Birkenhead Centre
Last updated 22nd January 2015
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Birkenhead from the Liverpool Waterfront
Viewed from across the river, the former Birkenhead Town Hall is a prominent feature of the skyline. To the left is the Woodside ferry terminal and to the right the tower of Hamilton Square railway station.
The Old Town Hall, Hamilton Square, Birkenhead
The Town Hall was completed in 1887 and was apparently inspired by Bolton Town Hall. Viewed from across the river, the 200 ft (60 m) clock tower is a prominent feature of the skyline. The building was restored starting in 1991 and is now the Wirral museum.
Birkenhead in Lewis's Topographical Dictionary of England (1848)
A rising sea-port, market-town, and township [...]. Though of recent origin as a town and port, this place is of considerable antiquity. A priory for sixteen Benedictine monks was founded here about 1150, in honour of St. Mary and St. James, by Hamon de Massey, third baron of Dunham-Massey. [...] The right of ferryage across the Mersey was given to the prior in 1282, and confirmed by subsequent grants; and in a charter dated the 20th February 1318, he obtained license to build houses for lodging all such persons using the ferry as should be detained on account of contrary weather and the frequent storms. Up to that time there had not been any accommodation for sojourners here, and the priory had in consequence been burthened, and the passengers 'much wearied and very greatly grieved'. [...]
For centuries an inconsiderable place, it has suddenly become a large and important town; and what was once regarded as an outskirt of the great port of Liverpool, is now going hand in hand with that mart of commerce, in extending the facilities for the trade of the country, and in increasing the prosperity of those residing on the shores of the noble estuary of the Mersey. The first steam-boats were introduced on the Mersey in 1815, at which time Birkenhead contained but a few insignificant and isolated cottages. In 1833 an act was passed for the improvement of the place; in 1840 a railway was opened hence to Chester. The first stone of the docks was laid on the 23rd of October, 1844. [...] In 1818 there were only three houses besides the priory and a few straggling cottages, and Woodside ferry-house; and the population did not exceed 50: in 1821 it was only 200; it had risen in 1831 to 2569, and in 1841 was 8227. The number of inhabitants in 1844 was about 14,000, and there were then at least 2315 houses in the township, exclusively of 503 houses in the course of erection.
The town is admirably situated on the Mersey, which separates it from Liverpool, on the east; while on the north it is bounded by Wallasey Pool, soon to be converted into the great Float and the low-water basin. [...] Hamilton-square occupies 6 acres of ground, surrounded on every side by elegant stone-fronted houses, four stories high, rusticated to the first story course, and built in the Doric style of architecture [...]. The garden and walks of the square are inclosed by a parapet and iron-railings, and are tastefully laid out for the special use of the neighbouring occupants. [...] The project of turning the capabilities of Wallasey Pool to advantage was first conceived by the late Mr. William Laird, who purchased from Mr. Price, in May 1824, fifty acres of land on the margin of the pool, adjoining the site of the present Dock Company's warehouses, for an establishment for iron ship-building. [...]
There are three ferries, with an hotel at each; namely, the Woodside ferry, the Monks', and the Birkenhead. [...] The slips at Woodside are excellent: a fine pier runs down between them, which is twenty feet wide; a row of lamps illuminates each slip at night, and the pier forms a delightful promenade, where contractors with the ferry have the privilege of walking: at the extremity is a small lighthouse. The Monks' ferry hotel is the largest hotel in Birkenhead, and is advantageously situated on the verge of the river, from which it presents a very fine appearance. The Birkenhead ferry, the property of the corporation of Liverpool, by whom it was purchased a few years ago, is the most southern of the ferries, and has a fine commodious slip, but shorter than the slips at the other ferries, owing to the greater depth of water close to the shore. The hotel, which is very spacious, stands on a delightful and almost isolated site, close to the point forming the northern boundary of the indenture of Tranmere Pool. From the house and pleasure-grounds the most charming views are obtained of the river and shipping, the Lancashire shore from Bootle bay to Runcorn, with Liverpool on the east, and the whole basin of the Mersey on the south; also of the Cheshire shore, the Rockferry, &c.
Hamilton Square, Birkenhead
The construction of Hamilton Square was begun around 1825 to designs by James Gillespie Graham but was mainly realised during 1836-46. The classical buildings, faced with white sandstone from Storeton, look Scottish in style and indeed Graham did similar work in Edinburgh. The square is very large and cannot be seen in its entirety from any one place. The earliest buildings of 1825-6 are those seen in this photo at the north-east corner of the square. They include the house of William Laird, who may have influenced the design of the square as a whole. The north side was completed in 1839 and the south and west sides during 1839-44.
War Memorial, Hamilton Square, Birkenhead
Constructed in 1925 to the design of Lionel Budden.
Queen Victoria Monument, Hamilton Square, Birkenhead
Constructed in 1905 to the design of Edmund Kirby.
