The liver bird /ˈlaɪvərbɜːrd/ is a mythical creature which is the symbol of the English city of Liverpool. It is normally represented as a cormorant, and appears as such on the city's arms, in which it bears a branch of laver seaweed in its beak as a further pun on the name "Liverpool".
King John founded the borough of Liverpool by royal charter in 1207. The borough's second charter, granted by Henry III in 1229, gave the townspeople the right to form a guild with the privileges this came with, including the right to use a common seal. Liverpool's ancient seal probably dated from this time, though the earliest surviving impression (kept in the British Museum) is from 1352. The seal depicted a generic bird with a plant sprig in its beak, together with a scroll inscribed (in shaky letters) "JOHIS" - an abbreviation for Johannis, Latin for "John's". The bird was almost certainly intended to be an eagle, the symbol of John the Evangelist, who was both the namesake and the patron saint of King John. The plant sprig is interpreted as broom (planta genista in Latin), a badge of the Plantagenet dynasty. Also visible on the seal is a star and crescent, one of King John's personal badges.
The shoddy draughtsmanship of the seal has given rise to other theories. Richard Brooke, a 19th-century Liverpudlian antiquary, surmised that the bird was a dove with an olive branch, and that the scroll read "NOBIS" or "VOBIS".
By the 17th century the bird's real identity had been forgotten: it began to be interpreted either as a cormorant, a common bird in the area, or as a "lever". In 1611 the municipal records describe the mayor receiving a plate "marked with the Cormorant, the Townes Armes", while in 1668 the Earl of Derby gifted the town a silver-gilt mace engraved with a "leaver". In his 1688 work The Academie of Armorie, Randle Holme records the arms of Liverpool as a blue "lever" upon a silver field. Holme takes this word to be an adaptation of the German loffler or Dutch lepler/lefler, both referring to the spoonbill. It is possible that these continental words were adopted for the bird in Liverpool's arms as they made a fitting allusion to the name "Liverpool". Around the same time the broom sprig in the bird's beak was reinterpreted as a branch of laver, also on account of the similarity of the word to the city's name.
In August 1796 Mayor Clayton Tarleton wrote to the College of Arms to request an official grant of arms to the city. His letter called the bird "a lever or sea cormorant". Arms were duly granted on 22 March 1797 by Sir Isaac Heard, Garter King of Arms, and George Harrison, Norroy King of Arms; however the grant described the bird only as a "cormorant".
In addition to the arms and crest, Garter granted supporters on 23 March. These consist of Neptune, the god of the sea, and his son and herald Triton. The motto is Deus nobis haec otia fecit—a quotation from Virgil's Eclogues translating to "God hath granted us this ease" or "God has bestowed these blessings upon us".
Representations in the city
Representations of the bird can be found throughout Liverpool, most numerously on the heritage lamp standards in the town centre on which small versions sit as a top piece. The two most famous stand atop the clock towers of the Royal Liver Building at Liverpool's Pier Head, overlooking the Mersey. Their names are Bertie and Bella. The male, Bertie looks over the city and the female, Bella looks to the sea. The building, headquarters to the Royal Liver Assurance, was opened in 1911. The metal cormorant-like birds were designed by Carl Bernard Bartels and constructed by the Bromsgrove Guild of Applied Arts.
There are two less well-known liver birds in the city. A third metal bird is on the nearby Mersey Chambers office building, adjacent to the Church of Our Lady and St Nicholas, the parish church of the city of Liverpool. The fourth, a bird carved in stone, topped the St. John's Market building of 1822 until its demolition in 1964. The stone liver bird is now displayed at the Museum of Liverpool.
Though nowadays the bird is inseparable in the public mind with Liverpool F.C., the first club to use it as a symbol was Everton. It was replaced in the 1930s with the Everton Lock-Up, another Liverpudlian icon. Some fans believe it should be reinstated, arguing that as a symbol of the whole city it rightfully belongs to both clubs.
Modern myths and popular culture
The modern popularity of the symbol largely dates to 1911, when the Liver Building was built. This prominent display of two liver birds rekindled the idea that the liver was a mythical bird that once haunted the local shoreline. According to popular legend, they are a male and female pair: the female looking out to sea, watching for the seamen to return safely home, and the male looking in to the city, watching over the seamen's families (or "making sure the pubs are open", as a jocular version has it). Local legend also holds that the birds face away from each other, for if they were to mate and fly away, the city would cease to exist.
Another popular story told about them is that they are chained down, for if they were to fly away the River Mersey would burst its banks and flood the city of Liverpool. This is somewhat similar to the mating story.
An all female rock group from Liverpool called The Liverbirds was active in the '60s. They moved to Hamburg in 1964, where they were billed as die weiblichen Beatles (the female Beatles).
During the 1970s, The Liver Birds was the name of a popular British sitcom dealing with two young women in Liverpool, a play on the British slang term "bird" meaning a young woman.
The crest of Sir Paul McCartney is a calling liver bird holding a guitar, in reference to his profession and native city.
The birds are central to the plot of the 2022 novel Red Bird. Unlike other depictions, the birds are here depicted as murderous and carnivorous jackdaw like creatures.
In November 2008, Liverpool Football Club filed an application with the UK Intellectual Property Office to register the version of the liver bird shown on the club badge as its trademark. The deputy council leader, Flo Clucas, responded that "The Liver bird belongs to all the people of Liverpool and not one company or organisation."
Liverpool FC finally acquired a registration covering a trademark incorporating a liver bird in September 2010, after coming to an agreement with the city council. Liverpool FC obtained a trademark registration from the European trademark office and the council obtained its own registration from the UK IPO covering a trademark incorporating a liver bird. This was done to protect its use by companies in Liverpool, but also for the football club to protect itself against counterfeit products.
- ^ "The Heraldry Gazette" (PDF). The Heraldry Society. March 2008.[permanent dead link]
- ^ a b c d e f "The Liver Bird". National Museums Liverpool.
- ^ a b "Liverpool City Council". Civic Heraldry of England and Wales.
- ^ Fox-Davies, Charles (1907). Heraldic Badges. London: the Bodley Head. p. 118.
- ^ a b Wall, J (1970). "The Quest for the Liver Bird" (PDF). Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire. Liverpool. 121. Archived from the original (PDF) on 22 December 2016.
- ^ Holme, Randle (1688). The Academie of Armorie. Vol. 2. Chester. p. 266.
- ^ Fox-Davies, Charles (1915). The Book of Public Arms. London: T C & E C Jack. p. 450.
- ^ "A tale of the Liver Birds & the Hidden Birds of the City", Explore Liverpool, 19 August 2019. Retrieved 25 May 2020
- ^ Alan Weston (February 2010). "Everton FC fan calls for Liver Bird to be reinstated by club". Liverpool Echo.
- ^ "The Significance of the Liver Birds". Merseyside Today. Retrieved 21 October 2018.
- ^ Findlater, Alexander (March 2003). "Sir Paul McCartney". The Heraldry Society.
- ^ "Flap over Liverpool's bird symbol". BBC News.
- ^ David Bartlett (4 September 2010). "Liverpool FC trademarks the Liver Bird". Liverpool Echo. Retrieved 14 May 2015.
Media related to Liver birds at Wikimedia Commons