A History of Liverpool

By Tim Lambert

Liverpool in the Middle Ages

Liverpool began as a tidal pool next to the River Mersey. It was probably called the lifer pol meaning muddy pool. There may have been a hamlet on the site of Liverpool before the town was founded in the 13th century. It is not mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086) but it may have been too small to merit a mention of its own.

King John founded the port of Liverpool in 1207. The English had recently conquered Ireland and John needed another port to send men and supplies across the Irish Sea. John started a weekly market by the pool. In those days there were very few shops so if you wanted to buy or sell goods you had to go to a market. Once a market was up and running at Liverpool craftsmen and tradesmen would come to live in the area.

As well as a weekly market the king gave the citizens of Liverpool the right to hold an annual fair. In the Middle Ages, a fair was like a market but it was held only once a year for a period of a few days. A Liverpool fair would attract buyers and sellers from all over northwest England. King John divided the land at Liverpool into plots called burgages on which people could build houses. He invited people to come and live in Liverpool.

Then in 1229, the king granted the people of Liverpool another charter. This time he gave the merchants the right to form themselves into an organization called a guild to protect their interests. In many medieval towns, the Merchant’s Guild also ran the town. In Liverpool, the members of the guild elected an official called the Reeve to run the town on a day-to-day basis. The first mention of a Mayor of Liverpool was in 1351.

However, Medieval Liverpool would seem tiny to us. Even by the standards of the time, it was a small town. In the 14th century, Liverpool probably had a population of about 1,000. It was not more than 1200. Many of the people of Liverpool lived partly by farming. Others were fishermen. Some were craftsmen or tradesmen such as brewers, butchers, blacksmiths, and carpenters. Furthermore, a little stream ran into the pool and it powered a watermill that ground grain into flour for the townspeople’s bread. There was also a windmill Southeast of the pool.

In the Middle Ages, some wine from France was imported through Liverpool but its main trading partner was Ireland. Skins and hides were imported from Ireland. Iron and wool were exported from Liverpool. Despite its small size, Liverpool sent 2 MPs to Parliament in 1295.

Curiously Liverpool did not have a parish church, only a chapel. (A chapel was a kind of ‘daughter’ church dependent on a parish church nearby). The first chapel in Liverpool was the Chapel of St Mary. By the middle of the 14th century, there was also the chapel of Our Lady and St Nicholas. St Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, which was appropriate to a port like Liverpool. By 1235 there was a castle at Liverpool.

Liverpool in the 16th century and 17th century

In the 16th century, Ireland was still Liverpool’s main trading partner. In 1540 a writer said: ‘Irish merchants come much hither as to a good harbor’. He also said there was ‘good merchandise at Liverpool and much Irish yarn, that Manchester men buy there’. Skins and hides were still imported from Ireland. Exports from Liverpool at that time included coal, woolen cloth, knives, and leather goods. There were still many fishermen in Liverpool.

The port of Liverpool also benefited when English troops were transported to Ireland to put down rebellions in the 16th and early 17th centuries. The troops spent money in the town. Liverpool was growing at this time but it still had a population of only 2,000 in 1600. The population of Liverpool probably reached 2,500 by the time of the civil war in 1642. Like all towns at that time Liverpool suffered from outbreaks of the plague. There were severe outbreaks in 1558 and 1609, 1647 and 1650. Meanwhile, in 1515, a grammar school was founded in Liverpool.

In 1642 the civil war between the king and parliament began. At first, Liverpool was in the royalist’s hands but in May 1643 Parliamentarian soldiers took the town. They dug ditches and erected earth ramparts around Liverpool to defend it from the royalist attack.

In June 1644 Prince Rupert led a royalist army to try and re-capture Liverpool. He described the town as a ‘mere crows nest which a parcel of boys could take’. At first, attacks were repulsed but then the Parliamentary troops left by sea leaving the people of Liverpool to defend their town themselves. The royalists attacked Liverpool one night. The townspeople resisted fiercely but were overcome. Many of them were killed. The royalist troops then sacked Liverpool. However, Liverpool only remained in the royalist’s hands for a matter of weeks. In the summer of 1644, the royalists lost the battle of Marston Moor. Following the battle, they lost the whole of the North of England, including Liverpool.

Liverpool began to grow rapidly in the late 1600s with the growth of English colonies in North America and the West Indies. Liverpool was, obviously, well placed to trade with colonies across the Atlantic. The town boomed. In 1673 a New Town Hall was built on pillars. Underneath them was an exchange where merchants could buy and sell goods.

