Mike Royden's Local History Pages

Embryo of a Port 1715

Robert Storrie


The following recordings relate from research of the development of Liverpool Town's dock development. Such development, I have recorded, is confined to the "embryo" of the dock origins both central to the waterfront arising from the creek and the second dock that would "kick-start" development south. This was to be followed by the third dock that would "kick-start" development to the north. It was to be the skills of civil and maritime engineer Thomas Steers - gained on completion of Liverpool's first dock - that would set the pattern others would emulate.

"He so improved the City that he justly boasted that he found it brick and left it marble. "
Augustus 63 BC -14 AD

My good friend and historian Dr Eric Midwinter recorded the following, "When history is merely about the past it can become moribund and it can only live when it illuminates the present and makes it more comprehensible".(1) However, recognition of the fact that what has happened in the past has a unique significance "because it happened!"

One should be aware for instance of the part of Liverpool Town played in the vile maritime trade in slavery, I do not myself have any intention of going down that well catalogued path, suffice to record that the slave trade came to an end on May 1 1807 (2), a chapter closed within Liverpool Town's history. Yet for the historian, as I have previously recorded, the vile trade is well catalogued. With a chapter closed and continuity halted by statute, it quite rightly fails to "illuminate the present". In respect of the development of Liverpool's docks system here one can illuminate history, progressive history and above all one hopes comprehensible. The warning voice by Charles Dickens, "That the voice of time cries out to man advance. Time is for improvement and a better life." If this statement was to be directed towards the Town of Liverpool then Dickens advice would, prior to the 18th Century, have fallen on deaf ears! For prior to the 18th Century complacency reigned, complacency that had come initially from historical facts and Caesarian romance of fact!

Historical recordings credit King John as the creator in 1207, of Royal Liverpool Town and historians accept this fact.(3) What one must question is John's motive? (3b) The answer comes from "other" historical recordings which state that John created a "town within a port".(4)

It is historical myth that Liverpool, prior to the 18th Century, possessed any form of port facility. John's Royal Town was in fact in close proximity to a "liver coloured dingy (or) muddy pool",(5) a tidal creek offshoot of the Mersey. King John, and later the Burgesses,(6) held to the belief that if one had water one had a port. Following the death of King John in 1216, his town's merchants and ship owners traded from the pool, with only thirteen of Liverpool's merchants' other vessels being those engaged in coastal trade from Ireland and Scotland. Vessels of the Stanleys - Overlords of the Isle of Man - could be seen at their shore berth at Liverpool Tower. And so it was that complacency remained so for over four centuries until end of the 17th Century. By then, Manchester was knocking on Liverpool's front door in relation to cotton, while ships draughts had increased and captains and ship owners where not bemused to behold vessels high and dry in the mud of the creek awaiting the ebb tides.

The emergence in 1585 of French and Spanish merchant vessels entering the creek with conditions in the creek as they were, what guarantee return trade was a certainty? The Town "Moot" faced the fact that deep berth lay in Tranmere and Wallasey Pools. [History later confirms development of docks at Birkenhead.].(7)

So it was that, at the close of the 17th Century a radical proposal came forth in relation to the creek from two forward thinking gentlemen.


"A stand can be made against invasion by an army, no stand can be made against invasion by an idea. "
Victor Hugo [1802-85]

The new proposal to solve Liverpool Town's maritime predicament was so radical that the weak "Town Fathers" came close to the point of rejecting the idea on financial grounds.

The instigators of this radical proposal were Sir Thomas Johnson Esq. and his close friend Sir Richard Norris Esq., both being Liverpool Town's first Members of Parliament.(8) Both M.P's pointed to the construction of a large wet dock with gates at Rotherhithe [1697-1700] for the 'laying up' and repairs of ships. Thomas Johnson pointed out that Liverpool had only need of Parliament's consent to create in Liverpool Britain's first commercial wet dock with gates, which could be open for three hours each river tide. A dock with a berth capacity of over one hundred ships from which Liverpool Town's coffer chest would surely benefit from the flow of resulting dock dues. Liverpool Town's records do not relate the Town's Council as being enthusiastic. What we do know is that both Norris and Johnson would financially back the project.

