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Notes on the Geography of The United Kingdom: Liverpool

Liverpool's docks aren't what they were a century ago, when Liverpool was the U.K.'s second busiest port, after London.  Today Liverpool ranks about seventh, depending on how you measure, and it's way behind ports you've never heard of, like Grimsby & Immingham and Tees & Hartlepool.  Still, the remnants of Liverpool's Victorian docks, along with remnants of contemporaneous commercial buildings and endless rows of terrace housing, dominate the city.

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We're looking toward Birkenhead, across the Mersey--or, more precisely, the stretch of the Mersey called the Narrows. The mud hints at the river's 30-foot tides, not a plus if you're eager to build a great port. Before the rise of Southampton, say about 1920, liners docked at Liverpool's famous landing stage, now gone. It was a floating platform that rested on 200 pontoons and stretched along the Narrows for 2,478 feet. Merely awkward for passengers, this arrangement was unsatisfactory for freight, which in those days wanted to move between ship and warehouse with as little handling as possible.

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The solution was the "wet dock," a stone-walled basin that ships entered at high tide from a so-called "dry basin," which was enclosed by walls but allowed to drain at low tide. At high tide, the wet dock's gates were closed, keeping the ships that were inside the dock afloat as the tide fell. The first wet docks were so much higher than the river at low tide that ships of substantial draft could only enter at the very peak of the tide, but early in the 19th century this problem was rectified by replacing "dry basins" with "half-tide basins." In Liverpool's Historic Waterfront (1984), Nancy Ritchie-Noakes explains that "the principle of a half-tide basin is that by possessing an outer lock gate and a lower sill than the wet dock to which it gives access, it is itself a wet dock which ships can enter for a time on either side of the flood, and thus be better placed to enter the inner dock or the river when the state of the tide allows" (p. 9.) Such wet docks and half-tide basins, interconnected with one another, stretched for seven miles along the Mersey, with downstream ones capable of handling the biggest ships. The view here is from the Albert Dock, opened by Prince Albert in 1845. The gate at the far end opens into the Canning half-tide basin. The buildings in the distance are Liverpool's waterfront icons; we'll return to them later.

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In Seaport, (1964), Quentin Hughes explains that "the great merit of this system, where warehouses line the four sides of an enclosed dock, rising vertically from the dock walls, is that goods can be unloaded directly from the ships into the warehouses, lessening the risk of damage through repetitious handling and the danger of pilfering which in a seaport can assume gigantic proportions" (Hughes, p. 17).

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The warehouses on these new docks were entirely fireproof, thanks to cast iron, visible here in the mighty columns. The first use of cast iron as a structural member in an English building was in Liverpool's St. Anne's church (1770), now demolished. Later engineers mastered the material, which the Albert Dock put it to heroic use, with iron columns whose walls were more than an inch thick. Inside the hollow cylinders and helping to bear the weight of the building are brick piers, protected by the iron. The walls atop the columns are heavy indeed, even when the warehouse is empty, because they are 38 inches thick at the base, reduced at each floor to a minimum of 19 inches on the top floor.

The Albert Dock's designer, Jesse Hartley, was made to match. Hughes quotes James Picton describing Hartley as being of "large build and powerful frame, rough in manner and occasionally even rude, using expletives which the angel of mercy would not like to record.... Professionally he had grand ideas and carried them into execution with a strength, solidity and skill which have never been exceeded. Granite was the material in which he delighted to work." (P. 16.)

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The granite is there in the walls supporting the columns. The walls, mostly underwater, are 40 feet high and rest on beech piles.

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Cast iron was slightly cheaper than granite, but for some reason when the ends of the south warehouse were extended in 1853 the engineers chose granite. Nikolaus Pevsner might have been thinking of both iron and stone when he wrote that the Albert Dock, has a "sense of the cyclopean, the primeval, which is unparalleled" (quoted in Joseph Sharples, Liverpool 2004, p. 99). James Picton limited his praise and spoke of these buildings as a modern critic might condemn Brutalist architecture: "The works for strength and durability are unsurpassable, but it is to be regretted that no attention whatsoever has been paid to beauty as well as strength. The enormous pile of warehouses which looms so large upon the river, and its vastness surpasses the pyramid of Cheops, is simply a hideous pile of naked brickwork" (quoted in Hughes, p. 18).

