Central Liverpool
The South Docks
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Last updated 27th May 2017
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Walk: Liverpool Docks and Waterfront
 
In the text below, whole paragraphs in italic are quotations from original sources, as follows:
TDE   A Topographical Dictionary of England, Samuel Lewis, 1848
The South Shore from Toxteth Park in 1797
The South Docks
The South Docks extend from Canning Dock (1753) in the north to Queen's Dock (1756) in the South. The latter straddles the border with Toxteth and the remaining docks to the south are situated in this township.
At the beginning of the 18th century, the Canning Dock area was the outlet of The Pool. The area to the south was the Great Heath or Liverpool Common. By the middle of the 17th century, the southern headland of The Pool was owned by William Pluckington and known as Pluckington's Point, now the site of the Albert Dock. By 1700 there were some barns and warehouses, a ropewalk, a dye house, a salt works, a few houses and little else.
Canning Dock and the Custom House in 1836
Following the construction of the Old Dock in 1716 and the subsequent filling in of The Pool, dock construction advanced rapidly and the area was competely redeveloped by the middle of the century.
  For the security of the shipping in the port, and for the greater facility of loading and unloading merchandise, an immense range of docks and warehouses, extending along the bank of the river, has been constructed, on a scale of unparalleled magnificence; forming one of those characteristics of commercial greatness in which this town is unrivalled. The docks are of three kinds, the wet, the dry, and the graving, and there are also half-tide docks. The wet docks are principally for ships of great burthen, employed in the foreign trade, which float in them at all states of the tide, the water being retained by gates: the dry docks, so called because they are left dry when the tide is out, are chiefly appropriated to coasting-vessels; and the graving docks, admitting or excluding the water at pleasure, are adapted to the repair of ships, during which they are kept dry. [TDE]
The buildings were made to last but were nevertheless threatened with demolition in the 1970s. Their rescue marked a turning point for Liverpool, which seemed then to be locked into a bottomless decline. Conservative minister Michael Heseltine highlighted urban deprivation in Liverpool following the Toxteth riots in 1981 and was instrumental in the reversal of the city's fortunes by persuading the private sector it was in their interests to help finance the regeneration of the inner city.
Later, Heseltine recalled of his visit at that time: 'The Mersey, its lifeblood, flowed as majestically as ever down from the hills. Its monumental Georgian and Victorian buildings, created with such pride, still dominated the skyline. The Liver Building itself, the epicentre of a trading system that had reached out to the four corners of the earth, stood defiant and from my perspective very alone [...] everything had gone wrong.'
Millions of pounds subsequently poured into the area. The Merseyside Development Corporation, established by Heseltine, spent more than 200m redeveloping the Albert Dock. Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister at the time of Heseltine's visit, commented in her memoirs: 'For the most part [...] his efforts had only ephemeral results', although, in a backhanded compliment, she added: 'I would not blame him for that - Liverpool has defeated better men than Michael Heseltine.'
The whole south dock area was derelict by 1980 and had been under threat of demolition. In 1981, the Merseyside Development Corporation was founded and led to the rejuvenation of the docks we see today. The rescue marked a critical point for Liverpool, which had seemed to be locked into a bottomless decline. Conservative minister Michael Heseltine highlighted urban deprivation in Liverpool following the Toxteth riots in 1981 and was instrumental in the reversal of the city's fortunes by persuading the private sector it was in their interests to help finance the regeneration of the inner city. The docks are now a global tourist attraction.
The South Docks in Eye's Map of 1765
The South Docks in a Map of 1795
Salthouse Dock in 2005 ..
Canning Dock and the Museum of Liverpool
Canning Half Tide Dock
Duke's Dock and the New Warehouse c.1820
Duke's Dock
The Development of the South Docks: Salthouse to Duke's Dock
The first of the south docks, and the second enclosed wet dock overall, was Salthouse Dock built 1734-53. Like the Old dock it was designed by Thomas Steers and is the oldest still in existence. The name came from the nearby John Blackburne's saltworks. It was important for the landing of rock salt from Cheshire, which was refined in Liverpool and transported onwards.
The salt industry was of considerable importance in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Coal from Lancashire was brought to Liverpool to refine rock salt. There was an extensive business community buying, selling and exporting salt to such places as the Isle of Man and Newfoundland for salting fish.
There were structural improvements in 1842 and 1855, following which the dock was mainly used for trade with China and the East Indies. Some of the masonry at the south west corner is original. The view of the waterfront buildings seen across Salthouse Dock was, until recently, one of the most famous in Liverpool. Recent construction work has modified the aspect somewhat.
  The Salthouse dock, so named from some salt-works formerly contiguous to it, was constructed about the same time as the Canning dock; it was rebuilt and deepened in 1842, and is now used by vessels in the Levant, West India, and Irish trades. The quay is 730 yards in extent, and is provided with convenient warehouses, with arcades for foot passengers on the east side, and extensive sheds on the west side. [TDE]
At the time of the opening of Salthouse dock, Canning Dock was known as the Dry Pier or Dry Basin and was a protected tidal basin providing an entrance to the Old Dock. Graving docks, the northerly pair of which survive, were added in 1765-9 and lengthened and deepened by Jesse Hartley in the 1840s. It was officially named Canning Dock in 1832 after Liverpool MP George Canning. The north west wall is believed to have been part of an old pier and is probably oldest visible retaining wall in the dock system.