Hamilton Square West Side, Birkenhead
Hamilton Square North Side, Birkenhead
Mortimer Street, Birkenhead
Brandon Street, Birkenhead
Hamilton Square Railway Station, Birkenhead
The station tower is quite a feature of the Birkenhead skyline when viewed from the Liverpool waterfront. The station served the first part of the Mersey Railway, which opened in 1886. The tracks here are over 100ft (30 m) below the street and the tower was used for the provision of hydraulic power to operate the original lifts. I recently had to use the stairs in the corresponding station (James Street) on the other side of the river and can vouch for the desirability of lifts.
The Great Hall, Birkenhead Priory
Birkenhead Priory was originally the Benedictine Priory of St. James, founded on an isolated headland in the later 12th century. The Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536 by Henry VIII resulted in its closure. The buildings were abandoned and the estate managed by a royal bailiff until it passed into private ownership in 1544. It wasn't until 1896 that an appeal was launched to buy and save the remains of the Priory and persuade Birkenhead Corporation to take over responsibility for the site.
Birkenhead Priory in Recollections of Old Liverpool (1863), an anonymous author recalling the mid-18th century
Wallasey Pool was a glorious piece of water once, and many a good fish I have taken out of it in the upper waters. The view of Birkenhead Priory was at one time very picturesque, before they built the church near it and the houses round it. I recollect when there was not a dwelling near it. It seemed to stand out well in the landscape, and certainly looked very pretty. It was a great shame that persons should have been permitted to carry away the stones for building or any other purpose. Had not a stop at last been put to this sort of work there would not in time have been a vestige of the old abbey left. I recollect that there was a belief that a tunnel or subterraneous passage ran under the Mersey to Liverpool from the Priory, and that the entrance in 1818, when the church was built, had been found and a good way traversed. That passage was commonly spoken of as being in existence when I was a boy, and I often vowed I would try to find it.
The Chapter House, Birkenhead Priory
The Chapter House (at ground level) was built around 1150 AD and is the earliest surviving building on Merseyside. It was consecrated as an Anglican church after the Dissolution and is still used for services.
The Scriptorium, Birkenhead Priory
The Scriptorium was built over the Chapter House in ca. 1375 and was probably used by the monks as a writing room and possibly a strong room. It is now known as the Conway Chapel, dedicated to the training ship HMS Conway, a naval training school founded in 1859 and housed for most of its life aboard a 19th century wooden battleship stationed on the Mersey here until 1941.
St. Mary's Church, Birkenhead Priory
In 1819, an increase in the local population due to the arrival of a steam ferry service from Liverpool led to the building of St. Mary's Church, Birkenhead's first parish church, adjacent to the site of the old Priory. It was consecrated in 1821 and took over from the Chapter House as a place of worship. Redevelopment of the area from 1925 resulted in a large amount of residential housing within the parish being cleared to make way for the construction of the first Mersey Tunnel. Expansion at the adjacent Cammell Laird shipyard in the 1960s resulted in the church losing a significant portion of its graveyard. Subsequent redevelopment of the approach roads to the Mersey Tunnel effectively cut off the church from most of what remained of its parish. It closed in 1974 and was partly demolished a year later for reasons of safety. Only the tower and parts of the outer walls remain.
Birkenhead Priory and Cammell Laird's Shipyard
A brutal contrast: the Great Hall of Birkenhead Priory and Cammell Laird's shipyard. The churchyard contains the burial vault of the Laird family, co-founders of the shipbuilding company.
Monks' Ferry looking North-East
The monks and priors of Birkenhead Priory originally had the fishing and wreckage rights in the Mersey and provided a free ferry and hospitality here to travellers wishing to cross the river. The crossing was dangerous and there would often be delays waiting for decent weather. The free service strained the monks' resources and in 1318 Edward II granted permission in a royal charter to build a hostel and charge guests for accommodation, food and drink. Later, in a second charter of 1330, Edward III granted the monks exclusive rights to ferry travellers across the river and charge tolls for the service. This income enabled the monks to sustain a living in the priory until the Dissoluton of the Monasteries in 1536.
Monks' Ferry looking South-East
At the start of the 19th century, the population of Birkenhead was still only 110. Lancashire Illustrated of 1831 describes this area as one of the most picturesque scenes on the banks of the Mersey. A lawn, extending from the riverside to the front of an antique mansion, situated on the most elevated part of the grounds, was studded with majestic trees, of some centuries standing, and carpeted with a turf. [...] Across this lawn a winding footpath conducted the traveller to the ruins of the ancient Priory of Birkenhead, the chapel of which still remains entire - and the whole demesne was secured from the encroachment of the tide by a natural barrier of rock, over-hung by copse-wood. Altogether it formed a scene of rural beauty not often surpassed.
Liverpool Waterfront from Monks' Ferry
The northern Liverpool waterfront here features the new office and apartment blocks that have so modified the skyline over recent years. The tallest, and Liverpool's tallest building, is the West Tower.
