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West Kirby & Hilbre Island Shipping and Trade
By Harold Edgar Young
Source: A Perambulation of the Wirral Hundred
First Edition, October 1909
Second Impression, October 1909
Third Impression, November 1909
My back was now set fairly to Hoylake, and I went forward over the sands to visit the three islands, the largest and westernmost, Hilbre, then Middle Eye, whilst south of both I stood for a moment on Little Eye, just to say I had been there. They are called "islands," although they are "islands but twice a day, embraced by Neptune only at the full tydes, and twice a day shakes hands with great Brittayne." I thought of old William Webb, who probably never visited the islands, writing in 1622, " Here in the utmost western nook of this promontory, divided from the land, lies that little barren island called Ilbree, or Hilbree, in which it was said there was sometimes a cell of monks, though I scarce believe it ; for that kind of people loved warmer seats than this could ever be." If Webb ever was there, rest assured it was on a blowy day in winter, and not on a fine May morning like that which made me envy the monks their situation. Although Webb doubted the fact, there was a cell of monks on Hilbre, and a very celebrated place it was, and miraculous too, for Richard, Earl of Chester, who, when a young man, was performing a pilgrimage to St. Winifred's Well, in Flintshire, nearly opposite the islands, was set on by a band of Welsh robbers, who drove him for refuge to the Abbey of Basingwerk, where, not feeling too secure, by the advice of a monk of the cell of Hilbre, he addressed himself to St. Werburgh, who is said to have instantly parted the waters of the Dee, throwing up a huge sand-bank, over which his constable, the Baron of Halton, marched his men to the rescue and that is why the sands are called " The Constable's Sands " " And where the host passed 'twixt bondes To this day's been called the Constable's Sondes." A very pretty story, and the legend would be certain to attract plenty of pilgrims. Not the slightest traces of the cell remain, but a relic of the early church of Hilbre was found about 1853, consisting of a fine cross of red sandstone, said to be of the ninth or tenth century, similar in design to some still remaining in Ireland, and what appears to be a sepulchral cross is built into the wall of an outhouse, but it is covered with whitewash, as is the rest of the building, and its form is only revealed no "It is the spring-time of the year." "Yes," I said, " but why are you making the pilgrimage?" and she said again, "It is the springtime of the year, and I've lost my son in the war." And I said, " Do you think this pilgrimage is doing your son any good ? “to which she replied, "I cannot tell." "Then," I said, " Do you think you will ever see your son again ? " and she replied, I do not know, but good will come of it, good will come of it." And I expect that many of our English pilgrims set out in the same indefinite way, on a sort of holiday, trusting that good would come of it. Certainly to-day good will come of it, for nowhere will the lungs expand to such sweet sea air a near examination. There is also a well, nearly 40 feet deep, cut through the solid rock, and which may possibly have been sunk by the monks. Mr. Fergusson Irvine, in his interesting lecture entitled " Village Life in West Kirby three hundred years ago," published in 1895, savs : " The mention of Hilbre as apart from West Kirby was a feature that puzzled me at first, and does still to some extent, but there appears to be abundant evidence that the island was a really important marine station at this time, and that there were several, and possibly many, permanent dwelling-houses upon it. " From a most interesting Chester document, recently discovered at Chester by Mr. Sanders, it appears that three hundred years ago a somewhat eccentric Lincolnshire knight a certain Sir Richard Thimblebye, after whom Thimblebye's Tower on Chester walls was named was a resident in the island as a tenant of Sir Rowland Stanley, of Hooton, though how Sir Rowland came to be landlord I am at a loss to conceive. In addition to Sir Richard there must have been several shipowners living on the island, for in the list of shipping for 1572, mentioned above, eleven of the ships are definitely stated to be 'of Hilbree,' and only one from West Kirby. And in 1544 six ships are entered at Chester as of Hilbree and one of Caldy.
"The document found by Mr. Sanders at Chester is the evidence given by different witnesses in a suit brought by Mr. Massie, who farmed the rectory of West Kirby, against Sir Richard Thimblebye. The evidence, which contains many curious details, goes to show that the claiming of tithes by Mr. Massie from Hilbre Island was quite a new imposition. Thus Mr. John Brassie of Tiverton, aged sixty years, states that 'about forty-four years ago, being then a child, he was one of the boys of the Chamber to Abbot Birkenshaw, then Abbot of St. Werburgh's, Chester, and by reason thereof . . . familiarly acquainted with Dom John Smith or Dom Robert Harden, monks dwelling on the Isle of Hilbree, and that he was wont to go to Hilbree and there stay for the space of a fortnight together at certain times,' at which times he had seen 'fyshe taken for the monks' use within the water running about the said island with nets, but whether with boat or not he doth not remember, and further saith that he never heard that the said monks paid any tythe of fyshe taken there to the parson of West Kirkbie, or any other, for he saith the said isle was then taken to be of no parish, but was called a cell, belonging to the monastery of Chester, and therefore free from all manner of tythe paying.' " Another witness states that he lived at Hilbre with the monks for fourteen years I presume as servant and adds " he knoweth verie well that the saide Prior and monks had a fishing boat called the Jack Rice, and used to fish there by their servants, and he had often seen much fish taken there to their use," and further states " that the monks had certain kine on the same island and yet paid no tithes of the same. " There used to be a beer-house on the island, but customers were too few when the sea traffic left the coast, and there are tales of great smuggling, which went on in the old days, when the ships stole quietly up the Dee and hid a cargo of contraband, to be removed when an opportunity occurred. You may pass swiftly over the sands from Little Eye to West Kirby, and if you have not visited that place for thirty years you will find that what you left a village has now grown into a little town, with a parade, in front of which has been constructed a large salt-water lake on the seashore, on which are pleasure-boats ; so that at the lowest ebb, when the sands hide from sight even the narrow strip of Dee which makes its way steadily to the sea under the Welsh coast, the artificial lake gives the visitor the feeling that he is still resting by the sea, and he waits with some show of contentment the incoming tide. Years ago the pretty village of West Kirby spread itself out, and the cottages nestled amidst the heather and gorse on the side of its hills. Now there are large residences on and about the hills, and long streets of houses and shops have taken the place of thatched cottages, whilst like Neston, it can boast of two railway stations belonging to different companies. I prefer to remember West Kirby as a pretty little village before the railway had reached it, where one could arrive and fling oneself down at full length on the clean hill-sides, feeling that the country had been reached at last, and that the town and townsfolk had been left far behind. Nevertheless it is still possible to find places near West Kirby that are little visited, and where you may feel somewhat a lonely Crusoe, but they need looking for, and when they are found it is best to keep the secret. But there are some coigns of vantage on the hill-sides unknown, or at all events unvisited, even by the oldest inhabitants, where you may lie snugly in the sun and gaze on two very different tracts of country. Looking to the north over the wide expanse of sands, to the west into Wales, to the east over the country to the Mersey, and to the south over a rich tract of meadow and pleasantly-wooded lands of oaks, beeches, and pines in solemn green, over which go homeward a flight of rooks. It is hard to realise, as one lies here in the sun, that West Kirby and Hilbre were once little ports like so many of the places on this side of the Dee. Yet Liverpool in 1565 only returned sailing ships with a total tonnage of 226, and in 1572, but seven years later, licences were issued from Chester to twelve vessels belonging to West Kirby and Hilbre.
Hearken to the names of some of the ships when King Henry VIII. was on the throne, just a year after he had married Catherine Parr, and four years before he died : The Pride of West Kirkebye . Master, John Couentrye. The Trinitie of West Kirkebye Peter Robinson. The Rose of West Kirkebye . . Thomas Wright. The Nutlock ofHilbre ... Richard Lytill. The Goodlock of Caldey ... Thomas Hogg. And here are the details of a cargo : "(35 Henry VIII.) Richard Loker, in a ship of Hilbre, imported 1600 shepe felles, 68 dere, 69 fawn skins, 6300 broke fells. "(36 Henry VIII.) One ship brought in 7 martens' skins, 240 otters, 1 2 wolff skins, 2 scales' skins, 500 cony fells, 8 fox cases, 46 cople mode hawke. "The Katerina of ChesterTor the Archebysshop of Dublyn brings 2 horseys which are sent to the Kyng's Grace, and 2 casts of gentle hawks." An interesting miscellaneous cargo, which shows that there were shipowners in those days on the banks of the Dee. But the Dee silted up, and at last a good coach road was opened from Warrinj.; ton to Liverpool, and Liverpool awoke to the occasion, and established a very superior line of packets from Liverpool to Dublin. It was then that the blow to the ports on this side of the Dee was delivered, and intercourse between England and Ireland from the river Dee ceased.