In 1842-4 the entrance to Canning Dock was converted by Jesse Hartley into Canning Half-Tide Dock with two locks to the river, the northern one blocked in 1937. Beside the locks are three octagonal granite gatemen's shelters designed by Hartley. To the north is the Pilotage Building of 1883, headquarters of the pilot boats. It is now part of Merseyside Maritime Museum.
  The Canning dock, which was a dry dock till 1832, was constructed under the authority of an act passed in the 11th of George II, and was deepened nine feet in 1842: it is now capable of receiving the largest vessels frequenting the port, but is chiefly occupied by coasting-vessels, which bring corn, provisions, and slate, and convey back the produce of the West Indies, the Mediterranean, Portugal, and the Baltic; it has a quay 500 yards in length, and communicates with two graving docks. [TDE]
The Mersey Bar Lightship called Planet has been a feature of the Canning Dock system since 2006, but at the time of writing (2017) its future is uncertain. It was ordered by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board in 1958. When in service from 1960 to 1972, it marked the start of the shipping lane into the River Mersey at the notorious Mersey Bar Sandbanks off Formby Point. It had a crew of seven on two week shifts and was the first indication that returning sailors had of their approach to Liverpool. In 1972 it was moved and in 1979 began service in the English Channel off Guernsey. When it was decommissioned in 1989, it was the last manned lightship in UK waters. It was then sold and moved several times, appearing in Liverpool's Canning Half Tide Dock in 2006 and later in Canning Dock.
Next in order chronologically though not in position was the small Duke's Dock of 1773. This was built for the Duke of Bridgewater as a dock to serve the Bridgewater Canal, which had been extended to the River Mersey at Runcorn in that year. The first of Liverpool's dockside warehouses was built here in 1783, followed by a larger one to the south in 1811. The latter was situated on a southern branch of the dock that was presumably constructed at about the same time (compare the 1795 map with Gage's). Wapping basin was added inland in 1855 and a half-tide dock was constructed in 1875. The warehouses were demolished and the southern branch filled in 1967. Only a vestige of it remains today, the rest being the Jurys Inn site. However, it has the most complete surviving 18th century dock retaining walls in Liverpool.
  The Duke's dock, between Salthouse and the King's docks, is a small one belonging to the trustees of the late Duke of Bridgewater, for the use of flats, with commodious warehouses. The several carriers by water have also convenient basins on the river, for their barges, with quays for loading and unloading goods. [TDE]
... and in 2017
Canning Dock, the Pumphouse and the Dock Traffic Office
Canning Half Tide Dock
The Mersey Bar Lightship in Canning Half Tide Dock
18th Century Retaining Walls at Duke's Dock
The Wheel of Liverpool
Queen's Dock from the Wheel of Liverpool
King's and Queen's Docks
Next to be built was King's Dock, named after King George III and opened in 1788. It was connected to the river by a dry basin, later called King and Queen's Basin, and had a large tobacco warehouse on its western side. It closed in 1906 and was filled in in the 1970s.
  The King's dock, constructed in the 25th of George III., is 270 yards in length and 95 in breadth, and is partly appropriated to vessels from Virginia and other parts, laden with tobacco, which is exclusively landed here. The new tobacco warehouses extend the whole length of the quay, on the west side, and cover an area of more than four acres; the old warehouses, on the opposite side, have been converted into sheds for the security of merchandise. Across the entrance is a handsome swivel bridge of cast-iron. This dock has a communication on the south with a dry dock and two graving docks, one of which has gates 70 feet wide for the accommodation of steamers of the largest class. [TDE]
In the early 21st century the area became a major brownfield development site, culminating in the opening in 2008 of the Echo Arena and BT Convention centre. The Echo Arena has a capacity of up to 11,000 and the BT Convention Centre includes a 1,350 capacity auditorium. The complex is one of the most sustainable venues in Europe. It features controlled light, temperature and electricity usage and harvests rainwater for toilet flushing, while a crop of tidal turbines in the river generate the electricity supply. The design, by architects Wilkinson Eyre, has been awarded a string of environmental and architectural accolades. 2010 saw the arrival nearby of the 196 feet (60 m) high Wheel of Liverpool.
Next came Queen's Dock, which opened in 1785 and was named after Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III. It connected to the King and Queen's Basin, which by this time had two graving docks attached, and reached only to the bottom of Parliament Street. It was lengthened in 1816 and the dry basin converted to a half-tide dock in 1856. Queen's Branch Dock No.1, which survives, was added to the south in 1901.
