships took manufactured goods to Africa, then slaves to the Americas and then brought sugar, cotton and rum back to Liverpool. Liverpool poet, historian and Member of Parliament William Roscoe was a leader of the campaign which succeeded in abolishing the slave trade in 1807.
Through the nineteenth century, Liverpool grew to be the second city of the British Empire, the second port of Britain, a major centre of cotton trading, imports of food and raw materials, exports of manufactured goods and coal, shipping, insurance and banking. The world’s first passenger railway started here. At the end of its seventh century as a chartered borough Liverpool conducted a third of Britain’s exports and a quarter of its imports. It owned a third of Britain’s shipping and a seventh of the registered shipping of the world.
The nine miles of docks on the Liverpool side of the Mersey and the four miles in Birkenhead constituted Britain’s second port. Ships plied between Liverpool and all parts of the world. Passenger liners, including the Cunard and White Star vessels and the Empresses, had regular services to the United States and elsewhere, their passengers using a mainline railway terminal beside Princes Dock. A much-valued elevated railway, the Overhead, ran the length of the docks.
At 100,000 people per sq mile, Liverpool was the most densely populated town in England. The mortality was unparalleled – one in every 25 people were stricken with fever in one year. Following the Municipal Reform Act of 1835, the city was obliged to tackle the problem of there being 1,200 thieves under the age of 15 and 3,600 prostitutes in the town. Liverpool produced pioneers of social reform. In 1846 Dr Duncan was appointed Britain’s first medical officer of health and began a programme of improvements to water supply, drainage and living conditions. Kitty Wilkinson pioneered the provision of public wash houses. Josephine Butler successfully campaigned to free prostitutes from the harsh penalties to which they but not their clients were subject. The city grew and spread north, south and east in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Across the dock road and behind the warehouses lining it were built thousands of small terraced houses, back-to-backs (which had no exit from the rear and usually no indoor sanitation) and the infamous courts in which one toilet and one water tap served the ten or a dozen families living around the tiny courtyard.
Further up the hill, away from the malodorous town centre, the rich merchants lived in luxurious mansions, villas and terraces. Some of the finest houses for the merchants were around Sefton Park, among Britain’s loveliest parks (where one million daffodils were planted a few years ago, indeed a sight to be seen). The wealth of some of the merchants was staggering. One mansion had tableware for banquets when the merchant owner entertained clients made entirely of solid silver including cutlery, plates and drinking vessels.
Liverpool became the greatest centre of the arts in Britain outside the capital in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The University of Liverpool was created in 1903, absorbing an earlier college. The building of the immense Anglican Cathedral started in 1903. It took until 1974 to complete. It is the largest Anglican building in the world and the fifth largest cathedral of any denomination. Its length is 600 feet compared with 510 for St Paul’s in London and 715 for St Peter’s in Rome. In 1933, construction of a Roman Catholic Cathedral began. This would have been even larger than the Anglicans’ plans. Alas, only the crypt was ever completed but a new Cathedral of a different design was completed in 1967. Prestigious buildings for an art gallery, a museum, a public library and a concert hall were built. The “greats” of British music played in the Philharmonic Hall including Bruch, Beecham, Boult and Sergeant. Augustus John taught in the Art School. These projects stemmed form the wealth, the confidence and the determination of the leaders of Britain’s second city to be as good anyone in the world.