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Liverpool: Made in Liverpool
a city on screen

Commerce and culture

Main image of Made in Liverpool

When Liverpool was founded in 1207 by the Charter of King John, its best friends would have described it as a small fishing village. As late as 1500, its population was still less than 3,000 and the town could have been walked across in three or four minutes. Liverpool profited from London's misfortune at the end of the Civil War. With Dutch ships in the River Thames, Plague and the Great Fire, business moved to where money could be made, and proceeded with in peace. Mr Smith brought his sugar refinery from London, and other small industries began to attach themselves to the town. In 1715, Thomas Steers build Liverpool's first dock, beginning the city's drive to economic power and pre-eminence. The main industry, almost the only industry in the 18th century, came from clay. The Herculaneum industry, with forty or fifty small companies, produced pottery which was much sought after. But they lost the industry to Staffordshire, the Midlands and Mr Wedgwood. By then, most employment was casual and connected to the ships and trade.

The first theatre opened in 1750, by the same Thomas Steers who had built the first dock, in the appropriately named Drury Lane. In 1772 came the Theatre Royal in what is now Williamson Square. The mid-19th century saw up to a dozen more theatres. The repertoire started with Shakespeare and the classics and descended to melodrama, music-hall, circuses and even tortoise racing. In the postwar gloom of 1946 there were four major Christmas pantomimes in four massive town centre theatres, with another half-dozen in suburban theatres, most playing to full houses. In 1911, the Playhouse repertory theatre opened, ultimately launching careers in London's West End, British films and Hollywood. The Everyman followed in 1964, and the city supported two reps through thick and thin, producing new work by native writers like Willy Russell and Alan Bleasdale, until the two joined towards the end of the last millennium.

In 1946, apart from the concerts at the Philharmonic Hall, which began in the 1840s, there were twelve chamber societies doing small classical works, quartets, trios and so on. These fared quite well, although most stopped during the war. By the early 1950s, small jazz clubs began to appear, with the now legendary Cavern arriving in 1957.

The industrial situation remained largely stable until the decline of the port, which began, perhaps, in 1907, when the shipping lines moved their main offices to Southampton. The great waterfront buildings, often seen as evidence of the city's great progress, were in fact an answer to its decline, as was the Gladstone Dock of 1927, beaten by docks in Southampton and London. The rise of industry was as a result of that decline, and a decision of the 1950s. Ford's of Halewood, Yorkshire Imperial Metals, the English Electric Company, the Automatic Telephone Exchange Company and others brought manufacturing and jobs. The port remains, in the volume of cargo it carries, a significant enterprise. The factories have nearly gone, and yet somehow or other, the Liverpool population has found itself a niche - and work.

The theatres survive, although fewer than there once were. Concerts are often now limited to the 'Phil', although chamber concerts are thriving again at the reopened St George's Hall. The cultural effort of the 19th century was an attempt to civilise the town, to make it, as the historian Picton said, more than a collection of docks and warehouses. Today, that culture is an attempt to hold onto a civilisation, to keep the best people in the city and to remind people that the city will survive on its economic and its cultural wealth.

There was a Liverpool Academy of Arts from 1774 (reconstituted in 1810), its collections based on a donation of Italian paintings by the 18th-century historian David Roscoe. Internal divisions in the 1850s saw a split into a kind of traditional academy and a new artists' academy, which continued into the 19th century. The Walker Art Gallery was given to them by the brewer Sir Andrew Barker Walker in 1877, and remains one of England's finest provincial galleries, with works including Liverpool's most celebrated painter, George Stubbs. In the 20th century, the John Moores' exhibitions encouraged many young artists to come to the city.

Liverpool, of course, is known for its humour, and the city had a thriving variety tradition, from which came such figures as Rob Wilton and Tommy Handley, whose death in 1949 had an impact comparable to that of Winston Churchill thanks to the extraordinary popularity of his radio programme It's That Man Again (ITMA). Other celebrated Liverpool comedians included Ted Ray, Arthur Askey and Jimmy Tarbuck, but none has had the staying power of the great Ken Dodd, still going strong in his eighties.

Steve Binns

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Cementation (1956-7)Cementation (1956-7)

The building of Tate & Lyle's sugar silo in Liverpool

Thumbnail image of Tomorrow's Merseysiders (1974)Tomorrow's Merseysiders (1974)

Life around Liverpool and the tale of its two newspapers

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Documentary celebrating Liverpool's industrial and commercial growth

Thumbnail image of Brookside (1982-2003)Brookside (1982-2003)

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Classic Liverpool sitcom about two young women sharing a bedsit

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