The Metropolitan Borough of Wirral occupies the northern half of the Wirral peninsula, bounded to the west by the Dee, to the east by the Mersey and to the north by the waters of Liverpool Bay. Throughout most of its history its character has been shaped by its coast and countryside, the inhabitants gaining their livelihood mainly from the land or the sea.
The earliest evidence of human activity comes from Greasby and Thurstaston, where archaeological finds include concentrations of small worked stones or microliths, evidence of hunter-gatherers of the Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age period.
Settled farming began in the Neolithic or New Stone Age period when the environmental record shows woodland was being cleared to make way for agriculture. This process of clearance and enclosure continued through the Bronze and Iron Ages; traces of agricultural settlements from these times have been excavated at Irby.
The one exception to this pattern is Meols, where over 4000 artefacts and nearly 1000 coins and tokens have been recovered from the eroding shore. The finds, mainly made in the 19th century, date from the prehistoric, Roman, medieval and post medieval periods and are an indication that in the past Meols was a major coastal trading site with links to places as far away as mainland Europe and the Mediterranean.
At the time of the Roman conquest, in AD 43, Wirral lay within the territory of the Cornovii, a British tribe, probably friendly towards the Romans. The harbour at Meols would appear to have been used for both military and trading purposes even before the establishment of the legionary fortress at Chester in the later 70s. A road leading north from Chester, sections of which have been identified, runs in the direction of Meols.
As well as roads, there is evidence of settlement in the Roman period. At Irby a Romano British farmstead has been excavated while a skeleton found during 19th century work on the Leasowe embankment, has been shown to be Roman in date, the only one of its kind from Merseyside.
Little is known of Wirral in the early post Roman years. At Landican a possible early Christian site is suggested by the place name ‘Llan-tegan’, the church of St Decan, while the circular churchyard at Overchurch is probably the source of a decorated runic stone, dating from c 800. The presence of Saxons in Wirral, from the late 7th century onwards, is evidenced by place names. The elements ‘ham’ meaning ‘homestead’ and ‘tun’ a ‘farmstead’ are indications of their settlement.
In about 902, groups of Norsemen, expelled from Ireland, arrived in north Wirral. Again place names are evidence of where they lived. Villages like Irby, Frankby and West Kirby, have endings derived from the Old Norse word ‘byr’, meaning ‘farmstead’ or ‘settlement’. 'Thingwall' comes from the Old Norse 'þing-vollr' or 'meeting place' whilst the name Meols derives from ‘melr’, the Norse word for sand-hills.
Many academics believe that the Battle of Brunanburh, fought in 937 between the Saxon king, Athelstan and the allied forces of the Scots and Norsemen, took place near Bromborough. Athelstan’s victory consolidated the boundary between England and Scotland and confirmed England as a unified kingdom.
By the 10th and 11th centuries life seems to have become more settled. Several places, including Bromborough, West Kirby and Woodchurch have remnants of sculptured crosses dating from this period, while from West Kirby and Bidston come carved hogback grave markers.
Domesday Book records over twenty manors in north Wirral, with one large manor, Eastham, embracing most of the Mersey shore. In 1093 the moated manor house at Irby was granted to the monks of Chester abbey which also acquired the moated court house at Bromborough Pool.
In the mid-12th century, a Norman baron, Hamo de Massey, founded a small Benedictine priory dedicated to St Mary and St James on the isolated headland that now forms Birkenhead. In the 14th century the priory was granted the right to operate a ferry across the Mersey. The present day priory remains are the oldest standing structures on Merseyside. Other medieval buildings in Wirral include a number of parish churches, Storeton Hall and the tower house at Brimstage.
Farming continued as the principle occupation of the population though maritime activities, including fishing and seafaring were important along the coast. As early as the 14th century, silting in the Dee caused the increased use of small anchorages along the Wirral shore. That at the ‘Redbank’ or Dawpool was used to unload cargoes such as Spanish wine and iron. Of more significance was the Hoyle or Hyle Lake, a deep water channel, sheltered by sandbanks, off what is now Hoylake. In 1690 this ‘lake’ was the main point of embarkation for King William III’s expedition to Ireland. It was also used by ships waiting to sail into Liverpool.
As the volume of shipping increased there was a need for lights and beacons. In 1763 pairs of lighthouses were built at Hoylake and Leasowe. In 1771 the lower light at Leasowe was threatened by the sea and replaced by a light on Bidston Hill. At Perch Rock, the lighthouse, begun in 1827, replaced a wooden pole or perch, used to warn shipping of rocks at the Mersey’s mouth; while at West Kirby the Column, erected in 1840, acted as a landmark to shipping, replacing a windmill, blown down in the great storm of the previous year.
On Bidston Hill a series of flagpoles were used to inform Liverpool ship-owners of the imminent arrival of their ships while semaphore stations on Bidston Hill and Hilbre formed part of a communications system linking Liverpool with Holyhead. In 1866 the Liverpool Observatory moved to Bidston Hill and was later joined by the Tidal Institute which predicted the tides for the D-Day landings.
