Central Liverpool
The Waterfront
Last updated 13th April 2013
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Liverpool Waterfront from Monks' Ferry, Birkenhead
Liverpool waterfront is often said (and not just by scousers) to be the most famous waterfront in the world.
A Prophecy in Recollections of Old Liverpool (1863), an anonymous author recalling the mid-18th century
Could we draw aside the thick veil that hides the future from us, we might perhaps behold our great seaport swelling into a metropolis, in size and importance, its suburbs creeping out to an undreamt-of distance from its centre; or we might, reversing the picture, behold Liverpool by some unthought-of calamity, some fatal, unforeseen mischance, some concatenation of calamities, dwindled down to its former insignificance, its docks shipless, its warehouses in ruins, its streets moss-grown [...]. Under which of these two fates will Liverpool find its lot some centuries hence; which of these two pictures will it then present?
Liverpool Waterfront
The central section of the waterfront is dominated by the Royal Liver Building, the Cunard Building and the Port of Liverpool Building, strongly contrasting structures known locally as The Three Graces. The area is commonly known as the Pier Head, named after a stone pier dating from the 1760's that once jutted out into the river opposite St. Nicholas's Church. Pevsner writes, 'They represent the great Edwardian Imperial optimism and might indeed stand at Durban or Hong Kong just as naturally as at Liverpool'. An ancient scouse joke follows. Posh bloke: 'I say, young man, does this bus stop at the Pier Head?' Scouser: 'I bleedin' 'ope so, mate, or we're all goner get friggin' soaked'.
Introduction to Liverpool in Lewis's Topographical Dictionary of England (1848)
This celebrated town has, within the last century, by a progressive increase in extent, population, and commercial importance, obtained the first rank after the metropolis. [...] The town is situated on the east bank of the river Mersey, along which it extends for more than three miles. On its west side are immense ranges of docks, wharfs, and warehouses, in the neighbourhood of which the streets are mostly narrow, and the houses inferior in appearance to those of more recent erection. On the east side, for upwards of a mile, are spacious streets, squares, and crescents of modern houses, built chiefly of brick and roofed with slate, and of which many are elegant mansions. The town is well paved, and is brilliantly lighted with gas [...]. The inhabitants, and the shipping in the docks, are supplied with water from springs at Bootle, about four miles distant, by the company of the Bootle water-works, and from springs in or contiguous to the town, by the company of the Liverpool and Harrington water-works. [...] The air is highly salubrious, and the convenience of sea-bathing is afforded by baths of every description, erected by the corporation; by private establishments of a similar nature; and by numerous machines. Steamboats are constantly plying across the Mersey to and from the Cheshire shore; and every facility for aquatic excursions may be obtained by packets and pleasure boats. A new landing-stage has just been completed, for the use of certain of the ferries, at a cost of about £50,000; it is parallel with George's pier, is 507 feet long, and is connected with the pier by two iron bridges 150 feet in length, which are so constructed as to allow the enormous stage to rise and fall with the tide. The docks afford delightful promenades, commanding extensive views of the river and of the shipping; and Prince's pier, or Marine parade, is one of the finest marine walks in the kingdom. [...] The public buildings, which are extremely handsome, give an air of grandeur to the town; and its many sources of refined amusement and social intercourse, render it, independently of its mercantile attractions, a desirable place of residence. The environs are pleasant, abounding with interesting scenery, and with seats and villas.
The Royal Liver Building
Probably Liverpool's most famous building, the Royal Liver Building was designed by W. Aubrey Thomas and completed in 1911 for the Royal Liver Friendly Society. It stands in an imposing position on the waterfront and is unique in design in this country, incorporating Baroque, Art Nouveau and Byzantine influences and drawing inspiration from some early American tall buildings. At the time it was the tallest office block in the UK at 295 ft (90 m) and was referred to as a skyscraper in the press. Structurally it is notable for being one of the first large reinforced concrete buildings in the world. The clocks, 25 ft (7½ m) in diameter, were the largest electrically driven clocks in the UK when installed. There are four altogether, three on the seaward tower and one on the other, facing the city. The two iconic Liver Birds perched on the top are 18 ft (5½ m) high.
