Central Liverpool
The Waterfront
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Last updated 8th May 2017
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Walk: Liverpool Docks and Waterfront
In the text below, whole paragraphs in italic are quotations from original sources, as follows:
ROL   Recollections of Old Liverpool by a Nonagenarian, Anon., 1863.
SOL   The Streets of Liverpool, James Stonehouse, 1869.
TDE   A Topographical Dictionary of England, Samuel Lewis, 1848.
Liverpool Waterfront in 1650
Liverpool Waterfront
For the purposes of this page I am defining the Liverpool Waterfront as running from the south end of Prince's Dock to the north end of the Canning Dock system. The north and south docks are discussed on other pages. Historically this reached from the original chapel of St. Mary del Quay, later the Church of Our Lady and St. Nicholas, to the Pool of Liverpool, the tidal inlet and creek that was so significant in establishing Liverpool as a strategic and commercial town. Nowadays this area has no docks, but the first of Liverpool's docks, quays and wharfs were established here. The area is currently dominated by the Three Graces and is pleasantly open with views across the River Mersey. It also provides the landing stage for the famous Mersey Ferries.
The 1650 drawing shows St. Nicholas's Church (2), the Tower of Liverpool (3), the original Customs House (4), the Castle (9) and The Pool on the right. By the time of the 1680 painting, there had been a good deal of further development along the waterfront (Water Street is in the centre).
Liverpool Waterfront in 1680
1572 map of the the Liverpool Waterfront
Chadwick's 1725 map of the Liverpool Waterfront
Eye's 1765 map of the Liverpool Waterfront
The Evolution of the Waterfront
The earliest detailed map showing the waterfront dates from 1572. It shows the chapel, tower and customs house, along with the fields in front of the castle and running down to The Pool, at that time known as The Sea Lake. There was then no bridge over The Pool near the castle, though there was a ferry a little further inland. By the mid-17th century there was a flood gate to control water levels within The Pool, the first hint of dock construction.
The first commercial enclosed wet dock in the world, the Old Dock, originally Thomas Steers' Dock, was completed in 1716 on the north bank of The Pool. It had a capacity of 100 ships and led to Liverpool's establishment as the leading European port. The dock is shown on Chadwick's map of 1725, along with the new Customs House on its inner quay. By this time The Pool was all but filled in and, as the 18th century progressed, building out into the Mersey and urbanisation of the hinterland began in earnest, both of which gradually caused The Pool to lose its identity.
The extent of dock construction out into the Mersey by 1765 is clear on Eye's map. The intended dock, then under construction, became George's Dock, which opened in 1771. The adjacent tidal basin became George's Basin, its enclosing wall becoming the origin of the term The Pier Head. The 1797 engraving below shows this on the left, with George's Dock on the right. On the other side of George's Dock and connected by George's Dock Passage, the tidal dry pier of 1737 became Canning Dock, which continued to the final vestige of The Pool leading into the Old Dock.
  George's dock, constructed in the 2nd of George III, at an expense of £21,000, was originally only 246 yards in length, and 100 yards in breadth, with a quay 700 yards in extent, but it has been enlarged, and the quay is now 1000 yards in length. On the east side is a range of extensive warehouses, in front of which is an arcade for foot passengers; at the north and south ends of the dock are handsome cast-iron bridges; and a parade is continued westward for a considerable distance. This dock has a communication with the two preceding docks, and also with the Prince's dock, by basins, which preclude the necessity of returning into the river. [TDE]
The first public swimming baths in Liverpool were built in 1756 at New Quay. The site can be seen on Eye's map just to the left of St. Nicholas's Church. There was a plunge pool fed with water from the Mersey and steps facilitated swimming in the river itself. The Streets of Liverpool has this to say about bathing:
  The Liverpool Baths were erected originally by Mr. Wright, a boat-builder, about the middle of the last [18th] century. They contained hot and cold water baths, while outside was an open area, 33 feet by 30, enclosed in a pallisading, which admitted the sea-water direct, to enable persons to bathe therein in preference to the baths in the interior of the building. In 1794 the Corporation purchased these baths, and greatly improved them. They were swept away in 1817 to make room for the Prince's Dock. [...] On the shore were a few fishermen's cottages, where, from a flight of steps leading out of Bath street (which there was lost in the sandhills,) people used to take their plunge, leaving their clothes with little urchins, who made a livelihood by taking charge of them. [SOL]
The Old Baths of 1756
The Old Customs House and the Castle c.1700
St. Nicholas's Church and the Tower in 1760
St. Nicholas's Church and the New Docks in 1797
1795 map of the the Liverpool Waterfront
Gage's 1836 map of the Liverpool Waterfront
The completed dock works are shown on a 1795 map. Here the intended new dock was to become Prince's Dock (see The North Docks). The Goree Warehouses were built on the east side of the dock in 1793, but were ravaged by a fire in 1802 causing a huge loss of stored goods. The event lead ultimately to the design of fireproof warehouses for the Albert Dock by Jessie Hartley. The Goree Warehouses were subsequently rebuilt but destroyed by bombing in World War II.
