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Copyright 2014 Hidden Wirral
The Wormhole Caves of New Brighton
By Gavin Chappell
Hidden Wirral Myths & Legends
Wallasey, like much of Wirral, is built on soft, sandstone rock, laid down long geological epochs ago when the area was at the bottom of a prehistoric ocean. Rumours abound concerning tunnels leading through the rock, some supposedly stretching as far as Bidston or beyond. They are said to have been used and expanded by the smugglers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Joseph Ruiz says that these tunnels were also used in the eighteenth century to transport slaves. He cites documentary evidence of a tunnel (its entrance now covered by a large slab of concrete) that goes from the Yellow Noses, by the golf course in New Brighton, to a large room with manacles attached to the walls, under Flaybrick Cemetery in Bidston. In a letter to the author, Mr Ruiz went on to relate an account from a book published in 1845 , describing how two boys entered a tunnel in the Yellow Noses taking with them a compass and a ball of string. The string they paid out carefully as they made their way down tunnels faced with red Georgian brick, until they came to a large room beneath the cemetery. Shackles hung on the walls of the chamber, suggesting that it had been used in connection with the slave trade. The book is said to also contain a map of the entire cave complex.
Stonehouse recorded his own recollections of the New Brighton tunnels:
…I have been up the tunnels or caves at the Red and White Noses many a time for great distances. I was once fishing for codling at the Perch (i.e. Perch Rock), and with two young companions went up the caves for at least a mile, and could have gone further only we became frightened as our lights went out. It was thought that these caves ran up to Chester Cathedral – but that was all stuff. I believe they were excavated by smugglers in part, and partly natural cavities of the earth. We knew little then of archaeology or geology, or any other “ology,” or I might be able to tell a good deal more about these caves, for I saw them more than once, but I now forget what their size and height was. The floor, I recollect, was very uneven and strewed about with big stones, while the roof was arched over in red sand-stone…
Elsewhere he records the tradition that “the caves at the Red Noses communicated in some way and somewhere with Mother Redcap’s.” Stonehouse also suggests that the monks at Birkenhead Priory anticipated the existing Queensway tunnel by hundreds of years, with a tunnel leading from beneath the current church under the Mersey to Liverpool. Other accounts (see previous chapter) say that a second tunnel led from the Priory to Mother Redcap’s. In 1897, Gomer Williams was willing to accept that the tunnels stretched “a considerable distance in the direction of the Magazines as there is now living at Wallasey, an old man who had explored them in his youth. ”
Norman Ellison recounted his own childhood memories of one of the caves, which he entered on numerous occasions by crawling through a narrow passage. Within was enough room to stand up and to light a candle, which revealed walls covered with dates, some more than a century old, and an old, padlocked iron gate blocking off a larger passage that led inland. He had also heard stories of tunnels leading further, including the one that led to Mother Redcap’s
A watercolour dating from 1840 shows the Red Noses from a north westerly direction, with the cliffs about seventy or eighty feet high, suggesting that the current cliffs have been covered up to about fifty feet. Twelve caves are visible, and it has been suggested that gypsies were living in them at the time, possibly connected with the inhabitants of the “Devil’s Nest” (see Chapter Eight).
Above the Red Noses, westward of the cave entrance mentioned by Joseph Ruiz, a block of flats stands on the site of the Cliff Villa, originally the home of William Rowson, son-in-law of James Atherton, and with him co-founder of New Brighton. Nearby is Rock Villa, built by Atherton in 1835 on the site of two cottages rumoured to have smuggling connections.
In 1942, Morty Brightmore, brother of Les (see Ruiz, 2003), was employed by the Pioneer Corps. One of his duties was to dig sand out of the Red Noses caves for use in sandbags. While so engaged, he found an old leather purse filled with gold coins, which he reported to the officer in charge of the operation. It is said that the officer gave the coins to a jeweller to be melted down to make a bracelet for his daughter.
Endcliff, another house on the same street (Wellington Road), had a tunnel leading from the cellar to the shore. According to Tom Slemen , the cellar, which was flooded from 6 to 11 feet due to this tunnel, was for many years the home to a sea creature -- apparently some kind of octopus -- popularly known as “Higgledy” which came and went when the tide allowed, and had been the pet of the owner around the turn of the nineteenth century; an eccentric man who is said to have fed the creature rats, chickens, and eventually his own dog.
It went on to terrorise later inhabitants, including William Parry Evans, a cotton broker, who is said to have shot at Higgledy – described as a huge black octopus with a massive beak and dead, staring eyes -- with his revolver, although he failed to kill it. Rumours as late as the 1950s said that the creature still haunted the cellar.
In 1960, when the foundations of the Cliff flats were being dug, the workmen were obliged to examine further tunnels to check for the possibilities of subsidence. Five of these caves, which had been blocked up, were reopened and examined, revealing bottles and pot lids in one and World War Two relics in another. Some of the caves in question appear to have been inhabited in prehistory, during the New Stone Age. A number of flint arrowheads and axes, now in Liverpool Museum, had been discovered in the late nineteenth century.
During the war, the caves in the Red Noses were used by British soldiers encamped nearby, to store supplies and also as air raid shelters, while anti-aircraft guns were sited on the cliffs above the Yellow Noses. The 1960 exploration revealed helmets, gas masks, ammunition boxes, an ammunition trolley and the remains of a small railway, suggesting a small-scale Maginot Line. The caves under the Yellow Noses are referred to as the “Wormhole Complex” and run under a house in Portland Street, but were blocked during World War Two when an enemy bomb was dropped on the cliffs.
