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Liverpool during the First World War

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In 1914, Liverpool was an attractive and prosperous place. It has been said that there are more Georgian buildings, terraces and squares in Liverpool than exist in Bath.

Liverpool’s population in 1700 was about 6000; by 1800, it was nearly 80,000. By the beginning of the twentieth century, it was 684,958. This massive increase was begun by the agricultural revolution, through which the countryside was enabled to feed the towns and cities. And the increase was reinforced by the industrial revolution, which brought many people into the towns to seek work. Many people were drawn to Liverpool as a place of opportunity.

Liverpool was involved in almost every aspect of the trade and industry of the nation. For instance, memorable, because of the cultural benefits to the nation of the Tate fortune, was sugar refining. Tate was not joined by Lyle until 1921. Linked with this trade was sweet manufacture, Tavener Routledge, Williams and Barker and Dobson are all Liverpool firms. Brewing was another major industry in Liverpool, with Threlfalls and Walker’s Breweries among the best known. The founder of Walker’s Brewery gave a generous sum toward the funding of the magnificent Art Gallery that bears his name.

Tobacco was a huge Liverpool import; it was to be an important factor in keeping up the morale of the troops and appeals were made to the public to contribute to ‘smokes’ for the troops.

In commerce too, Liverpool led the nation. Martins Bank began in 1593 in a tavern, at the Sign of the Grasshopper, which, along with the Liver Bird, became a part of its emblem. Martins Bank was subsumed by the present day Barclays Bank.

At the beginning of the Great War, Liverpool’s Bold Street, where the expensive ladies’ outfitters and dressmakers, Cripps, was situated, was still known as ‘the Bond Street of the North’. There were also many smaller but equally exclusive shops, such as furriers, tailors and milliners, in this exclusive shopping street.

There was also work in the construction industry, in rail and road transport, in shipbuilding, in manufacturing pharmaceuticals, in engineering and manufacture and in commerce at various levels, from office boys, to clerks, supervisors and managers. High levels of employment meant that money was in circulation with benefits to the local economy.

Women were able to find work in factories, offices, teaching, nursing, shops, dress-making and tailoring establishments, although many of these employed only single women.  The largest employment for women in 1914 was still domestic service; there were plenty of opportunities for cooks, kitchen-maids, housemaids and parlour-maids in the houses of the wealthy manufacturers and merchants. And even a clerk, of whom there were many all over the city, would strive to maintain a standard of living that included the employment of a maidservant, or, at the very least, a daily cleaner for the rough work such as scrubbing. Also ‘dailies’ were often married women or widows, who also undertook laundry work at home - ‘took in washing’ - in order to survive.

It was clear from the beginning of the Great War that one of the important features of Liverpool for the forth-coming conflict was its position as a deep-sea port with extensive docks facing the United States.

From this time onward, the port and its trade were constantly growing and, eventually, the shoreline had the greatest range of docks in the world, seven miles of which was served by the Overhead Railway.

So Liverpool, with its imposing architecture, including St. George’s Hall, the Walker Art Gallery and the William Brown Library and Museum was home to wealthy merchants and industrialists, a comfortable middle-class and an artisan class for whom there was plentiful employment. But alongside this pride and prosperity, there was also poverty. The Liverpool docks provided employment for many men, but the system of employing them was based on casual labour. This was later to make the prospect of enlisting in the army an attractive one.

To add to the existing splendour of the City, in 1907 the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board opened its impressive building, followed by the iconic Liver Building in 1911 and the building of the Cunard Building began in 1914. At the beginning of the Great War, the Three Graces, as they are now called, were already a focal point on Liverpool’s waterfront.

In 1914, Liverpool was the maritime heart of a great nation and Britain was a country whose power had increased worldwide for over a century. The British people were accustomed to their elevated status in the world and their belief in their right to govern and conquer was unshakeable.

The second largest mobilisation of men in Liverpool was for the Royal Navy. More than 12,000 Liverpool men signed up to fight the war at sea. As a consequence of these large numbers, there were men from Liverpool on every single battleship between 1914 and 1918.

Despite the maritime nature of the port city of Liverpool, its men were far from slow in enlisting in the Army. When Lord Derby appealed for volunteers, he was not disappointed. On Monday 31 August, recruitment began at St George's Hall in the centre of Liverpool. Queues of men rapidly formed and, by 10am, 1,000 men had signed up, enough to fill the battalion Lord Derby had promised Lord Kitchener, but many more men were still waiting. Within five days, the total had reached 3,000 and by October, there were enough from the city and its environs to form four Pals battalions in the King’s Liverpool Regiment. About 2,800 Liverpool Pals had been killed by the end of the war.

This led directly to the need for women to enter the workforce in large numbers primarily as land workers and in Liverpool, in factories, especially in the dangerous munitions factories, which were employing 950,000 women by the end of the war, sometimes called munitionettes, but also in Government departments, public transport, the post office, as police officers, as clerks in business and in child-care.

The war had brought about changes, both political and social. Some change was gradual in practice. For instance, although some women had got the right to vote in 1918, there were only eight women members of Parliament in 1923 and women over the age of twenty-one were not able to vote until 1928.

The need to increase industrial efficiency for the war effort meant that the working class had become more powerful and much better organised during the war so they were, by no means, powerless as they had been in the past. Most of those returning from the war were reintegrated successfully. Although in Germany discontented ex-service men were radicalised politically, in Britain ex-servicemen tended to group themselves around the forerunners of the local branches of the British Legion. Nevertheless, the general population, who had endured and suffered so much expected social change on a scale that had never been seen. These changes began with vast numbers of corporation houses built in Liverpool in the nineteen-twenties, were still seen in the birth of the Welfare State in July 1948 and are still being evidenced now in changes to status and expectations.

By Pamela Russell

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