Monday 15 April 2013

The Leaving Of Liverpool

The moment of truth about Liverpool, my city of birth,  came to me in the late 1970’s.  That year we were booked to go from Felixstowe to Zeebrugge on our camping holiday because although less convenient going it was more convenient on the planned return.  Arriving at the port in good time we parked and decided to look around and find victuals.

The only place open was the transport café.  It was clearly popular with the drivers, which was a good sign.  What took my eye were a couple of trucks from the Liverpool area and one of the drivers was on the next table and happy to chat for a bit of company.

My assumption that the freight containers they were carrying were for Europe was wrong.  They were for the East to places for which that Liverpool had long been a major port.  It did not take long for me to realise that the logistics and reality of road freight traffic had changed radically in a short time.

It was clear that a lot else had changed as well as it finally dawned on me at Felixstowe that I was looking at a new age of sea transport.  Already we had been through the large Europoort at Rotterdam a couple of times and had seen the containers stacking up. 

There was the awareness already that the Liverpool international passenger trade had almost all gone and never to return.  What I learned was that the freight trade was being lost as well and very rapidly.  The driver told me in direct language that Liverpool as a port was dying.

In 1966 we went through Liverpool to Belfast for a holiday in Ulster.  The car had to be loaded onto a freighter to follow the passenger ferry and then off loaded at the other end.  Getting in and out of the docks was complicated and took a long time even for what was then an “express” service.

The Liverpool Docks of 1966 were much the same as in the left hand picture above of around 1950.  This is a highly idealised picture with the emphasis on passenger ships and there is not much dirt and fewer cargo ships about with dock labour.  Despite some of the docks known to be freight ones they are not for the picture.

This kind of latitude with the image became characteristic of Liverpool in later years.  What the picture does not show is the number of freighters out in Liverpool Bay waiting and hoping for an available dock soon.  Some of them had to wait days and if an industrial dispute was going on many days.

The picture on the right is from 1909 and the railway network serving the docks then was much the same as in the 1960’s before The Beeching Report took effect.  This was extensive and from my own and many of my families direct knowledge always busy up until the 1960’s.

Up until the early 1950’s we were often in Liverpool and there were generations of the family who had known it back to the mid 19th Century.  Two of my four great grandfathers were in the engine rooms of ships and my grandfather did the occasional stint when his trade was slack in the winter.

Like them and many of my family and others up to the 1950’s we all just assumed that it would more or less go on forever.  There would be some changes but Liverpool would always be a thriving city and a major location for trade, finance and with the accompanying infrastructure and associated industries.  We could not imagine what was going to happen

There were other factors.  In WW1 Britain lost 6000 ships, a lot of them the older and slower ones.  This was repeated in WW2.  The old ships were replaced by much larger ships increasingly powered by oil turbine engines.  So even if more freight was being carried it needed fewer and fewer ships to carry it.  Also these ships did not need the manpower on board that the older ones had. 

In the 1840’s a sailing ship with a tonnage of up to 4000 might well need a crew of up to 30.  Today a major oil tanker of hundreds of thousands tonnage can work with less than that.  Down the decades the gradual need for fewer and fewer crew to deal with larger and larger ships has been absent from the thinking.

Moreover during WW2 the Americans brought in for their purposes a good many features of mechanised handling.  So by the 1960’s the handling of freight could be very different in terms of rail transit alone.  When the motorways came and with low loaders (including many second hand from the Army) and a variety of other trucks the system requirements were very different.

In the late 1940’s in an attempt to deal with the endless problems of industrial disputes and disruptions to trade and incidentally food supplies during times of real scarcity, the Attlee government introduced the Dock Labour Scheme.  This was intended to establish fair and reliable arrangements in the docks.

The trouble was it assumed, like my family, that the existing system was here to stay for all time.  Also, it was a bureaucratic system inevitably with anomalies and points for disagreement.  So the dock strikes went on, and on and on. 

As soon as alternatives became available, notably with container traffic Liverpool became a place to be avoided, sometimes at all costs.  When it became normal for freighters to find spare docking space available on arrival instead of queuing for days it meant that the old world had gone for good.

The government could not and did not understand what was happening in reality.  There were many fine words and grand, expensive, media friendly and cosmetic schemes and the rest.  But with the passenger traffic gone to the skies and the freight to the roads and to other ports then all the related infrastructure and economic activity went into free fall.

For the docks the mantra of the trade unions was that for the container trade firstly the containers should be loaded and unloaded by dock labour.  Also where containers were going through non Dock Labour Scheme ports they should be forced to join. 

In addition inland container depots and facilities were to be designated as Port outlets and again forced to use Dock Labour.  Had Labour won the 1979 election this might have happened with a major impact on the whole of UK trade. 

The local Labour council in Liverpool became not an agent for reform or progress but actively complicit in the collapse because of its internal politics.  Also, a large proportion of the population came to be in council housing.  As inflation gathered pace the rents were kept low and therefore the subsidies high.

Given the rating system at the time and controls on borrowing there was only one source for added spending.  This was business; and while the big boys with clout in Westminster managed to get favourable deals and hidden subsidies the brunt of this was borne by the remaining local firms and retailers.

In the past the vast network of these and small firms engaged in a variety of trades and manufacturing had been a little recognised staple of the Liverpool economy.  When they contracted rapidly the wealth of the city had gone and so had its status as a world trading city and even a major British city.

It is only a handful of years since I last drove down the Dock Road having been to a funeral.  There was almost nothing left of the Liverpool I knew and it was eerily quiet. 

Even quieter than when the dock workers were striking.

1 comment:

  1. It's very painful when huge industries decline so rapidly. Imagine if the world suddenly decides financial games don't have to be played in London.