The most famous of the caves, known as the Wormhole, lies beneath Rock Villa. The sea entrance was blocked off after the construction of the Promenade, but until recently it could be entered via a manhole and a vertical ladder from the garden of the house. Formerly opened each year for charity, the cave consists of a narrow tunnel on a north-south axis which opens out into a main cavern containing a well, and a bricked-up tunnel on the east wall. Several dates are carved on the walls, including one as early as 1619 – only five years after the criminalisation of wool exports turned smuggling into a major social problem. The air is said to be fresh, even at the southern end, so there must be an outlet. Recent rumours, however, suggest that the owner has barred off the entrance.
It is said that the tunnel is linked with others in a cavern underneath the Palace Amusement Arcade in New Brighton. Tradition maintains that smugglers and wreckers concealed their booty in the cavern, which is sadly no longer accessible. The tunnels are believed to lead to Bidston, Mother Redcap’s (from which another tunnel is supposed to lead to Birkenhead Priory), St Hilary’s Church and Fort Perch Rock. The existence of the Fort Perch Rock tunnel itself was confirmed by a geo-physical survey carried out in the mid-seventies by Ezekiel Palmer of the Proudman Institute , (at the same time as the one at Mother Redcap’s) and it has been suggested that it was built as an escape route for the fort in case of attack. The cellars of the Palace itself consist of an extensive warren of tunnels that predate the current building by a substantial if uncertain period, being lined with handmade brick joined with cement rather than mortar. It has been suggested that they were the magazine (ammunition store) for Fort Perch
Rock, although this seems unlikely since it is known that the fort had a magazine partially sunk into the parade ground .
The Old Palace and the Floral Pavilion were built in 1880, opening on Whit Monday the next year. It included an aquarium, baths, a theatre, a ballroom said to have been the finest in England, an aviary, and a zoo. The Rise and Progress of Wallasey says that during the construction of the original building a pit was discovered which “revealed evidence that it had been used by smugglers and wreckers for the purpose of concealing their goods” and that possibly it hid something more sinister. A “sickening” stench emanated from the pit, and only the liberal use of disinfectants could eventually remove the contents so work could continue. According to local traditions, this is connected with the wreck of the Pelican in 1793, described in Chapter Five. The cavern was transformed into an underground waterway known as The Grotto, where small boats could sail past illuminated caves. It extended for over 250 metres, and is said to have ended beneath the bottom of Rowson Street.
In 1916 the Old Palace caught fire, and was later demolished. The current building, the New Palace, was built in the late thirties, and at the time of writing is celebrating its 67th anniversary. The pit itself was filled in with rubble from the remains of the Old Palace. During World War Two, between 1942 and 1944, the arcade was Depot 0616 of the U. S. Army: the cellars became an ammunition factory employing two hundred women, a base for fire watchers, and a communal air raid shelter, one entrance to which, a large iron grille, is still to be seen in Virginia Road at the back of the Palace.
In 1946 an eighteenth century blunderbuss was discovered in one of the tunnels. Part of the cellar was used as a social club for Palace staff after the war. After this it became the Creep Inn Club, which has since been closed due to flooding from the lake at high tide. The part of the building directly above the pit proved unsafe, and one half of the building was pulled down. It is now occupied by an open air fairground. The cavern is no longer accessible.
Other stories say that the tunnels beneath the Palace are haunted by a mysterious Grey Lady. The managing director, David Wilkie, recounted a story from some years back when two joiners were in the tunnels, which are now used for storage and maintenance work. One of the joiners, hard at work, asked his companion to hand him a hammer, reaching his hand out for it without looking. He felt the hammer placed in his hand and continued his work. A few moments later, his fellow joiner entered the area, having gone off on a short break. He knew nothing of the incident.
Another tunnel is said to have run from Portland Street up to the grounds of the church of SS Peter and Paul at the top of Atherton Street, where it exits within the church beneath the old statue of the Virgin Mary. This tunnel, filled in during the 1940s, is supposed to link with the smugglers’ well at Mother Redcap’s and the tunnel that led towards either Bidston or Birkenhead Priory (or both?). Yet another passageway also runs from the same church to the cellar of a modern house on the corner of Albion Street and Mount Road (discovered in 1978), and another to the sea. Joseph Ruiz has recently discovered an old Victorian tunnel leading to the water tower in Gorsehill Road, and notes that there are caves in the rock behind the tower.
In 1979, Bob Wadsworth, owner of the end house in Seymour Street, had a snooker table in his cellar. While playing snooker one evening he saw the apparition of a White Lady that passed right through the cellar wall. Terrified by this, Mr Wadsworth fled, but was to see the White Lady two more times. One day, Bob was clearing out the cellar when he found the entrance to a large tunnel beneath some bricks. The tunnel led in the direction of the sea. Investigating the tunnel, Bob found an old, rotten bag of silver coins, which he sold to local antique dealer Frank Upton for £3 and two packets of cigarettes. The council later filled in the tunnel.
In the early sixties, Joseph Ruiz’s former business partner Malcolm Garbutt and his wife were taken on a tour of the cellars of the old New Brighton Tower Buildings. Seven levels down, their guide led them through a tunnel that came out in the football pitch nearby. It has also been said that the Tower grounds are “peppered” with air raid shelters and caves.
A well-shaft apparently leading to a tunnel was found beneath “Rocklands”, on the corner of Atherton Road and Victoria Drive. Dating from the mid nineteenth century, this house was formerly part of Somerville School, a “preparatory school for the sons of gentlemen”, and once owned by Captain Henry Flinn, a founder of the Dominion Shipping Line. The main part of the school, later known as “Gorselands”, stood on the opposite corner , but was demolished many years ago. Rocklands, however, still stands.
