Albert Dock from Salthouse Dock, c1885
Albert Dock from the Landing Stage, c1885
The Albert Dock is now the centre-piece of Liverpool’s historic docklands. That has not always been the case. When the complex was opened by Prince Albert in 1846, it was a giant step forward in dock design – the first enclosed warehouse system that allowed loading and unloading directly to and from ships berthed in the dock. No other dock could boast such a monumental structure of cast iron, brick and stone and its fire-proof and theft-proof benefits proved instantly attractive to ship-owners wishing to protect their valuable cargoes.
However, the construction of the dock had not foreseen the rapid technological changes in shipping design that saw the replacement of sailing ships with steam-powered iron ships within little more than a decade. The tight entrance to Canning Dock was too narrow for the new ships, and the dock network spread out to the north of Pierhead to accommodate them. Albert Dock was still used for storage but its use began to diminish from the 1860s. A century later, it was a romantic, brooding mass made even moodier by the silt that had been allowed to accumulate as a result of leaving the dock gates open.
What might have happened next is the stuff of horror movies. A London property developer came up with the plan to demolish to complex, fill the dock in and build a skyscaper and car park. By good fortune, it came to nought but the Mersey Dock and Harbour Board were ready to sell without any concern for the historic fabric. Today – forty years on – it is hard to image what the waterfront would look like without these stunning buildings. It is just a shame that the clock tower (designed by Hardwick and removed in 1960) has not been replaced. It is surprisingly difficult to find nineteenth century images of Albert Dock. Possibly because they were part of the Dock Estate, and therefore not open to the public, photographers turned their interest to more accessible areas where commercial sales could be more guaranteed. Both images are by Francis Frith’s company and date from the mid-1880s.
Stanley Dock and Tobacco Warehouse, 1920s.
I had an interesting conversation with one of Liverpool’s leading urban planners last week about how much Liverpool had improved in the last decade. Take retailing, for example. Before Liverpool One opened in 2008, the city was languishing in 25th spot as a shopping centre – alongside Stockport and Bolton. Now it is up to 5th place – almost up to its pre-War position. By any measure this is a remarkable achievement. What is particularly impressive is how Liverpool One has fitted almost seamlessly into the urban fabric, opening up the riverfront and Albert Dock along the way.
Our discussion shifted to the ‘next step’, the development that could make an even bigger impact on Liverpool’s future: Peel’s Liverpool Waters. It would appear that this is the year in which progress will be made. Peel are committed to pushing forward the development of the neglected docklands north of Waterloo Dock – although the plans are still largely under wraps. I am very much in favour of Liverpool Waters in principle. Threats to remove World Heritage status are largely a red herring – after all London built The Shard which impacts on three World Heritage sites in London (Palace of Westminster/Tower of London/Greenwich). It appears that the commissioners have chosen to pick a fight with Liverpool – a softer option than the centre of power and finance. The bottom line is what is more important – an accolade that is being increasingly handed out and will eventually become almost meaningless or a major regeneration of a neglected area of Liverpool that could create 1000s of jobs and a sustainable future.
My photograph is of Stanley Dock and the gigantic Tobacco Warehouse. A decade ago, plans seemed to favour demolishing the monument to smoking (it has very low ceiling heights and conversion seemed beyond the resources of any willing developer). Now it appears that Harcourt Development are pushing forward with plans for apartments, retailing and offices within the giant building. Their successful renovation of the Jesse Hartley warehouse next door into the 153 room Titanic Hotel is just the start of their ambitious plans. A point of interest in the photograph is the Overhead Railway, which connected the city centre to the network of docks from Dingle to Seaforth. Now word has it that a tramway is proposed to link Peel’s planned development with the centre (after all, improved transport is essential to the success of the scheme).
This is the start of a new phase in Liverpool’s history. The waterfront has been almost criminally neglected since the 1960s. We now have an opportunity to create a new and spectacular face to the river. I hope the developments are worthy of the setting.
When I moved to Liverpool in 1970, I was shocked by the extent of dereliction once I walked a few hundred yards from the main shopping streets. Most Northern cities had their fair share of run-down areas but none as pronounced as Liverpool. A mere 100 yards behind Church Street and you were into an abandoned warren of streets with crumbling warehouses and the ever-present smell of rot and decay.
Wolstenholme Square, off Hanover Street, was one such area. I remember looking at one of the properties with a view to setting up my arts project. Everything needed doing – rewiring, re-roofing, re-plastering – it was dirt cheap to rent but beyond any resources I could muster (it is still there today seemingly unoccupied). What I do remember is that there was a magnificent Eagle Press in one of the ground floor rooms with its trays of metal type. Solid cast-iron, it was a thing of beauty but would have required a crane to lift it out.
That was typical of my many explorations of those neglected offices and warehouses. Most have since disappeared but some have been saved and converted to various uses. Suffice is to say that there is no longer a pungent smell of dry rot as I walk through the streets. Wolstenholme Square is one of the last places to be caught up in the developers’ web for the student accommodation bug appears to be moving in (do we really need another development?). For over twenty years, the Square has housed some of the best nightclubs in the country but it appears their days are numbered.
The photograph I have chosen pre-dates my time in Liverpool. The very un-Liverpool style building with its Dutch-style roof was built for Goodlass Wall (famous for Valspar paint) as a paint factory. It must have been a terrifying site when it went up in flames during an air raid in December 1940.