The twelfth-century monks who rowed passengers across the broad river near what is now Liverpool must have known a river teeming with life. Nearly forty species of fish, including the mighty Atlantic salmon were found in its waters, and as late as the 1760s, the right to fish in the Mersey was worth as much as £400 per year.
A hundred years later the industrial revolution had begun its radical reshaping of the Northwest of England, turning Manchester into the world’s first industrial city, and Liverpool into the great port of the British Empire.
The fast-flowing rivers of the Mersey system certainly helped to position the region at the forefront of the newly mechanised manufacturing industries, but they also paid a heavy price. The waterways became the major conduits for removing and transporting industrial waste, absorbing effluent from myriad different industrial processes along the banks. In addition, the population of the Northwest exploded as people arrived in search of work. By the 1960s the raw and partially-treated sewage of five million people was being discharged directly into our rivers.
By the 1980s, the Northwest’s waterways were among the most polluted in the world, and beside them industrial decline was manifest in dereliction, poor housing and social problems.These issues came to a head in 1981, when disturbances in Toxteth, an inner-city area of Liverpool, boiled over into full-blown riots.
Arriving in Liverpool in the smouldering aftermath of these events the then Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Heseltine, made his home in the Atlantic Tower Hotel overlooking the Mersey. He recalls
“The Mersey got to me. It was enormously significant in the history of our country, and I felt a debt to that river…It was an open sewer, and I felt deeply sad that we hadn’t realised what an enormous, valuable resource it was. That was where the idea came from, that we must make good the degradation of centuries.”
As a result of Heseltine’s initial idea, the Mersey Basin Campaign was established in 1985, with government backing and a 25 year lifespan, to address the problems of water quality and associated landward dereliction on the Mersey and its tributaries. Later, its work was extended to cover the Ribble basin in Lancashire.
This collection gathers together some of the key resources relating to the birth of the Mersey Basin Campaign, from the riots of 1981 to the launch of the organisation in 1985.