The current occupant, who bought the place in 2003, was warned against letting his children into the cellars by the former owner who explained that there was a shaft in the second cellar that led down into a tunnel. The cellar is divided into two parts, one of which is used as a washhouse, with a hatch leading through into a second, low-ceilinged cellar that lies beneath the living room bay window. This was supposedly the location of the shaft, although no sign of it was found. The previous occupant said that his father had blocked up the shaft with building rubble, although the neighbour’s son, now in his forties, had been down it as a child. Talking to this man, the current owner (who would prefer to remain anonymous) learned that the tunnel had been located elsewhere in the house, somewhere towards the back. Further investigation uncovered paperwork dating from the 1990s, when the mother of the previous occupant had rented out the property as bedsits. She applied for a renovation grant from the local authority, and during her improvements the builders discovered a well shaft in the lounge which is believed to lead to the tunnel entrance in question. It appears that it was a convention among local smugglers to disguise tunnel entrances as well shafts to ward off suspicion, as was also the case at Mother Redcap’s and St Hilary’s rectory. This well shaft is in a good position to lead to the tunnel from Portland Street to SS Peter and Paul. A photograph exists showing the lady in question standing by the shaft accompanied by the two builders. When questioned, the builders themselves said that no sign of a tunnel was discovered at the time, although the well was not explored. They capped it with a steel plate and concrete.
Another place noted for tunnels is the site of the so-called Liscard Castle, a large house whose site is marked by Castle Road and Turret Road, off Seaview Road, which fell into ruin and gained a reputation for being haunted, before being demolished about 1902. The ghost was said to be that of a young woman who married a sea captain who lived there. One day the news reached the young woman of her husband’s death by drowning. Driven mad by this discovery, she drowned herself in the duck pond on Hose Side Road, which is how it gained its name of “the Captain’s Pit.”
A later resident discovered “weird old passages” in the basement, and called in workmen to have them blocked up. One evening, after the workmen had gone, he heard a loud knocking from below, and panicked, thinking someone had been accidentally walled up. He rushed down to the basement and shouted out. No reply came, but the knocking continued. Overcome by an inexplicable dread, he ran from the basement…
The passages in question are said to extend as far as St Hilary’s, Leasowe Castle, and even Chester Castle. Although the latter seems highly unlikely (what Stonehouse would have called “stuff”), it is possible that the tunnel leading to St Hilary’s joins up with one of the tunnels from beneath the Palace. Perhaps they are one and the same tunnel.
No tunnels are currently accessible from St Hilary’s at the present date, and the vault beneath the old tower was covered by a tiled floor in the late nineteenth century. But according to the rector, Canon Paul Robinson, one of the parishioners remembers going down a tunnel in the thirties, below Swinton Old Hall, the site of the modern rectory, a few hundred years away from the old tower. According to Joseph Ruiz, a well exists beneath the front sitting room of the old rectory, fifteen feet wide and 350 feet deep, and it is believed to lead to a tunnel; this is also mentioned in an article in the Wirral News . The article refers to a legend that says an underground passage leads from the rectory to the church (presumably the old tower) and then on to Mother Redcap’s. It goes on to maintain that the Old Rectory was a cache for gun-runners during the reign of Charles II. Oral tradition mentions a smugglers’ tunnel leading from one of the graves in the churchyard.
Nearby, at the end of long drive leading off St George’s Road, is an old house named Granthorpe, previously known as The Limes. It includes a date stone marked 1666, although this is held to be older than the present building, which has been extended at various points in its history. As well as being the annexe of the cottage hospital during the Boer War, the house is said to conceal a tunnel leading to St Hilary’s. A well, now covered over, existed in the yard, which may possibly have concealed the tunnel entrance. Elsewhere, a hook projects from the wall close to the entrance to the cellar, suggesting that this was used as part of a pulley system for lifting heavy objects (contraband?) from down below. It is also believed that a hidey hole exists within the walls, although the current owner, Peter Turnbull, says that none of this is currently visible.
Yet another tunnel entrance was discovered in the early seventies under houses in Martins Lane in Liscard, which possibly leads to an old ARP post in Grosvernor Road, on the corner with Manor Road. Other tunnels and tunnel entrances have been reported as follows:
• at the back of McCulloch’s Gymnasium on Mount Pleasant Road;
• beneath a cellar in Warren Drive (recently discovered);
• in Demesne Street and Wheatland Road (under St Paul’s Vicarage) in Seacombe ;
• leading from Scotts Field to a nearby Seacombe house;
• in a rockface under a house in Hamilton Road (leading to a nearby quarry?);
• beside Breck Road, said to have belonged to a local miller;
• beneath the Lighthouse pub in Wallasey Village;
• near Rake Lane;
• and a well leading to a tunnel from Bidston Old Hall to Flaybrick Cemetery. According to legend, Mother Redcap’s treasure (see Chapter Three) lies somewhere in this tangled labyrinth.
It is customary for historians to scoff at the notion of smugglers’ tunnels, which are a major if elusive element of folklore in many coastal regions around Britain. They ask how smugglers gained the engineering capabilities to construct these labyrinths, or how they disposed of the spoil from the digging (but see Chapter Two above). These are good questions, and the case against them is weakened by a lack of conclusive evidence: few smugglers other than Howard Marks have left written accounts of their activities.
But in more recent times smugglers have certainly made use of tunnels for smuggling drugs, weapons and people, in hotspots such as nineties Sarajevo, during the siege, and the Gaza Strip (the so-called Rafah tunnels that lead from the Palestinian refugee camp of Rafah to the Egyptian town of the same name). America’s borders with Mexico and Canada have also been the scene of smuggling tunnels used for drug and people trafficking, which have proliferated since the tightening of immigration controls in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001.
