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The Development of Liverpool Docks

Garston Salt Works circa 1800s
It was Liverpool’s role in the early development of railway technology which resulted in the parallel setting up of docks at Garston, established as an unloading point for coal. Garston Dock mushroomed from a very small dock enterprise which had originally been built in south Liverpool for Blackburne’s saltworks. It was when the St Helens Canal and Railway Company extended its track system and needed extra provision of coal that the Garston Dock proper, covering six square acres of land, was built. The idea behind the dock was to offer loading and unloading facilities which would enable the St Helens coalfields to compete with rivals in the Wigan area - and a target of loading 250 tons of coal in 2.5 hours was set. However, larger ships struggled to reach the dock and more money had to be pumped into the project to facilitate their passage.

Garston New Dock circa -1900

The London and North Western Railway Company leased part of the St Helens Railway in 1860 and took it over completely four years later by 1870 a new rail link with Wigan had opened, directly connecting the Wigan coalfields with Garston Dock. The implication of this was the addition of the Garston North Dock in 1875 and together with other refinements, Garston was eventually equipped to take almost half of all coal coming into Liverpool.

His Royal Highness Prince Albert opening the Albert Dock 1846
The Albert Dock, designed by Jesse Hartley and Philip Hardwick, it was opened in 1846, and was the first structure in Britain to be built from cast iron, brick and stone, with no structural wood. As a result, it was the first non-combustible warehouse system in the world. At the time of its construction the Albert Dock was considered a revolutionary docking system because ships were loaded and unloaded directly from/to the warehouses. Two years after it opened it was modified to feature the world's first hydraulic cranes. Due to its open yet secure design, the Albert Dock became a popular store for valuable cargoes such as brandy, cotton, tea, silk, tobacco, ivory and sugar. However, despite the Albert Dock's advanced design, the rapid development of shipping technology meant that within 50 years, larger, more open docks were required, although it remained a valuable store for cargo.

The spiralling population of Bootle was in itself the result of the docks being created. although it proved to be something of a poisoned chalice. Though the population and the resultant prosperity of Bootle increased, it was the existence of the docks which made Bootle a prime target for bombing during the May Blitz of the Second World War to such an extent that it was the worst affected town of its size anywhere in Britain.

Gladstone Dock,Bootle

In the early 1800s, Bootle was home to only a few hundred people. Once the first Bootle dock - the Canada Basin - had opened - more and more people began to settle in the suburb as a result of the spin-off employment opportunities. By the time of the 1861 census, Bootle's population was 6,414. Within the next two decades, the opening of the Alexandra and Langton Docks had continued the population boom - and the Gladstone Dock system, begun in 1906 and completed in 1927.

While Liverpool Town Council took the helm over the running of the docks in the earliest years, via a special docks committee, rapid expansion soon necessitated the creation of a separate administrative body. The Mersey Docks and Harbour Board took control of the lower Mersey in 1858, also taking responsibility for the Birkenhead Docks and the Herculaneum Dock Company. One of the few docks to remain outside the jurisdiction of the MDHB was the London and North Western Railway Docks at Garston.Building the Canada, Herculaneum and Waterloo Docks, as well as those at Birkenhead, was among the top priorities for the new body. But general upkeep of the river was also part of the Board’s remit - and tasks included dredging, salvage, surveys, piloting and the provision of lighting and buoys. The Board also started to improve conditions for seafarers by embarking on a programme of lighthouse building and by the provision of lifebuoy stations.

Waterloo Dock

In 1948 the port radar station opened at Gladstone Dock was one of the first anywhere in the country and in the 1960s the MDHB built floating stages for oil tankers at Tranmere. There was a change of name and status in 1972, with the Board transmuting into the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company. At the back of this decision was the need for the organisation to raise money for ambitious new projects, such as the building of the new container dock at Seaforth, at the northern end of the docks network.

The shipping industry was transformed by containerisation, it made unloading a ship and turning it around much faster, and required much less dockers to perform the task.

As an example the docks at the height of their power employed something in the order of 50,000 men. Today they employ less than 600 people and process more tonnage than they did at it's supposed height.



Liverpool Central Library
Liverpool Records Office
Merseyside Maritime Museum
Graces Guide
Liverpool City Council

By Robert F Edwards

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