The central concern of this essay is the performance of the shipbuilding industry in the northwest of England over the period 1814-1913. By “performance” is meant both absolute and relative output. Such a definition is of course limited, ignoring questions about efficiency or innovation. While space limitations make such restrictions necessary, they can be justified on the grounds that a delineation of trends in output is a necessary condition for any more detailed study of the regional industry. The northwest region runs from Chester, Birkenhead and Liverpool up the coast through Lancaster to Barrow, Workington, Whitehaven and Maryport. Statistics on total output will be examined first, distinguishing between domestic, foreign and government (principally warship) sales. Following this, total output will be disaggregated to identify the contributions of various centres. Then the structure of the industry will be examined and the market for its output analysed, distinguishing between demand and supply factors, with particular attention to Merseyside. Finally, reasons for the region's secular decline in shipbuilding will be suggested.
The reality of economic development decreed that the northwest would benefit from facing the Americas. From the beginning of the eighteenth century British trade with the West Indies, South, Central and North America increased rapidly, as did trade with West Africa. Moreover, Liverpool's industrial hinterland ensured that it would become a major port. Chester, Lancaster, Whitehaven and Maryport each enjoyed growth during the century and all were involved in shipbuilding and ship repair. Yet in the nineteenth century Liverpool's trade and docks enjoyed spectacular growth while other regional ports experienced secular decline. It is useful to remember, however, that shipbuilding and port activities are separate industries and there is no reason why they should be directly related.
Before examining the statistical evidence on the region's output, it is important to make several points. First, there is no continuous official data for the period 1814-1913. For 1814-1826, there is a parliamentary return which includes all ports in the northwest. An appendix to a Select Committee report gives the tonnages built from 1820 through 1832 at principal ports, including Liverpool and Whitehaven. At this time “Liverpool” included Birkenhead while “Whitehaven” embraced Maryport, Harrington and Workington.