In the case of the tunnels in Wirral, all that can be said is that they do exist, and evidence points to use during the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. It is not known for certain who constructed them, and there is little solid evidence that they extend as far as tradition maintains. It has been suggested that at least some of the tunnels that have been discovered were cellars or storage areas. Other traditions connect them with slavers as well as smugglers, who might have been more likely to have the wherewithal required to construct them. That being said, it is unclear why Georgian slavers would need to go underground, since slave trading remained legal in Britain until 1807, while slavery itself was not abolished in the British Empire until 1833. But perhaps the smugglers took them over from earlier builders, just as other groups such as the British and US Armies have used them more recently.
It is a significant part of the local heritage that demands further enquiry, but the current writer frequently found himself up against a brick wall – sometimes literally – as he struggled to uncover the truth behind these rumours. Tunnels had been blocked up as soon as they were discovered; the publication of Mr Ruiz’s book apparently resulted in the blocking of all the Red Noses tunnel entrances; documents had mysteriously vanished from the reference sections of libraries whose staff were oddly brusque and unhelpful: finally, the writer was warned that all information on the subject had been suppressed by the local authority.
These tunnels whether they be natural or man made were certainly used by Pirates & Smugglers of some sort in days gone by and they will forever remain a part of the mystery of the many Hidden Wirral Myth & Legends on our beautiful peninsula.
About this period the press-gang was very actively engaged in taking men for the navy. These gangs were made up of the very worst and most violent men in the service. They were by no means particular whom they took: to them a man was a man, and that was a sufficient reason for securing him. Cases of horrible cruelty and great hardship frequently occurred to individuals. Men were constantly torn from their homes, wives, and families, without a moment’s warning. They disappeared and were not heard of for years, or perhaps not at all. There was a man I knew who was seized in Pool-lane and hurried off to the tender, and was not heard of for four years, when he returned suddenly as his wife was about to be married for the third time since his departure. His arrival, with a good store of pay, and prize-money, was ample compensation for the loss of the new husband. Terrible rows took place between the press-gangs and the sailor-men—the p. 58latter resisted to the very death any attempt to capture them. Blood was frequently shed, and loss of life was not uncommon. I recollect one murderous business with which I should have been mixed up if I had not made my escape by running into a house in Atherton-street. The men used to get across the water to Cheshire to hide until their ships were ready to sail. Near Egremont, on the shore, there used to be a little low public-house, known as “Mother Redcap’s,” from the fact of the owner always wearing a red hood or cap. This public-house is still standing. I have often been in it. At that time there were no inner walls to divide the room on the upper floor; but only a few screens put up of about seven or eight feet in height to form apartments. The roof was not latted or plastered. When I last saw it, some twenty-five years or more ago, the joists and timbers were all open to view. Mother Redcap was a great favourite with the sailor-men and had their entire confidence. She had hiding-places for any number, and the men used, on returning from their voyages, to deposit with her their pay and prize-money, until they wanted it. It was known, or at least, very commonly believed, that Mother Redcap had in her possession enormous (for her) sums of money, hidden or put away somewhere; but where that somewhere was, it was never known; for, at her p. 59death, very little property was found in her possession, although only a few days before she was taken ill and died, a rich prize was brought into Liverpool which yielded every sailor on board at least a thousand pounds. Mother Redcap’s was swarming with sailors belonging to the privateer, directly after the vessel had come into port, and it was known that the old lady had received a good deal of the prize-money on their account, yet none of it was ever discovered. It is a very remarkable circumstance that some few years ago, I think about ten or twelve, but I forget exactly when, a quantity of money in spade-ace guineas was found in a cavity by the shore, not far from Mother Redcap’s. It has always been a firm belief with me that some day a rich harvest will be in store for somebody—a case of treasure trove like that which some years ago was known as “the Cuerdly Find.” Mother Redcap’s was the resort of many a rough, hard-hunted fellow, and many a strange story has been told, and scene enacted, under the old roof.
The passage of the river then and at the beginning of the last century, until steam-boats were introduced, was a complete and serious voyage, which few undertook. The boatmen used to run their boats at one time on the beach opposite the end of Water-street and ply for hire. After the piers were ran out they hooked on at the steps p. 60calling aloud, “Woodside, ahoy!” “Seacombe, ahoy!” and so on. It is a fact that thousands of Liverpool people at that time never were in Cheshire in their lives. We used to cross in open or half-decked boats, and sometimes we have been almost as many hours in crossing as we are now minutes. I recollect once wanting to go to Woodside on a stormy day, to see a man who lived in a small house between the Ferry-house and Wallasey Pool, and which, by the way, was the only house then standing thereabout. The tide was running very strong and the wind blowing hard, and, after nearly four hours hard work, we managed to land near the Rock Perch, thankful for our lives being spared. The Rock Perch was a pole with a sort of beacon or basket at the top of it, implanted in the rocks on which the lighthouse now stands. There were no houses then anywhere about what is now called New Brighton. The country was sandy and barren, and the only trees that existed grew close to the mouth of the river near the shore. There was scarcely a house between the Rock and Wallasey. Wirrall at that time and the middle of the last century was a desperate region. The inhabitants were nearly all wreckers or smugglers—they ostensibly carried on the trade and calling of fishermen, farm-labourers, and small farmers; but they were deeply saturated with the sin of p. 61covetousness, and many a fierce fire has been lighted on the Wirrall shore on stormy nights to lure the good ship on the Burbo or Hoyle Banks, there to beat, and strain, and throb, until her timbers parted, and her planks were floating in confusion on the stormy waves. Fine times, then, for the Cheshire men. On stormy days and nights, crowds might have been seen hurrying to the shore with carts, barrows, horses, asses, and oxen even, which were made to draw timber, bales, boxes, or anything that the raging waters might have cast up. Many a half-drowned sailor has had a knock on the sconce whilst trying to obtain a footing, that has sent him reeling back into the seething water, and many a house has been suddenly replenished with eatables and drinkables, and furniture and garniture, where previously bare walls and wretched accommodation only were visible. Then for smuggling—fine times the runners used to have in my young days. Scarcely a house in north Wirral that could not provide a guest with a good stiff glass of brandy or Hollands. The fishermen used to pretend to cast their nets to take the fish that then abounded on our coasts, but their fishing was of a far different sort. Formby, on this side, was a great place for smugglers and smuggling. I don’t think they wrecked as the Cheshire people did—these latter were very fiends. The p. 62Formby fishermen were pretty honest and hardworking, and could always make a good living by their calling, so that the smuggling they did was nothing to be compared to their Cheshire compatriots. Strings upon strings of ponies have I seen coming along the road from Formby, laden with the finny spoil. The ponies had panniers slung over their backs, while sometimes the fisherman’s wife or child, if the horse could bear the double burden, was seated between them. These were called “Formby Trotters.” There were good fish caught in the river at that time; and I have heard say that herrings used to be taken in great profusion in our vicinity until the people fought at the Fish Stones by St. Nicholas’s Church wall, and blood was shed on the occasion. Many a fisherman steadfastly believed that the herrings then left the coast, and never returned in consequence. Wallasey was certainly, at one period, a great place for the curing of herrings, as can be proved by tradition as well as written history.
