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Merseyside’s Industries (Part Two)

The 19th century was a period of massive industrialisation and urbanisation across Britain and this was reflected in the Merseyside region. Although Liverpool was by far the largest urban centre within Merseyside, the development of a canal system and rail links throughout this period ensured better communications which allowed existing industries to expand and new ones to develop.

The same period saw a rapid increase in the region’s population; Liverpool grew from 77,500 in 1801 to nearly 437,740 in 1861 and 684,959 in 1901, and although natural increase accounted for some of this rise, the arrival of migrants from other regions of the country boosted the population figures considerably, especially during the Irish potato famine of 1845-7. This increase in population provided the workforce for the expanding industries whilst at the same time stimulating the need for housing and other amenities and services.

At the same time Liverpool saw the growth of various industries throughout the city

Ship building on the Mersey

Shipbuilders had slipways along the Liverpool shore before 1700 and as the port grew during the 18th century, the number of shipbuilding firms increased to meet the demand for merchant, fishing and even naval vessels. Timber from the Baltic, America and Africa was imported through Liverpool which gave the local shipbuilders an advantage as supplies of English oak became exhausted.

However, despite a rapidly growing demand for ships by Liverpool merchants, by the 1830s Liverpool was only building about 5 percent of Britain’s ships. East coast ports like Hull could produce larger ships at a lower cost per ton in an age of wood, America and Canada, with vast timber supplies, could also  build ships more cheaply. By 1835, therefore, only half of Liverpool registered ships had been built in the City.

In 1850 a Committee of Enquiry was set up by Liverpool Corporation to investigate the causes of the decline in ship building in Liverpool. The following were given as reasons for the decline: 

Short leases of land to builders led to firms having to frequently move premises. This was time consuming and expensive. the technical developments in ship building meant that more room was neededto build ships. However, land was becoming scarcer along the Liverpool side of the Mersey as the Corporation developed the more profitable docks system.
Finally, in 1854 the Corporation granted leases on its Birkenhead estates to several prominent shipbuilders including Clover and Royle, Clayton and McKeveridge and William Laird and Sons.

Shipbuilding continued in Liverpool with modest success, until the last vessel was launched by Thomas Royden and Son in 1899. However, by the 1830s the focus had shifted across the Mersey to Birkenhead and specifically to Laird’s. William Laird, who had no experience of shipbuilding, won his first shipbuilding order in 1828 to build a vessel for the Irish Inland Steam Navigation Company. However, 1833 marked Laird’s real entry into shipbuilding with the launch of the much larger paddle steamer Lady Lansdowne for the Dublin Steam Packet Company.

Laird’s lack of previous experience was an advantage in this era of change as neither he nor the workforce he assembled were tied to the shipbuilding traditions and methods of wood and sail. Because of this Laird’s very quickly became a company noted for its innovation in building larger ships using iron and new methods of steam propulsion. Many of the first iron and steam ships used in America, India, China and Africa were supplied by Laird’s. Although the Admiralty resisted buying iron ships for a long time the success of Laird’s naval ships in the service of the East India Company and foreign navies led to an order for the frigate HMS Birkenhead. The advantage of steam-powered iron naval vessels was further recognised during the Crimean War and Laird’s won a large share of new orders during this period, e.g. 4 troopships, 14 gunboats and 16 mortar vessels in 1856 alone. 

In 1857 Laird’s opened its ‘New Yard’ just south of Woodside and by 1858 they were employing 2,000 people.

The company began to fall behind as areas such as the North East and the Clyde with ready access to coal, iron, steel and engineering industries began to compete for orders. Part of the company’s survival was due to its expertise in building naval vessels not only for the Royal Navy but also for countries such as Argentina, Brazil, China and the Netherlands. However, the switch to the use of steel in shipbuilding during the 1880s pushed up the cost of raw materials and this, together with the ever increasing size of merchant and naval ships which Laird’s were unable to build in their small yard meant that they could not compete with yards in Belfast, the Clyde and the North East. The key to Laird’s survival came in the early part of the 20th century with the building of a new yard at Tranmere which, when opened in 1906, was capable of building ships of up to 1,000 feet in length and the amalgamation with Charles Cammell & Son, a Sheffield steel and armaments maker in 1903.

Soap on Merseyside

Merseyside was an ideal location for this new industry. With ready sources of raw materials such as coal and salt, and cheap alkali available locally, Merseyside soon
overtook London as the country’s leading producer of soap. The rapid population growth contributed to the demand for soap and when Chancellor Gladstone removed the tax on soap in 1853 the less wealthy were more able to afford it. As the 19th Century progressed, personal cleanliness was encouraged and wash-houses, partly inspired by Catherine (Kitty) Wilkinson opened which even the poor could afford to visit. Kitty Wilkinson, (1786-1860), disregarding her own health, cared for the sick and dying during cholera epidemics in Liverpool and turned her own home into a washhouse in an attempt to prove that cleanliness was a weapon against disease.

In 1887 William Lever decided that his soap works at Warrington on the river Mersey to the south-east of Liverpool was not big enough and started looking for a new site. He needed a large amount of land as he wanted a new factory as well as a village for his workers. He also wanted access to the river Mersey and road and rail links. After looking at several sites near the Mersey he found the right place on the south bank near Bebington and New Ferry to the south of Birkenhead. The area was open fields and marshes by Bromborough Pool and although it looked uninspiring Lever had the vision to see what he wanted built there. Lever apparently said that he was leaning on a fence and looking at the open fields behind it when he decided that he had found the right spot. By March 1888 work had started on building the factory and village, which was called Port Sunlight. Sunlight was one of the brands of soap that Lever Brothers made.

