• Gemma Corby

Journeys to a New World: From Liverpool to America

I moved to Liverpool eight months ago, having lived in a number of different places around Britain in my time. One of my favourite things to do, when I move to somewhere new, is to immerse myself in the local history. This isn’t just because I am a bit of a geek (although I am), it’s because I find that when you appreciate the history and geography of a place (the two are intertwined, in my opinion), then you will start to feel a connection to it. It acts as a great cure for homesickness.

On my first evening in Liverpool, I walked around the docks, feeling a bit sorry for myself, having just left all my family behind in Suffolk. So, when I saw The Legacy Sculpture*, depicting a young family about to set sail from Liverpool to America, I felt strangely comforted. Yes, I was about to start a new life in a strange city, but I had the advantage of not being thousands of miles away from my loved ones – as well as having the instant communication that modern technology affords us.

The Legacy Sculpture. Emigrants look out, across the River Mersey, before embarking on their journey to America

I soon learnt that it was from Princes Dock in Liverpool, between 1830 and 1930, that over nine million people left Europe to start a new life in the New World. Coincidentally, I had visited the immigration centre at Ellis Island in New York City just a few months prior to relocating to Liverpool, and I was fascinated by its stories. My interest was piqued, and I decided to make a video joining up the dots between the Old and New Worlds.

One of my first questions was why did Liverpool end up being this significant gateway to the New World? Why wasn’t it Plymouth, for instance? Plymouth has geography on its side – being more southerly, and westerly – plus it is where the Pilgrim Fathers left aboard the Mayflower, headed for America, many years earlier.

I discovered that Liverpool’s connections to America date back before mass emigration. Transatlantic links had been vital to Liverpool’s economy, since America became a British colony at the start of the seventeenth century. This relationship continued beyond America’s independence in 1783, as a direct result of these well-established trading routes, partly based on the import of cotton and timber. Cotton mills were located in the north of England, thanks to the richest coal mines being in this area. This resulted in Liverpool quickly becoming one of Britain’s most important ports during the industrial revolution.

There was also another trade: the trade of people from Africa. In 1750, Liverpool was sending more slave ships than Bristol and London combined. From this point, until the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807, Liverpool dominated the trade and derived most of her wealth from doing so. Liverpool’s connection to the slave trade is evident in some of the details on its buildings – which I will show you in the video.

Emigration to America from Liverpool started in earnest in 1840. The first Cunard steamship left our shores for Boston with Canadian entrepreneur, Samuel Cunard onboard. I will apologise now for my incorrect pronunciation of Cunard in the video. Apparently, it is pronounced “Coo-nard”, at least it is in Britain. In Canada, it is pronounced as it is spelt, so I am just telling everyone that I am using the true, Canadian pronunciation – although the truth is that I am ill-educated on such matters. Don’t tell anyone.

The Cunard Building, which is known as one of Liverpool’s Three Graces, contains clues of the company’s historical ties to America, in the form of four massive stone eagles – one on each corner. There is also a Cunard Building in Lower Manhattan in New York City. In 1934, Cunard was forced to merge with its Liverpool rivals, White Star Line. They owned a liner, that you may have heard of, called RMS Titanic. Although the Titanic was built in Belfast and set sail from Southampton, she was registered in Liverpool and there are two memorials to her in the city.

If you want to find out more about Liverpool’s connections to the New World – and in particular the USA – please do watch my video by clicking on the photo at the top of this page.

*it was gifted to the people of Liverpool by the Mormon Church, in tribute to the people who emigrated to the States via its port.