Mike Royden's Local History Pages

“Without the key role played by local refineries in the refining of rock salt it is unlikely that the port of Liverpool would have expanded at the rate it did in the eighteenth century.” How far do you agree with that statement?

Steven Horton

During the 18th Century, the port of Liverpool and its dock system grew beyond recognition after centuries of little or no development. It has been argued by many that this growth was purely down to the Slave Trade and that Liverpool would have been little more than a fishing port if this industry had not been allowed to thrive. However, in this essay I will attempt to show that although the slave trade did play a major part in the growth of the port of Liverpool, it was foundations laid down earlier by the salt trade within Liverpool and growth of industries in other towns, that enabled the port and city to flourish.

Liverpool’s involvement in the slave trade cannot go unnoticed during the 18th century, as a simple examination of statistics shows. Initially, Liverpool lagged behind London and Bristol, but by the 1750’s had become England’s primary slave trading port. A large number of Town Councillors and Mayors were involved in the trade in some way in the 2nd half of the 18th Century and the population rose eleven fold from 6,000 to 77,000. The legacy of the trade is seen by a number of street names in the city centre, such as Jamaica Street, Maryland Street and Baltimore Street where there had been plantations.

Liverpool was allowed to compete in the slave trade after the monopoly held by the London based Royal Africa Company was scrapped by Parliament in 1698. The first recorded ship to leave Liverpool did so in September 1700. However, it was not just a port which was essential for slaving ships to be successful. A market was required nearby for goods brought back from the plantations in exchange for slaves. Also, industries had to be able to provide manufactured products which could be sold for slaves in Africa. In addition, there had to be a pool of investors ready to fund the slaving ships voyage, which could take a year, with no guarantee of a financial return.

During the 17th Century, Liverpool began to establish commercial ties with the colonies in the Americas. Tobacco was imported from the 1640’s and sugar from the 1660’s. This then went hand in hand with the slave trade. More sugar and tobacco could be imported if there were more slaves to work on it. The nearby manufacturing towns of Lancashire produced the goods which could be sold in Africa for slaves such as cloths and gunpowder. Canal links via the River Mersey to Manchester and Birmingham gave Liverpool an advantage over Bristol for slave ships. This means that a cyclical pattern emerged, with the slave trade and consequently the port of Liverpool growing, but only hand in hand with the manufacturing towns of Lancashire and the Midlands which were a key part in the success of the triangular route.

The fact that trans-Atlantic trading was already in place before the onset of slaving voyages can be demonstrated in the case of Sir Thomas Johnson, who was Mayor in 1695. He was already an importer of tobacco long before he was a joint financier of the ‘Blessing’, the 2nd recorded slave ship to leave Liverpool in October 1700. Richard Gildart is another example of somebody who made his wealth before getting involved in slaving voyages, playing a part in transporting of prisoners to the colonies after the Jacobite Rebellion of 1716 before he got involved in the slave trade.

The Ashton family also had an involvement in slavery, but not before they had developed their wealth elsewhere. John Ashton invested in the Sankey Brook canal from his profits of the trade in the 1750’s. This enabled more coal to be brought to the salt works at the Dungeon which he owned and hence increase salt production. Ashton had acquired the salt works prior to his involvement in the slave trade, showing that a cyclical pattern had developed whereby he could invest profits from salt into slavery, then in turn invest profits from slavery into improving output at his salt works. His son Nicholas went on to purchase Woolton Hall in 1772, which was conveniently situated between the salt works and the port of Liverpool, which implied that salt was as important or more important to him than the slave trade. He had previously lived in Hanover Street in Liverpool City Centre. Although the growth of Liverpool at the time meant that merchants were moving away from then urban area, Woolton was very much an outpost back then, many merchants not moving much further than Everton or even Hope Street.

If the slave trade was the sole industry on which Liverpool’s Council and merchants relied, then this is not shown in some of the actions during the 18th Century, when a number of developments occurred in other industries and communications. The turnpike road to Prescot was completed, enabling coaches to travel to Liverpool, unlike in previous years when the town had to be entered on horse back as coaches could only travel as far as Warrington. In addition to the Sankey Brook canal development, investment in the salt trade continued with the opening of a refinery close to Liverpool’s new wet docks in 1753. The development of Liverpool’d dock system did not come about directly as a result of the slave trade. Although the first dock opened in 1715, as the slave trade developing, the idea had been around for over 50 years before that, with a quay first being proposed in 1635. (1)

The initial development of the salt works at the Dungeon came before Liverpool’s involvement in the slave trade. Crude brine salt was made in Liverpool as early as 1611 for export to Newfoundland for use in the cod fisheries. This formed part of a triangular route whereby fish was then exchanged for rum, tobacco and sugar in the West Indies Thus, trading links had been established with this part of the world long before slaves became a export commodity. Also, salt was exported to Cornwall where it was exchanged for china clay for use in the pottery industries of Liverpool and Staffordshire. The discovery of Rock Salt in 1670 led to the opening of the Dungeon Refinery in 1697, following on from a refinery in Liverpool in 1696. The idea was that it could be more economically refined here due to its proximity to the salt fields, collieries and the port. The problem of transporting the materials to the refinery still had to be overcome however, which was done by the Weaver Navigation, making the River Mersey navigable to the salt fields of Warrington and Cheshire. This was complemented in 1757 by the Sankey Brook Canal which made the refinery accessible from the coal deposits of St. Helens. As a consequence of these developments, the amount of salt refined at the Dungeon more than doubled between 1752 and 1783, and again by 1796.

The increasing amount of salt refining was at a time when the pressures on the slave trade were great, leading to its eventual abolition in 1807. It may be that merchants were increasing salt production as a way of earning a living in the knowledge that the income from slavery would soon be reduced. However, the first moves towards the Weaver Navigation and Sankey Brook came about before the city was installed as as the country’s chief slave trading port. It was these key developments which enabled salt production to gather pace. The fact that the Ashton’s were involved in the salt trade before the slave trade indicates that slavery became another industry to invest in which was potentially profitable.

Brutal as the slave trade may seem now, in the 18th Century it may not have been seen as so barbaric and it was not seen as unreasonable to make money from it. Although the number of Councillors and Mayors involved was high, it should be pointed out that slavery was one of many industries in which they were involved. The conclusion to be drawn, I believe, is that salt refining played a key role in the ports development. It was not necessarily the most profitable, but certainly it provided the initial foundation for other industries to develop. Of these, slavery was a major and very profitable one, for which the city has become renowned. It would not have done so however without the initial salt refining profits which provided the capital; to invest in it in the first place.

Steven Horton (2000)


(1) O’Connor page 155.


Gail Cameron & Stan Crooke: Liverpool - Capital of the Slave Trade; Picton Press 1992

Liverpool Planning Department: Liverpool Heritgae Walk 1990.

Freddy O’Connor: Liverpool, Our City, Our Heritage; Printfine Ltd 1990.

Mike Royden: Salt & the Rise of Liverpool, The Dungeon. (From M. Royden’s WWW site)

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