History of Liverpool: the centre of Merseyside

Liuerpul (1207); Leuerepul (1229); Liuerpol (1266); Lyuerpole (1346); Leuerpoll (1393); Lytherpole (1445); Letherpole (1545); Litherpoole otherwise Liverpoole (1752). The form containing th is found mainly in the 15th and 16th centuries (VCH Lancs. IV).

Origin of the name: ‘Pool’ from the Pool, the inlet which flowed into the Mersey; ‘liver’ or ‘lever’ element of the name much more highly debated.

Image: Pier Head and Ferry by Martin Greaney

Before King John discovered the Liverpool’s potential as a launchpad for his Irish campaigns, there was little more than a few scattered settlements on the north bank of the Mersey. However, the creation of the borough, and the granting of rights for entrepreneurs over the next few centuries ensured a rapid growth on both the size and importance of the new town. From the first seven streets, Liverpool expanded across the tidal creek which next to which the castle stood, and eventually overshadowed the nearby centres of West Derby and Chester.

Origin of the name: The ‘pool’ part of the name is now almost always said to refer to the Pool, the inlet which flowed where Whitechapel and Paradise Street now stand, and into the Mersey. However, the ‘liver’ or ‘lever’ element of the name is much more highly debated.

It may refer to the livered, or sluggish, slow flowing water in the stream, due to the amount of weeds growing in it (possibly liverwort). More obscure interpretations look to the mythical liver, or a similar water-loving bird. Influence from Scandinavian languages, as well as the Welsh language, have also been put forward, although one interpretation seems as strong as any other in the absence of definitive proof.


Cover of the book 'Liverpool: a landscape history'

There aren’t many books which cover just Liverpool township at the expense of the suburbs, so I’m just going to recommend my own book here for all your Liverpol history needs!

Buy the book


If you’re looking for something a little different, then this amusing site talks about Liverpool history through the medium of animation. It’s a great way to get history across!

Visit the website

Liverpool c.1900

Use the slider in the top left to change the transparency of the old map.

Before the Charter

There was likely very little in the way of existing settlement along the banks of the Mersey before the establishment of the borough in 1215. A promontory stuck out south into the Pool, a sluggish body of water flowing from the north-east. The land through which it flowed was mostly peaty bog, with only the higher sandstone ridge towards West Derby providing solid foundation. The promontory provided good views to the entrance to the Irish Sea, the Welsh mountains, and inland to the east. The area was part of Edward the Confessor’s manor, and was largely given over to royal forest. Toxteth Park, Simonswood Forest and West Derby were all good hunting grounds, and there would have been little more than scattered farmsteads occupied by farmers attempting to eke out what existence they could on the marshy land far from the major routeways north and south.

Established where no settlement had come before, Liverpool shows characteristics of a completely planned town. The initial street plan was regular in shape, with the land behind the streets divided into burgage plots and town fields. Planned towns in the medieval period were often founded with a castle and church, and Liverpool was no different.

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The Early Urban Layout

When the town was established in the early 13th century, its initial form consisted of seven roads in an H shape. Bank Street (now Water Street) ran inland from the Mersey’s edge, becoming Dale Street at the White Cross. Chapel Street, also leading from the riverbank, became Moor Street (now Tithebarn Street) at the High Cross. The two Crosses were joined via Juggler Street (roughly where the High Street is today), completing the H. Branching south from the White Cross was Castle Street, leading of course to the Castle which was soon built to defend the important borough. Heading north from the High Cross was Mill Street, the location of the Old Hall, eventually giving the road its present name – Old Hall Street.

The Crosse Hall and the Tithe Barn, both which have modern roads carrying their names, are the point at which the upper arms of the H diverged. To the south, Dale Street gradually turned to the south-east, crossing the Pool, and passing the Fall Well on the far bank. This was the main road to West Derby and Prescot, and was the main route between Liverpool and West Derby Castles until the latter went out of use in the 13th century. Further north lay the road to Kirkdale and Walton Church, still the mother church of the parish.