In the winter of 1707 Liverpool Town's first Dock Committee called on the chief engineer George Sorrocolds Esq., builder of the Rotherhithe wet dock to visit Liverpool and survey the creek, it was unfortunate that prior to visiting Liverpool Sorrocolds died.

The Dock Committee invited the civil and maritime engineer Thomas Steers, one time deputy to the late Sorrocolds on the Rotherhithe project, to come to Liverpool and survey the Pool. It is at this point where a conflict of interests enters the stage. It is believed that prior to the Peace Treaty of Ryswick in 1697, Steers was in the 16th King's Regiment serving as field engineer in Flanders under Lord Derby. It is recorded that the M.P. for Liverpool Sir Thomas Johnson, being indebted to Lord Derby for recommending his knighthood, put forward Steers name to build the new wet dock. It is more myth than truth. For why was Sorrocolds invited in the first instance?9 What is not myth is that Sir Thomas was a shrewd entrepreneur in more ways than one.(10) Following Steers' survey, Parliament consented to the construction of the wet dock 1709.

Steers' proposals were to be more ingenious than radical. He proposed that his wet dock would be built on the north west side of the mouth of the "Pool", the dock would extend out beyond the shore line and from the dock gates would extend an "umbilical" channel out into the River Mersey: One quarter of the way down this channel on its north west side Steers would construct a stand by dock, a dry dock. [This stand by dry dock became Canning Wet Dock in1829]. The idea of a stand by dock was to clear ships out of the Mersey to await a berth in the new wet dock..

The remaining mouth of the Pool to the south Steers would back-fill. At this point the historian may quite rightly assume, that to dam up the south side of the Pool Steers had material "at hand", at hand being the stone blocks from the demolished Liverpool Castle.(11) Demolished in that period Liverpool became a Parish [1699]. Steers continued by explaining that his "back-fill" of the Pool would extend up and to the Pool neck, over which was Lord Molyneux's wooden bridge, [now Church Street] that gave passage to the heath, the stream of the Upper Pool at Lime-Kiln Lane Bridge [Lime Street] would be diverted into the Everton Valley Stream that flowed ultimately down present day Boundary Street into the Mersey at present day Sandon Dock.

Costs? Steer gave the approximate costs as being 50,000(12). However, Steers included warehouses that were never completed until four years later after the dock was built. The historian W.T. Harris records, "The dock was just over two hundred yards in length [the length of two football pitches] and covered four acres."

The seed was sown and harvest became a reality. And it came to pass on that day in August 1715 that Thomas Steers, Sir Richard, Sir Thomas and the Dock Committee beheld three vessels leave the River Mersey, and by way of Steers' Channel, pass through into Liverpool's first dock. First to enter - "The Batchlor", followed by "The Mulbury", the third vessel being "the Robert". 1715 was to be that year Liverpool in reality became a port in the true sense. It is significant that on that day in 1715, local history of great magnitude was made, though historians allow the creation of the first dock to overshadow it. That is, for the first time those residing on the Heath [south bank] had at last access to a much more convenient right of way into Liverpool by way of the "back-fill" of the Pool. Park Lane, Mersey Street and Quarry Hill Road all now being truly integrated into the community, the topography of Liverpool now awaited to be re-drawn.


"The historian must re-tell, how at every stage what was. Was the product of what had been and developed into what no one could have anticipated."
Bernard Baily

During the year of 1750 the old Dock Committee was replaced by the Liverpool Town Dock Trustees Committee with both the new dock and standby dry dock being taken over. [It is not recorded in the Town Books if any compensation was paid to Sir Thomas [or] Sir Richard for their original investment of the new dock of 1715].

