Book review: Liverpool At Work (Ken Pye)


The prolific and well known local historian Ken Pye’s latest book is Liverpool At Work, an illustrated history of the working life of the city. It describes the trades and industries that rose and fell over the centuries, and the lives that were led by the people engaged in them. It’s an interesting angle and one that takes us closer to understanding what life was actually like for the people who lived in this neck of the woods before us.

Like most books about the history of Liverpool, Pye’s story begins in 1207, when King John officially created the town and borough of ‘Leverpul’ because he thought it would be a useful harbour for his warships. Shipbuilding and fishing were the main occupations at this time, and the town didn’t really develop much over the next few hundred years; by the beginning of the 17th century the population was only about 2,000. But then Liverpool started to become a seriously significant trading port, eventually becoming in the 19th century the second most important port (after London) in the British Empire.

As Pye points out, Liverpool has never been an official Royal Naval port. Rather, he says, it’s been a ‘centre of international, free-booting, merchant shipping trade’. In the 17th and 18th centuries many of the local seamen were employed as sailors on ‘privateers’, vessels authorized by the government to seize for private gain the ships and cargo of nations with which Britain was at war. At different times this meant French, Spanish, Dutch and American ships were rich pickings for those engaged in what was in effect legalized piracy. As for Liverpool, its economy benefited as the ship owners paid anchorage fees and customs duties, and their crews spent money when they were onshore. It was money well earned because life at sea was certainly tough. Pye describes vividly the conditions on board ship for sailors who often had their first voyages when they were just 13 or 14. Extreme temperatures, dangerous work (often at heights of over 150 feet), disease, storms and shipwrecks were just some of the hazards they faced.

A landmark in Liverpool’s growth as a port was the creation of the world’s first enclosed commercial wet dock in 1715. This led to a major increase in the amount of trade coming through Liverpool, and more docks were constructed. By the mid-19th century the city’s dock network stretched for over seven miles and was one of the largest in the world. By then the swashbuckling privateers had given way to more conventional trade, but some of this business was disreputable for other reasons. From the beginning of the 18th century onwards Liverpool was one of the three points in the trading triangle whereby ships laden with cargo sailed from the city to West Africa, where goods were bartered for slaves, then on to America and the West Indies where this human cargo was traded for cotton, tobacco and sugarcane, which was in turn shipped back to Liverpool. Pye describes in grim detail the appalling treatment of the slaves, and the terrible conditions they endured on board ship. He also explains how the trade was finally outlawed in the early 19th century, after a campaign that was supported by many in Liverpool (including William Roscoe).

The flow of goods into and out of Liverpool caused many other industries to become established in the city. There were several sugar refineries (including Tate & Lyle), and these in turn encouraged the growth of such trades as sweet, toffee and chocolate manufacturing and fruit-preserving. Salt refining was also important to the city, as South Dock’s change of name to Salthouse Dock – because of the salt warehouses that once stood there – demonstrates. The book also has fascinating passages on such topics as Liverpool’s pottery industry, which lasted for 200 years before ceasing in 1841, and the city’s carters, who for many years (and well within living memory) were a familiar sight on the streets of Liverpool. All sorts of trades flourished: Pye notes that in the late 19th century there were over 250 watch and clock makers in Liverpool, alongside umbrella makers, vinegar manufacturers, looking-glass makers and writing-slate manufacturers. Also covered in the book is the development of canals and railway links, including that between Liverpool and Manchester – the first inter-city passenger railway in the world.

Of course Liverpool’s maritime importance meant that not only were goods passing through the city but people as well – enormous numbers of them. In the middle decades of the 19th century around two thirds of the people who emigrated to America and Canada from Europe did so via Liverpool – about 4 million people in total. Some migrants stayed, creating as Pye says ‘one of the most culturally rich and varied communities in the country’. He perceptively observes that Liverpool’s identity as a major port ‘gave the town a global outlook…it was the least provincial of all Britain’s major towns and cities’.

The later pages of the book continue the story into the 20th century, when we encounter such famous local employers as Meccano, Jacob’s Biscuits, Bibby & Sons and Littlewoods Football Pools. Inevitably the story of the postwar years is to a considerable extent one of decline, with factory closures, industrial unrest and a dramatic fall in the city’s population. But while serious social and economic problems remain, recent decades have seen some regeneration: the transformation of the Albert Dock, the many benefits that flowed from Liverpool’s year as the European Capital of Culture in 2008, the city’s increasing success as a cruise liner destination. Fewer people now work in the River Mersey’s docks, but 40 million tonnes of cargo still pass through them every year.

It’s an engrossing story, and one that Pye tells well. The book’s plentiful illustrations, many in colour, are another strength. There are countless evocative period photographs, drawings, paintings, maps, advertisements and posters. In short, Liverpool At Work is a pleasure to look at and a pleasure to read.

Liverpool At Work by Ken Pye is published by Amberley Publishing, priced £14.99.