No medieval buildings survive in the city centre but the ancient street pattern is still there. What follows is a summary of the city’s history, a tour of its seven original streets, now flanked by Victorian and more recent buildings and a description of some of the new streets and districts created when the city expanded in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
An outline of the city’s history
Six large pieces of sandstone, between one and two and a half metres high the Calderstones – are the earliest signs of human activity in Liverpool. There are few records of Liverpool’s existence before 1207. The Romans were apparently never here, although they had a legionary base at Chester, twenty miles away, a quarry at Storeton in Wirral and a port at Meols on the north Wirral coast. Liverpool is not mentioned in the Domesday Book, the register of land made for King William I in 1086. But other habitations which have now been incorporated into modern Liverpool and its suburbs were mentioned in this record, including Crosby, Litherland, Bootle, Walton, Kirkdale, Wavertree, Toxteth and Esmedun (which became Smithdown).
King John wanted a port from which to send troops to Ireland, a port independent of nearby Chester, which was too much under the control of its powerful and independent-minded Earl. On 23 August 1207, he issued letters-patent which resulted soon afterwards in the little hamlet of Liverpool becoming a borough. John invited people to come to settle in his new township and offered them tax concessions and land to do so. His agents laid out seven streets to accommodate them.
Around this time, the Norman Baron Roger de Poitou, who controlled the southern part of the County of Lancaster, created a deer park of some 2,300 acres in the Toxteth and Smithdown areas, to the south of the hamlet of Liverpool. Tradition has it that the remains of a hunting lodge from medieval times survive in a property near modern Lodge Lane. But apart from Speke Hall, an Elizabethan “black-and-white” house in the suburbs near the airport, the Bluecoat School and several churches, there are few buildings dating back to the seventeenth century or earlier in the modern city.
The Civil War touched Liverpool, as it did most parts of the kingdom. Liverpool was at first occupied by the Royalists. A ship brought Parliamentary forces into the Mersey in 1643. They took the church and set up a defensive position on the line of Dale Street. The town was then garrisoned under Colonel John Moore for the Parliamentary side, with gun batteries along the line of modern Paradise Street and Whitechapel and fortifications from Old Hall Street to the Dale Street bridge over the Pool. Liverpool men attacked Birkenhead. In 1644 Prince Rupert set out to take the town from a base in Everton Village and set up cannons where Lime Street now is. The Parliamentary Roundheads counterattacked and took the town. In 1651, Royalists under the Earl of Derby approached by sea but were rebuffed by Parliamentary ships from Liverpool. Cromwell was in the ascendancy. In 1654 the defensive gates at the ends of the streets and the mud fortifications were taken down and the Dale Street bridge repaired. William Stanley, brother of the Earl of Derby, was elected to Parliament for the town in 1660 and assisted in the restoration of King Charles II.
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.
Decline and rebirth
The start of World War I in 1914 saw the beginning of a decline in Liverpool’s fortunes. The passenger liners moved to Southampton, which had better tidal conditions, but were themselves later superseded by air travel. Liverpool’s substantial banking and insurance businesses moved to London as part of the general concentration of the nation’s business leadership in the capital. World War II brought death and destruction to Liverpool. Large numbers of Liverpool seafarers were killed and much of the central area was destroyed by German bombs, especially in May 1941. Liverpool was the most bombed British city apart from the capital. But the port remained open, the only British port to stay open throughout the war.
In the later part of the twentieth century, more docks were built but the mechanisation of dock work meant that, while currently handling as much tonnage as ever in its history, the port now employs only a few hundred people instead of the 15,000 who once worked in it. Industrial plants such as Tate & Lyle’s sugar refinery and Meccano of Dinky toys and Hornby trains fame were closed. (Henry Tate and Frank Hornby were Liverpool men). New industry preferred to be in the southeast of England successive governments favoured the south east for the headquarters of the growing number of public sector departments. The population of the city fell from nearly 800,000 in the 1940s to about 450,000 as the twentieth first century dawned – but it is now rising again.
The twentieth century saw re-housing in suburban council-controlled estates, the earlier ones of good standard, the later ones less satisfactory. Many of the mid-twentieth century blocks of flats were so bad that they have since been demolished. The condition of many of the houses built in Victorian times for the rich had seriously deteriorated. Many were torn down. Others are now being refurbished. Housing for Liverpool people and industrial estates spilled over into neighbouring boroughs.
National policy was slow to tackle the decline in this and other northern areas. Britain’s expanded commercial and political links with other European Union countries made matters even more difficult. The success of the Liverpool and Everton football clubs and the rise of the Beatles and a large number of other pop groups and entertainers of all kinds seemed to be all that sustained Liverpool in the 1960s and 70s. Severe riots in the Toxteth part of the city in 1981 drew attention to the city’s plight and there followed the government supported International Garden Festival of 1984 and the beginning of financial assistance from the European Union’s Regional Development Fund. The European money and changes in British government policy sparked new commercial and industrial development which has now led to something of a boom, at least in the centre of the city.