From 1715 to 1858 over twenty dock Acts had been granted(14). In respect of maritime trade in relation to the new dock, healthy figures emerge. For in the year 1709 (15) [Pool period] Liverpool possessed 84 vessels, totalling 5,789 tons. In 1739 [new dock] Liverpool then possessed 171 vessels, totalling 12,016 tons. Other vessels exporting out of Liverpool increased from 334 vessels totalling 12,636 tons in 1709[Pool period], to 435 vessels in 1737 with a total of 22,350 tons.

What of Thomas Steers the Dock Builder. Poor relief? Not so, out of recognition for his services, Steers was appointed Liverpool's first Dock Master in 1717 with a salary of 50 per annum. At that time Steers never anticipated he was to be the creator of yet another dock. Congestion was becoming a problem as when berths were up to capacity in the new dock then one found vessels out in the Mersey [or] at shelter in Tranmere Pool awaiting docking.

Thomas Steers skills were called upon once again when he was directed to survey for a second dock. Steers again was to be non-conformist. For Steers, his second dock would be built close up to the first dock and extend south. Steers extended the dock out beyond the shore line into the Mersey. The dock would be 4 3/4 acres of water area. Steers demolished a section of the south side of the channel he had built for passage into the first dock to allow dock gates to be fitted. He now had passage along his channel from the Mersey with the option of "bow" ahead into the first dock or off to "starboard into the second dock. There was a further option to go port side into the gateless dry dock [see map]. Steers' second dock was named the South Dock. [Known also as Salt House Dock]. The Salt House Dock was opened in 1753 at a cost of 21,000.

John Holt is reported to have stated that "salt" had been the nursing mother and to have contributed more to the first and gradual increase and present flourishing state of Liverpool Town than any other article of commerce. John Holt's statement calls for debate, a debate I shall leave in to contemplation of other maritime historians. It is a fact that salt did flourish as a product that created trade in the "exchange market" of Salt House Dock. It can also be put forward that the salt trade was to become Liverpool's legitimate "other" triangular trade.

Liverpool, like the Romans before, manufactured brine salt, a method depending on wood to fire the evaporating lead pans. However, the Lancashire forests were near to being exhausted. What of coal? Transportation costs from Garston and St Helens to Liverpool by bridle path was far from cheap in the mid 18th Century. However, on William Marbury's estate in the late 17th century "rock salt" had been discovered - a product that could be transported anywhere for boiling even to the coal fields. To the merchants of Liverpool they had a commodity for export, salt to Ireland for crushing into fertilizer, exports to Portugal, Spain Newfoundland,and Liverpool, merchants taking their piece of "salt gold" as recalled. The largest salt works in Liverpool being that of John Blackburne situated in Redcross Street.

[return to the contents page for a full article on the discovery of rock salt and its effect on the locality by Mike Royden]

It was due to that success of the South Dock that the Dock Trustees of the Town agreed to the building of a new dock. An approach was made to the civil and maritime engineer Henry Berry to survey the waterfront. Berry, who had succeeded Thomas Steers, was to follow his example. Berry demonstrated this by building a dock out into the Mersey on a parallel line with the dry dock of 1715 (to the south). Paliament gave consent to proceed in 1760 and on October 21st 1762 Berry started construction. Alas, a violent storm destroyed a newly built wall,(18) but work re-commenced in 1767 and was completed in 1771. At a cost of 21,000 this new three acre dock was to be known as George's Dock North(19). Within twenty years the dock was extended with an outer basin that would accommodate the ever increasing size of ships.

Following on from Liverpool Town's Dock Trustees(20) was the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board (21). Why? First one is now aware that Liverpool from the time of creation of the first dock corporate bodies held sway. However this situation could not go on, for as a Royal Commission reported, "Not only was a new approach called for in dock development, a new constitution for Liverpool's maritime future was essential". The M.D.H.B. was in effect that of a public trust. A trust that would not nationalise, subsidise, and was to be non-profit making. The first meeting held in the Old Custom House (22) was held on the 5th January 1858. The Board would be made up of merchants, ship owners and men of maritime experience - echoes of Sir Richard Norris and Sir Thomas Johnson.(23)

As I have recorded in my introduction, it was the "embryo" of dock development in the guise of those structures designed by Thomas Steers that would kick start the construction of the port both north and south along the Mersey shore.