Prince's Dock opened in 1821. The Old Dock was filled in in 1826 and a new Custom House designed by John Foster was completed on the site in 1839. New public salt water swimming baths, George's Baths, opened between George's Dock and the river in 1829. They were designed by John Foster and where the first publicly owned baths in the UK. Gage's map shows the overall situation in 1836. The Custom House was severely damaged by bombing in World War II and demolished in 1948.
In Recollections of Old Liverpool (1863), the anonymous author ponders the changes that had taken place since the latter part of the 18th century:
  When I stand on the Pier Head, or take my daily walk on the Landing Stage, I often pause and revolve in my mind the wonderful changes that have taken place in my time in this native town of mine. The other day, soon after the completion of the large Landing Stage, I sat down and thought would any man then making use of the old baths, swimming inside the palisade, have not considered me, some eighty years ago, a mad fool to have predicted that before I died I should sit on a long floating stage two or three hundred yards from where we were swimming, that would be about a quarter of a mile in length, and that between it and the shore there would be most wonderful docks built, in which the ships of all nations would display their colours, and discharge their precious freights? [ROL]
He also has this astonishing vision:
  Could we draw aside the thick veil that hides the future from us, we might perhaps behold our great seaport swelling into a metropolis, in size and importance, its suburbs creeping out to an undreamt-of distance from its centre; or we might, reversing the picture, behold Liverpool by some unthought-of calamity, some fatal, unforeseen mischance, some concatenation of calamities, dwindled down to its former insignificance, its docks shipless, its warehouses in ruins, its streets moss-grown [...]. Under which of these two fates will Liverpool find its lot some centuries hence; which of these two pictures will it then present? [ROL]
The Old Dock and St. Thomas's Church c.1800
The Old Dock Custom House c.1800
The New Baths of 1829
The New Goree Warehouses in 1831
The New Custom House in 1836
George's Basin in 1842
Bacon's 1890 Map showing the subsequent location of the Three Graces
George's Basin was filled in in 1874. By this time, George's Dock itself had become too small and shallow for the larger ships and much of its former rôle had been appropriated by Prince's Dock. It too was filled in in 1899-1900 to provide a location where all of the dock offices, previously scattered around Liverpool, could be concentrated. George's Baths were also a casualty of this development. The area became known as the Pier Head and the offices Liverpool's most famous buildings, the Royal Liver Building (1911), the Cunard Building (1916) and the Port of Liverpool Building (1907), known collectively as the Three Graces. Behind the Port of Liverpool Building is the monumental George's Dock Ventilation and Control Station of 1932 containing offices and the extractor fans for the original Mersey Road Tunnel.
Several floating landing stages were built from the mid-18th century onwards, the latest in 2011 following the sinking of the previous structure in a storm of 2006. The famous Mersey Ferries operate from here and a new Cruise Terminal was opened in 2007 to cater for the largest cruise ships. Today the area between the Three Graces and the river is a pleasant open space with river views, statues, memorials, the new Mersey Ferry Terminal, the Leeds and Liverpool Canal extension and, just to the south of the Port of Liverpool Building, the Museum of Liverpool.
