1859: Liverpool, part of Birkenhead, the docks, and Cheshire coast

Buy prints of old maps of Liverpool

It’s clear from the rising number of non-traditional ‘maps’ on this site (like Ackerman’s 1847 Panorama) that historic town surveys were wide ranging in style. This one was supposedly drawn from a tethered balloon. I’d love to know the exact method: was it sketches on high, plus copious notes? A section of town at a time, followed by a retreat to a more comfortable studio to produce the final version?

I’d love to imagine a giant basket suspended beneath a huge balloon carrying a giant canvas, numerous paints, easel, brushes, binoculars, and maybe an assistant or two…

“We’d better get this one knocked off before 3pm; there’s a gale brewing up the Mersey…”

Ships in full sail

This is a much sharper depiction of Liverpool than Ackerman’s one. The details are finer and the shading more subtle. On the river there are over 30 decent sized vessels, alongside dozens of smaller tugs, ferries and other tubs. They’re far outnumbered by the ranks of berthed ships in the docks. They stand in tight formation a little like in the Panorama.

On the quaysides we can see the figures of dock workers moving to and fro, in greater numbers than on other maps.

Wirral is still predominantly rural, and the sweep of green off towards Meols and Greasby gives the panorama a grander feel. It’s also clearer how the Birkenhead pool developed into docks much like Liverpool’s did.

Road and Rail

Zooming in towards the top of the map you can see the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway curving into the town centre (traceable on the 1878 Globe Encyclopaedia map). There’s even a locomotive, steaming its way south-westwards.

The streets of Toxteth are some of the clearest depictions. The view was produced at a time when its audience probably lived in these Georgian terraces, shortly before moving out to bigger houses in West Derby and Seaforth.


The more artistic efforts of Isaac’s view preclude the chance to label things without reducing the realism of the image. So Ackerman is better for spotting buildings, streets and churches.

I’ll not say too much about all the buildings you can spot. Suffice to say that this is a great resource if you’re researching the built heritage of Liverpool. Although artistic license can’t be ruled out (and proportions may not be true), you can see what they looked like in the lived city.

Look out for the Customs House, St George’s Hall and St John’s church behind it. The Sailor’s Home, the Black-E, Town Hall, St James quarry (future site of the Anglican Cathedral) and St John’s Market are other highlights.

Liverpool from a balloon

It’s hard to know how Isaac (and/or his accomplices) could have seen so far across a town that was probably pumping gallons of smoke into the air as the Industrial Revolution progressed. For that reason I’d love to know the whole process. But either way, we’re left with a wonderful, full-colour depiction of what the town of Liverpool looked like at it raced to its zenith as second city of empire.

For an article using Isaac’s bird’s eye view for research purposes, see Robert Griffiths’ Toxteth Park: Elm House, Chapelville and Cooper’s Folly by Glen Huntley. The article shows how handy these non-vertical ‘maps’ can be, even when they’re not perfectly accurate!

Original: Isaac, John Raphael, M Knoedler, and Vincent Brooks. Liverpool, part of Birkenhead, the docks, and Cheshire coast. Liverpool: John R. Isaac ; New York: M. Knoedler, 1859. Map. https://www.loc.gov/resource/g5754l.ct007678.

One Comment “1859: Liverpool, part of Birkenhead, the docks, and Cheshire coast”

  • Patrick H Martin


    I would like to include a gray-scale reproduction of a part of this 1859 Liverpool painting in a self-published novel. Is it public domain? Whom do I contact if it is subject to copyright?


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