Liverpool Old Dock: down to the bedrock

About 40 feet below Liverpool One lies the structure that kick-started Liverpool’s development as a major port: the Old Dock, the world’s first commercial enclosed wet dock.  Today I joined one of the tours that Merseyside Maritime Museum are now making available, and which have proved hugely popular.

The Old Dock has been carefully preserved under the Liverpool One development. For the first time in centuries the bed of the Pool – the creek that gave Liverpool its name – can be seen.

The Old Dock was rediscovered during excavations in 2001 after being buried since 1826. The Liverpool One developers Grosvenor enabled archaeologists to investigate and preserve the dock and have made it publicly accessible as an important reminder of Liverpool’s historic status.

Liverpool and the Pool in 1600

The Old Dock was constructed in 1715 at the mouth of the Pool (seen on map, top), the anchorage which had enabled the town to grow gradually as a port.  But by the end of the 17th century, with increasing numbers of ships using the port, it was struggling to cope.  The Dock was constructed very near to the site of the ruins of Liverpool Castle (seen on both 17th century maps above).

The tour guides led us down flights of steps beneath the Liverpool One car park until we emerged on a small viewing platform situated roughly at the height of the dockside as it would have been in 1715, about 40 feet below the present ground level.  Here, if we turned to the west we could see a computer reconstruction of  the view from the Old Dock looking out towards the river in 1810 (above).

What you can see is the sandstone bedrock of the Pool, the creek that ran from the river north towards the present city centre, and the layers of brick that formed the dock wall laid on top of the bedrock.

In 1708 the merchants who controlled Liverpool Corporation employed Thomas Steers, one of Britain’s leading canal engineers, to find a solution.  He converted the mouth of the Pool into a dock with quaysides and a river gate. It was now possible for ships to load and unload whatever the state of the tide – a revolutionary facility.  Our guides explained that before the Dock was constructed it could take weeks to unload a ship anchored out in the river, with smaller boats shuttling back and forth, depending on the state of the tides. After the Dock opened it took only two days. Opening on 31 August 1715, the Old Dock could accommodate up to 100 ships. Originally it formed a tidal basin accessed directly from the river, but from 1737 access was via Canning Dock.

Old Dock 1765

The impact of the Dock was immense and London, Bristol and Chester lost significant amounts of trade throughout the 18th century as a result.  Among the first to praise the dock was Daniel Defoe, who wrote in 1715: ‘This is of so great a benefit and its like is not to be seen anywhere in England’.

Although Liverpool vessels were involved in the slave trade before the dock opened, it would have served ships involved in the Africa-America trade, propelling Liverpool to world leader of this trade. The dock led to Liverpool’s establishment as the leading European port and subsequent world trading port.

By the early 1800s, the dock was considered too small for the growing size of shipping using the port; the quays were too narrow; the city’s sewage polluted the dock’s water; and the narrow wooden drawbridge across its entrance channel caused traffic jams. The Old Dock closed on 31 August 1826 and was filled in. Liverpool’s fourth Custom House (below), designed by John Foster, was built on the site between 1828 and 1837, and was demolished after severe bomb damage during the Liverpool blitz on World War II.  It is considered one of Liverpool’s great lost buildings.

The castle was the largest and most important building in Liverpool for nearly 300 years. It was built on a sandstone outcrop overlooking the Pool and was ideally situated to defend the town’s harbour.  Built in 1235 as a base for soldiers embarking for Ireland, it was located where present Derby Square is.  However,  within 100 years the castle was obsolete and fell into disuse. By the time Royal Inspectors saw the castle in 1559 it was in ‘utter ruin and decay… a great defacement unto the town’. Local people used timber, lead and stone from the castle for their own buildings until it was finally demolished in 1720.

Liverpool castle as it may have looked in the 15th century

The Old Dock tour guides explained that Grosvenor, when developing the site, had designed the frontage and steps up to Chevasse Park to evoke the sense of the sandstone walls of the Castle.

Above: built on the site of Liverpool Castle, this part of Liverpool One was designed to evoke the sense of the Castle walls.

While below ground, the guides pointed out this archway, the entrance to a an underground tunnel which must have led up to the Castle.  It was bricked up long ago – from the inside, and there are plans to explore it at some point when resources allow.  The brickwork was damaged by Tony Robinson swinging a spade when the Channel 4 Time Team came to film the archaeological dig.

