A Crash Course In Liverpool History

Liverpool’s history is as deep and rich as any other European city, however it can prove to be rather bewildering to try and understand all of it in one go.

Thankfully, there are a tonne of great resources that can provide you with everything you need to know about this fantastic place, so you can get properly swatted up before you make a trip to visit it yourself.

Never underestimate the value that context can bring to your life, although I gather the majority of my information from books and museums around the city, there are a handful of fantastic sources that I’ve found to bolster my knowledge further.

Video Content

What’s My Line?

This episode of What’s My Line?, a classic British panel television show from the mid-20th Century offers an interesting light on how Liverpool’s culture was perceived at the time. No doubt the city’s reputation has changes somewhat since this episode was aired:

The History of the City of Liverpool

You can’t beat a good bit of local knowledge sometimes and that’s exactly what this video offers. Although the video footage is a little compromised there’s plenty of great information here about the city including some really interesting tidbits that even I wasn’t aware of:

Online Articles

The Liverpool History Society is home to many concise and fascinating free articles from topics as far ranging as a complete history of the city, an expose of how the council of 1965 flooded a Welsh town and profile on some of the city’s most influential characters. Even today Liverpool is a city of opportunity, this is a reputation that it has held for centuries. The History Society do a fantastic job of breaking down the trials and tribulations of this city, whilst contextualising many of the historical events and framing them in comparison to what is happening in the city today. You can take a look at their articles and see if there any talks that you would like to attend by taking a look at their website here.


If you’d rather wait until you get here to learn about the city then there are no better places to do this than at the Museum of Liverpool which is conveniently placed just a short walk away from the Royal Albert Dock. This wonderfully researched and effectively presented museum is a real credit to the city, offering a detailed look into the formation of the city from its roots in ancient history to present day. No expense was spared in collecting authentic artefacts from the city’s history. Should you wish to learn more about the city’s maritime history then you can do so at the Merseyside Maritime Museum (the namesake of this blog).

How Commerce Has Shaped The City

Dockyards, Slaves & Retail Therapy

Liverpool’s fortunes have ridden some sharp peaks and dived down some serious troughs in its time; maritime trade has often been the driver behind this change.

At the start of the 13th century Liverpool was a small settlement with little in the way of trade or new business. It wasn’t until England began investing in the newly established slave trade, in the 18th century, that Liverpool’s fortunes began to turn around. A growing immigrant population, bolstered by nearby struggling Ireland, was on hand to aid the construction of Liverpool’s first wet dock in 1715 which opened the flood gates for further trade and immigration.

By 1851, Irish migrants made up 25% of the city’s population, new buildings rose out of the ground on a monthly basis and the city was starting to swell with people from all corners of the globe, including a good-sized conglomeration from China. All of these people were brought to Liverpool by sea, but there were even more people passing through the port who would never take a single step on dry land.

Liverpool is not dismissive of the part that it played in Slave Trade, in fact there is a whole museum on the historic Royal Albert Docks dedicated to this subject. The International Slavery Museum does a fantastic job of distilling how this barbaric industry exploited African nations for commercial gain, and make no bones in regards to how Liverpool as a city profited from these gains. Huge warehouses, some of which still stand today, were filled with tobacco and cotton reaped from slave-owned farms. Unlike Bristol, another city that owes its current wealth to the Slave Trade, humans were not traded in Liverpool, but the Museum in no way attempts to distance the city from the means that produced the ends.

By the time the Slave Trade itself was abolished, Liverpool had established itself as one of England’s major ports and was the largest of its kind in the world, but its success would be challenged by two things: world war and modernisation.

Thanks to its commanding port capabilities, Liverpool became instrumental in the military planning for the Battle of the Atlantic which, although good for the city, led to it be being bombed heavily. In fact, only London was targeted by more German bombers during the Second World War, causing catastrophic damage to the city some of which can still be seen today. In the years following the war, Liverpool was to become the victim of even harder times, as post-war austerity and modernisation led many of the industrial jobs that the city relied on to be unceremoniously snuffed out.

