What does the Liver Bird have in its beak ? That was the innocent question of the seven year old girl stood in front of me at the local history enquiry desk.
A simple question with, unfortunately, quite a convoluted answer and probably more than she had bargained for. I was able to give her a basic answer but there was very little substance and merit in my response. So we got our heads together and started doing a bit of research. Here’s what we found.
We started off by finding out where the Liver Bird came from in the first place.
Before 1207 Liverpool was no more than a muddy inlet surrounded by a few isolated settlements. The locals eating fish from the “pool” and the banks covered in a seaweed called Laver.
Due to the areas strategic position King John granted the area a Royal Charter, using his seal of approval.
The area had several names at the time and one account of how the city got its name was the putting together of “Laver” and “Pool.” This is just one of a number of theories on how Liverpool got its name, but for now lets go with this version.
King John’s seal incorporated the eagle of St John the Apostle with the addition of a piece of broom in its beak. This being part of the King’s heraldry. (See “King John’s Ancestry.”)
|King John’s Ancestry|
King John belonged to the royal house of Anjou, named after Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou.
The Count was in the habit of wearing a broom blossom in his hat, the Latin name for which is Planta Genista.
This was how Geoffrey got the name Plantagenet.
So we now have a bird, the eagle, linked to Liverpool but it’s not the Liver Bird.
We now fast forward to the mid 17th century when a new seal was made. The eagle, with no real explanation, becomes a cormorant holding a piece of Laver seaweed. (See “The Bird Has Flown.”)
|The Bird Has Flown|
|I’ve tried to find out why the eagle changed to a cormorant but all the information I have read merely states that it happened. So I offer you my theory with no authority,evidence or proof.
Around the time of the new seal being made (1644,) it was a period of civil unrest. This culminated in the execution of Charles I in 1649, introducing a period of rule called the “Commonwealth of England.”
Could it be in the run up to this, the powers that be were systematically removing connections to the monarchy, hence out with the eagle in with the cormorant.
This imagery is strengthened by the granting of the cities coat of arms in the late 18th century.
The bird associated to Liverpool is now the cormorant, we’re getting closer to the iconic Liver Bird but we’re not quite there yet.
In the late 18th and early 19th century we start getting commentary about the “fabulous mythical” Liver Bird.
This continues into the early 20th century when colour printing becomes common and the idea of the Liver Bird becomes distinct from that of the cormorant. The topmost bird on the cigarette card is very much a Liver bird.
In 1907 the Royal Friendly Assurance Group had built, on the site of the old Georges Dock, new headquarters for its company.
Completed in 1911 the building was crowned off with Bella and Bertie, two 18 foot tall Liver Birds which really established the Liver Birds as part of the Liverpool skyline. These birds are probably the first and last things people see when sailing along the Mersey.
The Liver Bird now exists in an ever increasing range of formats and designs throughout the city and beyond.
These variations got me to thinking what does the Liver Bird really represent.
From an historical perspective I feel this post gives a reasonable synopsis of how things progressed in relation to its physical evolution.
However the Liver Bird is a symbol that means Liverpool, not just something associated with it.
For example, the Hillsborough Memorial at the Old Haymarket, includes the Liver Bird as an essential and spiritual connection to the victims, their families, friends and the whole city.
Most people are proud of where they come from whether it be a village, town or city and there is usually something that is readily associated to the place.
However I’m hard pressed to think of anything else that conjures up a sense of its people, rather than just its place.
On a final note, I’m pleased to say that the little girl who asked the question at the beginning got an “A” for her report on the Liver Birds from school.
“The Little Book of Liver Birds” by David Cottrell. Filled with loads of photographs and where to find all sorts of Liver Birds.
Please feel free to comment, make suggestions and leave any questions you may have.