In the YouTube clip below, one of our tour guides speaks to the Echo when the Dock opened to the public for the first time:

Back outside, our tour guides explained the story behind the fountain on the pavement that leads from Liverpool One to the Albert Dock, and situated just above the Old Dock. It’s a memorial to William Hutchinson, a notorious Liverpool privateer who later became master of the Old Dock.  The Old Dock was only accessible at certain states of the tide, and was at the mercy of Liverpool’s powerful tides and currents, boisterous winds and treacherous approaches through the bar.  Tidal predictions were totally inadequate, so Hutchinson put his mind to improving navigation at Liverpool. He started to keep a meticulous tidal record, and this data was used to make tidal predictions which have proved remarkably accurate right down to the present.

Every day Hutchinson measured the time and height of each high tide. He recorded the weather, wind direction and speed, temperature and air pressure.  These measurements were the first systematic tidal measurements made in the UK.  His notebook is a remarkable document that is now used as a control to measure the degree to which sea level has risen since his time.

Soon it was required of Masters and Pilots that they carry Hutchinson’s tidal predictions and in 1777 he published the first of four editions of a book, Treatise on Practical Seamanship. In addition, he improved lighthouses, started a lifeboat service, and a pilot service, and founded a society for mariners’ widows.

Hutchinson was born in September 1716 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and went to sea as a boy, probably when his father died in January 1727.  Around 1740, when England was at war with France and Spain, he moved to Liverpool and  joined forces with Fortunatus Wright, a famous Liverpool privateer. Between them they captured many foreign merchant ships, which they sold, or ransomed the cargos in friendly ports. By 1752 Hutchinson could afford to order his own boat with a 90 foot keel to be built for the Jamaica Trade. He was still active as a Privateer as late as July 1758 during the Seven Years’ War with France.

Hutchinson’s legacy was to have provided data sets which have proved to be important sources of tidal and meteorological information ever since.

In 2008, at the completion of the Liverpool One development,  a fountain was constructed marking the boundary of the Old Dock. On the pavement beside the fountain examples of William Hutchinson’s tidal measurements have been inscribed. The numbers marked into the paving refer to measurements made by Hutchinson of the heights and times of high water at the Dock for January 1783.

The height of the fountain jets relates to the height of the high tide that day.

In a further attempt to convey some of the history of the Dock, Grosvenor have outlined its boundaries in the walls and brickwork of the pavement of the new open space and the contours of the lake beside the fountain.

Outside the entrance to John Lewis there is a viewing port where passers-by can look down into the Old Dock.

Big Wheel

I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round
I really love to watch them roll
No longer riding on the merry-go-round
I just had to let it go…

I took this photo of the new 80 metre-tall Liverpool One Wheel on my phone tonight on our way into Zizzi’s. It’s apparently the first in Europe to be sited on top of another building: it sits in Chavasse Park perched on the shopping complex. The wheel weighs 365 tonnes and will be there until the end of January, with rides offering incredible views costing £6.

Liverpool One and the new Chavasse Park

Last month saw the grand opening of the final phase of the Liverpool One development and today, on a bright and crisp autumn afternoon I took a stroll with the camera through the new Chavasse Park and surrounding streets.

Although the main concourse of shops is, architecturally, pretty humdrum, I suppose that is the price we have to pay for having such a huge area of the city (once littered with apalling eyesores like the Paradise Street car park, Steers House and many stretches of derelict land) improved so dramatically. What redeems it somewhat is that, unlike a typical shopping mall development, a variety of materials and textures have been used in the architecture of the various units that make up the whole.

But the new Chavasse Park is brilliant; it’s a lovely space with lawns and fountains that is already a place where people congregate and sit. And it’s been finished to a high standard with quality stone work and shrub and tree planting. Above all, it has opened up the waterfront and the Albert Dock, previously isolated behind a busy dual carriageway and wasteland.

Phase One of Liverpool One was opened to the public in May. The new phase includes a 14 screen Odeon cinema and a restaurant-lined terrace. The restaurants overlook Chavasse park, which is at the heart of the development.

The project, previously known as The Paradise Project, involved the redevelopment of 42 acres of land in Liverpool city centre. The project was anchored by John Lewis and Debenhams, with additional leisure, residential, office, public open space and transport developments.

In 1998, a study commissioned by the City Council revealed that Liverpool’s reputation as a regional shopping centre was under serious threat, and recommended a radical redevelopment of over 42 acres, the largest city centre development in Europe since the post-war reconstruction. In April 1999, Liverpool City Council passed a resolution for comprehensive redevelopment of the Paradise Street Area, which contained Chavasse Park, the Paradise Street Bus Station and NCP Car Park, Quiggins, the Moat House Hotel, Canning Place Fire Station and BBC Radio Merseyside. There were also large areas of wasteland, some used as car parks.In March 2000, the Council selected the Duke of Westminster’s Grosvenor Group as developer.

