A brief history of Liverpool



Whilst archaeological evidence shows that there was a fishing community on the banks of the Mersey estuary, at the place we now call Liverpool, dating back to the 1st century AD, it’s not until 1190 that the first recorded comment about the city is made. At that time it was known as Liuerpul or Lifer Pol, which simply meant muddy creek. Prior to that it is thought the name Elver pool was used, making a connection with the large number of eels in the Mersey estuary.

The history of Liverpool is, of course, inextricably linked to that of its position on the Mersey and the development of the port and all the trade and wealth it brought to the city. Although not mentioned in the Doomsday book by 1207 the town had grown sufficiently for King John to send letters of patent establishing Liverpool as a borough and port. This in itself caused rapid expansion in the town attracting newcomers who could build in the new borough, a weekly market was quickly established and then an annual fair could also be held. Of course King John had his own self-seeking reasons for establishing the port of Liverpool, he needed a convenient port to get his men and supplies to and from the newly conquered Ireland and Liverpool was ideally situated. To garrison the troops a castle was built, which was completed in 1235. In 1229 the King granted Liverpool a charter to organise a Merchant’s Guild, allowing the town’s guildsmen to elect a leader to run the town. However, it’s not until 1351 that a Mayor is first mentioned in Liverpool, prior to that the leader would have been called a Reeve. By the 14th century Liverpool had expanded, its population of between 500 and 1000 would have made it a large town for those days. Along with the increased population came an influx of craftsmen and tradesmen such as brewers, butchers, bakers, blacksmiths and carpenters. The local fishing industry would still be important but there would be an increase in local farming to help feed the population. At this time the main trade through the port was hides and skins from Ireland with coal and Iron ore being exported to Ireland.

By the time of the English Civil War the population of Liverpool had reached 2500. The town did not fare well during the war, initially supporting the King it was taken over by Parliamentarian soldiers in 1643. Soon after, in 1644, Prince Rupert attacked the city and the Parliamentarian troops fled by sea, leaving the townsfolk to defend themselves. Despite a fierce battle Rupert won and laid the town to waste, killing many of the inhabitants. Later that year, after the battle of Marston Moor, the whole of the north of England returned to Parliamentarian control and the town started to re-build itself. By 1673 trade with the emerging American colonies was burgeoning bringing an increased prosperity which allowed Liverpool to build a new town hall. In 1699 two significant events occurred for Liverpool; firstly it was made into a parish enabling it to build churches rather than chapels and the ‘Liverpool Merchant’ ship set sail for Africa and was to become the first ship on the triangular slave trade route between West Africa, America and England. Even by 1715 business at the port had increased to such an extent that the first wet dock in Britain was built there to accommodate the growth in trade.

It is in the 18th century that the story of the port of Liverpool becomes significant in the growth and development of the town. There can be no doubt that Liverpool prospered from the slave trade, exporting cotton goods and hardware to Africa, where the ships then took on slaves for the American and West Indies colonies. They would then return with sugar, rum, tobacco and raw cotton that had been largely produced with that slave labour. The population quickly expanded, by 1750 it was around 20,000 and by the end of the century it was approaching 80,000. Whilst the poor lived in appalling conditions the merchants and rich people lived in a fashion rivalled only by that of London, for them Liverpool was seen as being  “…. a very rich trading town … with houses of brick and stone ……  having streets that look very handsome.”

Although the complete abolition of slavery was still a few years away, it is said that by the start of the 19th century 40% of the world’s trade was passing through Liverpool port. Manufacturing and processing industries started to open in and around Liverpool utilising the imports being brought to the city; such as iron foundries, glass and soap manufacture. The combination of trade through the port and the new manufacturing industries spurred another phase of development for Liverpool. In 1830 the Liverpool and Manchester Railway was opened, speeding delivery of the imported raw materials to industrial Manchester. At this time Liverpool started to be used as the embarkation point for émigrés to the ‘New World’. In the next 100 years over 9 million people sailed out of Liverpool. The Albert and Stanley docks were built in the 1840s, greatly increasing the warehouse capacity of the port. Swelled by immigrants from the Irish potato famines, by the mid 19th century the population of Liverpool was over 400,000, the year it became a city – 1880 – it had reached a staggering 611,000.

The 20th century saw the population continue to rise, inevitably resulting in increasing poverty as trade through the port started to decline. In the depression of the 1930s one third of the population was unemployed. During World War II the city was bombed heavily with half the housing stock damaged, but a significant re-building programme after the war managed to eradicate much of the slum housing that was then in the city. Between the 1931 and 2001 census the population declined from 855,000 to 440,000. In the 1960s the name Liverpool became synonymous with ‘pop’ music, mainly because of the term used to collectively describe the many popular bands from the city, the Merseysound and, of course, The Beatles in particular. Towards the end of the 20th century Liverpool suffered badly in the general economic recession of the county. However, it is now re-establishing itself through its heritage and tourism.

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