The ‘Dockers’ Umbrella’ remembered

When, near the turn of the last century, the riverfronts of Glasgow and Liverpool were a seething mass of industry and commerce, the resulting clogged streets led to some bold moves above and below ground to beat the jams.

In Glasgow it led to the construction of what was then only the third underground railway in the world – the circular Glasgow Subway whose carriages were ingeniously moved from station to station by a system of cables, and which opened in 1896. The Glasgow Subway still exists today (though long since electrically powered) and indeed is to be given a new lease of life with a new fleet of trains.

Screen grab from Liverpool Overhead Railway animation c Steven Wheeler

The Liverpool Overhead Railway, re-created by Steven Paul Wheeler

In Liverpool it was decided to go skywards rather than underground, with an overhead railway which ran the length of the seven and a half mile network of waterfront docks and warehouses – then the second largest port in the country after London.

The Liverpool Overhead Railway opened in 1893 and being the first electric overhead railway in the world wasn’t the only way in which it blazed a trail. It was also the first to be protected by electric automatic signals and only the second place in the country with an escalator (although it didn’t last long as it caused too much damage to long dresses apparently!)

Unlike the Glasgow Subway, the Liverpool Overhead Railway has not survived. Worn out by continuous use, wartime bombs and corrosion, by the fifties it needed a total overhaul if it was to carry on. The £2 million needed was not available (ironically not a huge amount when compared with the, ahem, £300 million, at today’s prices, that it cost to build) so it was closed in 1956 and demolished the year after. The invention of the shipping container consigned the city centre docks it had served to similar oblivion in the decades that followed before we reached the current realignment where Liverpool is a busier port city than ever, though the Docks are no longer in the centre and the numbers employed are of course far fewer.

Meanwhile, some of the areas the Liverpool Overhead Railway served are now reclaimed for flats, hotels and tourist attractions – such as the new Museum of Liverpool. And the Museum of Liverpool pays handsome and appropriate tribute to this unique railway which still lingers in the city’s memories and affections. The exhibition includes one of the original carriages, plenty of memorabilia as well as a relief map of the Docks and the Overhead Railway which gives some sense of the vast scale of the docks and the intricacies of the warehouses and railways lines that served them.

The Liverpool Overhead Railway is also recreated in a spectacular and beautiful animation by Steven Paul Wheeler

The video is planned to feature as part of a documentary on what was popularly known as the ‘Dockers Umbrella’.

Screen shot from lumiere brothers project animation

Screen grab from the Museum of Liverpool video

The Museum has also helped put together this video which uses original film taken in 1897 to recreate what a journey would have been like over the mile after mile of busy docks in the first years of the Overhead Railway – where an electric train provided spectacular views of the sailing ships.

Well worth a visit – and demonstrates again that not all the most interesting and ground breaking thinking on transport happens in the capital!

Jonathan Bray