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Painless takeover brings docks era to an end; Peel Holdings now owns the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company. City Editor Larry Neild reports.

Byline: Larry Neild

NEW era dawned today in the history of the Port of Liverpool, once the world's greatest seaport. The Mersey Docks and Harbour Company disappeared as a publicly-listed company at midnight, with ownership switching to Peel Holdings.

Peel, owners of Liverpool John Lennon Airport, the Manchester Ship Canal and the Trafford Centre, assumed ownership of the MDHC, and with it a vast estate of docklands and real estate spanning some 2,000 acres.

The Mersey Docks group employs 1,800 people, 800 of them on the Mersey. Staff will report for work as usual today in what is a seamless takeover by the millionaire Whittaker family of Manchester.

Even the famous name MDHC will live on, at least for the foreseeable future, but the company has withdrawn from the London Stock Exchange.

Peel, privately-owned, is not listed in the City.

Among those 800 employees in Liverpool are just a handful of dockers, or port operatives as they are now called. There are now just 400 dockers working along the river, mostly for private supply companies such as Drake International.

At its peak, Liverpool docks employed 25,000 dockers and was buzzing with activity along miles of berths and quays. There were times in the 1960s when 100 ships were tied up, bringing cargo from every corner of the world.

Liverpool docks were synonymous with industrial strife, and a seemingly endless catalogue of stoppages gave the city its image as a strike-torn area.

Until 1948, dockers were forced to wait in pens to see if they would be picked for a day's work.

The setting up of the National Docks Labour Scheme by the Labour government gave thousands of dockers the stability and certainty of earnings they had been denied for generations.

In the 1970s, the MDHB was hit by a financial crisis, coming as close to complete closure as it had in any time since its formation. The board was still struggling with working methods devised decades earlier and had not adapted to the technical changes in the maritime industry.

Staring bankruptcy in the face, the board promoted an Act of Parliament which led to the setting up of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company in 1971. That move, coupled with the building of the pounds 50m development at Seaforth, gave the new company a fighting chance of survival. The troubles, though, continued and the unrest and strikes led to the leaving of Liverpool by many of the big shipping lines.

They headed for new ports with less militant workforces.

In the early 1980s, the MDHC had seen the amount of cargo it handled fall to less than 10m tonnes. It prompted the company to embark on its biggest-ever rationalisation programme. Thousands of dockers took voluntary redundancy and new working practices were introduced.

The MDHC was even able to secure the first ever two-year pay deal with its dockers.

Towards the end of the 1980s, the National Dock Labour scheme was scrapped, leading to a national dock strike.

That ended and there was relative peace at the port until the last big dispute that started in 1995, involving dockers employed by the stevedore company Torside.

Peel Holdings today take control of a port busier than at any time in its long history. The final annual report of the MDHC shows that turnover in the past year was pounds 326m, with pre-tax profits exceeding pounds 55m. The company handled almost 40m tonnes of cargo, including 32m in the Port of Liverpool. General cargo amounted to just 374,000 tonnes, with container and bulk cargo accounting for the lion's share

Nearly 800 years ago, a handful of ships sailed from a small creek which was transformed into one of the world's great seaports

LIVERPOOL has been a port since the time of King John, who in 1207 granted a charter to establish a township. Main activities were shipments of cattle hides, salt and tar from Wales and Ireland from a small creek that today lies beneath the Pier Head

In a three-month period of 1586, seventeen ships sailed from Liverpool to Ireland.

Included in the cargo manifest were 1,400 tennis balls, 14 racquets, textiles (from Manchester), knives and scythes

The great plague of London in 1665 prompted many London shippers to switch to Liverpool. Pirates in the English Channel also gave Liverpool a boost from owners of ships heading to the Americas

Liverpool Town Council was the original port authority. In1709, it promoted an Act of Parliament to build the first enclosed dock on the site of the original "pool", now the site of Chavasse Park and Canning Place.

The council acted as trustee of the dock estate until 1858

As the port expanded and its management became more complex, its affairs were delegated to a committee. Between 1845 and 1847permanent sub-committees were set up to cope with the main aspects of port business such as finance, harbour administration and building works

From about 1850 onwards, Liverpool Corporation came under increasing outside pressure from Parliament, Manchester and dock users to relinquish control of the port to a separate public body. It resulted in the establishment of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board in 1858, the overall port authority for the lower Mersey. It took over the incomplete docks at Birkenhead, but not the London and North Western Railway Company's dock at Garston

The MDHB comprised 24 elected members and four nominated by the Mersey Conservancy Commissioners. It was served by paid officials, of which the treasurer, solicitor, harbour master, marine surveyor and water bailiff, engineer-in-chief and the secretary (re-titled secretary and general manager between 1894 and 1963) were the most important. The system survived with some changes until 1972 when the board became the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company, the present port authority

The renowned architect Jesse Hartley was responsible for a number of docks, including Albert Dock, built to cope with increasing Atlantic trade. Built in quick succession were Canning (1828), Clarence (1830), Brunswick (1832), Waterloo (1834), Victoria and Trafalgar (1836and Albert Dock (1845). In 1893, Liverpool Overhead Railway opened, transporting electric trains along the riverfront. In 1900, more than 2,000 vessels were registered in Liverpool, and the value of goods passing through the port exceeded pounds 200mIn 1907, the MDHB moved into its new splendid headquarters, the Port of Liverpool Building, first of the so-called Three Graces at the Pier Head

During World War II, the Port of Liverpool was heavily bombed. Liverpool became the focal point for the longest battle of the war, the Battle of the Atlantic, as merchant ships ran the gauntlet of German U-boats.

During the war, 75m tonnes of cargo and 4.7m troops passed through the portIn 1948, Liverpool established the world's first port radar station, making it safer for vessels to navigate the bay to a distance of 20 miles

In 1956, the Overhead Railway closed, riddled with damage caused by atmospheric pollution

In the early 1960s, the port became the first in the UK, and the fourth in the world, to instal computer technology In the early 1970s, the port was hit by a financial crisis, coming closer than at any time in its history to closure. With the MDHB unable to meet its mounting debts, a Bill was placed before Parliament to create a company, leading to the birth of the MDHC

In 1972, three miles of southern docks were closed, no longer suited to the changing trends in shipping. In 2002, the MDHC built Twelve Quays terminal at Birkenhead - its biggest single investment since the new dock at Seaforth - paving the way for improved links with ports across the Irish Sea

In 2005, the MDHC announced plans for a new terminal at Seaforth to enable the port to handle some of the world's biggest container carriers

CAPTION(S):

Peel chairman John Whittaker; Thousands marched during the dockers' dispute, in 1998; Millions of tonnes pass through the Seaforth container terminal
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Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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