Apart from the Castle itself (built 1325-37), whose Great Tower lay where the Victoria Monument now stands, there were other landmarks in the new town. The Tower had been a defended building since 1406, on the water front at the bottom end of Chapel Street. Adjacent to this was the Customs House at the lower end of Bank Street. To the north, to provide for the souls of the community, St Mary del Key had been built where Chapel Street met the water.

Journeying south, just before reaching Toxteth Park, a wanderer would have come across The Waste, also known as Esmeduna Moss, and the track to Smedons (Smithdown) Lane and Wavertree. To the north lay the Town Field, and the Old Field was found to the east, where the Pool first widens before it reaches the Mersey. Bordering Liverpool to the north was Kirkdale, Everton lay to the east, along with West Derby, and Toxteth to the south.

A market was granted early in the history of the town, held on a Saturday, when herds of animals were driven over the Townsend Bridge from the Everton hills, and bought and sold along with many other goods in the area of Chapel Street and the White Cross.

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Years of Obscurity

Liverpool expanded very little in these years immediately following the charter, except for the uptake of the burgage plots by enterprising individuals, and perhaps the inhabitants of the isolated dwellings which had dotted the landscape before the 13th century. Over the next 200 years the town, and indeed the country, was ravaged by repeated outbreaks of plague, and there were particular problems associated with crime and poverty. Growth in the 15th century was almost non-existent and the fabric of the town changed very little, although new windmills appeared alongside the horse drawn and water mills. Liverpool had shown early promise, and indeed Leland had reported in 1560 that Liverpool had been paved for over 200 years already. However, there was to be a delay before she would truly show the promise of a successful settlement.

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16th and 17th Century Rebuilding

At the beginning of the 17th century, the population of the town was around 2000, and slowing increasing as it recovered from the ravages of the previous 200 years. Liverpool was beginning to build on its potential, with civic efforts producing the first Town Hall and Gilde on the High Street (a thatched building until 1571), and the first grammar school, contributed by John Crosse, are first mentioned in the early 16th century. The right to collect tithes from the local population belonged to the monks of Shrewsbury Abbey until the Molyneux bought it from them around this time, and built their tithe barn on Moor Street, on the corner of Cheapside.

Towards the end of the 16th century, the whole of England was experiencing a building boom, and was to experience a change in the way private spaces were seen which was to impact on the landscape of the expanding cities. As Liverpool experienced increased wealth from trade, the well-to-do merchants chose to move out of the bustling dirty centre towards the open countryside, or at least the suburbs surronding the centre. The Old Hall Street area to the north became an increasingly fashionable residence for the well off classes. Old Hall Street was first built on in the late 17th to early 18th centuries, but by 1765 the area was completely built upon as far north as St. Paul’s Square. The area was occupied by the large mansions of the merchant classes until the arrival of the Leeds – Liverpool Canal at the end of the 18th Century.

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Shifting Town Make-Up (18th and early 19th Centuries)

The expanding town was rapidly proving its independence from other influences nearby. In 1704 Liverpool was first made into a parish, for the first time separate from Walton-on-the-Hill under whose auspices it had been since it was founded. St Peter’s Church was duly built in 1699 in the orchard on the south side of Church Street. At this time this was the edge of Liverpool; Bold Street did not yet exist, and the area was open countryside.

In 1680 the first house had been built on the eastern side of the Pool, a landmark in the expansion of Liverpool. In the middle of the 19th Century, the southern regions around Duke Street, Seel Street and Bold Street were growing up as the preferred area for entrepreneurial individuals associated with the ever expanding trade Liverpool was conducting with her hinterland. On Duke Street, merchants lived in close proximity to the offices out of which they conducted business. This was also the area where a number of newspapers were published. These provided essential communication between those conducting business in the nearby town, and their equivalents in the other major cities: Manchester, Bristol, London. The darker side of this was the fact that many of these traders (in fact, almost all of those conducting business in this area at the time) made their money from the ‘West India Trade’ – slavery.