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Hartley did use cast iron decoratively at the Albert Dock office. The 18-foot columns were cast in two longitudinal halves, welded together. Atop the columns, the architrave (bearing the words Granada Television) is a single cast U-beam, 36 feet long. The triangular pediment atop the architrave is also cast iron. The columns, by the way, are slightly tapered, faithful to the Greek model. Built for the ages, the Albert Dock was obsolete by 1890, when ships had grown too large to use it. The dock limped on until 1972, when it was closed. For a time it was threatened with demolition: the Germans in World War II had shown with a bomb well-placed at a corner of the dock that it could be done. Instead, the Merseyside Development Corporation renovated the dock as a tourist center, complete with several hotels and restaurants and a branch of the Tate museum. The dock office was recycled for use by the television company.

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Painted pink, hoisting cranes survive on some of the warehouse walls, here over a cart bay on the outside of the dock. Old photos show these cranes slinging hogsheads of tobacco, hoisted manually until 1878, when the cranes were converted to hydraulic power. Ritchie-Noakes says (p. 55) that typical inbound shipments included tea, silk, indigo, rice, hemp, cotton, sugar, and tobacco; outbound included iron, salt, and coal. Why she does not include cotton cloth on the export side is a small mystery; the rise (and fall) of Liverpool has a lot to do with the rise (and fall) of Manchester's cotton mills.

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A view of a cart bay showing the massive wall and the slit, on the model of a pocket door, for a sliding gate to deter thieves.

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Inside, the floors are low brick arches resting on iron beams laid across iron posts. The iron in the column is an inch thick.

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This picture shows more clearly how the brick arches rest against the beams, which are inverted Y-beams, perfectly accommodating the brick.

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Here's another renovated survivor, the Waterloo Corn Warehouse, opened in 1868 to a design of G.F. Lyster. Once the world's first bulk-storage grain warehouse, it's apartments now. Compared to Hartley's warehouses, the Romanesque revival facade is almost frivolous.

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Most of Liverpool's warehouses were much simpler affairs, like those shown here, which survive on Bridgewater Street. Colum Giles and Bob Hawkins, in Storehouses of Empire: Liverpool's Historic Warehouses, 2004, include a fragment of an 1888 fire-insurance map showing blocks lined with buildings like these.

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As you can see, they were externally but not internallly fireproof. In 1842, according to Giles and Hawkins, there were 142 warehouse fires, at least one of which destroyed 9 warehouses. (This one, signed up top as "1874 Metcalf's," only burned a few years ago but is now internally a void spanned by a few charred timbers.) The Liverpool Warehouse Act of 1843 was the inadequate response: it stipulated that new warehouses had to be registered and built with fireproof exterior walls. The insides could be wood, but the owners of such buildings paid higher insurance premiums.

You can see the loading doors as well as the windows, which gave some light to the storage areas, and the small windows on the right, which lit the narrow staircase. Perhaps these buildings were crude, but they accommodated most of the growth of the port of Liverpool. It came with a rush. Tobacco imports, for example, were nothing in 1665 but 1.75 million pounds in 1700 and 6.1 million pounds in 1750. Sugar imports rose from 70,000 pounds in 1685 to 1,160,000 pounds in 1700 and 10,000,000 pounds in 1750. The Albert Dock was still a century in the future.

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Yet another kind of warehouse. This was built by the Midland Railway in the 1870s and is now a city museum.

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The use of cast iron carried over into railway construction, as here in the Lime Street Station of 1868, the third station on the site. The iron columns support a span of 200 feet.

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We're back at the Albert Dock and looking toward the Pier Head, strictly George's Pier Head. (The name derives from George's Dock, which opened in 1771 and was filled in 1899.) In the distance are the Liver Building, with its huge clock, and the domed Mersey Docks and Harbour Board Building. The two buildings competed to catch the eye of passengers arriving at the landing stage.

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The Mersey Docks and Harbour Board Building, colloquially simply the Dock Office or, since 1972, the Port of Liverpool Building. A competition in 1909 produced the design--minus the later addition of the floor above the cornice. The building is chiefly significant for being of steel and concrete, merely faced with stone.

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Under the dome.

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A few years later, the Royal Liver Friendly Society erected its building, also of stone-faced steel and concrete. Hughes calls it "one of the world's earliest essays in multi-storey reinforced concrete construction" (p. 73). The dock board, which wanted no waterfront rival, was not amused.