New streets as the town grew
From the 1700s, the town started to grow. Lord Street was laid down, running east from the site of the Castle. It took its title from Lord Molyneux of the family which became Earls of Sefton. Where Lord Street joins modern Paradise Street a bridge was built over the Pool in 1672. When the building in which McDonald’s is now situated was built after the devastation of World War II, the remains of an old bridge were found deep underground.
After the bridge over the Pool was built, a new street called Church Street was laid down and named after St Peter’s church which stood for over a century until 1922 where Top Shop now is. A brass cross is set into the pavement outside the shop to mark the site. The Athenaeum (older than its namesake in London!), moved in 1922 from its original building in Church Street to a new building on the site of the churchyard site. St Peter’s was temporarily the Anglican Cathedral after Liverpool was made a diocese in 1880, while plans for the present enormous Cathedral were being drawn up. When Church Street was widened at this point in Victorian times, graves had to be moved. It was found that water flowing underground had turned some of bodies in them to stone. This water was flowing from the Moss Lakes which were in the area where the main part of the University of Liverpool is now situated. Water from these lakes still flows, from a fountain in St James’ Garden behind the Anglican Cathedral.
From the junction of Lord Street and Church Street, Whitechapel and Paradise Street go north and south, built over the upper part of the Pool. Whitechapel, so named because of a nearby chapel, led up to the old bridge over the Pool at the bottom of Dale Street. It was originally called Frog Lane because of a colony of frogs there. It had a reputation for being a place of “ill repute”. Paradise Street was named after a London street where Thomas Steers, who built the first dock, once lived. It led down towards Canning Place where a large, domed Victorian classical building housed the Customs & Excise until it was destroyed by bombs in World War II. Paradise Street is now the centre of one of the biggest retail developments in Europe, Liverpool One. At the top of church Street was once the Washington Hotel. Garibaldi, who led Italy to independence, once stayed there on his way to New York.
Leading out of town
From the Dale Street bridge over the Pool Scotland Road was built in the eighteenth century as a new route to the north, one of two original turnpike (i.e. toll) roads out of the town. Scotland Road became the focal point of Irish immigration into Liverpool. (In 1847/48, 300,000 Irish people came a the twelve month period, some going on to the United States, others remaining in the city.) Their story is commemorated in St Anthony’s church in Scotland Road, where many thousands of Irish descendants are buried in graves beneath the Church.
The streets off Scotland Road were places of terrible poverty. Thousands lived in stinking courts and mean terraced houses. The houses where Irish and other immigrants lived spread eastwards up Everton Heights, where in the previous century merchants lived in large villas with well-tended gardens. The graveyard of St George’s Church at the top of the hill commemorates some of them. Scotland Road itself was the scene of much evening drunkenness and violence until well into the twentieth century. It saw many clashes between the Protestant and Roman Catholic communities which continued until World War and the clearance of bad housing in the 1960s, when people were moved to new estates on the outskirts of the city. Since the 1960s, sectarianism has largely ceased to exist in Liverpool and the city, under the leadership of successive Roman Catholic Archbishops, Anglican Bishops and Free Church clergy has become a model of co-operation between different parts of the Christian Church, in which representatives of other faiths are also involved.
The continuation of Dale Street after Scotland Road is William Brown Street (named after a former Lord Mayor). Further on this becomes London Road, for centuries the main way out of town. On the left of William Brown Street several potteries once stood, Liverpool ware being well known here and in America. The magnificent buildings on this site now – the newly refurbished World Museum Liverpool, the Central Library which houses the Liverpool Record Office and the Walker Art Gallery, the finest British art gallery outside London, make a vista of nineteenth century classical architecture with few rivals. Across the road is St John’s Gardens and behind them is St George’s Hall, said to be the finest nineteenth century Greco-Roman building in Britain. It contains a magnificent concert Hall and rooms built as law courts and used as such until a few years ago.
Around St George’s Hall – in St John’s Gardens and facing Lime Street – is a superb collection of statues. One is of William Ewart Gladstone, one of Britain’s greatest Prime Ministers, born in 1809 in Rodney Street, Liverpool, near the Philharmonic Hall. Another statue is of Benjamin Disraeli, another Victorian Prime Minister, whose Conservative Party had strong support in Liverpool for many decades and who described the city as the second city of the British Empire. A plaque in St John’s Garden commemorates French prisoners who were buried there in the eighteenth century when the site was occupied by a church. They had been prisoners taken by Liverpool privateers, government-approved pirates who plundered the ships of enemy countries.
Behind St George’s Hall is Lime Street. This was first called Limekiln Lane, from the lime works there. These were closed in 1804 because of the health hazard which they caused. Nearby, cock fights, dog fights and bare knuckle boxing used to take place. On Shrove Tuesday it was the custom to turn cockerels loose in the presence of boys who had their hands tied behind their backs to prevent them seizing the cocks except with their teeth.
This article has been reproduced by the kind permission of the author,
Andrew Pearce ( Liverpool Cultural Heritage Forum)
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