The Sea in Liverpool's History

By Glasgow, Eric | Contemporary Review, November 1992 | Go to article overview

The Sea in Liverpool's History


Glasgow, Eric, Contemporary Review


THE story of Liverpool is bound up with the sea, without the enduring influences of which its whole destiny would have been different. When the traveller, Richard Blome, visited Liverpool in 1673, he noticed that it contained |divers eminent merchants, whose trade and traffic, especially with the West Indies, made it famous'. The growth in Liverpool's trade naturally also caused a rapid growth in its population, amounting to about 5,000 people at the beginning of the eighteenth century. A merchant like Sir Thomas Johnson, for example, MP for Liverpool between 1701 and 1723, laid the basis of the trans-Atlantic traffic in tobacco. The tobacco trade in Liverpool obsessed him, even to the exclusion of the military campaigns of the great Duke of Marlborough. His extant correspondence, especially with Richard Norris, of Speke, abundantly indicates how wearisome he found London and how much and often he longed to be back in the Northern emporium. It was an era of commercial speculation, leading up to the notorious |South Sea Bubble', of 1720. Sir Thomas seems then to have been involved in many highly risky business ventures, most of them reaching out across Liverpool's inviting sea. It cost him a small fortune: about 8,000[pounds] by the year 1719. Depleted in his resources, in 1723, he finally left England for the lucrative post of |Collector of Customs' in distant Virginia: yet another reminder of the role of the sea for Liverpool, linking the Old World with the New.

During the eighteenth century Liverpool fostered many privateers, of whom William Hutchinson is the outstanding example. He fitted out many ships from Liverpool, during the Seven Years' War (1756-63). He seized many French ships in the Mediterranean, bringing them back as prizes to Liverpool. He acquired much Liverpool pride, despite his origins in the northeast. It was said, |he might have been born within the sound of St. Nicholas's bells', on the Liverpool waterfront. But his roving years ended when, in 1759, he was appointed Liverpool's first |dock-master'. He played a big part in developing Liverpool's docks, especially King's Dock (1788) and Queen's Dock (1796). He wrote a famous and influential book, Practical Seamanship (1777). Its hints on the conduct of naval warfare were subsequently of much use during the French Wars, well after Hutchinson's own lifetime. This book is surprisingly pragmatic about the nature of successful privateering:

Safety as well as success, in my opinion, depends greatly on the manner these

ships are fitted out. Trading ships, designed more for defence than offence, I

would recommend to be made to look as big, powerful and warlike as possible,

in order to intimidate. But privateers, on the contrary, should look as little and

defenceless and conceal their power as much as possible, till there is a real

occasion for it, and then as suddenly as possible to make it known to give the

greater surprise, which I can say from experience often gives great advantages.

The ship should be able to support the size of its guns without being too crank

for a sailing and fighting ship. The ship should not be overcrowded or overburdened

with the heavy cannon. A round iron cannon ball is to be preferred.

A crew of about 160 is to be expected.

In 1789, Hutchinson was the founder of the Liverpool Marine Society, for the relief of widows and children of seamen lost at sea. He was, it was said, |a thorough master of his profession, and observant of the minutest details'. He devoted the final years of his life to highly useful studies of the meteorology and tides of the Mersey Estuary and died at the age of eighty-four on 11 February, 1801. He was buried in the churchyard of St. Thomas', Liverpool, almost within sight and sound of the docks, where so much of his life and work had been spent.

Another illuminating example of the role of the sea in the history of Liverpool was Bryan Blundell (1674-1756). …

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