‘We are all aware that the population of Liverpool is a peculiar one - very peculiar. Taking it individual by individual, a poorer population probably does not exist in any large town or city in Great Britain.’
Liverpool Echo, 20 November 1886
Victorian Liverpool was a city of poverty but also of great prosperity. At its centre stood St George’s Hall, operating as a concert hall for the wealthy and as a criminal court sentencing hundreds, many no more than children. Large libraries were built in the midst of a largely illiterate population. Civic architecture towered above cobbled streets strewn with sewage and cesspools. Cholera outbreaks swept through districts with nicknames like ‘Little Hell’. Refined and elegant ladies walked the promenades only streets away from places teeming with prostitutes and the poor. And with the super-rich so close to the slums, crime was endemic. It was estimated a quarter of the property stolen was taken by prostitutes. For the jobless who were unwilling to steal or prostitute themselves, Liverpool had the largest workhouse in the country, eventually housing 5,000 unfortunates.
THE DOCKS AND THE DEAD RABBITS
Liverpool’s economic heart was the docks. Opened in 1715, business boomed through slavery and whaling and from sail to steam. By the start of the 1800s, the docks covered 140 acres with 10 miles of quay space. This gateway to the world serviced 20,000 ships a year, supplying and restocking the emerging British Empire.
This port powerhouse attracted between 100,000 to 300,000 Irish fleeing the potato famine at the end of the 1840s. These often Catholic immigrants clashed with the largely Protestant communities of earlier Welsh and Scottish immigrants crowded into the growing number of tenements. Sectarian gangs emerged with names like the Hibernians and the Dead Rabbits.
As Dr Michael Macilwee characterised it, it was a city that had everything from ‘religious riots to bare-knuckled brawls’.
Despite hard times due to reduced cotton imports during the American Civil War, the population grew nearly ten- fold reaching over a million by the 1870s.
For many, this meant employment was sporadic at best. Young, eager to work, lads, or ‘nippers’ soon found themselves unemployed as somebody younger and cheaper came along. Many sought solace in alcohol. One paper of the time estimated that if every drinking establishment in Liverpool was put in a straight line, it would reach eleven and a half miles.
In such rapidly changing times, moral panics came and went. For a while, everyone was obsessed about being garrotted by strangers. Then there was fear you couldn't even trust your family. In January 1874, a man was executed for the drunken, slow and savage beating to death of his own mother.
And then, that same year, there entered a new threat: