Flashback: Canning Dock Flash Fiction Competition

Together with National Museums Liverpool, we are running a writing competition this summer to creatively delve into the narratives that have been explored by Liverpool Black History Research Group when researching the historic Canning Dock.

The stories of Canning Dock can be told through many lenses. The dock had a key role in the development of Liverpool and much of the modern world, it’s deeply embedded in Liverpool’s Maritime history, and it had a pivotal role in the transatlantic slave trade.

So, get your pens at the ready, and choose from four prompts by writer Phil Olsen to help shape your story.

Competition Information

The competition is open from 28 July – 22 September

Age categories: under 11, 11 – 17, 18+

Word count: 500 maximum

Prizes will include NML membership for a year, a book bundle from Writing on the Wall and a voucher to spend at NML shops and cafes.

To get you thinking, writer Phil Olsen has created a series of prompts and writing exercises to help you structure your short story.

If writing isn’t your thing (are you sure it’s not?) National Museums Liverpool have relaxed drawing sessions where you can take part in drawing the Canning Quayside and dry docks, taking inspiration from the past and the present and imagining the future. More info on the dates of these drop-in sessions can be found here.


How to get started

Choose one of the four prompts below as inspiration for your 500-word story. You can simply use a prompt as a jumping-off point to get started, or you can delve deeper into the history of the Canning Graving Docks.

The accompanying writing exercises are completely optional – feel free to mix them up and try them out with any of the prompts. The final flash fiction piece that you submit does not have to incorporate the exercises, it just needs to respond to one of the four prompts.

Theme 1: Disaster and disruption

Baboo overset in Canning Graving Dock, Liverpool’ by E D M Y. Collection of Merseyside Maritime Museum, 1987.248.2

Prompt 1
Painting of the Baboo lying on its side (image credit: ‘Baboo overset in Canning Graving Dock, Liverpool’ by E D M Y. Collection of Merseyside Maritime Museum, 1987.248.2)

Writing exercise (optional)
Dive straight into the action of a story – with flash fiction, we only have 500 words to play with, so instead of having a beginning, middle and end, write a story that starts in the middle. Instead of setting the scene and introducing characters, can we learn about them by how they deal with a crisis?

History of the Baboo
A ship called the Baboo overturned in the Canning graving dock on Monday 22nd February 1841. This was reported in several newspapers including the Liverpool Standard and General Commercial Advertiser. The Baboo started life as the Acorn, built in Calcutta and made from teak. Renamed Baboo, it was used to ferry migrant workers between Mauritius and India. The ship also took immigrants to South Australia. It was a highly unusual occurrence for a ship to overturn in the graving docks, and this is the only recorded case found in research.

It was a significant enough event to capture the attention of an artist known only as E D M Y, who painted the scene in 1848. The Baboo is shown with the Custom House in the background. This custom house was built in 1828 and demolished after Second World War damage. The Gore’s Liverpool General Advertiser reported on 4th March 1841 that the ship had been refloated: “The Baboo upset in the Canning Graving Dock on Monday last, has since been floated out, having received no injury.” However, the Baboo’s days were numbered. In 1850 the Baboo was bought by the Royal Navy and renamed HMS Assistance. She was abandoned in the Arctic ice in 1854.

Theme 2: Trade and theft Prompt

Dockers at Albert Dock, Stewart Bale Collection, Maritime Museum Archive Centre.

Prompt 2
List of goods traded at the graving docks: wood (lima wood, teak, Nicaragua wood, greenheart), fruit (plums, grapes), rum, brandy, sherry, wines, cattle and animal parts (horns, bones), anchovies, herring, codfish, tripe, ham, mutton, beef, cheese, pickled butter, walnuts, chestnuts, dried fruits, mother of pearl, ale, seal oil, ox hides, sacking, glass, bricks, emery stones, hardware, guns, nails, hinges, pots and pans, cables, copper ore, tallow, cotton and cotton wool, flax, coal, rigging and sailcloth.

Writing exercise (Optional)
Write a ‘list story’. What if your 500 words weren’t in paragraph-form? Can a shopping receipt tell a story? Or a page of comments in a Guest Book? Pick some of the words on the trade goods list that grab your interest and perhaps add some of your own. Does the list tell us anything about who is buying, selling or stealing? What needs to be added to turn it into a story? Do you want the reader to know what they are looking at straight away, or do you want it to only become apparent towards the end?

