Albert Warehouses Liverpool (Albert Docks)

Year:1846

Duration:4 years

Cost:£83.6m (in today's money)

Country: Liverpool, UK

What did this project achieve?

Construct a complex of warehouses using a cast iron structure

Liverpool was one of the powerhouse cities of industrial growth in the 19th century. Its rise as a centre for trade led to the expansion of its dock sites. The Albert warehouses – also known as Albert Dock – were part of these developments.

Albert Dock’s fireproof design was a first for Victorian Britain. Built of cast iron, brick, sandstone and granite it was far less likely to burn down than a wood-framed building.

This made it an attractive and safer prospect for merchants.

The new dock became a popular store for valuable cargoes, including brandy, cotton, tea, silk, tobacco and ivory.

Albert Dock was named after Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert.

Difference the new docks made

Albert Dock used ideas that were considered radical at the time, if not entirely original.

Designer Jesse Hartley decided ships would load and unload directly from the warehouses. This concept had already been used at St Katherine’s Dock in London in 1828.

The main innovation in the construction of the dock and its warehouses was that the buildings were designed to be completely fireproof. Built almost entirely from cast iron, stone and brick, the complex was the world’s first non-combustible warehouse system.

How the work was done

Dock engineer Jesse Hartley carried out experiments to test the fire resistance of the proposed designs.

Hartley built a dummy structure of 18ft x 10ft (5.5m x 3m). He filled this with timber and tar and set it alight to see how it would burn. After trying several structural designs he decided to use cast iron, brick, sandstone and granite for the warehouses.

Hartley used ‘stressed skin’ roofing for dock buildings – almost unheard of in construction at the time. ‘Stressed skin’ means the outer skin and framework of a unit interact and the unit is stronger as a result. In the case of the Albert warehouses it meant sections of roof were less likely to bend.

One of the strongest architectural features of the dock are the huge cast iron columns lining the quayside. Hartley and Hardwick used cast iron because granite – their preferred material – was too expensive.

Despite this economy the project still needed so much granite that project trustees opened their own quarry at Kirkcudbridgeshire in Scotland. Construction also used more than 23m bricks and 47,000 tonnes of mortar.

The finished dock covered just under 1.3sqft million (120,000 m2). Its dock basin had a water area of 7.75 acres.

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All business is suspended. There are 200,000 strangers in town and all the inhabitants are in the streets. All is gaiety and splendour.

Pictorial Times’ report of Prince Albert’s visit to Liverpool to open the dock in 1846

Fascinating facts

When Prince Albert officially opened the docks in 1846 it was the first time a member of the royal family had visited Liverpool since King Richard - 643 years earlier.

The docks and warehouses in the complex make up the largest collection of Grade I listed buildings in the UK.

Albert Dock is now the most visited multi-use tourist attraction in the UK outside London.

People who made it happen

  • Civil engineer: Jesse Hartley

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