A glimmer of hope existed amidst the austerity of 20th century life in Liverpool and it emanated from four unlikely lads who would transform the way the city would be perceived. Although Britain is known for producing some of the biggest music icons in the world, there are arguably none bigger than The Beatles. The international success and ongoing cultural influence of the four lads from Liverpool is still felt to this day and has led to the city being inextricably linked with cutting edge fashion. The Beatles immortalised Liverpool, placing it on every music lover’s bucket list and transforming the city into the touristic hub that it is today.

Whilst many different types of businesses are operated in Liverpool, it the city’s commercial and tourism sectors that bring in the most money today. Although construction companies’ plan are often hampered by extensive monitoring surveys and chance historical discoveries, it is a small price to pay to have a restaurant or shop in the heart of the North-West’s most vibrant cultural centres. The past few years, Liverpool has seen an increased in new Digital focused businesses. Most of them are specialised in SEO and PPC, highly popular marketing technique.

Nautical Night Time Haunts

Pop into one of these excellent historically minded Liverpool pubs.

These maritime themed pubs and bars carry the true spirit of the sea.

I often get emails through my contact page from prospective tourists asking if there are any places to eat or drink in Liverpool that have a particularly nautical theme, or have some kind of historical provenance, so I thought I’d put together a quick post summarising my top picks for this particular topic. Now, as I’m sure is the case in cities all over the world, there are no shortage of pubs in Liverpool that claim to have a historical link. Unfortunately, it’s often the case that these links are nothing more than rumours, like the one about Adolf Hitler staying at The Albert which is completely unsubstantiated (although his presence in Liverpool has been reported by many locals over the years).

The good news is that there are many pubs and bars in Liverpool that have a genuine historical past, many of which are often hired out for the purpose of holding period-dress costume parties and other such events. The prolificacy of pubs that have survived since the 18th and 19th century means that you’ll find no shortage of grand places to drink, some of which have been looked after better than others. The following places are my personal favourites and also have ties to the city’s maritime history:

30 James Street – Home of the Titanic

Certainly not one for ‘just a casual drink’, 30 James Street is a certified ‘swanky’ bar, hotel, restaurant and spa that was once the home of The White Star Line. Albion House, as it was then known, was originally built in 1898 as an office building and oversaw the international operations for the company, including the registration of the ill-fated Titanic. After the dissolution of The White Star Line, the building was left abandoned until the property was refurbished in the grand style of the Titanic. The hotel is popular with tourists and the restaurant space (a clear tribute to the dining rooms of the Titanic) is often hired out for grand parties complete with dancers, ice sculptures (Glacial Art) and buffets.

The Ship and Mitre

Built in 1935, The Ship and Mitre might have an Art-Deco exterior, but the interior of this pub is nautical through and through. In addition to a hatch serving tasty pub grub throughout the day and night, makeovers to the pub have included plenty of nautical touches intended to make visitors feel that they are inside a ship. As hokey as this sounds, the pub is one of the most popular in the city for beer lovers. There are literally dozens of cask ales on offer here, not to mention a dazzling array of continental beers and lagers for those who are a little pickier.

The Baltic Fleet

A favourite haunt for the remaining sea dogs of the city, The Baltic Fleet is comprised of two pubs: the Turner Vaults (c. 1853) and the original Baltic Fleet (c. 1856). The former pub was initially built for the local community, whilst the Baltic Fleet was intended to serve the dockers who would pop in for a drink throughout the day and night. At the start of the 20th century these two pubs were joined together to create the current building. The pub is a real architectural curio, a strange mix of Victorian and Georgian styles that are clearly defined thanks to its heritage. If you’re lucky you might catch a few salty sorts singing some traditional sea shanties!

The White Star

Finally, a worthy mention for those nautical fanatics, The White Star is a traditional Liverpool pub named after the infamous shipping company. Whilst the pub itself has no real historical link to that company, the rooms are stuffed with nautical pictures, paintings and bric-a-brac that you’re free to peruse at your leisure. This is by no means the fanciest pubs, many would even describe it as a little ‘rough around the edges’,  but the locals are friendly and the drinks are very affordable.

Historical Activities in Liverpool

Thinking of making a trip to Liverpool?

Although I’ve been retired for years now, I still find myself gainfully employed as a tour guide at least 5 or 6 times a year. As much as I try to mix things up, I always find myself gravitating back to the same places.

