Looking out across the River you can see Birkenhead from where the Mersey Ferries ply their trade back and forth. To the left of the ferry terminal you can see the steeple of Birkenhead Priory Chapel. This is the oldest building on Wirral and the first on this side of the peninsula. It was from Birkenhead Priory that the first Mersey Ferries came in 1125, Benedictine monks would row across the river to bring their goods to trade in the markets of Liverpool and take passengers across from Eastham to Liverpool. The journey could take up to three hours even in calm weather. In 1320 the monks were granted the first ferry rights by Edward III. The route was deemed so important that it was designated a royal highway, and to this day it still is, with a crown at the top of the posts of Woodside ferry terminal.
The silting of the Dee
|Liverpool River Pilot|
The main port of the North West was Chester until silting of the Dee forced its closure and Liverpool took over. The River Mersey has evidence of silting too and ships coming in to the river have to be steered in by the River Pilot who boards the ships in the mouth of the river. River Pilots have worked on the Mersey since 1766 today there are 44 who guide ships up and down the river. Ships which attempt to navigate the river themselves often end up stranded, River Pilots have a detailed knowledge of where silt and sandbanks lie in the river, the largest silted area is known as Devils Bank. In addition to these hazards the bed of the river is strewn with wrecked ships, so much so that River Pilots have three different charts. An area of the Mersey in front of you is closed to ships anchoring because of debris from vessels destroyed in the Second World War.
The distinctive murky brown colour of the River Mersey is not due to pollution as many believe, instead it’s a result of the silt and sand that is kicked up by the fast current of the river. Although the Mersey was heavily polluted in the past, especially during its busiest times, it is much cleaner today and recently won an award for cleanliness.
Cleaner than ever
Wildlife is returning to the river in increasing numbers, there are 50 types of fish, mussels, crabs and star fish, even salmon now live in the water and Otterspool Promenade is often crowded with fishermen. There have also been sightings of grey seals, swans and a type of dolphin or porpoise have been seen swimming alongside the Ferry. The estuary has the largest number of wading birds in the country with over 50,000 living in the area in winter. One of the many birds to be found is the Cormorant believed to be the basis for the Liver Bird.
The slave trade
|Transatlantic Slavery Gallery|
The River Mersey was the lifeblood of Liverpool and trade with America lay at the heart of Liverpool’s development. Liverpool’s connections with the slave trade are well known. The trade formed a triangle with goods from the UK, mainly Manchester being shipped out to Africa where they were traded in return for slaves. The slaves were transported across the Atlantic to the West Indies and from there sugar was brought back to Liverpool. Approximately two million slaves were taken from West Africa enduring terrible conditions on board ship, fewer than half survived the journey or the conditions and disease in the West Indies.
Many Liverpool traders vigorously opposed the abolition of slavery fearing the town would be economically devastated. Liverpool MP’s and merchants lobbied parliament and the Prime Minister William Pitt. Many Liverpool traders though could see the writing on the wall and moved into other areas such as palm oil. Abolitionists existed in Liverpool too, William Roscoe is one of the best known, he wrote pamphlets and poetry supporting abolition and was briefly elected as an MP for Liverpool. Along with William Rathbone, Roscoe was unceasing in his call for an end to slavery warning of a time of reckoning “Forget not Britain, higher still than thee, sits the great Judge of nations, who can weigh the wrong. And can repay.”