Liverpool’s overlooked history?

The archives and libraries were closed today, so I took myself down to the riverfront to look around some of the National Museums Liverpool, specifically the Museum of Liverpool, the Merseyside Maritime Museum and the International Slavery Museum. The latter is currently located on the 3rd floor of the Maritime Museum, although it will someday have its own building.

They are very nice museums. The Museum of Liverpool only recently opened, and the outside is still being completed. The Maritime Museum opened in the 1980s. Both focus primarily on the history of Liverpool since about 1850, emphasizing urban development, Cunard and the Titanic, World War II, and Merseybeat. The International Slavery Museum, which grew out of an exhibit on the Atlantic Slave trade, is by nature of its subject centered on the 18th century, although it emphasizes that slavery is not merely a historical institution.

I enjoyed nosing about the museums in a general sort of way, but I confess I was disappointed in the lack of information on Georgian Liverpool. There is a timeline exhibit in the Museum of Liverpool, but the 18th century is in the same case as the 16th, with very little space given to it. Liverpool does not seem reluctant to talk about the fact that slavery played a large role in its development into a major commercial center, but the town during that era is largely left out of most narratives. With one notable and very enjoyable exception.

When I entered the Merseyside Maritime Museum, I noticed a banner with an 18th century looking map promoting a tour of the Old Dock. Curious, I wandered over to the desk and discovered a brochure, which confirmed that the Old Dock Tour related to an 18th century dock – as I was to learn, the first commercial wet dock in the western world. The tour required a booking but no fee, so I put down my name. I expected some sort of walk around the commercial area now laying over the old dock site, with some “this was here” comments. Instead, the tour goes to one corner of the Old Dock, all of which was preserved when the dock was closed in the 1820s. It is now the site of an archaeological excavation and was apparently featured on Time Team (a British TV show).*

I had fun. The two guides were informative, friendly, and well-versed in the topic. There were only two other people, local gentlemen, on the tour. After being conducted into the dig site (through a car park, under the square outside John Lewis in Liverpool One), we were given a brief lecture and then allowed to read the interpretive panels and ask questions. This was more than the glimpses of Georgian Liverpool I’d gotten in the museum buildings, this was a visit to a remnant of it. What’s more, I know that James Maury’s consulate office was about a block from the Old Dock, so I felt like I knew a little more about the Liverpool which he experienced (by the 1810s, the Dock was full of sewage, so I imagine he was well aware of its proximity).

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*I feel compelled to point out that the dock was closed because it was full of sewage, when it was re-opened as an archaeological dig there was still organic matter remaining, but the tv people didn’t show up until the professionals had dug through layers of Georgian excrement.

(Please forgive any formatting oddities – I’m using the WordPress app on my tablet for the first time)

Christmases Past: what happens next?

With the close of the 18th century, we run into a sort of black hole of information about how people celebrated Christmas. The next big era everyone looks at is the Victorian era, when Christmas trees come into vogue and many of the “Christmas Traditions” we take for granted are first introduced. None of this kicks in until the 1840s, at the earliest. What happened in the interim?

There are new Christmas ideas afoot in the first 40 years of the 19th century. A small group of historian/writer types in New York (city) make a big deal out of Saint Nicholas and ‘traditional’ Christmases. Everyone’s favourite Christmas poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (aka “The Night Before Christmas”), was published anonymously in 1823. The poem is generally attributed to Clement Clark Moore, although there’s also an argument to be made for it having orginally been penned by Henry Livingston Jr.; either way, both of these men had probably been exposed to the works for fellow New Yorker Washington Irving. In 1809, Irving had published A History of New York, which included mentions of Saint Nicholas bringing gifts to the early inhabitants of New York (described in a way which resembles that of “Visit from Saint Nicholas.”) Moreover, Irving described an ideal Christmas, to him, in his 1819/20 Sketch-book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Among the short stories in the Sketch-book are a series on ‘old Christmas’ as celebrated in England. Although these are technically fiction, Irving had spent time in England and may have based his descriptions on observations.

So we have a handful of publications out of New York in the early part of the 19th century which talk about Christmas celebrations. They aren’t wildly divergent from the Christmases of the 18th century, although I feel that they are more vibrant. There is also a strong German/Dutch influence, due to the history of New York. What I have not been able to discover is how widely read these works were. By the end of the 19th century Irving’s “Old Christmas” essays were being published independently of the rest of the Sketch-book; when did they catch the public eye? Before or after the “Visit from Saint Nicholas” and the popularisation of that other Germanic tradition, the Christmas tree? Did the story of a Saint Nicholas with tiny reindeer become popular in the Southern states immediately after the poem was published, or did it take decades?

Somehow the celebration of Christmas in America shifted from a non-holiday in the Northeast and a time for church and visiting in the South to something more standardized (as much as anything could or can be standardized here). How long did the transition take, and how did it manifest? I have not yet been able to uncover answers to my questions. I can only hope that there were some very descriptive diarists and letter-writers in the mid-Atlantic and Southern states who recorded their memories of Christmas.