Albert Dock from Salthouse Dock, 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.