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In the eighteenth century, Wallasey was a haunt of smugglers. The centre of smuggling was Mother Redcap’s, a tavern that stood on the Mersey shore. Its proprietor was an elderly lady named Poll Jones, who always wore a red cap or bonnet. She was a great friend to smugglers and privateers, acting as a banker, minding their earnings while they were at sea.
The walls of the tavern were almost three feet thick. Smugglers concealed contraband within them and this was also where Mother Redcap kept the prize money of privateer crews while they were at sea. In the backyard there was a dry well, in the wall of which was the entrance to a mysterious tunnel that led inland. At the south end of the house another dry well led to a cellar where contraband was concealed. This cellar seems to have also joined with the passage, which is said to have led to the Red Noses, over a mile away in what is now New Brighton. Other passages led to St Hilary’s in Wallasey Village, and to a church in Birkenhead.
Shortly before Mother Redcap’s death, a privateer ship came into Liverpool with a fabulously rich prize that gave her crew at least £1, 000 (£50, 000 in today’s money) each. Mother Redcap’s is said to have been ‘swarming’ with sailors from the privateer, and she banked a great deal of their money. Soon after, however, she died, leaving next to nothing. Mysteriously, the privateers’ prize money had vanished.
The later history of the tavern is less illustrious; it continued to be a landmark despite having its license revoked about fifty years later. The building was restored and renovated by a retired solicitor, Joseph Kitchingham, who also recorded many of the traditions connected with it. After Kitchingham’s death it became a cafe, and later a nightclub, before closing in 1960 and falling into ruin. In October 1974 it was demolished.
Local historian Joseph ‘Pepe’ Ruiz records in his book ‘Beachcombers, Buttercreams and Smugglers’ Caves’ that during the demolition a bulldozer fell through a hole in the ground, and revealed a well with a tunnel leading off it. The workers recognised it as the famous ‘smugglers’ tunnel’ and wanted to contact Liverpool Museum. Their foreman, however, insisted the well be filled in, threatening instant dismissal to anyone contacting the authorities.
A 1974 article in the Wirral News states that the developers who built a nursing home on the site of Mother Redcap’s found no sign of tunnels. However, Joan McCool, who had worked there in the fifties, said that there had been several tunnels behind the bar, partially filled in with beer bottles. Mrs McCool’s former employer, Inga Kneale, said that she had never found tunnels ‘of any length’ but she was sure they existed. Marion Fisher, who had owned a hotel in Wellington Road, mentioned that one of her residents had been a builder who worked on Mother Redcap’s. Part of his job had been to fill in the well, at the bottom of which he said there had been three tunnel entrances, one of which (leading to St Hilary’s) was still intact.
Mother Redcap’s secrets were buried, seemingly forever. But what of Mother Redcap’s treasure? Join us on our Tour to see if we can unearth the mystery.