In October 1964, I set sail out of Liverpool for Montreal on the
RMS Empress of Canada, never dreaming that some 48 years later, married with four
adult Canadian-born children, I would be in the Merseyside Maritime Museum comparing my emigrant experience with some of the nine million people who had set sail from the city for the new worlds of Canada, America, Australia and New Zealand between 1850 and1930.
The "Emigrants to the New World" exhibit tells stories of people leaving Liverpool (first on sailing ships, then on steam ships and finally on ocean liners) that will resonate strongly with Canadians who belong to a nation of immigrants. These could be the stories of your parents, grandparents or great-grandparents, some leaving poverty and persecution in the hope of a better life for their families, others seeking adventure.
I marvel at the courage of those early emigrants who left family and friends, never expecting to see them again, to face a harsh life and dangers at sea as they crossed the turbulent Atlantic.
The exhibit also tells the heart-rending stories of some of the more than 100,000 "child migrants" from workhouses, children's homes and orphanages that Britain sent to populate Canada, Australia and other Commonwealth countries between 1869 and 1967. Liverpool's Allan Line carried almost half of Canada's child migrants on its ships.
The Titanic, Lusitania and the Forgotten Empress Gallery explores the impact of these tragedies on Liverpool. Again there is a strong Canadian connection. In May1914, after a collision in thick fog, the
Empress of Ireland sank in the
St. Lawrence River soon after she left Quebec. This tragedy has always been overshadowed by the
Lusitania disasters although, in fact, more passengers (840) died on the Empress than on either Lusitania (791), or Titanic (817). 172 crew, mainly from the Liverpool area, also died.
A special exhibition, "
Titanic and Liverpool: the untold story," commemorating the centenary of the most famous disaster and now running until the end of 2013, features previously unseen artifacts. Personal details about Liverpool people, including Captain Edward Smith, First Officer Henry Wilde, and Fred Fleet (the lookout who spotted the iceberg) create a very human story.
Students of World War II can relive
Battle of the Atlantic. As England's most important port, Liverpool played a huge role, and many local sailors in the Merchant Navy risked their lives ferrying food, supplies and people back and forth to Canada and the USA while attempting to evade the threat of
"Hello Sailor: Gay life on the ocean wave" is an fascinating, entertaining exhibit that uses personal memorabilia, accounts, interviews and rich visual artifacts to document the vibrant gay sub-culture that existed on UK passenger and merchant ships from the 1950s to the 1980s. In 2005, the British Navy would use the recruitment slogan "Your country needs you, especially if you are gay", but until 1967 homosexuality was criminalized in a harshly homophobic Britain. However, life on board ship could be both a "gay haven" where it was safe to be "out" (as long as you were competent mariner and did your job well!) and a "gay university" as young seafarers disembarked at ports around the world.
Under the nearby shopping centre
Liverpool One, you can see the world's first enclosed wet dock,
Liverpool's Old Dock (discovered during excavations in 2001) and also (for the first time in centuries) the bed of the Pool - the creek that gave Liverpool its name. Tours can be booked from the Museum but reservations are recommended.
The Museum Shop has a variety of souvenirs and the Quayside Cafe serves meals and snacks all day. For those who wish to have a picnic during the summer months there are benches (but no tables) outside the museum overlooking the docks.
Retired after teaching more than 45 years at the elementary, secondary and post-secondary levels as he lived and travelled in England, Ireland, Canada, U.S.A., West Indies, Central and South America, John is an indulgent grandfather, an avid reader and an obsessive soccer fan (Liverpool Rules !) who continues extensive studies in Theology. He can be contacted at:
Merseyside Maritime Museum