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During the nine thousand years that Wirral has been settled, habitations have come and gone. The earliest known settlements date back to the Mesolithic period, or Middle Stone Age (about 7000 BC), and since that time, Celts, Saxons, Vikings, and Normans have all dwelt in the peninsula. Some villages have vanished due to a changing coastline, others because of declining industry, yet others have disappeared for more mysterious reasons. Our exploration of Wirral’s lost villages will begin in prehistory.
Evidence has been found of Stone Age settlement in Irby, Hoylake, New Brighton, the Dungeon (near Oldfield), and Greasby. According to historic-liverpool.co.uk, the Mesolithic site at Greasby Copse contains within its boundaries the “densest concentration of finds in the county.” Excavations in the late eighties yielded signs of flint tool-making and stone-lined pits, the purpose of which is a mystery. The Dungeon, whose impressive cave resembles a textbook prehistoric dwelling, has provided even more finds. In both cases, tools are made of chert mined in North Wales.
The Bronze Age is less well represented, but Iron Age settlements abound in Wirral, including Burton Point, a hillfort including a small enclosure defended by a bank and ditch about sixty metres long. Currently it looks out over the marsh, although when it was constructed the estuary would have lapped at its western cliffs. It is believed that several families were supported by the hillfort, which was still sufficiently notable in Anglo-Saxon times to give a name to the adjacent village, Burton; ‘farm by the fortified place.’ No professional archaeologists have excavated Burton Point, but many skeletons were discovered there in 1875. Some writers connect the find with a recorded shipwreck, others with the Battle of Brunanburh in 937 AD, (thought by some to have been fought at Bromborough). However, other hillforts have provided similarly grisly finds from the period of the Roman conquest. It is possible that the skeletons represent occupants who died fighting the invaders.
Occupation began at a site off Meols, now under the sea, during the Neolithic period or New Stone Age, but increased exponentially during the Iron Age and the Roman occupation. The location of the site is a mystery, since it sank beneath the waves over a period stretching from the Neolithic to the nineteenth century. Over the millennia, the North Wirral coast has been receding, and each period in Meols’ long history has ended with flood and erosion.
Artefacts collected along the shore suggest the existenceof a significant port with far-flung trade links from 500 BC onwards. Coins have been found that originated among the Coriosolites, an Iron Age tribe of Brittany, while others come from as far away as pre-Roman Carthage, Augustan Rome, and Armenia. The latter is the source of a silver tetradrachm minted between 55 BC and 95 BC, the reign of Tigranes I. It would appear that in Roman times, the port (which probably used the natural harbour then existing in the Hoyle Lake) continued to be significant, and it is believed that a Roman road was built from Chester to Meols. Street Hey in Willaston may be one section of this lost road, and Hargrave Lane is thought to be a continuation. Barker Lane in Greasby may be another section – the lane becomes a hollow way and ends abruptly at a ridge, looking down on Limbo Lane.
Field names and medieval accounts refer to ‘Blake Street,’ apparently another Roman road heading towards Monks Ferry and Birkenhead Pool, where a possible Roman bridge was found in 1850, when the Pool was converted into docks. Built of solid oak beams supported by stone piers, it was about a hundred feet long and buried thirty feet deep in the silt.
The Roman port at Meols is thought to predate the legionary fortress at Chester, having played a part in the conquest of the Celtic tribes of Wales. Although it appears to have been a large settlement, Roman Meols does not appear on Claudius Ptolemy’s map of Britain: some authorities identify it as the mysterious Portus Setantiorum, but this is generally believed to have been the Roman settlement at Fleetwood in Lancashire.
The Overchurch Enigma
Today, the name of Overchurch is most closely associated with the junior school of that name, although it remains the name of a parish containing only one village, Upton. As a village, Overchurch is omitted from Domesday Book, but it appears on Christopher Saxton’s 1579 map of Cheshire. Inexplicably, it vanished sometime after Saxton’s survey, leaving only its Norman church. Despite being almost three quarters of a mile from Upton, this remained the only church in the parish until 1813, when it was demolished after storm damage and decades of neglect.