Robert Storrie (April 2003)

References and annotations

(1) Old Liverpool p. 12. Eric Midwinter 1971 David and Charles Publishers.
(2) The Slave Trade Hugh Thomas p.555, 1997 MacMillan Publishers Ltd.
(3) Land Marks in Liverpool History p. 15 W.T.Harries 1949 Philip, Son & Nephew Ltd.
(3b) Land Marks in Liverpool History p. 14 W.T.Harries 1949 Philip, Son & Nephew " Ltd.
(4) Western Gateway p. 1 Stuart Mountfield Liverpool University Press 1965. Note "The Known City and Port" by charter of King John 1207 Liverpool became a city in 1880.
(5) Old Liverpool p. 13. Eric Midwinter 1971 David and Charles Publishers.
(6) Old Liverpool p. 15. Eric Midwinter 1971 David and Charles Publishers. Burgesses - invited to take up residence by King John 1207 plots of land at one shilling per year and freedom of tolls.
(7) Liverpool and the Mersey p. 83 Francis E. Hyde, David & Charles Publishers 1971.
(8) Liverpool and the Mersey p. 13 Francis E. Hyde, David & Charles Publishers 1971. Note Thomas Johnson, Richard Norris to be credited with creation of the Port of Liverpool.
(9) Liverpool Shipping Trade & Industry p. 101. Valerie Burton N.M & Galleries Merseyside 1989. Note Thomas Steers not first choice to build 1715 dock.
(10) National Biography p.697 G. Smith Oxford University Press 1901. Note Sir Thomas Johnson 1664-1729. Purchased site of Liverpool Castle to create a market place, promoter Liverpool's first dock, promoter St Peter's Church, sold land for erection of St George's Church, Sir Thomas retired to Virginia 1723.
(11) Land Marks in Liverpool History p.23 W.T.Harries 1949 Philip, Son & Nephew Ltd.
(12) Liverpool and the Mersey p. 14 Francis E. Hyde, David & Charles Publishers 1971. Dock work 30,000 add 20,000 for warehouses total for project 50,000.
(13) Encarta Quotation p.53. W.Swainson Bloomsbury Publishing PLC 2000.
(14) Old Liverpool p. 14. Eric Midwinter 1971 David and Charles Publishers.
(15) Liverpool Shipping p.26. G. Chandler Phoenix House Press 1960. Pro
(16) Liverpool and the Mersey p.73 Francis E. Hyde, David & Charles Publishers 1971 Note Salt House Dock In first instance engineer being Thomas Steer. Dock being completed by Henry Berry engineer.
(17) see (16)
(18) Liverpool and the Mersey p. 75 Francis E. Hyde, David & Charles Publishers 1971.
(19) Note. On George's Dock and Basin, following back fill the site of the dock, now stands the Liver Building, Cunard Building and the Port of Liverpool Building - "the Three Graces".
(20) Liverpool First 1,000 Years p. 148 Arabella Mclntyre-Brown Guy Woodland Garlic Press 2001 Note. 1880 Town becomes a city status granted by Queen Victoria. One year later Queen granted City right of the position of a "Lord Mayor". First Lord Mayor Robert Durning Holt.
(21) Business in Great Waters p.9. In house book. Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, published for M.D.H.B. by Newman Neane Ltd 1958.
(22) Sea Port p. 73. Quentin Hughes Bluecoat Press 1993. Note. New offices of M.D.H.B. designed by Arnold Thornley work started in 1907 [Old George's Dock site].
(23) Liverpool First 1,000 Years p. 148 Arabella Mclntyre-Brown Guy Woodland Garlic Press 2001.
Note. "Board" to become "Company" by early 1970 Mersey Docks and Harbour Board became insolvent government paid off all debt, directing that a new body govern the port by private enterprise in that title of, Mersey Docks and Harbour Company.


Birkenhead Library.
William Brown Reference Library.
Mersey Docks and Harbour Company.

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