History of trade and theft at the graving docks
Dozens of adverts appear in newspapers from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century offering goods for sale from ships at the Canning Graving Docks. Some adverts indicate where the goods arrived from, such as ivory and coffee being brought in from Africa (15th March 1838, Gore’s Liverpool General Advertiser). The trade in ivory was, at this time, not illegal and was closely linked to the trade in enslaved African people. By the 19th century, elephants were increasingly being hunted for ivory and enslaved people were used as porters to carry the tusks. It was only in the 1990s and 2000s that trade in African ivory was restricted under the Convention on the International Trade In Endangered Species (CITES). Coffee was also a valuable import to the site. On 1st January 1839, the Liverpool Standard and General Commercial Advertiser reported two men being jailed for stealing it: “Commitments. – On Friday, two men, named John Chatterton and John Simmons, were committed by Mr. Hall for 14 days, to the House of Correction, Kirkdale, for stealing a quantity of raw coffee, from the Quay, at No. 1, Graving Dock.”

Theme 3: Marriage and leisure Prompt

Illustrated interpretation of a marriage announcement in The Liverpool mercury, 1814.

Prompt 3
‘Married’ newspaper clipping.

Writing exercise (optional)
Marry two unlikely things together. This might be done by dropping a character or event into an unusual location. Or write a short piece with two different things going on – one at surface level and the other as a sub-plot running alongside or woven in behind it. (You might find that only one of these story strands needs to be resolved).

History of marriage and leisure at the graving docks
Three newspaper notices of marriages have been identified which give the Canning and Graving Dock area as the address of the bride and/or groom. An example from the Liverpool Mercury on 19th August 1814 names the ship which the groom captained. Thomas Ellis was born in 1788 in Liverpool and died in 1858. He married Mary at St Peter’s Church, Church Street. Mary’s surname is spelt Brian or Bryan in different records. She was also born in Liverpool, in 1790, and died in 1875.

The modern concept of leisure time developed in the Victorian period. Contemporary theories about disease blamed the spread of illnesses like cholera on ‘miasma’ or ‘bad air’, so people sought to spend time in locations with fresh air. Parks and open spaces became places to visit to walk, take the air and meet socially. In 1844, a newspaper report in the Gore’s Liverpool General Advertiser reported that fences and other obstructions on the pier west side of Canning Graving Docks were removed on Thursday 30th May to enable people to use the space for walks ‘so that the public may now enjoy the privilege of getting a mouthful of fresh air at a convenient distance from the town’.

Theme 4: Repair and modernisation Prompt

Stratus Imagery courtesy of National Museums Liverpool

Prompt 4

Aerial photograph of the Canning Graving Docks. What might it look like in the future? The present graving docks were originally constructed in 1765-9, so they have undergone various repairs and modifications over the centuries.

Writing exercise (optional 4)
Write a piece of dialogue between a few characters, perhaps squabbling in a Dock Committee meeting. How do we know who is speaking? What are the different points of view? Are they listening to each other or just waiting for their turn to speak? Look at dock surveyor, Jesse Hartley’s response to the Dock Committee’s emotional plea for repairs:

“The secretary read a memorial, signed by Mr. Thos. Wilson, on behalf of the Shipbuilders’ Association, praying that the Queen’s Graving-dock No. 2 might be improved so as to render it safe for vessels and for human life. The memorial pointed out in what respects the graving dock was insecure. The Chairman asked Mr. Hartley what he had to say to the memorial? The Surveyor replied that he had nothing to say. He waited only for the directions of the committee.”

You may wish to use some of the Dock Committee members’ names as characters: “The following members of the Dock Committee were present at their weekly meeting yesterday, Messrs. Holt, Ripley, Middleton, Smith, Molyneux, Chilton, Nicol, Aikin, Mellor, Bulley, Tobin, Shand, Bold, Martin, and Sandbach.” (15 characters is probably too many for a 500-word story though!) The dialogue can be period or present-day (the main thing is to try and make it sound natural and authentic, so be consistent with whichever you choose).

History of repairs and modernisation to the graving docks

There are numerous reports in contemporary newspapers of the meetings of the Liverpool Dock Committee, and their discussions about the repairs and maintenance of the docks. The major works to deepen the Canning Graving Docks were reported in 1842. On 7th April the repairs were approved. By June, a recommendation was made to coat the Canning graving docks 2 and 3 with granite, rather than sandstone at an extra cost of £800.

There was more pressure for the repairs to be expanded in August, when a Dock Committee meeting took place on Thursday 4th August 1842 – a letter was received from the Shipbuilders’ Association asking whether improvements could be made to Canning graving dock No. 2 to render it safe for vessels and for human life (Liverpool Standard and General Commercial Advertiser, Friday 5th August 1842). A further Dock Committee meeting took place on Thursday 25th August 1842 where a report of repairs and expenses incurred for all repairs to all docks written by Jesse Hartley was presented – new gates added to dock 2, and dock 3 gates repaired.