Waterloo Dock. One of the great docks that grew out of Liverpool’s transformation from a backwater town trading with Ireland, to the dominant mercantile city of an Empire. Our campaign is about recognizing that fact, and fighting to preserve the heritage of Waterloo Dock, which is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site.
Designed by Jesse Hartley to accommodate large sailing ships, it mainly focussed on the transAtlantic trade between Liverpool and the USA and West Indies. These links with the USA made Waterloo the ideal location for ALL the American Packet Ships (so-called because they carried packets of mail) and these, in turn, became the main carriers of human traffic in the early years of transAtlantic travel. This trade would explode in the wake of the Irish potato famine in the mid 1840s.
Without question, one of the most historic events in the development of world-wide shipping. As world trade developed, the calculation of accurate time - using star transits - was “literally a matter of life and death” (Francis Hyde: Liverpool, Development of a Port). The port observatory was unique to Liverpool, and its research proved temperature is by far the most important factor in causing the timekeeping of a chronometer to change. Even the Town Hall clock was fitted with a regulator to ensure that it stayed in sync with the Waterloo Dock pendulum. However, the docks were becoming so busy that it was eventually agreed to move the observatory to Bidston, on the Wirral. (For additional info, see Tony O’Leary notes)
One of the most significant events in British political history, it finally forced the large land- owners to accept that the rapidly growing British population needed to import grain from abroad to make bread affordable to (northern) industrial workers. Mersey Docks chiefs took the enormous gamble that America would become the main source of that extra grain, and built the world’s first automated grain warehouse - now known as Waterloo Warehouse. Originally made up of three buildings, the Corn Warehouses Complex fully opened in 1868.
Almost two million Irish migrants left their impoverished homeland to seek a new life. Most headed first to Liverpool, to seek passage to a fresh start in the “New World”. Some headed to Australia and Canada - but a huge proportion set out for America, which in most cases meant a journey aboard an American Packet that started at Waterloo Dock. The overriding importance of Waterloo Dock is captured in paintings of the time and even popular shanties, such as Whip Jamboree, which includes the lines: “All hammocks stashed and all chests locked, We’ll haul her in to Waterloo Dock.”
Sadly, many of the passenger lists have been lost. But some of those that remain reveal some very famous American families began their journeys to the USA at Waterloo Dock:
22 February 1847: The Cambria arrived in Boston, Massachusetts, after sailing from West Waterloo Dock. Passenger 25 was listed as Phineas Taylor Barnum, co-owner of the world’s greatest circus, Barnum and Bailey’s - recently celebrated in the smash-hit movie The Greatest Showman. Passenger No 3 was one of Barnum’s most famous “star attractions”, listed as Charles S Stretton, age 15 - but better known as the world’s most famous dwarf, Tom Thumb. His profession is listed simply as “Gent”.
21/April/1849: The Washington Irving arrived in Boston with Passenger 199 listed as: Irish labourer Patrick Kennedy, age 29 - he is far better known as the grandfather of former US Ambassador to Britain Joseph Kennedy, and great grandfather of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his brothers Robert and Teddy.
1869: John Henry Kelly, from County Mayo, in Ireland, is also widely believed to have made his journey to the US via Waterloo Dock. His granddaughter, Grace, became the toast of Hollywood and, eventually, Princess Grace of Monaco.
1894: A Lithuanian Jewish refugee, Asa Yoelson, and his family sailed from Waterloo Dock to America aboard the SS Umbria. That boy would become the world’s foremost popular singer of the first three decades of the 20th century - Al Jolson - who was also the star of the world’s first talking picture, The Jazz Singer.
1921: Albert Einstein returned from his first visit to America on board the White Star Line’s RMS Celtic, via Liverpool and Manchester, en route to London. Anecdotally, it has been suggested that he disembarked at Waterloo Dock. No categoric evidence - but we like to think it is RELATIVELY likely!!
Ironically, the end point of most of those trans-Atlantic passenger sailings from Waterloo Dock were Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Imagine the world-wide outcry there would be if New York developers attempted to hide those landmarks behind new apartment blocks!
The opening of the Grain Warehouse Complex led to a decision to concentrate all grain handling in what is now East Waterloo Dock, leaving the riverside West Waterloo Dock to continue its focus on general cargo, American Packets and thousands more emigrants.
Although Waterloo Dock continued to function until the late 1980s, it had long been a shadow of its former self. The Second World War Blitz had taken a massive toll on the entire dock estate, with two linear miles of transit sheds destroyed. At Waterloo Docks, the significantly smaller North Warehouse was seriously damaged, leading to its demolition in 1951. Next to go was the West Warehouse, in 1969.
And finally, the process to convert the still standing East Waterloo Dock Warehouse into apartments began in 1989.