We'll finish this overview with some interesting historical writings:
  This celebrated town has, within the last century, by a progressive increase in extent, population, and commercial importance, obtained the first rank after the metropolis. [...] Steamboats are constantly plying across the Mersey to and from the Cheshire shore; and every facility for aquatic excursions may be obtained by packets and pleasure boats. A new landing-stage has just been completed, for the use of certain of the ferries, at a cost of about £50,000; it is parallel with George's pier, is 507 feet long, and is connected with the pier by two iron bridges 150 feet in length, which are so constructed as to allow the enormous stage to rise and fall with the tide. The docks afford delightful promenades, commanding extensive views of the river and of the shipping; and Prince's pier, or Marine parade, is one of the finest marine walks in the kingdom. [TDE]
The most remarkable feature in the history of Liverpool is the extraordinary rapidity with which it has risen into importance. Among the causes which have produced its elevation to a rank but partially inferior to that of the metropolis, are, its situation on the shore of a noble river which expands into a wide estuary; its proximity to the Irish coast; its central position with respect to the United Kingdom; its intimate connexion with the principal manufacturing districts, and with every part of the kingdom, by rivers, canals, and railroads; and the persevering industry and enterprising spirit of its inhabitants. For the collection of customs, &c., due to the crown, Liverpool was anciently a member of the port of Chester; but, as is evident from records
belonging to the corporation, it was an independent port so early as the year 1335, though for some centuries it made but little progress. The commerce may be divided into several distinct branches. The trade with Ireland appears to have been established, or greatly promoted, by the settlement here of a few mercantile families from that country, about the middle of the 16th century; at that time, only 15 vessels, of the aggregate burthen of 259 tons, belonged to the port, whereas Liverpool now imports of Irish produce alone an amount equal in value to several millions annually. [TDE]
St. Nicholas's Church c.1830 ...
The Church of Our Lady and St. Nicholas
The Church of Our Lady and St. Nicholas, commonly known as the Sailors' Church, is nowadays Liverpool Parish Church. There has been a church on the site for perhaps 1000 years, originally the chapel of St. Mary del Quay. At that time Liverpool was part of the parish of Walton and only became a separate Parish in 1699. The first church of St. Nicholas (the patron saint of mariners) on this site dated from 1361. In the first part of the 18th century it was a modest building with a square tower and spirelet, but a full spire had been added by 1747.
The body of St Nicholas's was rebuilt in the later 18th century and new bells installed in the tower. Tragically, the tower collapsed onto the congregation one Sunday morning in 1810 resulting in 25 deaths and as many serious injuries. The present tower (with its conspicuous weathervane in the form of a sailing ship) was completed in 1815 and, unlike the remainder of the church, escaped bombing during World War II. The church had been reconstructed by 1952.
... and in 2017
The Royal Daffodil
The Mersey Ferries
The Mersey ferries are as famous a Liverpool sight as the Liver Birds. A ferry service to Seacombe is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 and this route still operates. One was operated from Monks' Ferry by the Benedictine monks of Birkenhead Priory from its establishment in about 1150 until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536. By the middle of the 19th century, steamers operated to New Brighton (to 1972), Egremont (to 1941), Seacombe, Woodside (still going), Monks' Ferry (to 1878), Tranmere (to 1897), Rock Ferry (to 1939), New Ferry (to 1922) and Eastham (to 1929). The current diesel ferries are the Royal Daffodil (ex Overchurch), Royal Iris (ex Mountwood) and Snowdrop (ex Woodchurch) and date from around 1960.
