A Brief History of Birkenhead

Prepared by the Friends of Flaybrick

Now when you travel from Oxton, through Claughton to Birkenhead and then on to Tranmere it is difficult to know where one boundary ends and the next starts. It was not always like that. Infect it is only quite recently that that has been the case.

Not so long ago the Wirral peninsula was almost all rural, but when Birkenhead started to urbanise it did so at a remarkable rate.

In 1150 Hamon de Massie, who owned a considerable amount of land on Wirral, founded a Benedictine Priory, dedicated to St. Mary and St. James, the remains of which stand today.

The priory was built on a headland called Birchen Head, because of the birch trees that grew there, at the head of the River Birket. The area now known as Woodside.

The monks farmed land known as the Grange situated where Alfred Road is today. To get there they would walk along Grange Lane, later renamed Grange Road. They took their produce to Liverpool to be sold in the market and kept goods that were not sold in a house in Water Street. They also ferried passengers across the Mersey, and it was this ferry that later played a significant part in the development of Birkenhead.

In August 1277 King Edward I visited the Abbey and stayed there for a few days. His visit is commemorated in a stained glass window in Birkenhead Town Hall.

The ferry started to become a more lucrative business and the monks petitioned Edward II that they should be allowed to provide board and lodgings for the benefit of their ferry travellers. In 1317 the monks charged foot passengers a farthing and horsemen twopence to be rowed across the Mersey. On market days they increased the charge to a penny for a man and all that he could carry, a sum then considered exorbitant.

In 1330 the monks petitioned Edward III for the sole rights to ferry passengers and charge a toll, and a subsequent Royal Charter was granted.

Nothing much happened then in Birkenhead until the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII.

In 1544 the Priory estate was bought from the Crown by Ralph Worsley for £568 11s 6d. During the Civil War in 1644 the buildings were fortified by the Cavaliers but it was later surrendered to the Parliamentary forces and eventually dismantled.

In 1710 the estate was bought by a Liverpool merchant, John Cleveland and was passed on to his daughter Alice in 1716. Alice married Francis Price and the property remained in the Price family for many years.

Although there was a lot of activity crossing the river not many people settled in Birkenhead. The census of 1801 show a population of 110. Ten years later in 1811 this figure dropped to 105.

In 1815 a small paddle boat steamed up the Mersey and this event sparked the expansion of Birkenhead. Now travel across the Mersey was no longer totally dependent on the weather. In 1817 the steam powered Etna crossed from Liverpool and started a service that was faster and more reliable than the large four oared boats that could carry up to thirty passengers, had ever been.

Houses were built along Church Street, a big hotel was built at the bottom of Abbey Street and Birkenhead became, for a short time at least a holiday resort. Visitors took advantage of the fine sandy beaches and bathed in the clear water of the Mersey.

In 1824 William Laird came to live in Birkenhead. He bought a piece of land in Wallasey Pool and started a business that was to make Birkenhead famous throughout the world.

The growth of Birkenhead had now begun. The population in 1821 was 200, by 1831 it was 2,569.

Hamilton Square, one of the finest squares in the country, built by William Laird and named after his mother, was opened in 1833. The first Town Hall and market hall was opened in Hamilton Street in 1835. In 1840 the Birkenhead to Chester railway, planned by George Stephenson, was opened and in 1843 123 acres of land was bought for the most ambitious project of all, the formation of Birkenhead Park. The most famous landscape gardener of the time, Sir Joseph Paxton, was engaged to plan the park.

In 1841 the population had tripled to 8,223, by 1846 it had increased to 40,000. Birkenhead was being hailed ‘The City of the future’ and it seemed that nothing could halt its progress. One year later the dock scheme failed, there was a disastrous slump and people left Birkenhead in thousands.

The future of Birkenhead now lay in the hands of four men, William Laird*, George Rae and Maurice Mocatta*. Indeed it was only through the generosity of William Hind and his brother that the Commissioners were able to meet the claims of the bondholders, save the ferry and retrieve their position.

The next census taken in 1851, still showed a considerable population increase since 1841 and stood at 24,285. William Laird was having difficulties in launching his iron ships now that the docks were built around Wallasey Pool and by 1856 he had set up his new yard near Monks Ferry.

The 1860’s proved to be the start of a renewal of Birkenhead’s fortune. The first tramway service to be run in Europe was inaugurated here and ran from Woodside to Birkenhead Park. Birkenhead elected its first M.P. John Laird, William’s son. John Laird provided the money for the building of the Borough Hospital, William Jackson* paid for the fixtures and fittings. The first workhouse was built and the first purpose built library opened. Flaybrick Cemetery opened and the reservoir was constructed at Bidston Hill.

John Laird died in 1874. Work stopped on the day of his funeral, shops closed and 1,500 men walked behind his coffin. His sons John and William carried on the family business.

Following many years of petitions and deputation’s Birkenhead became a Borough on 13 August 1877. The first election took place on 14 November 1877, the first mayor to be elected was John Laird*.

A corporate seal and armorial bearings were adopted.

The motto was chosen to accompany the Coat of Arms was

‘Ubi Fides ibi Lux et Robur’

Where there is faith there is light and strength

Header Photo by Ryan Warburton on Unsplash