The Liver Bird
The Liver Bird is, of course, Liverpool's icon. Its most famous representation is these copper statues, one perched on each tower of the Royal Liver Building, which were designed by the German Carl Bernard Bartels. He was a London resident, who was treated shamefully by the authorities during the First World War, deported to Germany afterwards and virtually expunged from official records. The bird has its origins in the ancient seal of Liverpool, dating from the time of King John (reigned 1199-1216). This was probably an eagle (of St. John) carrying a planta genista (sprig of broom - the Plantagenet logo), but was not accurately rendered. By the late 17th century, the bird had been reinterpreted as what the Dutch called something like Lever, to make a play on the name of the city. Whatever this was, it was near enough to a cormorant for the latter to be incorporated into the city's arms in 1797, where a further connection with the name of the city was contrived by replacing the sprig of broom with a piece of seaweed called Laver. Furthermore, if more were needed, the cormorant is also a lucky symbol for sailors.
The Edward VII Statue
This majestic bronze equestrian statue of King Edward VII by William Goscombe John is 16 ft (5 m) high and stands in front of the Cunard Building. It was commissioned following the king's death in 1910 and originally intended for outside St. George's Hall. It finally turned up here in 1921.
Bathing at Liverpool in The Streets of Liverpool (1869) by James Stonehouse
The Liverpool Baths [hence Bath Street] [...] were erected originally by Mr. Wright, a boat-builder, about the middle of the last century. They contained hot and cold water baths, while outside was an open area, 33 feet by 30, enclosed in a pallisading, which admitted the sea-water direct, to enable persons to bathe therein in preference to the baths in the interior of the building. In 1794 the Corporation purchased these baths, and greatly improved them. They were swept away in 1817 to make room for the Prince's Dock. [...] On the shore were a few fishermen's cottages, where, from a flight of steps leading out of Bath street (which there was lost in the sandhills,) people used to take their plunge, leaving their clothes with little urchins, who made a livelihood by taking charge of them. At that time, and for a great many years later, the shore was all open (beyond the Clarence Dock and the fort,) where people used to bathe from machines, and from the shore also. [...] At the close of the last [18th] century, and the beginning of the present, the disgraceful conduct of the 'dowkers', as the bathers were called, was such as to call forth the strenuous interference of the authorities. Men and women might have been seen bathing at one time, indiscriminately, from the north shore, without the least regard for decency, while their acquaintances and strangers, looked on from the strand, with the utmost complacency, at the gambols taking place in the water.
Stained Glass inside the Royal Liver Building
Only the ground floor of the Royal Liver Building is open to the public and much of this is occupied by a café. There are elaborate ceilings and these stained glass windows with a seafaring theme are worth a look.