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 p. 63was 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 (Gough’s) Woodside Hotel may now be found. It had a garden enclosed by a hedge round it. The road to Bidston was a rough, rutted way, and the land was for the most part marshy between Woodside and Bidston, and the country looked very desolate, wild, and rugged. There were some pretty walks over the fields. There was one from Holt Hill to Oxton which I was very fond of. When the weather was fine I have had many and many a pleasant ramble over land where now houses show themselves in hundreds, nay, thousands, and where I have gone bird-nesting, and picking wild flowers, and mushrooming in their season. Lord! what changes I have seen and yet live to see; and I am very thankful for His mercies, which have been manifold and abundant. 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 p. 64to 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. I have been up the tunnels or caves at the Red and White Noses many a time for great distances. I was once fishing for codling at the Perch, and with two young companions went up the caves for at least a mile, and could have gone further only we became frightened as our lights went out. It was thought these caves ran up to Chester Cathedral—but that was all stuff. I believe they were excavated by smugglers in part, and partly natural cavities of the earth. We knew little then of archaeology or geology, or any other “ology,” or I might be able to tell a good deal about these caves, for I saw them more than once, but I now forget what their size and height was. The floor, I recollect, was very uneven and strewed about with big stones, while the roof was arched over in the red sand-stone. The encroachment of the sea upon the Wirral shore has been very gradual, p. 65but regular, for many years. Within the memory of man the sea has made an inroad of nearly, if not quite, a mile from its former high-water mark. It was not until the erection of the Wallasey embankment that a stop was put to its ravages.
According to a revealing customs report dated 1750...
'Smuggling into the coasts around Liverpool ...is generally from the Isleman (sic)...in small boats that never appear on the coast but fall in with the land just in the dusk of the evening, that by their observations they may run in the night time into the place intended for the discharge of their goods where persons are always ready to assist and convey them to a proper place of safety...'
One such place of safety was undoubtedly a Wallasey pub called Mother Redcap's , which stood 'on the promenade between Egremont and New Brighton ferries'. At that time Wallasey was wild and desolate:
Wirral up to the middle of the 18th century was a desperate region. The inhabitants were nearly all wreckers and smugglers — they ostensibly carried on the trade or calling of fishermen, farm labourers or small farmers...Then for smuggling: fine times the runners used to have in my young days. Scarcely a house in North Wirral that could not provide a guest with a good stiff glass of brandy or Hollands — Formby was a great place for smugglers.
That part of Wallasey was separated from the rest of Wirral by a tidal pool, so the pub was more or less free of unwanted observers on the land side.
Mother Redcap's was riddled with storage places, and was stoutly defended against attack: the door was five inches thick, and heavily reinforced, and the windows had shutters in a similar style. A customs officer who succeeded in entering the door could be precipitated into the cellar via a trapdoor on the threshold: forcing the door released a catch that opened the trapdoor.
Opening the front door closed off the entrance to one of the rooms, so visitors unfamiliar with the layout of the pub would either walk upstairs, or into the north room, unaware of a second ground floor room to the south. Numerous other hiding places were concealed in a well and in the chimney breast.
The proprietor of the Inn, Mother Redcap herself, was said to be 'a comely, fresh-coloured Cheshire-spoken woman...a great favourite with the sailor men'. The inn was popular not only with smugglers, but also with lonely revenue men, who, to avoid suspicion, were entertained with the same hospitality as any other customer. This sometimes caused difficulties:
They were thus installed on one occasion when the smugglers were desirous of getting a cask of rum or some other merchandise away from one of the hiding places, but were prevented by the unwelcome presence of the officer. So it was arranged that one of the smugglers was to creep down to the shore from the Moor, and lie down in his clothes in the water, at the edge of the receding tide. The attention of the solitary officer at Mother Redcap's was called to the supposed body which had been washed ashore, and he made his way to it as quickly as possible. He had removed the watch, and was going through the pockets when the corpse came to life, sprang up, and laid out the surprised officer. By the time he had come to, the rum had been removed from Redcap's, and started its journey to the moss. No blame could be attached to the 'drowned man' who said he was walking along the shore, when he must have had a fit, for the next thing that he became aware of was that he was lying in the sand with his pockets being rifled.
