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Liverpool, England - Background to the New Dock, 1895-1913

During the latter half of the 19th century Liverpool became Britain’s No 1 port for passengers wishing to travel to America, and earned for itself the soubriquet The Gateway to the West’. The shipping and commerce of the Mersey were exceeded only by those of the Thames with its Port of London and also Tilbury.

Liverpool’s premier position was first threatened in the 1890s after the London & South Western Railway purchased Southampton Docks in 1892 and initiated substantial improvements. Southampton Water is fortunate in enjoying a protracted high water due to the tidal flows from the Solent and also from Spithead. The new owners soon realized that the question of a quick turn-round for ships was of paramount importance. Ships are very expensive and individual investments, and earn no dividends for their owners when they are idle and not at sea.

Because of the Mersey’s remarkably high tides, often as much as 32 feet, the docks had to he enclosed by a wall some 10 feet thick and reaching 12 feet above the maximum high-water mark. Access to the docks was gained by three main entrances located at Canada, Sandon and Brunswick docks and connected to the river by half-tide basins. The need to use these sea locks caused delays to liners, which frequently spent hours at anchor in the river waiting for the tide in order to enter dock and, when tides were exceptionally low, even to reach the Landing Stage to discharge their passengers.

The Competition for Passengers

Five famous companies competed for the passenger and mail traffic to North America: Allan and Dominion running to Canada, and Cunard, White Star and the American-owned Inman & International running to the United States. The Americans in particular were dissatisfied with the delays experienced at Liverpool and were easily enticed to Southampton by the advantages offered there; care had been taken to ensure that the new Ocean docks on the Solent were open basins whose quays could he reached by the largest liners at all states of the tide, and where they were able to conduct the whole business of the turn-round between voyages without further movement.

Ownership and Management of the Docks

Liverpool’s docks were owned and managed by the Mersey Docks & Harbour Board, and the loss of the American liners concentrated the minds of the Board members to consider counter-measures. One proposal was to utilize a large area of land at the north end of the system and construct an estate that would provide direct access from the river at all states of the tide for even the largest ships. Some members of the Board who were mainly concerned with cargo traffic, including the Chairman, Alfred Holt, considered that the money could be better spent on improving existing facilities.

It was finally decided as a compromise to deepen the bed of the river at the Landing Stage and to widen the entrance at Sandon from 80 feet to 100 feet. These were wise decisions as they would enable the new large vessels already planned by Cunard to reach the company’s berths at Huskisson Dock and the Board’s largest graving dock at Canada Dock. However, these improvements would do nothing to cut the waiting time caused by the Mersey tides.

White Star Line

In 1902 the White Star Line joined the powerful International Mercantile Marine, which was financed by American capital, and decided to build two of the world’s largest lines. To conform with American practice they would terminate their No 1 passenger and mail service from New York at Southampton. Once again the Dock Board saw passenger-shipping moving away from Liverpool, and the new dock proposal was re-examined. This time it was suggested that a three-branch estate should be constructed, including a dry dock that could accommodate ships up to 1,000 feet in length. Parliamentary powers were approved in 1906, but the idea was shelved when it was estimated that the cost of the work would he over £2 million.

The Cunard Line

In 1905 Cunard Line began to build its new super-liners, which were expected to be not only the fastest in the world, hut also the largest, with a length of 790 feet and a beam of 88 feet. The fear of losing these also to Southampton was allayed when Cunard declared its intention of continuing to use Liverpool as its terminal port. As it was expected that the ships would spend only five days in port before sailing again, Cunard had no wish to arrange for the new ships to enter dock unless it was specially necessary. Instead it asked that a large buoy be moored in the river off Woodside, at which the liners could complete the turn-round. This was provided, and additional measures included the removal of a further large quantity of rock and silt from the bed of the river at the Landing Stage, whose passenger facilities were further improved by the fitting of an upper deck. The two superliners, named Lusitania and Mauretania, duly entered service and, although capable of their designed speed of 25 knots, it was usually found necessary to use a third ship in order to maintain a weekly transatlantic service. Either the much older Campania or the Lucania was used until a third super-liner could enter service.

In 1910 Cunard duly announced that it was ordering a third vessel to match the luxury of the first pair, but she would be considerably bigger to compete with the rapidly increasing size of Atlantic liners. It was expected that her tonnage would be 45,500 with a length of 901 feet and a beam of 97 feet - the thousand-foot liner had almost arrived. Cunard was certainly not prepared to service so large a ship at the river buoy, and stated that unless a dock was forthcoming that could accommodate the new Aquitania, the service would have to move to Southampton.

At last the Dock Board decided on a positive course of action. A modern dock estate would be built, but there would certainly not be sufficient time to complete a three-branch project before the new ship came into service. Consequently it was decided to build the new estate in accommodation in time. It would be something of a race between the new ship and the new dock - fortunately the dock won by some nine months.

The New Docks

The first stage, which was completed by April 1913, entailed the construction of a single basin 1,050 feet in length. Its 120-foot-wide entrance was connected by a direct channel to the Mersey and was consequently capable of being used at all stages of the tide. The basin would have dual functions: when flooded, cargo could be handled using the latest quayside equipment and transport facilities, and when ‘dried out’ it would become the largest graving dock in the world. Originally it had been hoped that the whole estate would be finished by the summer of 1918.

King George V and Queen Mary duly opened the graving dock on 11 July 1913 and the occasion included one of the finest parades of shipping ever seen on the Mersey. The Royal Party steamed through the lines of ships aboard the Dock Board’s tender Galatea. Unfortunately the Great War prevented any further construction work, and it was to be 14 years before the estate was completed.


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