At the end of the 17th century, a writer named Celia Fiennes visited Liverpool and gave it a glowing report. She said: ‘Liverpool is built on the River Mersey. It is mostly newly built, of brick and stone after the London fashion. The original (town) was a few fishermen’s houses. It has now grown into a large, fine town. It is but one parish with one church though there be 24 streets in it, there is indeed a little chapel and there are a great many dissenters in the town (Protestants who did not belong to the Church of England). It’s a very rich trading town, the houses are of brick and stone, built high and even so that a street looks very handsome. The streets are well-paved. There is an abundance of persons who are well-dressed and fashionable. The streets are fair and long. It’s London in miniature as much as I ever saw anything. There is a very pretty exchange. It stands on 8 pillars, over which is a very handsome Town Hall.’

She also said: ‘The town of Prescot stands on a high hill. It is a very pretty, neat town with a large marketplace and well-paved, broad streets.’

In 1684 almshouses were built in Dale Street. They were followed in 1692 by almshouses in Shaws Brow. Then in 1699, Liverpool was finally made a parish of its own. The first parish church was St Peters, which was built in 1704. Meanwhile, in 1660-78 parts of the castle were demolished. The rest was demolished early in the 18th century.

Liverpool in the 18th century

In the early 1700s, the writer Daniel Defoe also commented on Liverpool’s booming trade. He said: ‘Liverpool has an opulent, flourishing, and increasing trade to Virginia and English colonies in America. They trade around the whole island (of Great Britain), send ships to Norway, to Hamburg, and to the Baltic as also to Holland and Flanders (roughly modern Belgium).’

In 1708 the Bluecoat School for 50 poor boys was built. (It was called that because of their school uniforms). The Royal Infirmary was founded in 1749. In 1754 a New Town Hall was built.

Georgian Liverpool grew rapidly. By the early 18th century it had probably reached a population of 5,000. By 1750 the population of Liverpool had reached 20,000 and by 1801 77,000. Many of the inhabitants were immigrants. In 1795 a writer spoke about ‘the great influx of Irish and Welsh of whom the majority of the inhabitants at present consist’.

Many of the poor in Liverpool lived in dreadful conditions. Their houses were overcrowded and the streets were dirty. There were no sewers only cesspits. The worst houses were the cellar dwellings. The poorest people lived in cellars under buildings. Often they slept on piles of straw because they could not afford beds.

The first dock in Liverpool was built in 1715. Previously ships were simply tied up by the shore but as the port grew busier this was no longer adequate. Four more docks were built in the 18th century. Liverpool grew to be the third-largest port in the country behind London and Bristol. It benefited from the growth of industries in Manchester. Since it was a nearby port goods from Manchester were exported through Liverpool.

From about 1730 the merchants of Liverpool made huge profits from the slave trade. The trade formed a triangle. Goods from Manchester were given to the Africans in return for slaves. The slaves were transported across the Atlantic to the West Indies and sugar was brought back from there to Liverpool. At the end of the century, a famous actor visited Liverpool. When he was booed he told the audience that every brick of their town was ‘cemented with the blood of an African’.

In the 18th century, sugar refining became an important industry in Liverpool. Shipbuilding also became a flourishing industry. Rope-making also prospered. (Rope was needed in large amounts by ships). In Liverpool, there was also some manufacturing industry such as ironworking, watchmaking, and pottery.

Meanwhile in the 18th century rivers were deepened to make it easier for ships to sail on them. The Mersey and Irwell were deepened in 1720 and the Sankey Brook in 1755. From 1748 night watchmen patrolled the streets of Liverpool at night and in 1778 a dispensary was opened in John Street where the poor could obtain free medicines.

The American War of Independence began in 1776. At first, it disrupted trade from Liverpool. It ended trade with the colonies themselves but it also meant American ships attacked English merchant shipping trading with the West Indies. They captured the ships and took their cargo. In 1778 France, Spain, and Holland declared war on Britain. That meant ships from Liverpool could attack French, Spanish, and Dutch ships and take their cargo.

Liverpool in the 19th century

In 1801 the population of Liverpool was about 77,000 and by 1821 the population had reached 118,000. In 1835 the boundaries of Liverpool were extended to include Kirkdale and parts of Toxteth and West Derby. By 1851 the population of Liverpool had reached 376,000. There were many Irish immigrants to Liverpool in the early 19th century. Their numbers reached a peak during the potato famine in the 1840s.

At the end of the 18th century, sea bathing became fashionable among the upper and middle classes in England. They believed it was good for your health. In the early 19th century many people went sea bathing on the beach Northwest of Liverpool but in time newly built docks encroached on the beach. Meanwhile, in 1802 Harthill Botanic Gardens were laid out.

