A couple of weeks ago when photographer Tricia Porter graciously let me publish her 1970s ‘South Docks’ collection on here, one of the first comments on Twitter came from regular blog reader John Viggars who immediately said that most magical of all historical story phrases ‘I was there.’ He went on to mention he had some photos of his own from his days sailing in and out of our dying South Docks.
Naturally I asked him if he’d like to do a guest post on here. And here it is. Or rather here’s the first of two. This one mainly about the South Docks, Part 2, about the North, to come soon. With minimal interventions and editing from me. This is the real thing, unadulterated Liverpool history. A long read but a great one. Over to you John.
“Like Ronnie I have always been interested in the Liverpool docklands & therefore his invitation to write on the subject gives me a chance to walk around my memories, get out some old photographs and tell some stories from first 30 years of my life. I have few images from that time as film was expensive and my medium was transparency. I retrieved most of these here from the loft and notice they are losing their colour. Still, they help to paint the pictures of what I’m about to tell you.
As a younger man I thought life was a bed of roses. We never had much but never wanted for anything either. Growing up in the 60’s & 70’s things got steadily better for me, but then got a lot tougher in Liverpool generally, particularly in the early 80’s. For most of the dock estate it was downhill all the way, until after the designation of the Freeport at Seaforth in 1984 when a steady improvement began, but only in a fraction of the 7.5miles of enclosed docklands.
Tales from my maternal grandfather, who had been a ships cook, may have sparked my enthusiasm for things nautical, so despite his passing on when I was a small child the fascination was continued as there were often opportunities to go to the North docks.
First though a little about myself. I am from Litherland a northern suburb of Liverpool outside its political boundary which makes me a ‘plastic’ Scouser?
(‘No it doesn’t John. If you speak scouse you are a Scouser, in my opinion’)
I started school in Litherland followed by Grammar in Waterloo and then to Southport Tech. Moving on to the Poly things did not go so well academically for me. Luckily my summer placement was precursor to a late engineering apprenticeship as I became first a Supervisor, then Engineering Manager, moving from general engineering into vehicle wiring manufacture, where I progressed to being Project Manager. Six years ago I was again faced with enforced change and after a while found myself selling reed switch-based vehicle electronics.
Anyway, my life in the docks!
I started with walks down to Seaforth shore with my father. You could get down to the sea wall then (near the original port radar tower) and could watch the ships in the river which was still pretty busy at the time. The father of one friend was a butcher on one of the ‘Empress’ ships and I remember being taken on board one of them when at junior school. Visiting ships often had open days for the public; this was one way of getting onto the dock estate, usually to Canada Dock, spurring on my interest. During my early teens we used to go to the shore during school lunchtimes as we watched the Royal Seaforth container port take shape. This was the future?
Moving forward I knew some guys who worked on the tugs and got to go on the river on a few occasions; getting a different view of the docks than you got from the ferry rides across to Birkenhead.
The docks to the south of the Pier Head had been officially closed in 1972 due to the decline in trade post containerisation. To save the cost of maintaining the complex hydraulic systems which operated the locks, the gates were moved to the open position at this time allowing a steady influx of silt.
It was not a total closure as such enterprises as the Dock Board workshops continued to function alongside South Ferry Basin. I can also recall an odd ship mooring alongside the Grain Terminal in Brunswick mid 70’s – I think the two massive silos were still in use as there was still a little lorry traffic. I understand that the concrete silo built in the 1930’s (demolished around 1986) was known as the Dockers Cathedral due to its size and shape. Never thought of it at the time but it was big!
There were also small businesses still operating on the dock estate around Coburg like Howitts Timber and Robbins Marine. There was scrapyard over the dock on a pile frame and there was the HM Customs rummage centre. The lock gate men were gone but we still saw the customs guys in their uniform in ‘the Devils’ (Coburg) our local. However the remainder of the South Docks became a wasteland which was officially off limits to the public.
After the docks became tidal the group of small boats using Dukes dock were forced to move, the Coburg then became their home. It was free for anyone to use so a number of people who had not been able to afford mooring & lock gate charges became residents.
It was not without risk as the constantly moving silt impaired free passage. The length of time either side of high water for boats to arrive and depart decreased to a couple of hours. I can recall on more than one occasion friends being ridiculed as they became stranded on mud banks only feet away from the dock wall. There they would have to stay for 5 or 6 hours – fishing trips ruined.