Liverpool trade and commerce in Lewis's Topographical Dictionary of England (1848)
The most remarkable feature in the history of Liverpool is, the extraordinary rapidity with which it has risen into importance. Among the causes which have produced its elevation to a rank but partially inferior to that of the metropolis, are, its situation on the shore of a noble river which expands into a wide estuary; its proximity to the Irish coast; its central position with respect to the United Kingdom; its intimate connexion with the principal manufacturing districts, and with every part of the kingdom, by rivers, canals, and railroads; and the persevering industry and enterprising spirit of its inhabitants. For the collection of customs, &c., due to the crown, Liverpool was anciently a member of the port of Chester; but, as is evident from records belonging to the corporation, it was an independent port so early as the year 1335, though for some centuries it made but little progress. The commerce may be divided into several distinct branches. The trade with Ireland appears to have been established, or greatly promoted, by the settlement here of a few mercantile families from that country, about the middle of the 16th century; at that time, only 15 vessels, of the aggregate burthen of 259 tons, belonged to the port, whereas Liverpool now imports of Irish produce alone an amount equal in value to several millions annually. Another principal branch is the trade with the United States. The chief article of commerce in respect of that country, is cotton, which indeed may be considered as the staple of the town; Manchester and the other cotton manufacturing districts are supplied from the port with the raw material, and manufactured cotton goods form more than half of the entire exports of Liverpool. [...] The United States also send hither tobacco, rice, dye wares, and numerous other varieties of American produce. The West India trade was one of the earliest which developed the energies of the merchants of the town; next to London, this port engrosses a larger portion of the traffic than any other of our sea-ports, there being an annual import of about 50,000 hogsheads of sugar, 20,000 barrels and bags of coffee, and 10,000 puncheons of rum, all brought from the West Indies to Liverpool. A great traffic is carried on with British America, comprising the colonies of Canada, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, &c.; while the South American states of Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Chile, and Buenos Ayres consign their sugar, cotton, coffee, and tobacco to Liverpool, and receive in return cottons, woollens, linens, and hardware. The trade with the ports of the East Indies and China is on the increase; considerable intercourse is maintained with New South Wales, and with the principal ports in the Baltic, Mediterranean, and Levant Seas, also with Portugal and other parts of Europe. [...] Among other articles of import, may be named tobacco, in respect of which Liverpool ranks next to London, of the 25 ports of the United Kingdom into which tobacco is allowed to be received. The quantity of tea on which duty was paid, at the port, in the year 1847, was not less than 4,578,397lb.
The Cunard Building
The restrained, elegant and Italianate face of the Three Graces and the last to be completed in 1916 for the Cunard Steamship Company. It was designed largely by Arthur J. Davis as consultant to the local architects firm Willink and Thicknesse and incorporates American Beaux-Arts influences with French classical details. The building was originally used for Cunard's head offices and also for a passenger terminal, first class on the ground floor and the lower classes consigned to the basement with the baggage.
The Entrance Hall of the Cunard Building
The grand marble-lined entrance hall of the Cunard Building is the only publicly accessible area inside.
The Port of Liverpool Building
The Port of Liverpool Building was originally the head office of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board and was completed in 1907. It was designed by Briggs and Wolstenholme with Hobbs and Thornley, but appears to draw upon one of the designs submitted for the Anglican Cathedral in 1902. Constructed in Portland stone and somewhat reminiscent of the Capitol in Washington DC, its extravagance (inside as much as outside) at a total cost £350,000 did not go without criticism even in those more confident times.
The Port of Liverpool Building and the Edward VII Statue
Interior of the Port of Liverpool Building
The Port of Liverpool Building has by far the most impressive interior of the Three Graces as far as public spaces go and is a must-see. The octagonal galleried central hall is accessible up to the fourth floor by a broad staircase lined with stained glass windows displaying the arms of British colonies and dominions. Everywhere are staggering amounts of beautiful marble and granite. This 'cathedral of commerce' is one of the most magnificent non-ecclesiastical interiors that I have ever seen in Britain. If there is one building that epitomises the aspiration and confidence of maritime Liverpool at its peak, this is it.
The Leeds and Liverpool Canal at the Pier Head
This is the newly constructed extension to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal connecting the Stanley Dock to the Albert Dock. The design has been kept clean and elegant, mercifully avoiding pseudo-historical canal kitsch, and adds class to the area, which looks better than ever. My thanks to Don Garton for this and the following picture.