Liverpool is the perfect city for tourists. Its compact size means that attractions are only ever a short walk away, food and drink prices are very reasonable and many of the sights in the city are best enjoyed on foot, so you won’t be wasting time on public transport. Before you do plan your visit to this city, I would recommend checking the local weather just so you’re prepared for what the North West can throw at you.

There’s nothing I love more than showing newcomers around the city for a day, here are my favourite pit-stops:

Discover the Old Dock

Liverpool’s first commercial wet dock was built in 1715 and were truly innovative for the time. Before their construction Liverpool was just a small town with potential but few prospects. Local businessmen collected their wealth and invested everything they had in employing Thomas Steers to find a way of turning their fortunes around. Steers had made his name designing many of Britain’s canals and his solution made it possible for ship to load and unload, regardless of the state of the tide. Guided tours are free, but should be booked in advance in order to avoid disappointment.

Check out the Maritime Museum

The amount of information that can be found at the Merseyside Maritime Museum is really quite astounding. I’ve culled many interesting titbits from the exhibitions here, which are fun and eye-catching for the whole family. Amongst the delights here is an interesting exhibit based around the Customs & Excise department, some fascinating models depicting some of the great ships that have been associated with Liverpool and there are usually some activities to get involved with whilst you’re there too. The Museum is free to enter (just like all the other museums in Liverpool).

U-Boat Story

Whilst not strictly related to the history of Liverpool, a visit to the U-Boat story is nonetheless a fascinating one, which offers visitors the chance to explore a rather curious piece of World War II history that is as memorable as it is extraordinary. On May 5th 1945, Admiral Donitz (who was in charge of the naval operations of the Germans) ordered all U-Boats who were abroad to surrender their vessels, but for some reason U-534, bound for Norway, refused to do so. The submarine took damage and was sunk, forty-nine of the fifty-two crew survived, but it’s still unknown as to they refused to surrender. You can find out more at the exhibition which starts at £5 for kids and £7.50 for adults.

Take a trip on the Mersey Ferry

In order to get to the U-Boat story you will need to take some public transport, although I see this experience as being an essential one for first-time visitors to the city. In my opinion every visitor should take a ferry across the Mersey once in their life. The cost is relatively cheap (£4 for adults or £2.30 for kids) and if you’re planning on going to the U-Boat Story anyway then you can buy a ‘Combo’ ticket that saves you a bit of money!

Enjoy a drink at the Baltic Fleet

This last one might not be suitable for kids, but I consider it indispensable for adults. Every tour of mine ends with a pint (or three!), the pub tends to change each time but if you’ve just stepped off the ferry the Baltic Fleet is just a short walk away. This curio of a pub is, in fact, two historic establishments in one; one half of the pub was built in the 18th Century, whilst the other was built in the 19th. Today you can have a drink in both halves and even try some traditional scouse whilst you’re at it. Should your tour end somewhere else then you can take a look at my list of other historic places to drink in Liverpool.

Ismay, The White Star Line & Liverpool

Liverpool’s dockyards handled more than just cargo…

Besides The Beatles, one of Liverpool’s greatest exports were ships themselves with one particular vessel going down in history for all the wrong reasons.

Although the legendary doomed ship the RMS Titanic took its maiden voyage from Southampton, the vessel was registered in Liverpool, the base of operations for the White Star Line. The White Star Line was established in Liverpool in 1845 by a couple of men looking to capitalise on the new trade route between the UK and Australia. They chartered many ships to and from Australia, benefiting from the discovery of gold there in 1851.

In a strange bit of foreshadowing, this early incarnation of the company was haunted for many years by a shipping disaster which saw Tayleur, the largest ship of its time, sinking on its maiden voyage to Australia. This failure followed the company and despite merging with other companies in 1864, the first White Star Line was forced into bankruptcy in 1867 with a debt of £527,000 (equivalent to around £41 million in today’s money).