The Real Fisher folk
When I started my time boating, there were still a couple of professional fishermen venturing forth. There were John Neary and Albert Slack (who sold his catch from his shop in Park Lane). They sailed Nobbys, a type of local fishing boat used round the coast from Mid Wales to the Lake District, developed for fishing in shoal waters).
A good friend was Jimmy Moran who was ‘retired.’ He taught me a great deal about inshore trawling. He also cured me of my tendency to seasickness, by getting me to gut fish at the back of his boat ‘to take my mind off it!’ After a good day’s shrimping he could be seen selling his catch up the hill by the Royal Oak.
There were guys from all walks of life spending their spare time repairing, sailing, motoring & fishing. They kept the docks alive for a few more years. Looking back it was a pretty shabby place with all manner of things left lying where they fell when the workforce were moved on. The rubbish just accumulated and stayed there, we didn’t really notice it. It meant that often those abandoned things became the subject of scavenging. Timber for repairs, pig iron for ballast. The dereliction had a strange beauty & also a sense of quietness, like a ghost town. I almost expected tumbleweed to pass some days just like in the old cowboy films.
When night time came it was a really eerie place as there were few lights still working. There were rats that looked as big as cats when you caught them in the headlights. One boat was inhabited by cats, can’t remember if they could get ashore but they were interbred. You could smell them a fair distance downwind.
In the summer we were able to go down there after work as well as the evenings. Some kept to themselves and others of us helped each other and drank together. Sailing would often be a family affair but generally I was the youngest of the group at 20, whilst the eldest there would have been in their 70’s I guess.
Early on most of my sailing was on a neighbour’s boat. It was an ex-Dock board ‘Surveyor’ boat which had originally been used to take soundings in the river and then direct dredgers where to work. This was converted for trawling, plus the occasional fishing party were taken on board. I crewed on the weeks where the tides suited trips out into Liverpool Bay, at other times helped with maintenance such as painting.
After a couple of years crewing for various guys I decided to get a boat of my own. I bought a partially converted lifeboat and along with my father we built a cabin on it ready for fishing. I went out on it only a couple of times before I decided the responsibility of being captain was too much for someone of my age and decided my time would be better employed running after members of the opposite sex. Thus my sailing career was abandoned but my interest was rekindled from time to time.
After a gap of a few years, spurred on by the first visit of the tall ships I joined the Friends of Merseyside Maritime Museum then volunteered for the boat maintenance team where I whiled away my Saturdays for another few years until work, marriage and children became more important users of my free time.
During this period I was on the steel boat team due to my ‘skills’. Based on the Edmund Gardner we helped around the site with repairs. We also chipped & painted & even had a working party clearing the mud from one of the graving docks. It was good to be in some small way part of the early days of resurgence of the area. As a sort of payback I occasionally got to have some fun as well. This included a couple of trips in the North docks.”
Which is where we’ll continue the story in ‘John Viggars: My life in the Docks Part 2’
Historical context from John.
The dock system in Liverpool has developed steadily over a period of 300 years. Due to the size & treacherous nature of the Mersey tides, impounding of water was the only effective way to safely load & unload vessels visiting the city. This development of the port continues today as we await the new Liverpool 2 in river berths to suit the ‘post Panamax’ container ships.
Whilst the ‘old’ dock was completed around 1715 there was slow progress over the 16th century. However the period between 1800 to 1860 saw rapid expansion south of the Pier Head. As ships grew in size the dock system had to be continuously modified to keep pace. The Albert Dock whilst ground breaking in concept with its ‘enclosure’ became redundant almost immediately. Re-shaping continued until the early 1900’s.
At the time of closure the docks south of the Pier Head were :
North of the Pier Head:
Alexandra, Bramley-Moore, Brocklebank, Canada, Carrier, Clarence, Collingwood, Gladstone, Hornby, Huskisson, Langton, Nelson, Princes, Salisbury, Sandon, Seaforth, Stanley, Trafalgar, Victoria, Wellington, Waterloo Dock
Books: Nancy Ritchie Noakes – ‘Liverpool’s Historic Waterfront’ & ‘Jesse Hartley’.