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Thomas Steers




The world's first commercial enclosed wet dock
Thomas Steers (1672-1750). He is thought to have been born in 1672 in Kent and died in 1750. He was England's first major civil engineer and built many canals, the world's first commercial enclosed wet dock, the Old Dock at Liverpool, and a theatre. He designed Salthouse Dock in Liverpool, which was completed by Henry Berry after Steers' death.









Howland Great Wet Dock, London, 1717
Thomas Steers was born in 1672, probably at Deptford or Rotherhithe. He is thought to have had a good education, in view of his obvious skills in mathematics, and he joined the army during his teenage years. He was part of William of Orange's 4th Regiment of Foot (The King's Own), which fought at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, and subsequently campaigned in the Low Countries against the French until the Peace of Namur was signed in 1697. He probably learnt about hydraulics at this time, a skill which served him well in later years. In 1698 or 1699 he married Henrietta Maria Barber, and her father gave them a house in Queen Street, Rotherhithe. At the time, the Great Dock at Rotherhithe was being constructed, on land leased from Elizabeth Howland, which formed part of the Howland Estate. There is no record of Steers's direct involvement in the project, although he produced a survey of the completed docks in 1707, and seems to have been employed as a surveyor for the estate. A lease agreement at the time described him as a house-carpenter.



A 1725 map showing the Liverpool dock
In 1708, plans for a dock at Liverpool, similar to that at Rotherhithe, were formulated, and had been drawn up by George Sorocold and Henry Huss by mid-1709. Neither man accepted the offer to act as engineer for the construction of the docks. On 17 May 1710, the Town Council learned that Steers was in Liverpool, and had his own designs for the project, which involved reclaiming land from the Pool, rather than building the dock of existing land. The precise reason for Steers' arrival in Liverpool is not clear, but may well be connected to the rise to power of James Stanley, who became mayor in 1707 and Lord Lieutenant of Lancashire until 1710, and who had noticed Steers in Flanders, while commanding the 16th Regiment of Foot. Steers' design was accepted, and the construction was overseen by him, assisted by William Braddock. He also contracted for some of the excavation work, and although it was incomplete at the time, the dock opened for shipping in 1715.






A tidal basin and three graving docks or dry docks were authorised by another Act of Parliament obtained in 1717, and during their construction, various alterations and extensions were made to the original dock. The works were completed in 1721. Since 1717, Steers had also acted at Dock Master, for which he was paid £50 per year, and Braddock had been the Water Bailiff. From 1724, he took over Braddock's role as well, though was no longer paid, as this post included a number of perks and fees.



Salthouse Dock, late 19th Century


Concurrent with his work on the Liverpool Docks, Steers was active in other projects. He surveyed the rivers Irwell and Mersey from Bank Quay at Warrington to Manchester in 1712. An Act of Parliament authorizing the Mersey and Irwell Navigation was passed in 1721 and the work, which included eight locks in a distance of 15 miles to overcome a rise of 52 feet, was completed about 1725. It is generally believed he was the engineer. The authorising Act named him as one of the Undertakers.  The navigation was eventually completed in 1742, and carried coal from Wigan to Liverpool and onwards to Ireland by ship.


Steers became a Freeman of the town of Liverpool in 1713, and served on the town council in 1717. In 1719 and 1722, he was a Town Bailiff, became mayor of Liverpool from 1739 to 1740. He was responsible for the fortification of Liverpool during the Jacobite rebellion in 1745.
  

He died in 1750, and was buried in the grounds of St Peter's Church. His only surviving son, Spencer, carried on his anchor making business after his death. Despite his considerable contribution to civil engineering, his death went almost unnoticed, although the civil engineer John Smeaton, writing to the Calder and Hebble Navigation in 1757, noted that Steers was an esteemed man of character and ability in his profession. He built the first successful commercial dock in the world, and the United Kingdom's first summit level canal. He trained his assistants well, as several went on to have illustrious careers of their own. Above all, he understood his work in its wider social context, being active in the politics and trade of Liverpool, and understanding the need for the town to be well-connected to its hinterland. His work paved the way for Liverpool to become one of the world's greatest ports, and was a contributory factor in the industrial revolution which began shortly after his death.



In 1999, an office block on the site, Steers House, was demolished, and the resulting waste ground was used as an NCP car park until 2004, when the site was incorporated into the Paradise Project. A water feature has been built on the site of Old Dock to commemorate its history. A portion of the dock wall is exposed in the basement of the new development, and can be viewed from the pavement above through a viewing window in the ground. Tours of the Old Dock are currently operated by National Museums Liverpool.






Time Team - The Lost Dock Of Liverpool







Sources

Liverpool Central Library
National Archive
Yo Liverpool
Liverpool Records Office
Graces Guide



By Robert F Edwards


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