During demolition, a runic stone from the Anglo-Saxon period was discovered in the walls of the later building. The Overchurch runic stone, now in the Grosvenor Museum in Chester, dates from the eighth or ninth century AD. Despite the pagan connections of the runic alphabet, the stone is of explicitly Christian origin; its Old English inscription reads
Folcæ arærdon bec[un...
Ge]biddath fote Æthelmun[d],
The people erected a memorial...
Pray for Æthelmund.
Æthelmund’s identity is unknown. An ealdorman (chief magistrate of a shire) with the same name lived in Mercia during the reigns of Offa and Coenwulf (757-796 and 796-821), and died in battle against the men of Wessex in 802. Wirral was part of Mercia in the same period; however, Ealdorman Æthelmund’s links seem to have been with the southwest Midlands. The Overchurch Æthelmund’s identity is as much of a mystery as the fate of his village. All that remains today are the ruins of the churchyard, deep within a dense, overgrown thicket in woodland near the Upton Bypass.
Other Saxon and Viking settlements were lost long ago. From fieldnames and placenames it seems that a farm called Haby existed near Barnston; another, named Varmby, was at the end of Broad Lane in Heswall, while in Tinkers Dale near Thurstaston visitor centre, there was a Viking settlement called Straumby. Bidston Moss is the site of a lost Viking village called Eskeby, and Lingham Farm near Leasowe Lighthouse preserves the name of another Viking settlement, Lingholm. Other lost villages include Larton, near Newton, and Oldfield, near Heswall, (both of which remain as farms); Hadlow, remembered as a road and a preserved railway station on the Wirral Way; and Hargrave, which was in Raby township.
The port at Meols flourished in the same period, its trade links attracting such finds as the St Menas Flask, an Early Christian pottery vessel from the shrine of St Menas in Egypt. Meols’ prosperity endured under the Saxons and Vikings, the Norsemen providing its current name (which comes from the Old Norse Melr, meaning sandbank). Ringed pins, a small bronze bell, and many coins from this period, including more than twenty silver pennies, show that Meols was part of a trade network reaching to the Norse colonies of Dublin and York as well as Scandinavia.
Medieval to Modern
Meols has provided more medieval finds than anywhere in England outside London. Indications of metalworking suggest that by this period the site was now producing its own goods, but almost two hundred medieval coins confirm that it remained a centre of trade. However, just as no Roman maps show Meols, no surviving medieval documents can confirm its status as a market, and there is no evidence that it ever received a charter, unlike Liverpool. Meols is mentioned in Domesday Book, but only as a small settlement. Yet hundreds upon hundreds of archaeological finds confirm its importance until the sixteenth century, when the port that had thrived in medieval times succumbed to the same fate as its predecessors.
Meols only regained any significance in the early nineteenth century, during the development of Hoylake, a fashionable watering hole patronised by aristocrats and poets. Meols was divided into two townships consisting mainly of sandhills and marsh; Great Meols, corresponding roughly with modern Meols, and Little Meols, which took up much of what is now Hoylake. Sandwiched in between was the small fishing village of Hoose, which has since been swallowed up by Hoylake. After the retreat of the shoreline by 500 metres in under a century, and the silting up of the Hoyle Lake, the natural harbour that had been the basis for the ancient port, the inhabitants of Hoose and Meols had become poverty-stricken and inbred, relying chiefly on ship-wrecking to survive.
In 1846, Reverend Abraham Hume was visiting Hoylake Parsonage when he noticed a Roman brooch on the mantelpiece. Investigation proved that local fishermen found many ancient artefacts on the shore. Over the next few years he publicised these and other finds, culminating in his 1863 book Ancient Meols, and began an archaeological gold rush. It is mainly due to Hume’s work that we know anything at all of Meols’ incredible history.
