Five minutes walk from my workplace, there was once the second busiest port in the British Empire. Cotton, sugar, tobacco, grain; all manner of products passed through the warehouses along the Mersey. Sadly ships then left on the next leg of the slave triangle en route to Africa. In the 19th Century several million people sailed to new lives in the New World on liners, from the White Star and Cunard lines. In World Wars One and Two, Liverpool was of strategic importance particularly in the Battle of the Atlantic. In between the war years the docks bustled with merchandise and people and provided a living for many.
Almost anyone who had anything to do with the docks in the first half of the twentieth century would have travelled on or walked under the Liverpool Overhead railway. Built in 1893 and elevated up on steel girders it was nicknamed the Dockers’ Umbrella for the shelter it gave workers from the rain. One of the first moving pictures was filmed by the Lumiere brothers on the line and shows the packed dock side area and preserves the sound of the wooden carriages passing over the tracks.
For me the Overhead Railway is a symbol of the Era of Liverpool I would have loved to experience. The current prosaic ferry to the Isle of Man, the passing holiday cruise ships and Ryanair flights to and from John Lennon airport do not quite replace the romanticism of those transatlantic steamers with their gilded dining rooms full of wealthy socialites and the hopeful young people in steerage leaving all they knew for opportunities for a better life in New York. The Titanic never sailed from Liverpool ( a fact which didn’t deter the Maritime Museum from dedicating a great deal of space to it) but many local people were associated with it and lost upon it. I once sang carols in a primary school choir to a group of elderly people one of whom had lost her fiancé on the Titanic and never married thereafter. The golden age of the docks feels almost, but sadly not quite, touchable.
During the war some stations were damaged beyond repair in the blitz. Even then in the early fifties the railway was extremely busy. My father recalls being taken there and getting scared because it was so crowded and taking the hand of his father only to look up and realise he was holding on to a stranger and the throng had separated him from his Dad. Then economic conditions began to make the railway unviable. The last train ran on 30th December 1956. By January 1958 everything was dismantled. The only remains are the tunnel and station entrance at Dingle, a few steel supports embedded into a warehouse now converted to apartments and a carriage preserved for the curious in the Museum of Liverpool.
With it went the old life of the Mersey. after a period of decline the riverfront around the Albert Dock boasts restaurants, art and photographic galleries, a concert arena, great museums and a parade of decorated Superlambananas. I enjoy walking there at lunchtimes. But it’s not how I wished I could have seen it. Now its a place you can enjoy solitude as well as entertainment. But it’s not a place where new lives start.
My series of art about the Overhead Railway comprises 21 twelve inch canvases each referring to one of the twenty one stations of the Overhead Railway. Purists will tell you that there were only ever twenty stations, with seventeen being the maximum open at any one time. However, Customs House station changed its name to Canning when the Customs House building was demolished. And that’s makes 21. Which was a convenient grid of 3 by 7 so I am calling it 21 stations. Because it’s my series and I can!
The colours are the blues and greys of the sky and river, with the odd red flash for hope and excitement. The symbols are the tickets issued to travellers, the map outlines of the dock areas, the lines of the tracks. But the emotion sewn into them is curiosity and wanderlust. I would have loved to have known the individual stories of each person who traveled from the landing stages, who swung goods through the warehouse doors still visible at the Albert Dock, to have heard both sides of the abolition argument direct from the merchants operating in the city as the debate raged. I wish I could have felt the frisson of excitement as I boarded a White Star liner bound for America.
Times change but humans not so much. Today I get to listen to stories of immigrants who arrived in lorries. I talk to workers from the Jaguar plant in Halewood. The debates are about Europe and immigration. I flew to New York on a 747. These tales and experiences are still fascinating. But somehow not as much as that Era of the liners and the warehouses. There is less bustle, less slowness of travel, less discovery.
Of course, there is also less poverty, less struggle, less war. More decent housing, more penicillin and more opportunity for women. More art galleries. Nostalgia is often rather blinkered. I do wonder though what artists in another hundred and fifty years will honour of the Liverpool of today.
The Overhead Railway series will premier at the Urban Scrawl show at View Two Gallery, Mathew Street, Liverpool. Opening night 12th May 2016. Runs until 18th June 2016.