Work began in Spring 2004 with the excavation of Chavasse Park, and incorporated archaeological investigations, since Chavasse Park covered the ruins of buildings destroyed in World War II bombing, and the Canning Place car park was on the site of the Old Dock, the world’s first wet dock.

To illustrate the scale of the construction, here are photos taken in spring 2006.

The first parts of the development to be completed were the multi-storey car park on Liver Street,and the bus station on Canning Place. Both opened in November 2005, allowing the old bus station and car park on Paradise Street to be demolished in January 2006. This cleared the way for construction of the new buildings on the west side of Paradise Street, as the Moat House Hotel had already been demolished in May 2005.

In July 2006, Herbert’s Hairdressers became the first business to move into new premises in the development, in the uniquely-styled ‘Bling Bling’ building on Hanover Street. At the same time, BBC Radio Merseyside moved into new premises also on Hanover Street, allowing the demolition of the remaining buildings on Paradise Street.

The brand name Liverpool One was chosen after months of marketing research to find a short and snappy brand label for what is Europe’s biggest retail project. The project director told the Daily Post: ‘We have put a lot of work into coming up with a brand name and believe we have chosen something that will become very popular and noticeable. Liverpool One is the most important development in Liverpool’s city centre for more than 40 years. It will deliver a shopping, residential and leisure environment that few other cities can match’.

There has been criticism of the development. The Open Spaces Society has criticised the removal of public rights of way in the development area and fears that universal access to Liverpool’s central streets may be denied to citizens in future. It has also been criticised for isolating businesses in the former retail heart of the city (such as Lewis’s , Rapid Hardware and stores on Bold Street), and for shifting Liverpool’s retail district (resulting in a lot of empty units around Church Street, Lime Street, Ranelagh Street and Bold Street). And there has been criticism of the architecture.


Footnote, August 2009:

‘Since its opening by the Duke of Westminster in a blaze of publicity last December, the critics of One Park West have had a field day, crowned by its recent nomination for a “Carbuncle Cup” in a competition to find the country’s worst new building…When the Duke of Westminster opened One Park West last year, he called it the “jewel in the crown” of the Liverpool One development. The central tower is the highest in Liverpool One. The raking corner feature is designed to define the edge of the park. The Carbuncle Cup, organised by architects’ website Building Design and based on public nominations, will be awarded at the same time as the prestigious Stirling Prize, for which Liverpool One is shortlisted’. (Daily Post)

n the summer of 1998, Healey & Baker’s Development Team, which is now owned by Cushman & Wakefield,[6] were appointed by Liverpool City Council to conduct a retail study of the Liverpool City Centre for the replacement Unitary Development Plan.[7] The purpose of the study was to enable the Council to identify ways of protecting and improving the City Centre and also to find out why the City Centre was perceived as unattractive to new high quality retailers. Cushman & Wakefield‘s study revealed that Liverpool’s reputation as a regional shopping centre was under serious threat, however the study underlined that a feasible scheme and redevelopment site existed within the heart of the city.Cushman & Wakefield recommended a radical City Centre re-development of over 42 acres (170,000 m2), which would represent the largest city centre development in Europe since the post-war reconstruction.[8]In April 1999, Liverpool City Council passed a resolution for comprehensive redevelopment of the Paradise Street Area,[9] which consisted of the area bound by Strand Street, the Combined Courts Centre, Lord Street, Church Street, Hanover Street and Liver Street. The area contained Chavasse Park, the Paradise Street Bus Station and NCP Car Park, Quiggins, the Moat House Hotel, Canning Place Fire Station and BBC Radio Merseyside. There were also large areas of wasteland, some used as car parks.In March 2000, after a series of technical workshops, Liverpool City Council selected the Duke of Westminster‘s Grosvenor Group as developer.[9] The Development Agreement between the council and Grosvenor was signed in January 2003.[10]As a result of the technical workshops, it became apparent to Cushman & Wakefield that whilst the boundary of the PSDA was appropriate, the boundary needed to be extended and more clearly defined. Cushman & Wakefield proposed that two Mixed Use Extension Areas be identified to the West and East of the PSDA, including the sites of Chavasse Park/ Canning Place, together with an area across Hanover Street extending into Rope Walks.