But Meols is not the only Wirral port to have vanished. In the eighteenth century, Dawpool, which lay between Caldy and Thurstaston was a significant harbour, based on the anchorage at Dawpool Deep. It had seen the writer Jonathan Swift pass through on his way to and from Dublin, and had employed two customs men, due to extensive smuggling operations in the area. Earlier, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, under the name of Redbank, it had been the main anchorage of the estuary, before yielding to Denhall and Burton. But as Liverpool rose to prominence, and the Dee Estuary began to silt up, Dawpool declined.
Proposals by Telford in the nineteenth century to rejuvenate the port by driving a canal through to Wallasey Pool came to nothing. Some say that an area of shaped and dressed stones on the shore between Thurstaston and Caldy is the remains of Dawpool Quay. Others believe nearby Shore Cottage to have been Dawpool Watch House, home of the customs men. As late as 1924, when it was recorded by FC Beazley in his book Thurstaston in Cheshire, a sandstone archway led to a jetty into the sea, but this has been demolished or has washed away. Otherwise, Dawpool is entirely lost.
Another village disappeared within living memory. Magazine Lane in Bromborough once led to Magazine Village, a small settlement of twelve or fourteen houses built in the 1850s. Their inhabitants worked on hulks off the shore that temporarily contained gunpowder from ships docked at Liverpool. In 1864, during the early years of Magazine Village, the dangers of ships carrying gunpowder was made brutally clear when a fire aboard the Lottie Sleigh detonated the 11 pounds of gunpowder she was carrying. The resulting explosion shattered windows and put out gas lamps throughout Liverpool, caused extensive devastation in Birkenhead, and was heard as far away as Chester.
In its heyday, Magazine Village was a hive of activity. Sea Forts were built here during World War Two, before being towed out into Liverpool Bay. But after the closure of the powder stores the houses were gradually demolished, and after the last one was knocked down in 1971, McTays Boat Yard was built on the site.
Perhaps the most recent ‘lost village’ in Wirral is Ford. A small hamlet in Bidston-cum-Ford township, in the nineteenth century it consisted of a few cottages beside the ford over the Fender river, where the Upton Bypass now crosses the M53. In the 1960s Ford was swallowed up by a council estate of the same name, which rose to notoriety in the Eighties when unemployment, caused mainly by the decline of Cammell Lairds, resulted in widespread violence and drug abuse. Desperate to tackle the estate’s problems, the powers-that-be, in a move reminiscent of a Third World dictatorship, decided that the only solution was to rename it. It is now officially Beechwood. The tiny hamlet of Ford has vanished for all time.
Saughall Massie Windmill and its Smugglers
There has been a windmill recorded in the village of Saughall Massey as far back as 1580, although it is likely that there has been one far before that. The famous Vyner family of Wirral were one of the owners of the mill which gradually passed into several different families. Finally the building began to become run down and dilapidated until the last miller Richard Hale closed the doors for the last time, when the mill was demolished in 1871. None of the original structure now exists but it is safe to presume that the foundations now lye under the many houses thrown up over the past 50 years.
This was a most remarkable structure, built of wood with strong oak beams and gaunt, primitive sails standing on a rough base of stone, with a large wheel on the ground for turning the mill round. The mill stood entirely by itself, a little way from the edge of the Bidston Moss but a full mile away from the village of Saughall Massie.
The old mill in the village had a rather tainted reputation and its past was notorious throughout the Borough. The mill was part of a close network used by smugglers as a place to hide their contraband. During the night secret meetings would take place inside the mill under faint lantern light while the gangs discussed their dealings.
Smugglers move goods under cover of the night sky.
The mill was reputed to be an eerie place after nightfall and ravens were said to have taken refuge in the rafters of the roof adding to its reputation. With a combination of strange lights and sounds coming from the mill in the middle of the night it was soon reputed to be
haunted, and the locals would try to avoid the mill after dusk not from fear of disturbing the smugglers but from fear of stumbling into a ghost