The Canal and the Three Graces
Bathing at the Pier Head in Recollections of Old Liverpool (1863), an anonymous author recalling the mid-18th century
When I stand on the Pier Head, or take my daily walk on the Landing Stage, I often pause and revolve in my mind the wonderful changes that have taken place in my time in this native town of mine. The other day, soon after the completion of the large Landing Stage, I sat down and thought would any man then making use of the old baths, swimming inside the palisade, have not considered me, some eighty years ago, a mad fool to have predicted that before I died I should sit on a long floating stage two or three hundred yards from where we were swimming, that would be about a quarter of a mile in length, and that between it and the shore there would be most wonderful docks built, in which the ships of all nations would display their colours, and discharge their precious freights? As I sat there the other day, I thought of the one bath and the old houses by the river's brink, and the Bath Street, along which came, in the summertime, such strings of country "dowkers". Beyond the baths there were no houses; all was open shore consisting of boulder stones, sand and pools, such as may be seen on any sea-beach. There was hot as well as cold water bathing in the baths, and a palisade ran out into the river, within which, at high-water, persons could swim, as in a plunge-bath. These baths were erected originally by Mr. Wright, who sold them to the corporation in 1774, by which body they were enlarged and greatly improved.
The Mersey Ferry Terminal
The new Mersey Ferry Terminal complements the Museum of Liverpool Building and replaces the eyesore that stood here before.
The Museum of Liverpool
The new Museum of Liverpool showcases Liverpool's global significance in social, cultural, historical, geographical and contemporary issues. It opened in 2011 and has since won a number of awards, most recently the Council of Europe Museum Prize for 2013. Even so, there has been not a little negative press about the building, particularly from architects and architectural journalists. The scrapping of plans to build Will Alsop's The Cloud on this site was greeted with dismay from the same quarters. This was intended to have been a Fourth Grace, an imposing and extravagant structure that might well have detracted from the iconic status of the other three. The present building is at least subdued and rather elegant (in my view) and complements the famous skyline rather than dominating it. The view of the Three Graces from the windows at the northern end is breathtaking. Among the exhibits are old paintings of Liverpool, the Lion steam locomotive, the last surviving Liverpool Overhead Railway carriage, Ben Johnson's remarkable Liverpool Cityscape painting, a huge model of Edwin Lutyens' original design for Liverpool's Catholic Cathedral and a reconstruction of claustrophobic 19th century Liverpool court housing.
George's Dock Ventilation and Control Station
This monumental monolith contains offices and the huge extractor fans that ventilate the Birkenhead Road Tunnel. The architect was Herbert J. Rowse and it dates from 1932, the height of Liverpool's infatuation with Art Deco. Several notable sculptural works with a strong ancient Egyptian influence are incorporated into the exterior and there is a black marble memorial to the workers who died in constructing the tunnel. It had to be reconstructed in 1951-2 following war damage. It and the Three Graces stand on the site of the 1771 George's Dock, drained in 1899 in preparation for the latter.
Crossing the River Mersey in Recollections of Old Liverpool (1863), an anonymous author recalling the mid-18th century
The passage of the river, until steam-boats were introduced, was a complete and serious voyage, which few undertook. The boatmen used to run their boats at one time on the beach opposite the end of Water Street and ply for hire. After the piers were ran out they hooked on at the steps calling aloud, "Woodside, ahoy!", "Seacombe, ahoy!" and so on. It is a fact that thousands of Liverpool people at that time never were in Cheshire in their lives. We used to cross in open or half-decked boats, and sometimes we have been almost as many hours in crossing as we are now minutes. I recollect once wanting to go to Woodside on a stormy day, to see a man who lived in a small house between the Ferry House and Wallasey Pool, and which, by the way, was the only house then standing thereabout. The tide was running very strong and the wind blowing hard, and, after nearly four hours hard work, we managed to land near the Rock Perch, thankful for our lives being spared. The Rock Perch was a pole with a sort of beacon or basket at the top of it, implanted in the rocks on which the lighthouse now stands.
