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Merseyside Maritime History

Merseyside Maritime History

Liverpool and Birkenhead have seen many changes since their heyday of shipping, but as Brian Spencer found out, there are still many links with their maritime history.BS-Merseyside-Maritime-3-Oct15

If you could go back to the mid to late 1800s, the whole of the Mersey estuary would have been full of ships carrying goods in and out of Liverpool; there would be crowds waiting on the quayside hoping to welcome Irish immigrants, or saying farewell to emigrants looking west for a more prosperous life beyond our shores.  Across the river, Cammel Laird’s and lesser shipyards would be noisy with the clamouring sound of riveters stitching together massive sea-going vessels.

All that activity has gone; no longer does Cammel Laird make the likes of Shell Oil’s Scythia, the largest ship to slide down into the Mersey since the Arc Royal was built by Cammel Laird. There is still some ship repair work, but the numbers employed are a fraction of those who built the steam ships of yesteryear.

Many of the ships built on Merseyside lie rusting on the bottom of the ocean, victims of the battle of the Atlantic during World War 2.  The battle against the U-Boat menace was co-ordinated there and so it is a fitting tribute to remember the men who fought and died in order to bring desperately needed supplies to our shores.  That tribute is uniquely remembered by the preserved sections of U-534, sunk whilst trying to escape through the Kattegat Straits off Denmark on 5th May 1945, in disobedience of Grand Admiral Doenitz’s order to surrender.

The position of where U-534 was sunk by an RAF Liberator bomber ‘G’ for George, was well known, but why it was sailing on the surface in complete disobedience of its orders was unknown.  As a result a number of myths grew around the story of its final days. As the submarine had an exceptionally long range capability there was the possibility that it was carrying a top ranking Nazi escaping to Argentina; another suggestion was that it was carrying a huge amount of bullion and diamonds destined to finance a Fourth Reich.

With the possibility of rich treasure, a Danish businessman Karsten Ree financed an expedition to raise the vessel, which could not be classed as a war grave because most of the crew escaped the stricken vessel.  Unfortunately for Ree and his team, there was nothing of value on board, but there were thirteen torpedoes and 450 rounds of anti-aircraft ammunition, all in a dangerous condition.  What to do with the submarine was sorted, when it was decided to present it to Merseyside, as this was the most important Allied port during the war.  Cut into sections for easy viewing, it now sits beside Woodside Ferry Terminal at Birkenhead.

As the Gerry and the Pacemakers’ song says Ferry Cross the Mersey, this is the best way to reach Liverpool’s waterfront. As recently as 1970 the docks teemed with ships coming and going to all points of the globe.  At that time loading and unloading was mainly done by hand, taking days or even weeks to carry out this back-breaking form of manual labour.  All this came to an end with the (in retrospect), simple invention of the container.  With this invention, goods would be loaded or unloaded at factories and warehouses, carried directly to and from the ship and loaded within minutes of arrival.  Another advantage of this scheme was that ships could be ever larger and as a result the cramped docks lining Liverpool’s waterfront soon became totally inadequate.  With the development of a new container port at Bootle directly linked to the motorway network, Liverpool’s old docks and warehouses soon became industrial slums.  Even the Irish ferries that once sailed from Pier Head now go from Birkenhead.BS-Merseyside-Maritime-10-Oct15

Rather than simply fill the complex of inter-linked basins and demolishing the massive warehouses, where goods once waited weeks for a convenient ship, the whole area has been developed into a pedestrian friendly walkway, behind the riverside quays.  Many of the warehouses are now highly desirable apartments with views far better than anything in London’s dockland.  Their ground floors are given over to shops and restaurants, making the transfer of use a perfect answer to a potentially difficult problem. There is plenty of water-borne activity going on in the old docks, from self pedalled ‘swans’ to a bizarre trio of boats offering overnight accommodation.  If you wish, you can rent the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, or stay on the sinking Titanic.BS-Merseyside-Maritime-8-Oct15

Liverpool is well off for art galleries and museums, but the addition of the newly built Liverpool Story, beside Albert Dock, compliments the earlier centres of history and art.  Here as the name suggests, you can trace the history of the city port, through all its problems and successes.  Next door is the Tate Gallery of modern art.

Now that Liverpool has become a major attraction, it is a main port of call for tall ships and boats cruising round the British Isles.  Fred Olsen’s Black Watch III was in port on our visit and the Three Queens cruise liners will be calling soon.

One of the advantages of the waterfront restoration is that the magnificent once-commercial buildings are now set off at their architectural best.  Backed by imaginative eye-catching new developments, the likes of the Liver Building is a statement to Liverpool’s ongoing maritime success story.  Typical Liverpool humour says that the two mythical birds that top the building are male and female; the one overlooking the river is looking for her lover’s ship and the cock to the rear is waiting for the pubs to open.

During the peak of Manchester’s textile manufacturing success, cotton bales were often taking weeks to travel from Liverpool.  Furthermore shipping agents were charging ever increasingly exorbitant fees for the doubtful service.  As a result it was decided to make Manchester into an inland port, by building a canal direct from the Mersey estuary.  Led by a far sighted engineer Daniel Adamson, a canal part financed by Manchester Corporation, was cut from sea level at Eastham on the south bank of the Mersey estuary.  It climbed the 60 foot rise to the city by a series of locks designed to take large or smaller vessels in order to save water; that water came from the rivers Irwell and Mersey, mainly the later which flowed conveniently close to the proposed route of the canal.  As the canal cut through several rights of way, bridges had to be built and in one case where it crossed a footpath. A passenger ferry rowing boat that still operates today, crosses the canal at Thelwall.

Until its demise with the advent of container shipping, Manchester docks were frequently almost jammed solid with ocean-going ships carrying goods to and from Cottonopolis.  During the war it also served as a place where small warships could call for minor repairs.  My cousin served on a corvette during this time and along with a number of the crew was a Mancunian. They were therefore delighted by their unexpected break from the dangers of convoy protection and spent their free time at home.  Once the work was complete the order to set sail was given.  Unfortunately someone forgot to untie one of the mooring lines and half the deck was ripped off giving the crew a bit more time for shore leave.BS-Merseyside-Maritime-1-Oct15

Today a surprising number of ships still use the canal, from tankers in and out of Stanlow refinery to the Guinness boat sailing direct from Dublin into Manchester.  The water is clean enough to support wildlife and the spot where my cousin’s ship was embarrassingly delayed is now part of the Imperial War Museum North.  Across the unchanged outlines of the old docks of Salford Quays is Media City, northern home for the BBC and ITV; opposite them is the Lowry Centre with its theatres, restaurants and art gallery.BS-Merseyside-Maritime-2-Oct15

It is still possible to travel as a passenger between Liverpool and Manchester.  The almost daily service is operated by Mersey Ferries, by using one of their sturdy fleet of cross river ferries.  All are named after spring  flowers, Iris, Daffodil and Snowdrop.  The two former vessels, Iris and Daffodil, carry the pre-fix ‘Royal’.  It was given by King George V in recognition of the original boat’s heroic involvement as troop carriers in the audacious attack on Zeebrugge harbour in 1918.  Snowdrop is currently painted in jazzy psychedelic stripes in an art form based on a World War One scheme designed to confuse u-boat commanders.



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