The Mersey Ferry from Woodside Promenade
The iconic ferry Royal Daffodil
is here backed by the Albert Dock warehouses on the left and the new Echo Arena on the right. The skyline features the tower of Liverpool University's Victoria Building, the Metropolitan Cathedral and St. Luke's Church tower. Steamers began to make the crossing from Liverpool to Woodside in 1819. This initiated an expansion of the inhabited area as a bathing resort and residential area for Liverpool merchants, and both the Birkenhead Ferry Hotel and St. Mary's church had been completed by 1821.
Woodside Ferry in Recollections of Old Liverpool (1863), an anonymous author recalling the mid-18th century
How well I recollect the Woodside Ferry when I was a boy. There was a long causeway at it, which ran into the river, formed of logs of wood and large boulder stones. Up this causeway you walked until you came to the overhanging shore which on the left hand was cut away to admit the causeway continuing up into the land. There was a small thicket of trees on the rock-top and a patch of garden which belonged to the ferryman. The only house visible was a farm house which stood on the spot where the Woodside Hotel may now be found. It had a garden enclosed by a hedge round it.
U-Boat U-534, Woodside
This German World War II U-Boat, U-534, was sunk by an allied Liberator bomber after a gun battle on the last day of the war off the coast of Denmark. 49 of the 52 crew survived. It was salvaged in 1993 and found to be full of silt that had kept the interior in a remarkable state of preservation. The exhibit at Woodside presents the submarine in several pieces, glassed over at the ends so that you can see inside. The interior is clearly the worse for corrosion but surprisingly intact and distinctly eerie when imagined as a habitat where 52 men were confined for months at a time.
The Grand Entrance, Birkenhead Park
Birkenhead Park was a very early example of a planned suburban villa park and the first ever public park. Originally marshland, the 185 acre (75 ha) site was purchased in 1843 by Improvement Commissioners Isaac Holmes and William Jackson. It was drained and excavated to leave two lakes with islands and some hillocks planted with forest trees. The expense was to be deferred by the sale of plots, at high profit because of the added value of the improved environment, for the construction of up-market housing around the perimeter. The park and housing were laid out in 1844-7 to a design by Joseph Paxton. 60 acres (24 ha) between the encircling Park Drive and the polygon of surrounding roads were to be devoted to housing in the form of villas and terraces disposed, following the model of Regent's Park in London, so as to avoid straight lines. The architecture was carefully vetted (construction materials were largely restricted to Storeton yellow sandstone) but became stylistically diverse, including Gothic, Elizabethan, Classical and Italianate examples. Most of the original houses date from the mid-1840s to the mid-1860s, but in the event many of the plots were not built on at this time. Only 60 villas and no terraces were eventually built.
The Boathouse and the Lower Lake, Birkenhead Park
Birkenhead Park was part of a grand vision at that time for 'The City of the Future' and its opening on Easter Monday 1847, with brass bands, choirs and a grand dinner, was timed to coincide with the newly completed Birkenhead dock complex. It had a huge influence on subsequent urban park development in the UK, for example, Sefton Park in Liverpool, and elsewhere. American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted incorporated many of the features he observed in Birkenhead Park into his design for New York's Central Park following a visit in 1850. He wrote: 'Five minutes of admiration, and a few more spent studying the manner in which art had been employed to obtain from nature so much beauty, and I was ready to admit that in democratic America there was nothing to be thought of as comparable with this People's Garden [...] I cannot undertake to describe the effect of so much taste and skill as had evidently been employed; I will only tell you, that we passed by winding paths, over acres and acres, with a constant varying surface, where on all sides were growing every variety of shrubs and flowers, with more than natural grace, all set in borders of greenest, closest turf, and all kept with consummate neatness'. The park was the subject of an 11.5 million renovation in 2004-6 funded by the National Lottery.
The Lower Lake, Birkenhead Park
The park is divided into the Lower Park and the Upper Park by Ashville Road. Both parts are a picturesque blend of open grassy areas, woodland, lakes and winding pathways. The lakes were designed to have the appearance of sinuous rivers supplying idyllic vistas through gaps in the trees.
The Upper Lake, Birkenhead Park
The Boathouse, Birkenhead Park
The Roman Boathouse was originally intended as a bandstand.
The Swiss Bridge, Birkenhead Park
The Rockery, Birkenhead Park
The rockery was clearly inspired by the effects of Alpine landscape painting on the fevered romantic imagination. The huge sandstone rocks were excavated from land used to construct Birkenhead Docks.
The Italian Lodge, Birkenhead Park
The grandiose lodges, designed by John Robertson and Lewis Hornblower, are a particular feature of the various entrances to the park. The Grand Entrance at the eastern corner of the park, with its pair of lodges connected by a trio of arches, is in a class of its own.
The Central Lodge, Birkenhead Park
House on Ashville Road, Birkenhead Park
The Castellated Lodge, Birkenhead Park
The Norman Lodge, Birkenhead Park
The Birkenhead History Society
Friends of Birkenhead Park
Birkenhead Priory at wirral-mbc.gov.uk
Cammell Laird Shiprepairers & Shipbuilders Ltd website