By the 1950s the house had come into the possession of the Grimshaw family, whose son Wolfgang was a childhood friend of local historian Joseph “Pepe” Ruiz. In the latter’s book Beachcombers, Buttercreams and Smuggler’s Caves he relates his experiences of the building in its later years. One day the two boys decided to investigate the place, having become fascinated by local legends of smugglers. Digging in the south west corner they got down no more than a foot before their spades met a large sandstone slab, which further excavations revealed to be part of a set of steps leading downwards. They discovered a Celtic cross before night fell, and decided to return to their examination in the morning. Mysteriously, the cross vanished in the night.
Mother Redcap’s was never a success as a café. Most sources state that it was unable to regain its license, which would certainly explain why it also failed as a nightclub – the aptly-named Galleon Club -- and closed in 1960, falling into ruin before being demolished in October 1974. Joseph Ruiz records that during the demolition a bulldozer that was knocking down the gents toilets (built on the south side of the house in the 1950s) fell through a hole in the ground, revealing – after it was pulled out by two other bulldozers – a large well with an entrance door part of the way down. Bottles, jars and flagons, some dating back to the eighteenth century, had been found during the demolition, some of which seem to correspond to the bottles that supposedly had been used to fill in the entrances to the tunnels. The workers recognised this as the famous “smugglers’ well” (the well to the south of the building mentioned above), and one man suggested his mates lower him down to the door and they inform the museum authorities. The foreman, however, insisted that the well be filled in, and threatened instant dismissal to anyone contacting the museum.
Mother Redcap’s secrets were finally buried. Soon after, a nursing home was built on the site, and it still stands today. In 1897, Gomer William was moved to consider the “striking contrast between Mother Red Cap’s humble hostelry” with its larcenous and piratical patrons “and the present beautiful home of the artist [Joseph Kitchingham]” which he regarded as “typical of the moral transformation” people had undergone over the past century. We might wonder to what moral transformation Williams would ascribe Mother Redcap’s latest incarnation.
An article in the Wirral News stated that the developers found no trace of tunnels while building the nursing home. However, Mrs Joan McCool of Rivington Road, who had worked at the Galleon Club in the fifties, asserted that the passages had existed. Behind the bar there had been a large bank with several tunnels that had been partially filled in with beer bottles. To the left of the bar there was a large slit, which would go unnoticed unless drawn to a visitor’s attention. This could be entered sideways, and led to a black, damp tunnel running behind the bar and seeming to go on much further.
The former proprietor of the Galleon Club, Mrs Inga Kneale, who used to run it with her former husband said that although she had never found tunnels “of any length” she was sure that they existed, and had always felt that someone was watching her. A previous owner had excavated the dance floor and even used a donkey while searching for the passages, but had been unsuccessful. A geo-physical survey in the mid seventies also failed to reveal any sign of tunnels (see next chapter).
A letter from Mrs Marion Fisher, former owner of an hotel in Wellington Road, mentioned a long stay resident, a builder, who had been working on Mother Redcap’s. Part of his work had been to fill in the well, which this account describes as “square and situated at the front of the house.” He told Mrs Fisher that down the well were three entrances to tunnels. Some of the tunnels had caved in, but the one that ran to St Hilary’s was intact. Another ran “under some nearby cottages” – presumably Seabank Cottages – while the third was “believed to run somewhere via the docks to an old Birkenhead church, possibly the priory”.
The Last Registered Wrecking in Wallasey
It was a chapter in the Wallasey story as wild as the great storm that caused it. It happened over a century ago. It brought vast crowds. It brought skirmishes with the forces of law and order. It was a massive public grab at harvest from the sea. A rich cargo came floating into town on the waves of the Mersey. A ship broke its back – and a town broke loose.
It was in the early hours of December 30, 1904, that the ‘Ulloa’, from Barcelona, failed to pick up a Mersey Pilot and was swept in a fierce gale on to the treacherous Burbo Bank. From her holds fruit and wines floated shorewards. The calm life of Wallasey was shattered in much the same way as the gale had torn ‘Ulloa’ apart. Dawn visitors to the sands at New Brighton and Leasowe found cases and boxes of oranges and lemons, and hundreds of casks of wine. They were piled in heaps from the Red Noses to Moreton.
News of the wreck spread quickly. People came over from Liverpool and Birkenhead. They brought with them containers of every shape and size. According to local reports at the time “some people walked, some hobbled, and others ran. They brought handcarts and wheelbarrows, baskets and boxes. “The wind howled – and so did the great crowd at the sight of all the fruit and fine wine. The scene was a fantastic one. Gushing fountains of wine were transferred into all sorts of containers. Even empty orange skins were utilised. It was no uncommon sight to see the mouth of a pillow case yawning to receive the fruits of the earth which were scattered about in such profussion.” Contemporary reports described the washed-up cases of oranges, lemons, grapes and onions as ‘uncountable’. They represented well over half the total cargo of the ship.
A local newspaper reporter observed: There were beatific expressions on the face of everyone who gained the shore and cast a longing glance at the quantity of the spoil washed up by the sea for their delectation. “In between the gusts of wind could be heard sounds of revelry. The boxes and casks came rolling in like a miniature invading army.” Some of the ‘wreckers’ were so impatient that they could not wait until the bounty reached the sands. Scores of them waded into the river and dragged the cargo shorewards.
The news reporter who was on the spot said :”It is surprising how generous people can be when they are disposing of other people’s goods. Certain men acted in a very lordly manner. They broke open boxes, turned their contents on the sands, and invited those around to ‘pick the best out’. “Everyone staggered under their burdens, which, like that of Christian in ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, threatened to overcome them’. “The barrels of wine were attacked quickly. Wherever a penknife of gimlet was forced into one of them out spurted a stream of rich red wine. “By nine o’clock in the morning the ‘good health’ of the wreck was being drunk by those on the sands. Receptacles of every kind were held out to receive the fine nectar.”