  The passage of the river, until steam-boats were introduced, was a complete and serious voyage, which few undertook. The boatmen used to run their boats at one time on the beach opposite the end of Water Street and ply for hire. After the piers were ran out they hooked on at the steps calling aloud, "Woodside, ahoy!", "Seacombe, ahoy!" and so on. It is a fact that thousands of Liverpool people at that time never were in Cheshire in their lives. We used to cross in open or half-decked boats, and sometimes we have been almost as many hours in crossing as we are now minutes. I recollect once wanting to go to Woodside on a stormy day, to see a man who lived in a small house between the Ferry House and Wallasey Pool, and which, by the way, was the only house then standing thereabout. The tide was running very strong and the wind blowing hard, and, after nearly four hours hard work, we managed to land near the Rock Perch, thankful for our lives being spared. The Rock Perch was a pole with a sort of beacon or basket at the top of it, implanted in the rocks on which the lighthouse now stands. [ROL]
Crossing to Cheshire from Liverpool fifty years ago [early 18th century] was a very different expedition to what it is at present. In fact, very few people ever thought of paying the Cestrian regions a visit then, and it was only from necessity that such a voyage was undertaken. In the first place there was but little or no accommodation in the vicinity of the ferries. The ferry houses themselves were little better, and in some cases not so good, as road-side inns. Then the hazards of the weather were too heavy to risk a voyage for mere jaunting purposes. The boats plying were either half-decked or open, and were of not more than from five to six tons burden, with accommodation for 10 to 15 passengers at the utmost. It was quite like a voyage to a foreign land to cross to the opposite shore in those days. There were thousands of the inhabitants of Liverpool who, in all the course of their lives, never put foot in Cheshire. [...] To cross the water was a perilous undertaking at that date. Even within thirty years [since 1840] it had its discomforts and horrors, in dirty slow steam-boats, in inconvenient and perilous landing-places, and in uncertain times of departure and arrival. But, even under these adverse circumstances, the passage was made with vast advantages over the former mode of transit. Until the introduction of steam, in 1815, the cost of the passage depended upon any bargain made with a boatman, who would get all he could, from a penny a piece from a lot of schoolboys, to half a sovereign from a green and credulous passenger. Tales are told of people passing half the night on the water striving to make the pierhead, 'The Old Dock Gut', 'The Potteries', 'Knott's Hole', 'The Dingle', or anywhere, in fact, and felt at length grateful to land amidst rain, wind, and darkness, by the calm waters of Garston Creek, although a long walk of six miles was entailed. A gradual and vast improvement has taken place of late years in the ferry traffic. The first steamboats were small vessels with one mast, having a square sail. The paddles were of limited size, and the funnel slender and tall. In the Mercury of 14th March, 1816, on the application of steam to the Tranmere boats, a correspondent remarks that it is equivalent to 'bridging over the Mersey'. In 1770 there were only five ferries - namely, at Carlton or Eastham, the Rock, Tranmere, Woodside, and Seacombe. Previous to 1800 there was a long wooden pier-running out into the river to the south of the Old Dock entrance.
In adverse weather the passage boats ran alongside of this pier, but it was a very dangerous landing, having no protecting railings. In the beginning of the last [18th] century, the ferry-boats ran to the shore opposite St. Nicholas's Church and the bottom of Water-street. Then people had to scramble up to land through the shingle, ooze, and dirt, at low water, or be carried on men's shoulders, or by stepping along a rickety moveable foot platform at the time of the flood. In an open boat, in rough weather, it may be imagined what sort of a voyage half-a-dozen people would endure, most of them proving disagreeable to their fellow-passengers, as well as to themselves, suffering from that aquatic complaint which may be termed 'the quarcks'. Few persons thought of staying in Cheshire until evening or night, for the uncertainty of the weather made the passage, if not perilous, at any rate full of terrors to landsmen. At Woodside almost the only dwelling was the ferry-house. [...] The landing place was a timber and stone causeway, which ran out at some distance into the river, at all times being wet, slimy, slippery, and dangerous, from its exposed situation and unprotected sides.
Reader of 'The Streets', step towards the south end of the George's Landing Stage, and look steadfastly at the river wall before you. Do you see under, or in front of the clock-tower of the baths, a steep, narrow set of steps, and do you see another set or flight of narrow steps at the end of the river wall adjoining the Duke's Dock? Well, at one time those steps were the only modes of landing from, or getting on board of, the river steamers, and by those steps had the young and old, the lame, and the infirm, and the lazy, to descend or climb in boisterous or calm weather. In the former, when the old ferry tub ran up, frantically bumping herself against the wall, the unhappy passenger had to watch his or her opportunity to jump on shore or on board, as the case might be, on the rising or falling of the boat. Unless a person was uncommonly active, the chances were that a wave overtook him, and gave his legs a taste of the 'briny'. [...] Alongside that wall did the public, my dear madam, arrive on terra firma; and very glad you may be assured, people were when they found themselves safe under the baths piazza, waiting, may be, for some other members of their party to land, or until one of them, who had fortunately been amongst the first to get on shore, had gone up to Castle-street for a car! No handy omnibuses were there till 9-30 at night, to convey weary travellers to all parts of the town! No strings of neat cars or cabs were then ready to be hired. To stump it was your only remedy, let the night be what it would. Believe me, we are living in very convenient times, if we only look back a little. [...] The Cheshire ferries are now the most convenient, the cheapest, and pleasantest to use in the kingdom. The fare was reduced to a penny from twopence on the 1st of June, 1848. [...] [SOL]
The Three Graces from the Mersey Ferry
The Three Graces
Liverpool waterfront is often said (and not just by scousers) to be the most famous waterfront in the world. The central section is dominated by the Royal Liver Building, the Cunard Building and the Port of Liverpool Building, strongly contrasting structures known locally as The Three Graces. The area is commonly known as the Pier Head. Pevsner writes, 'They represent the great Edwardian Imperial optimism and might indeed stand at Durban or Hong Kong just as naturally as at Liverpool'.
