In the early 1960s, the Liverpool Bay and the Mersey was a hive of activity with the regular arrivals and departures of ocean-going cargo liners, coasters, ferries and passenger liners.

Added to this was tanker traffic for the various oil jetties and vessels inward or outward bound from the Manchester Ship Canal and Manchester Docks.

It was vessels of all shapes and sizes, sporting house flags and funnel colours of what are now long-gone shipping lines.

Blue and black were the colours of Alfred Holt & Co’s Blue Funnel Line, better known by many as the Birkenhead Navy. Pink and black-top funnels signified the Bibby Line.

Singer Cilla Black brandishes a docker’s hook, February 1964

Singer Cilla Black brandishes a docker’s hook, February 1964

The Elder Dempster Lines were all-yellow and itinerant Manchester Liners passing through had funnels of dark red with a black top and black band.

Until the early 1960s, much of the cargo handled by the Mersey docks system relied on traditional methods. Goods were offloaded on the dockside from lorries or railway wagons, craned onboard and then distributed to keep the vessel on an even keel.

For good or bad, things were about to change. And that change was containerization.

Containerization wasn’t a new concept for water-borne goods. Way back in 1795, the coal wagons on the horse-drawn Little Eaton Gangway in Derbyshire were designed so the loaded body could be craned off its chassis and lowered into a barge for onward shipment on the Derby Canal.

The Blue Funnel Line’s Agapenor was just one of many cargo liners in the British Merchant Navy

The Blue Funnel Line’s Agapenor was just one of many cargo liners in the British Merchant Navy

Liverpool’s interim container terminal at Gladstone Dock, October 1969

Liverpool’s interim container terminal at Gladstone Dock, October 1969

Fast forward to the early 1960s and investment in the Mersey docks system was resulting in the UK’s largest development programme since the 1940s.

The Tranmere Oil Terminal officially opened on 8 June 1960. Two years later, 1,097 metres of new berths and 50,168 square metres of transit sheds opened at Langton Dock.

The advent of containerization, albeit small at the time, led in 1965 to the Mersey Docks Company seeking Government approval for a new dock at Seaforth. As an interim measure, a part of Gladstone Dock was reconfigured to handle container traffic.

However, labour disputes and a decline in trade resulted in the Mersey Docks Company going into liquidation – and the Seaforth project was picked up by its successor, the Mersey Docks & Harbour Company.

One of Agapenor’s successors - a Maersk Line container vessel, January 2018

One of Agapenor’s successors – a Maersk Line container vessel, January 2018

Liverpool 2’s new Megamax cranes arrive from China, November 2015

Liverpool 2’s new Megamax cranes arrive from China, November 2015

The new dock was reached via a 40 metre wide channel dug through the north wall of Gladstone Dock.

When it came into service in 1972, Seaforth provided four deep water container berths (S3-S6) as well as five container gantry cranes and two packing sheds.

At South West Princes Dock, the Belfast Steamship Company had a couple of 7.5 ton portal cranes for handling small containers, whilst the British & Irish Terminal at Trafalgar Dock had been equipped with a container gantry crane and a derrick crane.

The first full year of operation saw Liverpool handle 236,988 loaded containers amounting to more than 1.59 million tons. The port also handled 60,187 empty containers.

Containers being loaded on to an articulated lorry at Seaforth, February 2016

Containers being loaded on to an articulated lorry at Seaforth, February 2016

ACL’s Atlantic Sea alongside Liverpool’s Cruise Liner Terminal prior to its naming by Princess Anne, October 2016

ACL’s Atlantic Sea alongside Liverpool’s Cruise Liner Terminal prior to its naming by Princess Anne, October 2016

With the opening of Seaforth, the decision was taken to close the South Docks system as well as transferring handling from Birkenhead to Liverpool.

During 1998, the port handled 487,000 containers. In 1999, a new record was set when 515,000 containers passed through. The Royal Seaforth Grain Terminal, with its 168,000 tonnes capacity, is the UK’s largest such facility.

Loading a ship at Gladstone Dock in pre-container days, August 1965

Loading a ship at Gladstone Dock in pre-container days, August 1965

The newest phase, Liverpool 2, will allow the port to increase the number of containers it handles from 1.5 million to 2 million a year. This deep-water facility, served by five Megamax cranes, will enable vessels carrying up to 13,500 containers to find a berth.

In October 2016, the ACL lines Atlantic Sea became the first Liverpool-registered container ship in decades to receive a Royal christening on the Mersey when the ceremony was performed by Princess Anne.

Clive Hardy