As the wine disappeared down eager throats, rowdyism grew. There was dancing. There were fights. The reporter went on: “Certain there were who had come entirely unprepared for such an occasion, and in their desire to sample the juice of the grape flowing so unrestrainedly they fashioned the skins of oranges into the shapes of cups. “Sooner than let the opportunity go by, one or two individuals applied their lips to the small holes through which the wine was pouring. It was all somewhat Bacchanalian.” The sands were soon dyed a blood red in the vicinity of the barrels. The plundering was wild and noisy.
It went on all through the Saturday. It continued into the early hours of the Sunday. Then the police and the coastguards arrived. All was hurry and scurry. There were scuffles. Truncheons were used on the more unruly. The crowd was dispersed – but only for an hour or two. It was soon back again. Under cover of darkness, an army of men, women and children converged on the sands. They raided the banks of golden oranges, brought with them donkey carts and barrows. The news reporter described “much carousing”, scenes of “great merriment, interspersed with brawls”. The town, he said, had “completely broken loose”. Several arrests were made. There were summonses for ‘unlawful seizures’.
By Monday morning, January 2, 1905, it was all over. There was little left on the shore. Only a few children searched along the tide line. The ‘Ulloa’ remained broken and battered on Burbo Bank for nearly a fortnight. Then a storm as fierce as that which had wrecked her carried the last pieces of her away. The wreck was big news. It got Wallasey into the national newspapers. The story was told all over the country. It was even featured in a novel – ‘The Hind Let Loose’, by Montagu.
New Brighton – The Rise from the Ashes
First Published by Bakewell & Horner Estate Agency
Written by Tony Franks-Buckley
There is once again a feel good factor about our beloved seaside resort New Brighton, something that has been missing since the day it turned into a ghost town virtually overnight in 1969. A new facelift with healthy investment has seen the phoenix rise from the ashes once more. Whilst it still holds many of the values and ideas of a Victorian Seaside Resort, it has also been given a 21stCentury facelift, ensuring that once again New Brighton is a popular seaside resort.
Before the days of James Atherton and other Victorian entrepreneurs’ New Brighton was an area that was frequented by the Pirates & Smugglers linked with the old white-washed, short; stumpy looking building known as Mother Redcaps Inn which was built by the Mainwaring family in 1595. As the saying said outside of the building “All ye that are weary come in an take rest, Our eggs and our ham they are of the best, Our ale and our porter are likewise the same, Step in if you please and give 'em a name. - Mother Redcap But it was in the 19th Century that New Brighton was born. On the 24th January in 1832, William Rowson advanced a deposit of £200 to John Penkett on account of the purchase of the "New Brighton Estate". The sum represented £100 each for both himself and the visionary James Atherton. Sadly, James Atherton died in 1838 and was unable to see the completion of his vision, which grew rapidly throughout the 19th Century.
During the latter half of the 19th century, New Brighton developed as a very popular seaside resort serving Liverpool and the Lancastrian industrial towns, even areas of North Wales. Many of the large houses were converted to inexpensive hotels. A pier was opened in the 1860s, and the promenade stretching from Seacombe to New Brighton was built by the 1890s. This served both as a recreational amenity in its own right, and to link up the developments along the estuary, and was later extended westwards towards Leasowe. Expansion continued into the 20th Century with the building of the New Brighton Tower, the tallest in the country. The tower was opened in 1900 but closed in 1919, largely due to lack of maintenance during World War I. Dismantling of the tower was completed by 1921.
Following the removal of the New Brighton Tower, the Fairground remained with the Ballroom and other surrounding features until its final fate during the fire of 1969. The Old English Fairground was on a higher level, which, in later years, became the motor coach park. The Himalayan Switchback Railway was a great favourite, as was the water chute, with the boats travelling down at speed into the lake. By 1961, the New Brighton Fairground had changed significantly, with several new rides and sideshows. The Beatles also around this time played the Tower Ballroom; this was proof of how popular New Brighton was at the time. The Beatles final appearance at the Tower Ballroom took place on Friday 14 June 1963 on a special NEMS Enterprises presentation of their 'Mersey Beat Showcase' series. Gerry & the Pacemakers and five other groups supported the Beatles.
The Fire in 1969 was not the only tragedy to hit the Wallasey coast, the storms of February 1990 seen the end to what was considered the final nail in the coffin of the British Seaside Resort of New Brighton. The coastal area was battered with hurricane force winds of almost 100 mph. The storms caused very severe damage to the New Brighton Outdoor Bathing Pool when seas forced a hole into the foundations of the Northwest corner of the complex causing the upper structure to cave in. With the cost of about £4 million to repair the damage it was decided by the authorities to demolish the building. The Merseyside Development Corporation bulldozers levelled the site in the summer of 1990.
And so came the dark era in Wallasey’s history, What had begun in 1969 looked to be set in stone for the foreseeable future, but thankfully new talks began about regeneration began and up stepped Neptune Developments in 2007 to begin the cleansing operation at New Brighton. What was once the working class playground for the North-West of England is starting to attract back the crowds that had disappeared in 1969, New Brighton is a giant that has lay dormant for far to long. But thanks to Neptune Developments, the giant has been awakened. Following its transformation from a leisure resort to a nightclub zone, New Brighton has been returned to its natural environment of family friendly and an entertainment zone. The former Chelsea Reach (Originally “The Ferry Hotel”) dance club has been converted into luxury apartments. The Golden Guinea later to be known simply as RJ’S nightclub has been transformed into the J.D Wetherspoon’s venue The Master Mariner and has been a popular venue for visiting families.