Sunlight soap was a great success. Until that time soap had been kept in large bars and smaller bars were cut from this for customers. Sunlight soap supplied in small bars and individually wrapped in colourful packaging and advertised under its own brand name. Other brands included,  Lifebuoy soap (1894),  Monkey Brand (a scouring cleaner, 1899) and Lux flakes (1900). By the mid 1890s Lever Brothers Ltd already controlled about 20% of the country’s output of soap products.

Lever was brought up in Bolton, a town transformed by the cotton mills of the Industrial Revolution, and he recognised the poverty of those who lived in overcrowded and insanitary slums and worked long hours in factories which were often unsafe and unhealthy. Lever wanted his workers to be in decent housing and to have room, as he believed that a settled and contented workforce would be more productive. He wanted each house to have a garden or allotment and he also wanted to look after their welfare, so medical facilities, insurance, social clubs, churches and other facilities were built. He wanted what was called a 'garden suburb' that also had other features such as a post office, a bank and a village hall. Lever believed that this was a way of sharing the profits and called it ‘Prosperity Sharing’. Each row of houses in the village was to be unique and over thirty architects were used, including Sir Edwin Lutyens who was then only 21 and went on to become a world famous architect. He also used several architects from the Mersey region including William Owen. The villagers living in Port Sunlight also had the use of schools, a library, a gymnasium and a swimming pool. They could also use a holiday camp at Thurstaston on the other side of the Wirral near Heswall.

Lever was created a baronet in 1911 and became Sir William Lever. Unfortunately, two years later Lady Lever died and Sir William was affected by his wife’s death so much that he decided to build an art gallery in Port Sunlight in her memory and in 1914 the foundation stone of the Lady Lever Art Gallery was laid.

As Lever Brothers expanded worldwide and took over a large number of its rivals in the United Kingdom it started to move into making other products, such as food stuffs and animal feed. In 1921 a new headquarters for the company was set up at Lever House, Blackfriars in London. By the time of the death of the company founder William Lever in 1925 over 221,000 tonnes of soap a year was being produced and the company was one of the largest soap manufacturers in the United Kingdom.

The Pottery Industry in Liverpool

A potter was first mentioned in Liverpool as early as the 14th century, but the industry as such did not develop until the late 17th century when there was a growing demand for pottery products from the new merchant classes. Liverpool potters not only met the needs of the local area but their goods were sold throughout all of England and abroad. America was the most important market and this extensive trade helped to make the town prosperous. In the 18th century John Sadler, a potter on Shaw’s Brow, allegedly developed the process of transfer printing after observing children sticking bits of his waste printing onto broken pottery. The print was transferred to the pottery and this gave him the idea of transfer printing from copper plates. Although his petition for a patent in 1756 failed, Sadler’s ‘invention’ enabled him and his partner Guy Green to decorate large quantities of pottery quickly and cheaply with a wide range of designs and inscriptions. His business was a great success and from 1765 he struck up an agreement with Josiah Wedgwood to decorate his pottery. Liverpool’s first recorded pottery was established in Lord Street in 1710 by Robert Holt who came from Southwark.

Shaw’s Brow, now William Brown Street, was the hub of the pottery industry in Liverpool, but other places of pottery production included, Lord Street, Folly Lane Islington, Copperas Hill, Brownlow Hill, Richmond Row, Dale Street, Duke Street, Park lane, Harrington Street and Herculaneum Pottery on the site of Herculaneum Docks, Dingle.

Shaw's Brow showing the kiln of Pennington's Pottery - 1860

At the beginning of the 18th century potteries tended to be small family businesses which operated on the apprentice system. This system tied the apprentice to his or her master for a set number of years, usually seven, during which time the employer was obliged to ‘teach, inform and instruct’ the apprentice in their trade. (Hours were long and conditions harsh, but as more and more people arrived to work in such industries, the workers became politically motivated and organised themselves into societies and clubs to protect their rights and improve their working conditions. The economy slumped during the latter part of the 18th century and employers attempted to keep wages down and in many instances to reduce them. However, the evidence below suggests that potters tried to resist this. As the 18th century progressed methods of employment began to change. The Herculaneum Pottery Company, set up in 1794, was different from the earlier small family run Liverpool pottery businesses as it had a share capital of £25,000, much of it coming from Liverpool merchants, and it recruited workers from Staffordshire. By 1827 the company was employing over 300 people. Its position on the River Mersey allowed for the cheap import of raw materials and export to key markets in America and Europe and for 25 years the Herculaneum Pottery flourished. Although the site was sold in 1833 production continued until 1841.

The decline of the Liverpool pottery industry was rapid. The 1761 election recorded 132 potters, but by 1790 this number had fallen to 78. Three major causes can be identified:

Liverpool was unable to compete with Staffordshire in terms of quality and price and even in Liverpool Staffordshire pottery was preferred. No ‘Staffordshire’ retailers appeared in the 1766 directory, but by 1790 there were and by the end of the 18th century, 46. The last city centre pottery, that of Seth Pennington, closed in 1805. The American War of Independence (1776 - 1782) cut off a vital market for Liverpool pottery with the result that the town's merchants began to invest in other activities such as warehousing. This market never fully recovered and was later affected by the Napoleonic Wars. Although the Herculaneum Pottery thrived for a time, changing conditions on Merseyside, in particular the expanding needs of the Mersey Dock and Harbour Board, meant that its site on the river had become increasingly valuable. From 1841, Liverpool’s main connection with the industry was as a major exporter of pottery products from Staffordshire and elsewhere.

More information can be found in the Local Studies Collection at Liverpool Record



Liverpool Records Office
Merseyside Archives Liason Group
British History Online

Robert F Edwards
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