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The birds up top are liver birds--a name of uncertain origin and referring possibly to eagles or cormorants. Some even argue in favor of pelicans.

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Between such ostentatious displays, the Cunard Building of 1916 appears almost sedate. This was the company's headquarters, but it also housed waiting rooms inside--above ground for first class, in the basement for everyone else. Three years after completing this building, ironically, Cunard shifted all its express boats to Southampton, a location much more convenient for passengers to and from London.

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Posters on display at the city's maritime museum still evoke the glory days.

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An offering from the P&O.

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The ship is probably the Arandora Star, commissioned in 1927 and torpedoed in 1940, ironically with over 800 POWs and internees.

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More recent artworks tend toward the ironic self-deprecation of a nation stripped of its empire. Irony can be funny, however, like this sculpture on the lawn between the Mersey Docks building and the Mersey itself. It's an upended shipping container, under a tangle of rebar.

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Set back across the busy Strand from those three waterfront buildings is the former headquarters of the White Star Line, completed in 1898. The architect was Norman Shaw, fresh from designing New Scotland Yard, which this building strongly resembles. The company survived the loss of its Titanic in 1912 but merged into Cunard in 1934. The White Star building later became the headquarters of the Pacific Steam Navigation Company, serving Caribbean and South American ports.

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Still close to the water, the block-square India Building of 1930 was rebuilt after the blitz.

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Across the street from the India Building, Peter Ellis designed the ahead-of-its-time Oriel Chambers, completed in 1864. The building was reviled in The Builder in 1866 as a "large agglomeration of protruding plate-glass bubbles.... Did we not see this vast abortion--which would be depressing were it not ludicrous--with our own eyes, we should have doubted the possibility of its existence" (quoted in Hughes, p. 62). Ellis' career was cut short by such criticism, and he turned from architecture to engineering. As late as 1921, the Oriel Building was reviled by the head of the Liverpool School of Architecture, Charles Reilly, as a "cellular habitation for the human insect" (Sharples, p. 171).

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Shipping wealth radiated through the city, which grew from 5,000 people in 1700 to 78,000 in 1800, 685,000 in 1900, and 856,000 in 1931. Since then, it has slumped to under 440,000, but the old financial district lingers around the town hall, which was built by John Wood between 1749 and 1754. Wood was known for his previous work at Bristol, and a contemporary in Liverpool wrote that "on all hands he is agreed to be a great genius." Caution: the dome was added in 1802 and the portico in 1811. (Sharples, p.43.)

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The interior of the town hall was gutted in 1795, which created the opportunity for James Wyatt to add the dome. The drum carries the city's motto, Deus Nobis Haec Otia Fecit, "God has given us these days of peace." Is the meaning that peace provides an opportunity to make money?

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Behind the town hall is the Cotton Exchange, completed in 1955 and replacing earlier structures from 1803 and 1860. Hughes dismisses it as "the present monstrosity" (p. 81). Sharples calls it "lumpish and ill-proportioned" (p. 151).

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One of the Cotton Exchange's three cotton trading rings survives in the maritime museum. In the later days of the exchange, one ring handled American cotton, another Egyptian, and the third cotton from Commonwealth countries.

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The nearby Exchange Railway station, the terminus of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. This station, from 1888, was the second on the site. It closed in 1977.

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From the Town Hall steps and looking down one side of Castle Street. At the end of the block is the khaki-colored former Bank of England building, one of many nearby banks. A German visitor in 1833, J.G. Kohl, was amazed at the city's attention to business and wrote that "among the great cities of the world... there is no other so exclusively devoted to commerce" (Sharples, p. 17).

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Here it is: the former Liverpool branch of the Bank of England, completed 1848.

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The other side of Castle Street. The street itself is usually wide, broadened under an Improvement Act of 1786. Notice the copper-green dome at the end of the block?

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It's the former Adelphi Bank, designed by William Caroe, who perhaps not coincidently was the father of Olaf Caroe, the last British governor of India's North West Frontier Province.

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Liverpool's Queen Victoria Monument of 1910 stands at the end of Castle Street.

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The statue, by the local sculptor C.J. Allen, is about as grim as she comes.

