Strange territory: Liverpool’s dockland ruins


Looking south along Brunswick Place to the docks.

Walk north of Liverpool’s magnificent Liver Building – leaving behind the bustling tourist area around the Albert Dock – and you enter the city’s liminal dockland zone – the northern part of a vast interconnected port system that stretches over 7 miles along the Liverpool bank of the River Mersey. In 1907 – at the height of Liverpool’s preeminence as a global port – the writer Walter Dixon Scott described the ‘romance’ of the city’s docklands, a ‘strange territory’ that formed ‘a kind of fifth element’ to the world – ‘a place charged with daemonic issues and daemonic silences, where men move like puzzled slaves, fretting under orders they cannot understand, fumbling with great forces that have long passed out of their control.’


The 1901 Tobacco Warehouse seen from Regent Road.


Regent Road facade of the Tobacco Warehouse.

Today, those ‘great forces’ have seemingly abandoned Liverpool, wielding their power now in the Global South, but their traces remain everywhere in the city’s docklands, which are perhaps an even stranger territory today than they were at the turn of the twentieth century. Walking north along Regent Road, which hugs the granite wall that encloses most of the docks (with their evocative succession of imperial names – Trafalgar, Salisbury, Nelson, Wellington, Canada), one sees everywhere the material remnants of Liverpool’s former global maritime dominance. First, surrounding Stanley Dock, are gargantuan abandoned buildings, including the world’s largest brick-built warehouse, completed in 1901 to store the vast quantities of tobacco that were then imported from the United States. Flanked by a host of other brick warehouses, the entire complex hovers between a state of ruin and recuperation, the largest buildings being slowly turned into apartments and, in the case of the Tobacco Warehouse, a vast hotel, while the smaller examples continuing to languish in redundancy.


Brunswick Place


Effingham Street


Ruined grabber, Huskisson Branch Dock No. 3.

Things become even stranger the further north one progresses. In the streets beyond Huskisson Branch Dock No. 3, the semi-ruinous buildings accommodate many uses: spaces to store and sell salvaged car parts in Brunswick Place; unspecified ‘Units to Let’ in Effingham Street; offices for a stationary company in Princes Street. All of these streets face the docklands beyond, where enormous hills of scrap materials accumulate before one’s eyes (presumably waiting to be exported for recycling). It is as if one is witnessing the wastes of the world being gathered into one space and urban development going into reverse gear.


Hills of scrap metal, Huskisson Dock No. 3.


Former spare car-parts warehouse, Brunswick Place

This feeling of being witness to the ‘great forces’ of material destruction is, of course, a mainstay in (post) apocalyptic cinema, particularly within the cyberpunk trend that began with the first of the Mad Max films in 1979 and has continued up to the present in The Matrix trilogy and the recent Robocop reboot. Within the cyberpunk genre, salvage plays a critical role in imagined apocalyptic futures, whether seen in the hotchpotch of technologies in machines in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), or the appropriation of architectural ruins as domestic spaces seen in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) or Neil Marshall’s Doomsday (2008). The image of ruins in cyberpunk is both romantic – a form of neo-Gothic revelling in the excess of decay – and also critical, namely of late-capitalism’s increasingly accelerated regime of ‘creative’ destruction.


Walls of buildings along Brunswick Place.

Walking in Liverpool’s ruined docklands – in effect, the type of real spaces that underpin cyberpunk’s alternative realities – is equally fraught with contradictions, from the startling clash of serene emptiness with violent destruction to the melancholic sense of lives and buildings clung onto in desperation. Liverpool’s docklands simultaneously speak of past, present and future: what was exists as both material remnants and absent ruins; what is shows itself in the ingenuity of those who continue to use the semi-ruined buildings; what will be comes in the sense of the landscape as prophetic of what will inevitably be the fate of every place in the world ruled by capitalism.

12 thoughts on “Strange territory: Liverpool’s dockland ruins

  1. I’ve always wanted to explore these buildings so this is fascinating. I saw the Tobacco warehouse on Tony Robinson’s Leeds -Liverpool canal walk on Channel 4 the other day which reminded me too! When I lived in Southport we had a boat on the canal so that was of particular interest. It starts near the docks in Liverpool.


  2. Thanks Diana. It’s definitely worth a walk all the way up Regent Road (it stops at the new part of the docks). No doubt, as I did, you’ll feel very out of place (you’re unlikely to see anyone else walking). On Sundays, the whole area is utterly deserted and one Sunday afternoon when I was taking pictures of buildings, I got stopped by the police asking what I was doing! It’s certainly an experience though…


  3. Fascinating post Paul. I liked your comment about ‘serene emptiness.’ It’s something I’ve noticed walking in similar environments. The scale of these places evokes a past of noise, bustle and activity and yet the present silence is witness to that absence. Also that ruined grabber has a touch of the cyborg crab about it!


  4. Thanks for your encouraging words. I saw that grabber through a hole in the fence and couldn’t resist – it’s the disconnectedness of it that’s curious I think. It’s interesting that there really aren’t similar landscapes like this in Manchester. Sure, there are areas of the city that feel as empty and semi-derelict, but in the Liverpool docks one feels in a different world, somehow completely separated from the rest of the city. I wonder if the Glasgow shipyards feel similar?


  5. Excellent post and insights Paul. Fascinating photography – love the quote by Walter Dixon Scott. The contrast between his words and the buildings now sum it all up.

    As to your question on Glasgow shipywards I don’t think to the same extent as there has been a lot of regeneration and clean-up along the Glasgow section of Clyde. It does remind me of London dockyard territory a long time ago when you followed the Thames Path downstream from Greenwich, especially the mounds of scrap metal.


  6. Having only recently become obsessed with all things Liverpool, I am eating up your blog entry here with great delight! Thank you so much. After reading Helen Forrester’s Twopence to Cross the Mersey, I haven’t been able to shake Liverpool from my thoughts… an amazing and remarkable city.

    My ancestral cousin, Nathanial Hawthorne, (I live in Salem,MA, where Hawthorne was born/raised) was U.S. Consul in Liverpool in the 1850s and I’ve been enjoying reading thru his Notes about his 4 years spent there with joy. A great means of comparison between the centuries is his account and yours! Again, many thanks!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s