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Liverpool: Across the Mersey
a city on screen

The life of Liverpool's vibrant waterfront

Main image of Across the Mersey

Liverpool is in many ways the quintessential British port city. The city's economy was overwhelmingly dependent on the prosperity of the port until very recently, and its society, culture and townscape have long been distinguished by their maritime character. The expansion of the dock system to the north and south of the original town centre in the 18th and 19th centuries created a long, narrow waterfront zone dominated by the work of the port. Dockers, mariners, service and industrial workers and their families lived in overcrowded conditions, always competing for space with warehouses, railway goods yards and processing works.

Liverpool's waterfront zone was frenetic and vibrant. Extremes of wealth and poverty co-existed in close proximity. The work of the port was labour-intensive and highly mobile, as goods were loaded and unloaded by hand, carried to and from the docks on horse-drawn carts, and sorted in warehouses. Thousands of merchants and clerks worked in the central business district, frequenting the docks and the various trading exchanges, bars, clubs and restaurants where deals were done. In the second half of the 19th century, dockland Liverpool was also a multicultural space, with many nationalities of mariners and merchants, as well as the European trans-migrants for whom the port was a gateway to the New World.

This was a maritime space, but also an urban one. In the early 20th century, the Pierhead became the largest open area in the city centre, and a hub for the Mersey ferries and the tram and bus networks. Just to the north, ocean liners tied up at the landing stage, bringing the world's largest machines to the heart of the city. Far from being isolated in peripheral docks, as was the case in many major ports, Liverpool's maritime character was obvious and centre-stage. This was further reinforced with the construction of the three Pierhead buildings in the first quarter of the century; designed to be seen from the river, they were a statement of the link between port and city unique in Britain, and deliberately American in tone.

Liverpool's docklands have retained a powerful symbolism, albeit with different meanings for successive generations. Most Merseyside stereotypes have their roots in the waterfront communities, from hard-drinking men and tough women to sentimentalism, quick wit, pilfering and a healthy distain for authority. The collapse of Liverpool in the 1970s was most obvious in its deserted docks and quays, but those same places became the centre-piece of the city's regeneration efforts from the 1980s. The port is no longer physically at the heart of Liverpool, but the legacies of its port-city heyday are proving remarkably persistent as the city reinvents itself.

Graeme Milne

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