  The Queen's dock, constructed at the same time, is 470 yards long and 227 in breadth, with a spacious quay, and is chiefly occupied by vessels employed in the Dutch and Baltic trades; at the south end it communicates with a small dock called the Union dock, which is also connected with the Coburg dock. This last was made by placing gates 70 feet wide, on to the entrance to an old dry basin; these gates are wider than those at any other port, and are adapted for steamers of the largest size. [TDE]
Queen's Half-Tide Dock was closed in 1905 and converted into Queen's Branch Dock No.2, entrance being via Coburg Dock to the south. The old graving docks were replaced by a new one between the two branch docks. Branch Dock No.2 was filled in during the brownfield development work and is now used partly as a car park. The new HM Revenue and Customs Building now straddles the graving dock.
The Echo Arena from the Wheel of Liverpool
The BT Convention Centre
The Albert Dock from the Wheel of Liverpool
The Albert Dock and Tate Liverpool
Canning Half Tide Dock and the Albert Dock Warehouses
The Pumphouse
Albert and Wapping Docks
The Albert Dock and warehouses were designed by Jesse Hartley and Phillip Hardwick and the dock opened 1845. The dock walls are in Hartley's trademark Cyclopean granite. The complex was named after Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria and officially opened by him in 1846, an occasion of great splendour. The warehouses were not fully completed until 1847. According to Pevsner, 'For sheer punch there is little in the early commercial archtecture of Europe to emulate it', although the famous 19th century Liverpool Architect James Picton saw only 'a hideous pile of naked brickwork'. They are now Grade I Listed buildings. The fireproof design of the warehouses was a reaction to the enormous losses previously sustained in warehouse fires. The design also allowed direct loading and unloading between ships and warehouses for the first time in Liverpool.
The Albert Dock warehouses have been superbly redeveloped into shops, bars and restaurants, with luxury apartments above. The north-west corner of the dock features Tate Liverpool, the largest modern art gallery in the UK outside London, and the Merseyside Maritime Museum, which tells the story of Liverpool's seafaring heritage. The museum's collections reflect the international importance of Liverpool as a gateway to the world, including its role in the transatlantic slave trade and emigration, the merchant navy and the RMS Titanic.
The Pumphouse, formerly the Albert Hydraulic Power Centre, was built in 1878 to provide high pressure water for hydraulic dock gates, bridges, lifts and cranes. Hydraulic systems were introduced by Jesse Hartley, who had observed William Armstrong's hydraulic crane at Newcastle upon Tyne in 1847. The building has now been restored somewhat unsympathetically as a pub, but the exterior provides a great dockside location to sit with a drink.
The Piermaster's House, completed in 1853, is situated by the entrance to the Albert Dock, where the piermaster could keep his eye on the comings and goings. Residences such as this were built all over the Dock Estate from 1801 onwards to house essential workers and by 1846 there were 40 of them. This is the only one that survives.
The Dock Traffic Office, with its Greek temple-like frontage, was built in 1848 by Philip Hardwick. The portico is actually made of cast iron, the pillars being in two sections each and the architrave above a single casting. It is a Grade I Listed building.
Most recent of the South Docks within the old Borough of Liverpool, Wapping Basin and Wapping Dock were built in 1855-6 by Jesse Hartley, principally to connect Salthouse Dock and others to the north with King's Dock and others to the south and Duke's Dock to the west. The warehouses are similar to those at the Albert and Stanley Docks. The building was originally 232m long, with forty bays divided into five fireproof sections. It was reduced in length following damage suffered in the Blitz of 1941, as can be seen from the iron colonnade on the quayside. The building has been converted into apartments.
At the south end of the dock are Hartley's fanciful Wapping Hydraulic Tower and Policeman's Lodge of 1856. The tower provided power to operate hydraulic lifts in Wapping Warehouse. The Policemen's Lodge is another example of Hartley's Cyclopean granite masonry and his fascination with the mediaeval. It is like some giant surreal chess piece.
The Albert Dock and Merseyside Maritime Museum
The Albert Dock Gates
The Piermaster's House
The Dock Traffic Office
Wapping Dock and Warehouses
Wapping Hydraulic Tower and Policeman's Lodge
View from the Mersey Ferry
The South Docks in Gage's Map of 1836
The South Docks in Bacon's Map of 1890
 
Acknowledgements and Further Reading
The definitive online history of Liverpool up to the turn of the 20th century is the Victoria History of the County of Lancaster, Vol.4, edited by W. Farrer and J. Brownbill, 1907. I have as usual drawn on the indispensible Liverpool (Pevsner Architectural Guides), by Joseph Sharples, which has much more on the architecture. The South Shore from Toxteth Park is by W.G. Herdman, published in Pictorial Relics of Ancient Liverpool, 1843. Canning Dock and the Custom House was engraved by T. Hughes after a picture by W.H. Bartlett, published in Finden's Ports and Harbours, 1842. Duke's Dock and the New Warehouse was engraved by Higham after a picture by Harwood, published in Lancashire Illustrated, 1831. These were sourced from Ancestry Images to whom my usual thanks. The quotations about the dock redevelopment are from an article, The Turning Point for Liverpool, from the BBC News Channel, with thanks. My thanks also to Don Garton for the photo The Albert Dock Gates. All other modern colour photographs are by the author.
This is a non-commercial website that is intended entirely for research and educational purposes. If I have unintentionally breached copyright with any images, I hope that the copyright owner will tolerate my usage in the present context, otherwise I will remove the material.