I hate shopping. I really cannot stand milling around shiny displays, being subliminally brain-washed into believing that certain objects will enhance my life. Therefore, I do not call the busy shopping centre plonked in the middle of the metropolis of Liverpool by its given name of L1, instead I refer to it as Hell One. Sartre may have claimed that hell is other people and, while I can agree with this, I also like to add shopping into the mix. That said, one of the best things to come out of the shopping centre’s construction was a most amazing archaeological find dating from 1715: the discovery of the Old Dock. As developers dug down to create John Lewis, they stumbled upon an old wall that had been covered over since the 1800s.
It is a hidden treasure that more people should take advantage of seeing, especially as it is free. It is the world’s first commercial wet dock and its development reduced the time needed for ships to unload their cargo from around two weeks to two days. The sailors had less time to spend their wages before being out on open waters again, so it’s interesting that the street adjacent was labelled Paradise Street… The creation of this piece of innovative engineering revolutionised the maritime industry and generated great wealth for Liverpool, but to understand the importance of the Old Dock we have to go back to the birth of the great city on the Mersey.
In 1207, King John announced the foundation of the borough of Liverpool. He intended to develop a town that would allow him to send troops to Ireland through a port other than Chester, hoping to avoid paying their taxes. In King John’s day, the Pool of Life was a planned town, with streets set out in a pattern that resembled the letter H. Only two of the ancient streets still remain today, Castle Street and Dale Street. Around 1235, a castle was built on the south side of the town near the pool that gave the place its name. However, John’s plan was not so successful and Chester still dominated the maritime industry, leaving Liverpool to dwindle, with the population shrinking to around 600 people by 1650. The creation of the Old Dock was critical to Liverpool’s success, opening it up to the New World and allowing it to become internationally renowned as a trading port, as well as enabling the darkest part of its history: ensuring ships and merchants could ‘dominate the transatlantic slave trade in the second half of the eighteenth century.’
In 1709, canal engineer Thomas Steers was commissioned to construct the old dock. It was completed in 1715, occupying a position at the mouth of the ‘pool’ and could accommodate up to one hundred ships. The success of the venture led to another being constructed in 1737-54 and paved the way to many decades of dock expansion on both sides of the river. Thomas Steers, with mason Edward Litherland, also constructed The Bluecoat – originally as a school for the poor – it is now an internationally-renowned Arts organisation. The building is Grade I listed and is part of the portfolio of buildings that make up the inclusion of Liverpool as a UNESCO world heritage site. The first ship to leave the old dock was called The Mulberry and you can see reproductions of sketches of the vessel on display in The Bluecoat as part of its 300-year birthday celebration. There is another connection, as the ship was owned by Bryan Blundell, who was also behind the creation of The Bluecoat.
If you visit the site, you will see a large portion of the Old Dock rising more than 20 feet from the bed of the pool which is clearly visible. It is very special to see the actual creek that gave Liverpool its name! What is less remarkable is that this wonder is only open two days a week and to get to it you have to go past fire exits and rubbish bins, the backstage area of the commercial enterprises in L1. It is a little embarrassing as visitors to the city are struck by the sometimes poor regard Liverpool shows to its impressive archaeological past. I find this shocking and difficult to explain to guests. Our Grade II listed buildings are left to rot until there is no choice but to demolish them – I am still not over the pillaging of the Futurist cinema to create student accommodation. If not torn down, historical buildings are sold off to property developers at an exceedingly low price to create another hotel or supermarket.
Although Liverpool folk are not really ones for boasting [It’s true, we’re quietly great – ed], it is quite surprising how many firsts came out of Liverpool, from the first subscription library to the first public baths and wash houses, the first girls day grammar school, the first school of tropical medicine to the first public art gallery in Britain, as well as the first ever football nets. I am working as a walking tour guide and my research to discover the city’s stories has been fascinating. I feel quite ashamed that it has taken to my fortieth year to understand the rich tapestry that has made up my home town, having previously only been aware of fragments. There is nothing like pounding the streets and visiting the actual settings to make it real.
Go and visit the Old Dock – you can book tickets through the Maritime Museum – and it will blow your mind.