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Important imports

26 July 2010 by stepheng

18th century painting of a family at home

I like to read about the huge variety of goods and commodities that have been imported and exported through Liverpool over the centuries.

International trade was the reason for the port’s phenomenal growth and one of my favourite accounts is Sir James Picton’s Memorials of Liverpool.

First published in 1873, it contains fascinating details about the history and topography of Liverpool including the docks. I have a second edition with liver birds embossed on the spine.

As in Picton’s time, most imports and exports still travel by sea as ships continue to follow trade routes that have often existed for hundreds and even thousands of years.

For example, in 18th century Britain many goods came from abroad but they were generally luxury items.

Visitors to Merseyside Maritime Museum’s Life at Sea gallery are given an  insight into the imports of the day, using a contemporary oil painting (pictured).

It shows prosperous John Bacon and his family in about 1742. Painted by Arthur Devis, Mr and Mrs Bacon are seen with their four children in their luxurious home.

Mrs Bacon’s dress is made from silk. Luxury silks were imported from India in ships owned by the East India Company. Some also came from France, renowned for its fine silk products. Silk goods were also manufactured in England and in the 1700s English producers often complained about foreign imports.

The furniture is made from mahogany – at this time most of this wood came from British colonies in the Caribbean. It was originally known as Jamaica wood and was felled and moved by enslaved Africans.

The carpet is from Turkey or the Middle East.  Britain traded with the Ottoman Empire ruled by the Turks.

Italian paintings were very popular among the British middle classes. Throughout the 1700s young gentlemen went on the Grand Tour of Europe, visiting Italy as part of their education and often bringing back paintings and sculptures.

By 1800 Britain’s top five imports in terms of quantity were sugar, coffee, corn, raw cotton and tea.

In the 19th century Britain developed worldwide trading links focusing on South America, Africa, the Far East and Australasia. The introduction of the steam ships from the 1840s enabled regular services to operate to ports all over the world.

Massive imports of many products and materials annually take place through Liverpool. They include 11 million tonnes of crude oil, three million tonnes of coal, nearly a million tonnes of edible oils and fats along with cocoa, metals, granite, chemicals and general cargo.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1 p&p UK).

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