The Royal Daffodil
The Mersey ferries are as famous a Liverpool sight as the Liver Birds. A ferry service to Seacombe is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 and this route still operates. One was operated from Monks' Ferry by the Benedictine monks of Birkenhead Priory from its establishment in about 1150 until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536. By the middle of the 19th century, steamers operated to New Brighton (to 1972), Egremont (to 1941), Seacombe, Woodside (still going), Monks' Ferry (to 1878), Tranmere (to 1897), Rock Ferry (to 1939), New Ferry (to 1922) and Eastham (to 1929). The current diesel ferries are the Royal Daffodil (ex Overchurch), Royal Iris (ex Mountwood) and Snowdrop (ex Woodchurch) and date from around 1960.
The Mersey ferries in The Streets of Liverpool (1869) by James Stonehouse
Crossing to Cheshire from Liverpool fifty years ago [early 18th century] was a very different expedition to what it is at present. In fact, very few people ever thought of paying the Cestrian regions a visit then, and it was only from necessity that such a voyage was undertaken. In the first place there was but little or no accommodation in the vicinity of the ferries. The ferry houses themselves were little better, and in some cases not so good, as road-side inns. Then the hazards of the weather were too heavy to risk a voyage for mere jaunting purposes. The boats plying were either half-decked or open, and were of not more than from five to six tons burden, with accommodation for 10 to 15 passengers at the utmost. It was quite like a voyage to a foreign land to cross to the opposite shore in those days. There were thousands of the inhabitants of Liverpool who, in all the course of their lives, never put foot in Cheshire. [...]
To cross the water was a perilous undertaking at that date. Even within thirty years [since 1840] it had its discomforts and horrors, in dirty slow steam-boats, in inconvenient and perilous landing-places, and in uncertain times of departure and arrival. But, even under these adverse circumstances, the passage was made with vast advantages over the former mode of transit. Until the introduction of steam, in 1815, the cost of the passage depended upon any bargain made with a boatman, who would get all he could, from a penny a piece from a lot of schoolboys, to half a sovereign from a green and credulous passenger.
Tales are told of people passing half the night on the water striving to make the pierhead, 'The Old Dock Gut', 'The Potteries', 'Knott's Hole', 'The Dingle', or anywhere, in fact, and felt at length grateful to land amidst rain, wind, and darkness, by the calm waters of Garston Creek, although a long walk of six miles was entailed. A gradual and vast improvement has taken place of late years in the ferry traffic. The first steamboats were small vessels with one mast, having a square sail. The paddles were of limited size, and the funnel slender and tall. In the Mercury of 14th March, 1816, on the application of steam to the Tranmere boats, a correspondent remarks that it is equivalent to 'bridging over the Mersey'. In 1770 there were only five ferries - namely, at Carlton or Eastham, the Rock, Tranmere, Woodside, and Seacombe. Previous to 1800 there was a long wooden pier-running out into the river to the south of the Old Dock entrance.
In adverse weather the passage boats ran alongside of this pier, but it was a very dangerous landing, having no protecting railings. In the beginning of the last [18th] century, the ferry-boats ran to the shore opposite St. Nicholas's Church and the bottom of Water-street. Then people had to scramble up to land through the shingle, ooze, and dirt, at low water, or be carried on men's shoulders, or by stepping along a rickety moveable foot platform at the time of the flood. In an open boat, in rough weather, it may be imagined what sort of a voyage half-a-dozen people would endure, most of them proving disagreeable to their fellow-passengers, as well as to themselves, suffering from that aquatic complaint which may be termed 'the quarcks'. Few persons thought of staying in Cheshire until evening or night, for the uncertainty of the weather made the passage, if not perilous, at any rate full of terrors to landsmen. At Woodside almost the only dwelling was the ferry-house. [...] The landing place was a timber and stone causeway, which ran out at some distance into the river, at all times being wet, slimy, slippery, and dangerous, from its exposed situation and unprotected sides.
