Liverpool in 1799 and 1800

Friday, December 28 – 1900
Liverpool 100 years ago
Judging from cotemporary records which serve the place of the garrulity of the oldest inhabitant, Liverpool in the last quarter that ended in 1799 began to show in a striking way the sign of prosperity that has not deserted her since.

It is true that in that particular period many vicissitudes were her portion, and it is equally true that ups and downs have beset her during the century that is on the eve of expiration; but the triumph of shipping supremacy is her proud possession to-day.

One of the most remarkable outcomes of changing modes of life is the pouring of country into town, and Liverpool is a conspicuous example of the development of urban aggregation. What was Liverpool when our forefathers flourished within its border 100 years ago, thinking, like us to-day, of the advent of a new century?

Castle-street, 1775.
Castle Street

Voluminous writings bearing upon the period from 1775 to 1800 are readily at hand. Has the name ever been discovered of the candid critic who in 1799 said that the then recent improvements of Liverpool were evidence of its expected populousness?

In the use of the phrase “expected populousness” he exhibited a peculiar prescience. When he penned his caustic criticism of the town the population was about 90,000, including seaman of the port; now, even exclusive of the latter, it cannot be under 800,000; whilst to these figures must be added those of Liverpool’s tributaries, Birkenhead, Bootle, Garston, and Wallasey.

The calculation is reasonable that within a radius of three miles of the Town Hall the population is considerably over a million, and the results of the approaching census will assuredly show that this estimate is, if anything, within the mark. But a truce to the conclusion of the critic who weighed the Liverpool of 1799 in his balance and found it wanting, that is so far as his ill-adjusted scales were concerned.

At the opening of the concluding quarter of the 18th century the trade of Liverpool was considerable, but its advance went on by leaps and bounds, and when the dawn of the century came the town was justified in holding its head high as a commercial centre.

So far back as 1775 a Chamber of Commerce was in active existence. Amongst the trades in which Liverpool was occupied were those with West India, West Africa, the Baltic, Ireland, and Greenland, the last-named in connection with whale fishing.

Cotton had practically no place in mercantile then. In 1784 eight bags of cotton were brought into Liverpool in an American vessel, and much investigation took place on the part of the Commissioners of Customs as to the origin of these. The bags were consigned to William Rathbone and Son, who found no buyers for them until they were purchased by Strutt and Son, of Derby, the founders of the Belper family.

Herring and cod fishing was another industry; so was shipbuilding, and so was the coasting trade. In the latter regard it may be mentioned that the smacks that sailed between Liverpool and London were largely occupied in conveying to the metropolis cheese that were the products of Cheshire dairies.

Works for the manufacture of earthenware, glass, sugar, tobacco, ropes, and iron were aso numerous at this time in Liverpool; but, although many efforts were made to found a cotton spinning industry, none succeeded.

Amongst the banks in the town were those of Charles Caldwell and Company, in Paradise-street; William Clarke and Son, in Derby-square; Arthur Heywood, Son and Company, in Castle-street; T.S. and J. Crane, in Dale-street; William Gregson, Sons, and Company, in College-lane; and Staniforth, Ingram, Bold and Dalters, in Pool-lane.

Dale Street, 1800.
Dale Street 1800

One of the most curious revelations yielded by a perusal of the local muniments of the last century is that the Postoffice was in North John-street, on the east side, between Dale-street and Prince’s-street. It was but the ordinary dwelling-house of the Postmaster, Mr. Thomas Statham, and letters were received and delivered through an aperture of the nature that may yet be seen in postoffices in remote country villages. In 1800 the establishment was removed to the narrow yet busy thoroughfare that is now known as Old Postoffice-pace.

But five floating docks subsisted 100 years ago, and these, with the added dry docks and basins, contained an area of 26 acres. There were for the most part occasionally occupied by smacks that skirted the coast, by barges, and by the brigs of West India and West Africa.

Castle-street, the Old Churchyard, Drury-lane, Water-street Oldhall-street, Lancelots-hey, Chapel-street, Union-street, Cumberland-street, Dale-street, Preeson’s-row, Redcross-street, Harrington-street, Pool-lane, John-street, Temple-court, Rainford-gardens, Lord-street, Mathew-street, Whitechapel, Leigh-street, Tarleton-street, Church-street, Williamson-street, Williamson-square, Basnett-street, Parker-street, Clayton-square, Case-street, Ranelagh-street, Heathfield-street, Fleet-street, School-lane, Hanover-street, Wolstenholme-square, Paradise-street, Cornhill, Liver-street, Pitt-street, Brigewater-street, Park-lane, King-street, Trafford’s-lane, and Duke-street were thoroughfares in which stood the houses of the more prominent inhabitants of the town at a time when the Liverpool merchant had his office on the ground floor for the transaction of business, the upper storeys being sacred to his family.