The Waterfront from the West Tower
The Royal Liver Building
Probably Liverpool's most famous building, the Grade I Listed Royal Liver Building was designed by W. Aubrey Thomas and completed in 1911 for the Royal Liver Friendly Society. It stands in an imposing position on the waterfront and is unique in design in this country, incorporating Baroque, Art Nouveau and Byzantine influences and drawing inspiration from some early American tall buildings. Structurally it is notable for being one of the first large reinforced concrete buildings in the world. The clocks, 25 ft (7½ m) in diameter, were the largest electrically driven clocks in the UK when installed. The building remains the head office of Royal Liver Assurance.
Only the ground floor of the Royal Liver Building is normally open to the public and much of this is occupied by a café. There are elaborate ceilings and stained glass windows with a seafaring theme.
Stained Glass inside the Royal Liver Building
The Liver Bird
The Liver Bird is, of course, Liverpool's icon. Its most famous representation is in the 18 ft (5½ m) high copper statues perched on each tower of the Royal Liver Building. They were designed by the German Carl Bernard Bartels. He was a London resident, who was treated shamefully by the authorities during the First World War, deported to Germany afterwards and virtually expunged from official records.
The bird has its origins in the ancient seal of Liverpool, dating from the time of King John (reigned 1199-1216). This was probably an eagle (of St. John) carrying a planta genista (sprig of broom - the Plantagenet logo), but was not accurately rendered. By the late 17th century, the bird had been reinterpreted as what the Dutch called something like Lever, to make a play on the name of the city. Whatever this was, it was near enough to a cormorant for the latter to be incorporated into the city's arms in 1797, where a further connection with the name of the city was contrived by replacing the sprig of broom with a piece of seaweed called Laver. Furthermore, if more were needed, the cormorant is also a lucky symbol for sailors.
A majestic bronze equestrian statue of King Edward VII by William Goscombe John is 16 ft (5 m) high and stands in front of the Cunard Building. It was commissioned following the king's death in 1910 and originally intended for outside St. George's Hall. It finally turned up here in 1921.
Statue of Edward VII
The Cunard Building
The Cunard Building is the restrained, elegant and Renaissance Italianate face of the Three Graces and the last to be completed in 1916 for the Cunard Steamship Company. It was designed largely by Arthur J. Davis as consultant to the local architects firm Willink and Thicknesse and incorporates American Beaux-Arts influences with French classical details.
The building was originally used for Cunard's head offices and also for a passenger terminal, first class on the ground floor and the lower classes consigned to the basement with the baggage. The grand marble-lined entrance hall of the Cunard Building is the only publicly accessible area inside. It is currently used for Liverpool City Council offices, but recent plans to reinstate it also as a cruise terminal had to be abandoned because of the high cost of the necessary security and border controls.
The Entrance Hall of the Cunard Building
The Port of Liverpool Building
The Port of Liverpool Building was originally the head office of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board and was completed in 1907. It was designed by Briggs and Wolstenholme with Hobbs and Thornley, but appears to draw upon one of the designs submitted for the Anglican Cathedral in 1902. Constructed in Portland stone, its extravagance (inside as much as outside) at a total cost £350,000 did not go without criticism even in those more confident times. The building remained in the possession of the Harbour Company until 2001 and was subsequently developed as refurbished offices.