Other industries were also present. Fleet Street boasted two breweries, Unsworth’s and Crosby’s. In the area bordered by Lydia Anne Street, Gilbert, York and Suffolk Street was the Phoenix Foundry, originally an offshoot of the Coalbrookdale industries around Iron Bridge in Shropshire. Later, this area was in demand for the building of warehouses, and the further development of Parr Street along similar lines to the others, was interrupted by this new influx of industry.

A new town hall had been built before 1673, and Castle Street was widened in 1786. The New Exchange was constructed in 1808, marking a transition from this phase to the burgeoning industrial revolution.

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Lime Street and William Brown Street – Industrial Outskirts

As early as the 1760s the area around Lime Street and Renshaw Street was becoming industrialised. A rope yard is marked on Chadwick’s map of 1725 where Sir Thomas Street lies now. This lay at the very edge of the town, and these industries soon expanded to the newly built-on areas around St. George’s plateau. John Eyes’ map of 1768 shows numerous ‘Roperies’ either side of Ranleigh Street running north and south, and down what is now Renshaw Street, carrying on south from ‘Lime Kiln Lane’ – Lime Street. Limekiln Lane itself was known (in fact, was notorious) for its lime kilns, belching smoke and fumes into the air from their location on the current Lime Street Station site. They were eventually removed when it was claimed by the nearby infirmiary (where St George’s Hall now stands) that the emissions were harming their patients.

William Brown Street, to the north of St John’s Gardens and St George’s Hall, was originally known as Shaw’s Brow. This was the main thoroughfare into the town from the east, and a large number of stagecoaches, including the post, would travel down this road to Dale Street. However, this was a prominent outcrop, and the street itself was therefore extremely steep. Many times it had been lowered for greater convenience, but by the middle of the 19th Century this industrial street was still quite an incline. Further back in time, Shaw’s Brow had been lined with potteries. These eventually diversified to include soap works, grinding mills, a large coach factory, wheelwrights and a builder’s yard. At the time it was last lowered, the whole street was re-aligned to take it along the north boundary of St. John’s churchyard (now St. John’s Gardens). A civic project for the building of a public library was undertaken, a building soon joined by the Museum (using the collection bequeathed to the city on the death of the Third Earl of Derby).

By the beginning of the 19th Century, the layout of the City Centre looked very similar to how it looks today, in terms of the layout of the roads and major monuments such as the Town Hall. However, in the years which followed, the nature of the buildings filling the town were to change dramatically with the times, and the city of Liverpool would come to embrace the areas known as Everton, Kirkdale, Toxteth, West Derby and beyond.

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5 Comments on “History of Liverpool: the centre of Merseyside”

  • Alan John crosse


    I am trying to trace my family tree and history of the surname crosse


  • Margaret


    Are there any publications on the people living and trading in Liverpool c 1680+
    I am also interested in the foundation of the non conformists movement at this time in the city, I have a note on the first alms houses erected, and the new school to be built around 1765.
    are there any further details of these developments?


    • Martin


      Hi Margaret,

      I don’t know of anything that exactly fits your needs, but the book Georgian Liverpool might include something of interest. It was written in 1797 and covers a lot of the life of the port, though it focuses on the sights of the town. That might help with your school and alms house research.



  • s


    Trying to trace the history of Covent Garden in Liverpool especially the history of the pig and whistle when it first became a public house and cant seem to find any old photos of this area


  • Betsy McConnell


    I am seeking info about the life of my relative William Corrigal who was a master mariner. He dies in 1810 and I have traced him to Poole Street in 1796 and the baptisms of his children at Beens Gardens, now Renshaw Presbyterian church. Trying to get a sense of life at that time and how I can trace more about him


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