Towards the termination of the century not a few buildings of greater or lesser degree of architectural distinction had raised their heads, chief amongst them being the Town Hall and the Athenaeum.

Here may it be said in passing that one of the most original chief magistrates of Liverpool was Mr. John Shaw, who filled the mayoral chair in 1794 and 1800, and of whom the story is told that on one occasion when a person of considerable talents was talked of as a proper man to be proposed for a seat in the Council, he said, with perfect seriousness,

I don’t like clever fellows being admitted into the Council. What is the use of so many clever fellows? There are J—n, H—d, G—e, D—r, and myself; we are quite a sufficient number for the Council.

Although employers and employed in Liverpool a century back were ardently devoted to business, and so built up the commercial solidity of the town, they did not deny themselves amusement. Archery, tennis, cricket, skittles, bowls, horse-racing, and cock-fighting were much in vogue, and music and the drama had their votaries as well.

The archery butts were in Cazneau-street, which was then out in the country; and there were tennis courts in Grosvenor-street, and the bowling-greens and skittle alleys, as to-day, were attached to various taverns. Cockspur-street, as its name suggests, was the resort of those who like Paul de Florae delighted in cock-fighting. The horse-racing took place in Crosby; but was abandoned in 1786.

Turning to music, it is noteworthy to find that the works chiefly in demand were those of Handel, such as “The Messiah,” “Judas Maccabeus,” and “Alexander’s Feast,” the performances being held in St. Peter’s Church. As to the drama, the Theatre Royal in Williamson-square, Shakespeare and Kane O’Hara evidently dividing the attention of the town. Dinner parties, of course, were common; but as a rule these were held early in the afternoon, and not in the evening as it is the custom of our time.

Did a gentleman of to-day appear on ‘Change in the costume that was worn when the fast-expiring century was born, shafts of ridicule would be thrown at him. Vagaries of dress are a matter of common history, and perhaps after all the costume of the old merchants and bankers of Liverpool was more picturesque than that of their descendants.

Ordinarily they were clad in coats cut much in the form of Court dress coats, often with stand-up collars, and usually with gilt, silvered, or twist buttons; waistcoats of great length, the flaps being large and containing pockets with a small cover over each pocket; short breeches, with buckles of gold, silver, of false stones, at the knees; and big buckles of gold, silver, or gilt or plated, to resemble those metals, in their shoes. The coat, waistcoat, and breeches were often all of one colour, frequently of a light or snuff colour.

Ruffles at the wrists and white stocks for the throat were almost invariably worn. Chocked hats were commonly used. The stocking were usually of silk, cotton, or woolen yarn; and the wear of the feet were top-boots.

Continuing this sumptuary record, it may be added that the ladies of Liverpool, when in full dress, wore hair powder, with a cushion upon the crown of the head, over which the hair was turned and combed smoothly, so as to be raised several inches.

They also wore shoes, the heels of which were from three to four inches in height. Small hoops were worn, and instead of parasols, the ladies used huge green fans to keep the rays of the sun in  summer time from beating upon their faces.

Clubs were numerous, and of these was one that was named “The Unanimous Society,” which met on Saturday evenings in the Cross Keys Tavern in Dale-street. A rule of the club was the imposition of a penalty upon a member convicted of cursing and swearing, another decreed a penalty in the case of a member who came within the precincts of the place “disguised in liquor.”

This rule also quaintly provided that “if any dispute arise about the validity of such disguise, the same be determined by poll or ballot of the member then present.

Such is a picture in little of the business and social externals of the Liverpool of a hundred years ago.
(Liverpool Mercury, 28-12-1900)

By the docks, 1800.
Liverpool 1800


  1. Interesting to read of city at turn of the century, especially the recreation. Is there any mention of street/mob/folk football, the likes of the events in areas such as Bolton etc? Or did Liverpool ,escape, if that’s the right word such events?

    1. Hello,

      Oh, I am not sure. I know for sure that I have been reading that association football came very late to Liverpool. Everton, 1879. I know for sure places like Bolton, Blackburn and Preston were much earlier with football. At the moment there are very few Lancashire papers on the BNA, but I will keep it in mind and come back to you if I find anything.



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