In the 1st century AD, the Romans established a fort at Lancaster, at a point where the river crossing could be defended, and seagoing ships and boats would sail up the river estuary with supplies. A thousand years later, the Domesday Book’s name for the place was ‘Loncastre’, meaning ‘Roman fort on the River Lune’. A bridge may have been built during the Roman occupation, and one has certainly existed since medieval times.
St George’s Quay was developed on the south bank of the River Lune in the mid-18th century, and with access to the open sea, large sailing ships could moor close to the warehouses and load and unload goods.
St George’s Quay with its row of Georgian warehouses
The flourishing port was further boosted by the construction of the Lancaster Canal, the southern stretch of which opened in 1797 and the northern part, between Lancaster and Kendal, in 1819. With good road links because of the bridge over the river and with the canal providing transport for heavy and delicate goods, the town prospered. Packet boats carrying passengers also ran between Preston and Lancaster and later as far as Kendal, with faster ones introduced to compete with the railways.
The flow of goods through the port encouraged the establishment of various industries, such as the manufacture of high-quality furniture by the Gillow family (now very collectable), oilcloth, linoleum, stained glass, chemicals and even railway carriages. Lancaster’s prosperity also derived from the slave trade, as it became the fourth largest slave port in England. Many local families were involved, some even building the slave ships. These ships would leave Lancaster laden with cargoes that could be bartered for slaves, who were then transported from Africa to the Caribbean and America. The vessels returned to Lancaster with cargoes such as rum, sugar, tobacco and mahogany for the furniture industry.
The slave ships tended to be smaller than those from Liverpool, Bristol and London because of the limitations of the Lune tidal estuary. At each low tide, the river was too shallow to navigate, and eventually an enclosed, deep-water dock was built down the coast at Glasson. After being linked to Lancaster by a canal in 1826, St George’s Quay lost most of its trade.
The Custom House on St George’s Quay was built in 1764 to a design by Richard Gillow of the furniture-making family. It went out of use in 1882 and was restored by Lancaster City Council a century later. This county town of Lancashire was only made a city in 1937, but in the 1960s Lancaster was bypassed by the M6 motorway, so that much of its heritage has escaped destruction. The Maritime Museum is one of the hidden highlights, occupying the Custom House and part of an adjacent warehouse.
Lancaster’s Custom House, now the Maritime Museum
This is an excellent museum, with displays explaining the development of the port, the local fishing industry and the Lancaster Canal, including a fascinating reconstruction of a fast packet boat. There is also information on the transatlantic slave trade, and the museum produces a very useful leaflet showing the many buildings in Lancaster that are connected to the slave trade. Further information is on the museum’s website.