The port of Liverpool boomed in the 1800s and many new docks were built. By the middle of the century, Liverpool was second only to London. The Manchester ship canal was completed in 1894. Although the docks dominated Liverpool there were other industries such as shipbuilding, iron foundries, glass manufacture, and soap making.

However, Like all towns in the 19th century, Liverpool was unsanitary. In 1832 there was a cholera epidemic in Liverpool. Another epidemic followed in 1849.

Yet during the 19th century amenities in Liverpool improved. In 1799 and 1802 private companies began to supply piped water to Liverpool. But it was expensive and poor people could not afford it. They relied on barrels or wells. However, a municipal water supply was begun in Liverpool in 1857.

The Philharmonic Hall was built in 1849. It burned in 1933 but it was rebuilt. The Central Library was built in 1852 and St George’s Hall was built in 1854. William Brown library was built in 1860. Picton Reading Room was built in 1879.

In the 19th century amenities in Liverpool continued to improve. The Royal Southern Hospital opened in 1814. An eye hospital opened in 1820. The Northern Hospital followed in 1834. Stanley Hospital opened in 1867. The Walker Art Gallery opened in 1877. Stanley Park was laid out in 1870 and Sefton Park was opened in 1872. The Palm House was built in 1896.

Meanwhile from 1830 horse-drawn buses ran in Liverpool and from 1865 horse-drawn trams ran in the streets. The trams were converted to electricity in 1898-1901.

Liverpool officially became a city in 1880 and by 1881 its population had reached 611,00. In 1895 the boundaries of Liverpool were extended to include Wavertree, Walton, and parts of Toxteth and West Derby.

Liverpool in the 20th century

By 1901 the population of Liverpool had reached 685,000. In 1904 the boundaries of the city were extended again to include Fazakerley. In the early 20th century several notable buildings were built in Liverpool. The Tower Building was built in 1908.

In the 1910s three of the most famous buildings in Liverpool were erected on the site of St George’s Dock, which had been filled in. The Liver Building was built in 1911. The Cunard Building was built in 1916. The Port of Liverpool building was also built at that time. The Lady Lever Art Gallery opened in 1922.

More than 13,000 Liverpudlians died in World War I. In 1921 a memorial was erected outside the Cunard building to all the Cunard employees who died in the war.

In 1928 a survey showed 14% of the population of Liverpool were living in poverty. This was, of course, much worse than what we would call poverty today. In those days poor people were living at bare survival levels.

In the early 20th century Liverpool suffered a shortage of houses. Overcrowding was common, as was slum housing. The council built some council houses but nothing like enough to solve the problem. Furthermore, Liverpool suffered severely in the depression of the 1930s, and up to a third of men of working age were unemployed.

During the Second World War Liverpool was a target as it was, obviously, an important port. Some 3,875 people died in Merseyside and more than 10,000 houses were destroyed. Many more people were seriously injured and many more houses were damaged.

After World War II Liverpool council was faced with the task of replacing bombed houses. It also had to replace many slum houses. Like other cities, Liverpool ‘redeveloped’ central areas of the city in the 1950s and 1960s, and many new council houses and flats were built. Overspill towns were built near the city at Kirkby and Skelmersdale Unfortunately demolishing terraced houses and replacing them with high-rise flats broke up communities.

In 1974 the boundaries of Liverpool were changed so it became part of an administrative area called Merseyside. Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Liverpool was consecrated in 1967. The Anglican Cathedral was not completed until 1978.

In the later 20th century industries in Liverpool included engineering, cement manufacture, sugar refining, and flour milling. For a time, in the 1950s and 1960s, the local economy boomed but it turned sour in the late 1970s and 1980s as Liverpool, like the rest of the country suffered from the recession. Liverpool became an unemployment blackspot.

One consequence of Liverpool’s social problems was the Toxteth riots of 1981. In the last years of the 20th century, there were some hopeful signs. Liverpool remained an important port. Because of its position in the Northwest, it was the main port for trading with North America. In the 1980s Albert Dock was redeveloped and turned into an area of bars, shops, and restaurants.

From the 1980s Liverpool promoted tourism using its heritage as an attraction. Merseyside Maritime Museum opened in 1980. The Liverpool opened in 1988. The Museum of Liverpool opened in 1993. Border Force National Museum opened in 1994. A Conservation Centre opened in Queens Square in 1996. Also in 1996, the Institute For Performing Arts opened.

Meanwhile Clayton Square shopping centre opened in 1989.

A view of Liverpool

Liverpool in the 21st century

In the 21st Century, Liverpool is still thriving. International Slavery Museum opened in 2007. Liverpool One shopping centre opened in 2008.

In 2012, Joe Anderson became the first elected mayor of Liverpool. In 2023 the population of Liverpool was 500,000.