Lifeboats also provided a service. A lifeboat station was established at Hoylake in 1803, with two further stations opened in subsequent years, one on Hilbre and one at New Brighton. The Hilbre station closed in 1939 but the other two are still active today.
Sea bathing had become popular in late Georgian times and in 1792 the Royal Hotel opened at Hoylake, while in 1830 James Atherton purchased a large area of sand hills, founding the seaside resort of New Brighton establishing a pattern of catering for visitors that still persists today.
The main catalysts for change were improvements in transport. A regular steam ferry service from Liverpool was instigated to Eastham in 1816 and to Tranmere in 1817. The road from Chester to Birkenhead was turnpiked in the 1830s and in 1840 a railway line opened between Birkenhead, Chester, Crewe and London.
With improved transport links, Wirral underwent major economic, social and demographic changes. Industry began to develop on the west bank of the Mersey while the area’s fresh air, open countryside and wide sea views made it an attractive place for Liverpool merchants and business men to make their homes.
In 1824 the Scotsman, William Laird, born in Greenock, established a boiler works on Wallasey Pool. In partnership with his son John, he soon diversified, founding what was to become one of the greatest shipbuilding enterprises in the world. In the 1850s the Laird shipyards transferred to the Mersey shore and in 1903 they amalgamated with Cammell, the Sheffield steel producer. Over the years the company would produce some of the navy’s greatest ships, as well as the Ma Robert, the first steel hulled ship ever built, the Confederate raider ‘Alabama’ and liners like the Mauretania.
The first few streets of Birkenhead were laid out by the lord of the manor, Francis Richard Price. Then in 1825, at the behest of William Laird, the great Scottish architect, James Gillespie Graham, produced a plan for a modern new town, with a gridiron pattern of streets, a range of fine late Georgian buildings and the imposing Hamilton Square. The town grew, with a market, theatres and music halls, the first tramway in Europe and the world’s first publicly funded park – Birkenhead Park – which played a key role in the development of the parks movement and became a model for parks design including Central Park, New York.
The first of Birkenhead’s docks, the Morpeth and Egerton Docks, opened in 1847. The Birkenhead Emigrant Depot, an important base for migrants bound for Australia, followed in 1852 as did Brassey & Co.’s Canada Works, which built much of the equipment, including locomotives and bridges, for the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada.
In 1857 an Act of Parliament brought the Birkenhead and Liverpool docks under the single ownership of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company and it was under the company that the dock system developed. Until the 1960s the docks were in constant operation, with dozens of quays and warehouses, criss-crossed with freight lines. Many passenger and freight lines worked out of Birkenhead including Alfred Holt and the Ellerman, Clan and City Lines.
Although only a fraction of the dock system is now involved in traditional port activity, the legacy of buildings and dock structures is still impressive. Among these are the hydraulic tower, designed by Jesse Hartley and based on the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence and the Grain Warehouses, on the Dock Road, built in the 1860s to receive wheat, maize and barley from all over the world.
Though Wallasey Pool was the initial focus of development, industry soon spread along the Mersey shore. Price’s Patent Candle Company, owned by the Wilson family was already flourishing when in 1853 it purchased land for a new works on the tidal inlet of Bromborough Pool. The village the Wilsons built for their workers, many of whom had moved up from London, is an early example of a model industrial village, predating Port Sunlight by over three decades. (The Candleworks went on to become Price’s Chemicals, then Unichema.)
Port Sunlight Village, itself, was the vision of the Victorian entrepreneur and philanthropist, William Hesketh Lever. Laid out to provide accommodation for the workers in his soap factory, the model village, with its architect designed housing, gardens and green spaces was a pioneer in the Garden City Movement and is now of international standing. Within the village the renowned Lady Lever Art Gallery provides a permanent home of Lord Lever’s outstanding art collection.
In contrast to the industrial settlements of the Mersey shore, New Brighton, served by both the ferry and the railway, developed as one of the most popular seaside resorts in the north. Its attractions included its Pier and Promenade, the New Brighton Tower (once the tallest in Britain), the Tower Ballroom and the now demolished open air bathing pool, one of the biggest in the world. Sadly, as with many former resort towns, competition from package holidays, lack of investment and social change, meant that by the 1980s New Brighton had lost much of what made it special and thus its attractions waned.
The recent history of Wirral has been one of mixed fortunes, which has exacerbated the social and economic contrasts between the two sides of the peninsula. ‘Deeside Wirral’ has retained its affluence, with well-to-do communities such as Heswall, West Kirby and Hoylake interspersed with open rural areas and pretty villages. To the east the dense urban and industrial belt fronting the Mersey has not fared so well. Decline began in the 1950s, resulting in physical deterioration, lack of investment, rising unemployment and a whole range of deprivation problems. It is against this background that Wirral Council is targeting its regeneration efforts, focussing inward investment on areas like Birkenhead Park, New Brighton and the Docks. The opening of Birkenhead Park Visitors Centre and New Brighton’s rebuilt Floral Pavilion, with its theatre and conference centre, are examples of regeneration at work.