Liverpool The Early Years

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Liverpool The Early Years

A conjectural impression of how Liverpool’s waterfront may have looked in 1680

In the early days of England’s recorded history, all our little fishing hamlet of Liuerpul (Liverpool) had to offer the known world was a sheltered inland pool/creek on the tidal banks of the River Maeres ea (Mersey). It was a place that was not deemed worthy of a mention in William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book (Liber de Wintonia) of 1086, but may possibly have been one of the six unnamed berewicks, (detached portions of farmland belonging to a mediaeval manor and reserved for the Lord of the manor’s own use), that were recorded as being part of the manor of West Derby.

In the late 1100s Liuerpul had been granted to Warine de Lancaster by King Henry 11 before being acquired in August 1207 by King John, the only English King ever to be so named. King John held the title to the Manor of Tokestath (Toxteth) and the village of Smeedon (Smithdown), the area of Tokestath having been turned into a Hunting Park for his enjoyment in 1204. It is believed by many historians that some of the advisers to the King may have pointed out that our hamlet and its sheltered pool/creek would make an ideal base from which to sail his soldiers, along with any required provisions, to and from Ireland.

King John obviously agreed, and just five days after acquiring our little hamlet he granted the Letters Patent (Charter) that, on 23rd August 1207, saw Liverpool become a town and borough. The King decreed that ownership of local land be offered to the wealthy, giving tax concessions to them and others who were able to farm the land or establish a variety of trades in our new town in order to provide the much needed services required to help Liverpool’s future growth.

Liverpool was now about to set sail on its journey to becoming one of the world’s most famous ports. However, it was not all plain sailing in the early years! Despite some little growth and expansion thanks to the incentives given by King John, Liverpool was still many hundreds of years away from becoming the city we know today. The newly founded borough had seen seven ‘main’ streets laid out in order to try and assist the new incoming businesses and trades to flourish. These were put down in the shape of a letter ‘H’ and each would have probably been only 10-15 feet in width.

Between 1207 and the mid-17th century these same seven streets continued to appear regularly in our town’s taxation lists and we were still too dependent on agriculture and its products for many people’s livelihood, although there was always fishing and some maritime trade to help. In 1660 there were only approximately 190 houses covering the seven main thoroughfares and throughout much of the 15th and 16th centuries, Liverpool was constantly in a state of economic hardship. Not helping matters, the town’s still small population was ravaged by disease in the 1540s and 1550s and a severe storm in 1561 caused major damage to our small haven.

In 1571 a local M.P. named Rauff Sekerston sent a petition to Elizabeth 1 from the town (now spelt as Liverpole) asking for her help and reminding her of what we had to offer and what the benefits of her aid could bring. No help was forthcoming! Elizabeth refused to decree a new Charter that would grant further freedoms to the people of Liverpool. However, towards the end of the 16th century she did bestow Letters of Marque and Privateering statutes to the sailors of our town. The Letters of Marque was practically a licence for legal piracy and sailors were quick to take advantage. Despite the dubiousness of their trade, Liverpool’s fortunes took an upward curve, resulting in the town’s economy improving greatly.

A big part in Liverpool’s continuing expansion came in 1647 when we were made a free and independent port, no longer subject to the Port of Chester which was the dominant port in the North West at the time. As our town’s wealth grew in the 1660s and 1670s the main landowners laid out several additional streets and more buildings were also constructed, including a new Town Hall.

The chance discovery of rock salt on a Cheshire estate owned by William Marbury in 1670 was to prove to be the catalyst for the real kick-start that Liverpool was seeking, with the resulting ‘Salt Trade’ generally being considered as being the first major contribution to the flourishing of Liverpool into a large and important town. Prior to the rock salt discovery, brine had to be purified on site but it was now a simple matter to transport the raw material to more economically sited factories where it could then be refined.

Although the economic importance of salt had been quickly recognised by Liverpool merchants it was some twenty years, circa 1690-1694, before the first local salt refinery was built. This was located at Frodsham Bridge, with another, the Liverpool Salt Works, following in 1696, and a third being constructed at Dungeon, which lies a few miles upstream on the River Mersey, near to the small hamlets of Oglet and Speke. Cottages were built on Dungeon Lane to house the salt workers and two Customs and Excise cottages were added nearby; all three refineries attempting to benefit financially from being closer to the Lancashire Coalfields.

By the early 1700s, salt had become the major export product of the now rapidly growing port of Liverpool. It was an essential commodity of the Newfoundland cod fisheries, from where the salted fish was transported to the West Indies and sold or exchanged for sugar, coffee or fruit. Here in England the coastal trade of salt was perhaps even more important. Salt would be shipped to Cornwall in return for china clay for use in Liverpool’s and Staffordshire’s pottery industries. In Liverpool, the salt was also necessary in industries such as glass working, where it was used as flux, and later salt also became integral to the basic growth of our local chemical industry as an ingredient in the manufacture of soda.

There were to be problems in the further expansion of the salt trade, however, as in the early 18th century there was a lack of decent transport links into and out of the productive Cheshire salt fields. In the next issue of My Planet Liverpool we take a look at how these problems were solved and how Liverpool would benefit, particularly by the construction of the Sankey Canal.