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Also converging on the town hall but at a right angle to Castle Street is Dale Street, here with the Queen Building, which opens through the archway to a narrow lane leading to the Royal Bank, completed in 1838.

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Looking down Dale Street. The building in the center right is the head office of Royal Insurance, completed in 1903 by J. Francis Doyle, who had collaborated with Norman Shaw on the White Star Line building, similar in shape though not in color. Sharples calls this building possibly the first self-supporting steel frame structure in Britain.

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Farther down the street, Prudential Assurance, 1886, by Alfred Waterhouse, fresh from designing what Hughes calls the "Wagnerian Gothic" Manchester Town Hall.

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Also on Dale Street, the city's vaguely French municipal building, 1862-8.

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A few blocks farther east, this is the city library, paid for by William Brown, a local businessman. The steps were added in 1902, and the building itself, completed in 1860, was rebuilt in the 1950s after wartime bombing.

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Flanking the library, the County Sessions courthouse.

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In front of the sessions court, a Nelson Monument.

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A little less grand, George V keeps an eye on traffic entering the Mersey Tunnel.

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Near the library. No hooligans, please; we're British.

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Echoing Istanbul's Hagia Sophia, the Central Hall of the Liverpool Wesleyan Mission was built in 1905 on Renshaw Street, a short walk from the Nelson Monument and Lime Street Station. Sharples says it is "thoroughly un-churchlike, and might just as well have been a theater or department store." (P. 230.)

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In later days, it became a theater in fact.

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The city's immense Anglican Cathedral is something else again: Hughes calls it the swan song of Gothic architecture. Giles Gilbert Scott's most important work, it was begun in 1904, at Liverpool's apogee, and was finished in 1978, when the city was probably at its nadir. Scott himself died in 1960.

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Behind the cathedral there's an old quarry, long ago converted to a cemetery, St. James.

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A mariner, obviously. Want the details?

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An American, dying in 1844.

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Roscoe Street, at the entrance to the cathedral. Speculators leased large tracts from the municipal corporation, then subdivided the land for builders who created "a standard house repeated as many times as necessary to complete the row." Samuel Huggins observed in 1848 that "with the exception of a couple of Ionic columns as a doorcase to each house, it is one dead merely perforated wall from end to end." (Sharples, p. 243.)

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Similar 3-bay terrace housing, from the 1820s and 1830s, lines up behind the cathedral.

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Gambier Terrace, begun in 1828 by Ambrose Lace, was a grander version of the row house. Designed by James Foster, Jr., this terrace was built over several decades, during which time the design was progressively simplified, then abandoned. From left to right here, you see the original concept and its first modification, forced by a financial crisis in 1837.

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The simplified version is repeated many times.

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Still, each house is of three bays.

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The far end breaks cleanly from the older part.

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From the back, Gambier Terrace reveals the underlying structural brick, along with the protruding kitchens.

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The infamous courtyard slums of Liverpool are gone. No more the short tunnel leading into a narrow courtyard rimmed with opposing three-story tenements, each room housing a family and all sharing two earth closets at the far end of the courtyard, next to the "slop tap," the only source of water. This kind of housing was banned in 1864, when Liverpool had 3,000 courtyards housing 110,000 people. A thousand courtyards survived into the 20th century, and the last was demolished in the 1960s. In its place, Liverpool today has thousands of 2-bay, two-story terrace homes--"two up, two down"--like these along Rathbone Road.

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One bay for the door and the other for a bay window. Such houses are available for about 100,000 pounds, unless they're in need of renovating, when the price can be half that.

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The cellular structure is plain from the rear.

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These houses are typically built on blocks that are long and narrow, with four lines of houses, two long and two short. The black gate is the entrance to an alley.

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The alley view, with shocking purple garbage cans, presumably to fight the gray and damp.

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A commercial district in a residential area: Stanley Road in the suburb of Bootle. The camera is near a statue surveying the street.

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It's busy George V, here promoted from guard duty at the Mersey Tunnel to surveyor of Bargain Booze.

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Fancier housing along Oxford Road, Bootle.

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It's still terrace housing, but now there's a front yard and a third floor.

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There are backyards, too.

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Bootle is proud of its housing programs, which transferred ownership of state-owned council housing to local housing associations.

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Duplexes in Bootle.

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More council-style housing, this time below the cathedral.


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