The Port of Liverpool Building has by far the most impressive interior of the Three Graces as far as public spaces go and is a must-see. The octagonal galleried central hall is accessible up to the fourth floor by a broad staircase lined with stained glass windows displaying the arms of British colonies and dominions. Everywhere are staggering amounts of beautiful marble and granite. This 'cathedral of commerce' is one of the most magnificent non-ecclesiastical interiors that I have ever seen in Britain. If there is one building that epitomises the aspiration and confidence of maritime Liverpool at its peak, this is it.
Interior of the Port of Liverpool Building
The Leeds and Liverpool Canal Extension
The Surrounding Area
The extension to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, connecting the Stanley Dock to the Albert Dock, opened in 2009. The design has been kept clean and elegant, mercifully avoiding pseudo-historical canal kitsch.
This monumental monolith of George's Dock Ventilation and Control Station contains offices and the huge extractor fans that ventilate the Birkenhead Road Tunnel. The architect was Herbert J. Rowse and it dates from 1932, the height of Liverpool's infatuation with Art Deco. Several notable sculptural works with a strong ancient Egyptian influence are incorporated into the exterior and there is a black marble memorial to the workers who died in constructing the tunnel. It had to be reconstructed in 1951-2 following war damage.
George's Dock Ventilation and Control Station
The Museum of Liverpool
The Museum of Liverpool showcases Liverpool's global significance in social, cultural, historical, geographical and contemporary issues. It opened in 2011 and has since won a number of awards, most recently the Council of Europe Museum Prize for 2013. Even so, there has been not a little negative press about the building, particularly from architects and architectural journalists. The scrapping of plans to build Will Alsop's The Cloud on this site was greeted with dismay from the same quarters. This was intended to have been a Fourth Grace, an imposing and extravagant structure that might well have detracted from the iconic status of the other three.
The present building is at least subdued and rather elegant (in my view) and complements the famous skyline rather than dominating it. The view of the Three Graces from the windows at the northern end is breathtaking. Among the exhibits are old paintings of Liverpool, the Lion steam locomotive, the last surviving Liverpool Overhead Railway carriage, Ben Johnson's remarkable Liverpool Cityscape painting, a huge model of Edwin Lutyens' original design for Liverpool's Catholic Cathedral and a reconstruction of claustrophobic 19th century Liverpool court housing.
The new Mersey Ferry Terminal complements the Museum of Liverpool Building and replaces the eyesore that stood here before.
The Mersey Ferry Terminal
Visiting Ships
The afternoon of July 21st 2008 saw the Tall Ships Parade of Sail. Apparently over one million people turned out to see the ships in the four days culminating in this spectacular event.
The QE2 (left) visited Liverpool several times, here on a warm summer's evening in 1989. Events like this draw crowds of people nostalgic for the times when the great ocean-going liners regularly left Liverpool for America and more exotic destinations, even though this is a real memory only for an ever decreasing numbers of people nowadays.
The ocean liner Queen Mary II (right) visited Liverpool in 2009.
Acknowledgements and Further Reading
The definitive online history of Liverpool up to the turn of the 20th century is the Victoria History of the County of Lancaster, Vol.4, edited by W. Farrer and J. Brownbill, 1907. I have as usual drawn on the indispensible Liverpool (Pevsner Architectural Guides), by Joseph Sharples, which has much more on the architecture. The 17th century images of Liverpool are freely licensed images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, with thanks. The Old Baths, The Old Customs House and the Castle, St. Nicholas's Church and the Tower, St. Nicholas's Church and the New Docks, The Old Dock and St. Thomas's Church and The Old Dock Custom House are by W.G. Herdman, published in Pictorial Relics of Ancient Liverpool, 1843. The New Baths was engraved by Robert Wallis after a picture by G. & C. Pyne. The new Goree Warehouses was engraved by Robert Wallis after a picture by S. Austin. The New Custom House in 1836 was engraved by W. Finden after a picture by Thomas Allom. These three were published in Lancashire Illustrated, 1831. George's Basin was engraved by J.C. Armytage after a drawing by W.H. Bartlett, published in Finden's Ports and Harbours, 1842. All of these were sourced from Ancestry Images to whom I am most grateful. Modern colour photographs are by the author except for The Queen Mary II, which is courtesy of David Steel.
This is a non-commercial website that is intended entirely for research and educational purposes. If I have unintentionally breached copyright with any images, I hope that the copyright owner will tolerate my usage in the present context, otherwise I will remove the material.