Reader of 'The Streets', step towards the south end of the George's Landing Stage, and look steadfastly at the river wall before you. Do you see under, or in front of the clock-tower of the baths, a steep, narrow set of steps, and do you see another set or flight of narrow steps at the end of the river wall adjoining the Duke's Dock? Well, at one time those steps were the only modes of landing from, or getting on board of, the river steamers, and by those steps had the young and old, the lame, and the infirm, and the lazy, to descend or climb in boisterous or calm weather. In the former, when the old ferry tub ran up, frantically bumping herself against the wall, the unhappy passenger had to watch his or her opportunity to jump on shore or on board, as the case might be, on the rising or falling of the boat. Unless a person was uncommonly active, the chances were that a wave overtook him, and gave his legs a taste of the 'briny'. [...] Alongside that wall did the public, my dear madam, arrive on terra firma; and very glad you may be assured, people were when they found themselves safe under the baths piazza, waiting, may be, for some other members of their party to land, or until one of them, who had fortunately been amongst the first to get on shore, had gone up to Castle-street for a car! No handy omnibuses were there till 9-30 at night, to convey weary travellers to all parts of the town! No strings of neat cars or cabs were then ready to be hired. To stump it was your only remedy, let the night be what it would. Believe me, we are living in very convenient times, if we only look back a little. [...] The Cheshire ferries are now the most convenient, the cheapest, and pleasantest to use in the kingdom. The fare was reduced to a penny from twopence on the 1st of June, 1848. [...]
Whether the proposed tunnel or tunnels under the Mersey will depreciate the value of the ferries remains to be seen. It is said by those who have studied the subject that there is sufficient population to keep both over sea and under sea undertakings fully at work and profitable.
The West Tower
The West Tower, completed in 2007, is a prominent and elegant new feature on Liverpool's waterfront skyline. It was built by Carillion for property developers Beetham. At 450 ft (140 m) and with 40 floors, it is Liverpool's tallest building. Most of the floors consist of luxury apartments and penthouses, but the 34th floor is home to Britain's highest restaurant, the Panoramic, from where the views are sensational (see below).
The Waterfront from the West Tower  
Tall Ships on the Mersey
This and the following 4 photographs were taken from New Brighton during the Tall Ships Parade of Sail on the afternoon of July 21st 2008. Apparently over one million people turned out to see the ships in the four days culminating in this spectacular event. This scene up-river looks as it might have done 150 years ago!
Tall Ships on the Mersey
Here the ships pass the Albert Dock area.
Tall Ships on the Mersey
The Pier Head and the Three Graces.
Tall Ships on the Mersey
The West Tower on the left.
Tall Ships on the Mersey
Heading downstream past the Victoria Clock Tower with the Metropolitan Cathedral in the background.
The Queen Elizabeth II on the Mersey
The QE2 has visited Liverpool several times, here on a warm summer's evening in 1989. Events like this draw crowds of people nostalgic for the times when the great ocean-going liners regularly left Liverpool for America and more exotic destinations, even though this is a real memory only for ever decreasing numbers nowadays.
The Queen Mary II at Liverpool
The ocean liner Queen Mary II visited Liverpool in 2009. Thanks to Dave Steel for this photo.
The Pier Head and its architecture at liverpoolworldheritage.com
The Royal Liver Building at Open Buildings
360° views of the Royal Liver Building
The Liver Bird at Old Mersey Times (old newspaper articles)
The Liver Bird at the Maritime Museum Archives
Liver Birds at liverbirdology.com
The Cunard Building
The Port of Liverpool Building at Open Buildings
The Port of Liverpool Building at the Maritime Museum Archives
The Museum of Liverpool at National Museums Liverpool
The Museum of Liverpool at Open Buildings
Mersey Ferries
Mersey Ferries at the Maritime Museum Archives
The Ferries at Friends of the Ferries
History of the Mersey ferries at Friends of the Ferries
The Echo Arena at Open Buildings
The Arena and Convention Centre at Open Buildings
History Timeline at Old Liverpool
Old photos at Liverpool Picturebook