Liverpool, a port on the north bank of the estuary of the Mersey, was first used as a harbour in the 13th century for sending supplies to Ireland. Liverpool only had a population of about 22,000 in 1750 but the city grew rapidly in the second half of the century as a result of the slave trade. By the 1740s Liverpool had eclipsed its rivals Bristol and London, and according to David Richardson, the author of Liverpool and the English Slave Trade (1994), the port consolidated its position as "the undisputed slaving capital of England and by far the largest slave port in the Atlantic world."
Daniel Defoe visited Liverpool during this period and remarked: "Liverpool has an opulent, flourishing and increasing trade to Virginia, and the English island colonies in America. They trade round the whole island, send ships to Norway, to Hamburg, and to the Baltic, as also to Holland and Flanders; so they are almost like the Londoners, universal merchants. There is no town in England, London excepted, that can equal Liverpool for the fineness of the streets, the beauty of the buildings; many of the houses are all of stone and the rest (the new part) of brick."
Being a seaman involved in the slave-trade was a dangerous activity. Stephen D. Behrendt, carried out a study of 1,709 muster rolls for Liverpool slave voyages between 1780 and 1807. He discovered that 17.8 per cent of original crew died (10,439 out of 58,778). The time spent on the African coast was particularly dangerous. Although large numbers of men died from drowning, Behrendt discovered that various types of fevers accounted for the majority of deaths. Gastrointestinal diseases including flux, dysentery and diarrhoea accounted for 11 per cent of the sample. Thomas Clarkson, who campaigned against the slave trade, attempted to show that it was highly dangerous for the sailors. He claimed that in Liverpool alone, over 15,165 seaman had been lost since 1771 in the 1,001 ships that had sailed from there to the coast of Africa.
The port of Liverpool became important in the development of the textile industry. By the beginning of the 19th century Liverpool had replaced London as the principal port where cotton was imported. To cope with this increased traffic, eight new docks were built between 1815 and 1835.
The early part of the 19th century saw a rapid growth in the trade between Liverpool and Manchester. The success of the Stockton & Darlington railway opened in 1825, convinced Liverpool merchants such as Joseph Sandars that the city needed a new transport system. Sandars formed the Liverpool & Manchester Railway Company and with the help of William James, recruited George Stephenson as chief engineer.
The Liverpool & Manchester railway was opened on 15th September, 1830. The railway was a great success. In 1831 the company transported 445,047 passengers. Receipts were £155,702 with profits of £71,098. By 1844 receipts had reached £258,892 with profits of £136,688. During this period shareholders were regularly paid out an annual dividend of £10 for every £100 invested.
The railway increased the importance of Liverpool as a trading centre. A new series of docks were built, including the Albert and Stanley Docks during the 1840s. Dr. William Ducan argued that this rapid growth caused considerable problems for the working classes: "In the streets inhabited by the working classes, I believe that the great majority are without sewers, and that where they do exist they are of a very imperfect kind unless where the ground has a natural inclination, therefore the surface water and fluid refuse of every kind stagnate in the street, and add, especially in hot weather, their pestilential influence to that of the more solid filth. With regard to the courts, I doubt whether there is a single court in Liverpool which communicates with the street by an underground drain, the only means afforded for carrying off the fluid dirt being a narrow, open, shallow gutter, which sometimes exists, but even this is very generally choked up with stagnant filth."
This view was supported by a study carried out in 1842 by Edwin Chadwick: "Of the deaths which occurred amongst the labouring classes in Liverpool, it appears that no less than 62% of the total number were deaths under five years of age. Even amongst those entered as shopkeepers and tradesmen, no less than 50% died before they attained that period."
Large warehouses were erected in Liverpool and the dock area eventually spread for 7 miles (11.3 km) along the Mersey Estuary. The expansion in size of the port also stimulated the growth of other industries such as marine engineering, clothing manufacture and food processing. By 1861 the population of Liverpool had reached 444,000.
Ida Wells visited Liverpool in 1894 and was impressed by the tolerance exhibited by the people of the city: "Her freedom-loving citizens not only subscribe to the doctrine that human beings regardless of colour or condition are equal before the law, but they practice what they preach. Here a coloured person can ride in any sort of conveyance in any part of the country without being insulted; stop in any hotel or be accommodated at any restaurant one wishes without being refused with contempt; wander into any picture gallery, lecture room, concert hall, theatre or church and receive only the most courteous treatment from officials and fellow sightseers."