A year later, Thomas Ismay, a businessman who had already found some success in the steamship business, purchased the flag and trading name from the company for £1,000, intending to expand his successful National Service and operate larger vessels between the UK and New York. The headquarters of the company was established at Albion House, overlooking the Mersey. Ismay was planning on constructing the grandest ships that the world had ever seen, but in order to do that he needed contacts, it was a good thing then that he was a sociable man.

Ismay met Gustave Christian Schwabe and his nephew, Gustave Willhelm Wolff, and over a game of billiards they laid out a plan that would see the three businessmen join forces to create The Oceanic Steam Navigation Company. This venture, separate to the White Star Line, was set up with the specific task of constructing the new ships that would see Ismay and his fellow conspirators earn thousands of pounds, but would also lead to one of the deadliest commercial peacetime maritime disasters in modern history.

It is perhaps fortunate for that Ismay did not live to see the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 (although his son came to international renown as the highest-ranking White Star Line official to survive the wreck). Despite the significant loss of lives, the disaster did not prove to be the sinking of the company. During the interwar years the White Star Line benefited from an increase of emigrant travel, and it might come as a surprise to hear that the White Star Line business exists to this day, albeit under the new name of the Cunard Line.

After mergers led to the White Star Line being dissolved in name, Albion House was left empty and derelict for decades. It wasn’t until 2014 when the grand building was bought by developers Signature Living to create a luxury hotel paying homage to the Titanic and the White Star Line legacy. After a £5.5 million pound investment, years of construction and plenty of social media marketing, 30 James Street – Home of the Titanic opened to much applause and has proven to be one of the most popular new hotels in the city, especially for tourists with a particular interest in this interesting, yet tragic part of Liverpool’s history.

The China Connection Est. 1834

Liverpool is a world renowned city.

Mention Liverpool to any Brit or Western traveller and they’ll probably be able to reel off a few dubious ‘facts’ about The Beatles and will more than likely warn you not to leave your car parked up somewhere quiet.

Negative stereotypes aside, Liverpool is a city famed for its rich musical heritage and football teams, but many people are unaware of the long-standing cultural connection that the city has had with China, in fact many tourists to the city are often surprised by the presence of a Chinatown here. To many the iconic Chinese Arch (the largest of its kind outside of China) is a rather incongruous sight, but a quick visit to the recently opened Museum of Liverpool soon reveals this landmark’s origins.

You’ll find a detailed history of the city’s Chinese connection in the Museum of Liverpool’s ‘Global City’ exhibition on the ground floor, but for those who aren’t planning a visit anytime soon I’ll give a brief rundown that should help to elucidate this intriguing section of Liverpool’s history.

The first Chinese immigrants arrived in Liverpool in 1834, these intrepid travellers were employed by Alfred Holt and Company, one of the first British companies to establish trade routes to the East. By the 19th Century, Liverpool’s Albert Docks were under construction but there were still many smaller dock yards dotted along the Mersey receiving goods from all over the world. These Chinese seafarers were some of the first of their kind to have settled overseas, they were accommodated in boarding houses close to the dockyards, but it wasn’t long until they started to branch out into other parts of the city. Cleveland Square, Frederick Street and Pitt Street were amongst the first areas to see an established Chinese community.

From the late 19th century these Chinese people were able to start setting up businesses. Shops, boarding houses, restaurants and cafes soon began to populate the streets attracting more Chinese folks and also encouraging more seafarers to jump ship in favour of a life on dry land. After 60 years of living amongst the people of Liverpool, the Chinese visitors were now becoming accepted. It was at this point in time that marriages between Chinese men and local women began to take place.

Despite some seafarers’ taste for gambling, Chinese men had a good reputation amongst the people of Liverpool. They were considered hard workers and were drinking less than their English counterparts. From these unions more businesses sprang, by the 20th century there were around 14 Chinese owned restaurants in addition to a number of Chinese-style laundry shops opened which were considered innovative for the time.

After significant bombing decimated much of the Chinese dwellings during World War II, the Chinese families (some of whom could trace their history back almost a 100 years) moved once more to the area now considered to be Liverpool’s Chinatown. Although the aforementioned Chinese Arch (crafted in China and constructed here in 1999) is one of the most recognisable footprints of this China connection, a walk around Nelson Street, Berry Street, and Duke Street reveals a cornucopia of delights for the observant sinophile.