The Floral Pavilion, the surviving member of the many theatres that was once situated in Wallasey, was given a major redevelopment process and now hosts many artists, shows and also houses a conference centre. The building of a new multi-room state of the art cinema (The Light) has added a much needed outlet for locals and visitors wishing to view cinematic films in the highest quality, embracing the new age of 3 dimensional films. The entertainment does not stop there, many sports are available to enjoy, such as the ten pin-bowling complex, that has also been redeveloped. This also houses a Laser quest, in which children of all ages can compete in a computerised combat zone. A State of the art Crazy Golf course, which is modelled on the supposed 18 greatest golf holes in the world, is now open to the public and is attracting customers from all over. This complex also offers a Pitch & Putt course and Crown Green Bowling. The model boating lake is also a popular attraction, which during the winter months is invaded by Swans.
The New Brighton Palace owned by the Wilkie’s family, has seen many changes occur throughout its existence. One thing for certain is that Wilkie’s have moved in line with the redevelopment of the resort and the return of the fairground rides to the Palace complex is a sign of more things to come. As well as the indoor arcade that the Palace also holds, there is Adventureland an indoor activity centre for children. Further down the promenade is the new state of the art “Bubbles” children’s indoor play centre, which is so popular that advanced bookings over the phone are needed. The Fort Perch Rock which houses a museum, is also a great form of activity for both adults and children. Since it opened its doors in 1833 as a coastal defence for Liverpool, the Fort has become a popular tourist attraction for many seeking to view the interior of the complex, which also holds entertainment events and historical talks.
The New Brighton resort has returned to its roots of the 19th Century in a 21st Century outlook, giving families the opportunity to spend time together in a friendly environment, along with many activities and entertainment, a different variety of cuisine outlets are now available, with restaurants such as La Tasca (Spanish), Chimichangas (Mexican), Prezzo (Italian), Hungry Sea Horse and the Marino Lounge which offers a range of different cuisines to the public, making each visit a different experience. There is also a new Ice Cream parlour (Café Crème), which offers a variety of award winning home made ice creams, which became an instant success with those taking walks along the beaches and promenade. The Wallasey coastline is part of one of the longest coastal walks in Europe. Starting from Seacombe ferry terminal, it is possible to walk as far as the other side of the Wirral peninsula to areas as far as West Kirby, Hoylake and Meols.
In days gone by, commuters & tourists had several options of reaching the Wallasey coast from Liverpool across the River Mersey. The most popular has always been via “Ferry Across the Mersey” in which boat rides could reach destinations such as Seacombe, Egremont and New Brighton. This journey was made famous by Merseybeat group Gerry & The Pacemakers. Who sang about it in the 1960s a time of popularity of the voyage from Liverpool to New Brighton, for many pleasure seekers. (Song was also released in 1989) Following the destruction of the Egremont & New Brighton Piers, it is now only possible to access Wallasey via the Seacombe Terminal from Liverpool Pier head and vice-versa offering a coastal walk along the promenade towards the New Brighton Resort. This remains popular with tourists who can enjoy a 30-minute historical river cruise along the River Mersey. Other transport is also available to reach the resort. The Wirral Railway line connects with the Merseyrail network with changes at Hamilton Square needed if travelling from other parts of the Wirral. The New Brighton line stops in Wallasey Village and Wallasey Grove road before arriving in New Brighton, allowing tourists to view other historical areas of Wallasey. Bus routes can also be obtained from Liverpool, Birkenhead and even Chester. Travel Via Car can be made through the Kingsway Mersey Tunnel or Via the M53 Motorway.
The New Brighton Resort is a place for people of all ages, whether you are travelling alone or in a large family. It will once again have you singing “Oh I do like to be beside the seaside” on what is sure to be a welcomed visit or stay for anybody looking for fresh air and entertainment.
During the Victorian era, the British Seaside became a popular destination for the working class citizens of Britain. At over 300 pages of information and pictures, this book captures just how popular, the area of New Brighton became during Victorian times. Not only was New Brighton popular during the 19th century, but also it was formerly a haunt for Pirates & Smugglers, most famously with Mother Redcaps Inn. Lost treasure still remains underneath New Brighton, in smugglers tunnels that run to all corners of Wallasey. New Brighton was a front-runner in many departments, it once housed the biggest tower in Britain, it still has the longest promenade in Britain and even had a football team playing in the top flight of football. The book introduces the reader to the creation of a Seaside resort, from start to finish. Following the devastating fire in 1969, New Brighton which was the most popular Seaside resort in the North West, slowly disappeared into a ghost town during the latter half of the 20th Century. However new investment in the 21st Century has encouraged visitors to return again to a once popular Victorian Seaside Resort.
We look forward to seeing you on our Tour where we can show you old images and guide you around the areas in question. We are Hidden Wirral Myths & Legends and our tours are like no others.
The New Brighton Palace Tunnels holds quite bit of interesting History. In 2015 Hidden Wirral Paranormal Investigations was thr first Company to Hold a preofessional Paranormal Investigation at the location. Historian Tony Franks-Buckley led the team with his historic accounts of the tunnels and the former uses. Before New Brighton even existed, the area was known as Black Rock or Little Gibralter. The Wallasey coastline was plagues by Wreckers and Smugglers and this occurred from the 16th Century till the end of the 19th Century. The Location of the New Brighton Palace was utilised by the smugglers as pits to hide the bodies of unfortunate crew members and passengers aboard the cursed ship "The Pelican" a Man o War Sailing Ship. They say that the Wreckers hid the bodies inside the caves and sealed them up so that they could loot the ship of all its goods. The Bodies were not to be found until the foundations of the New Brighton Palace where made and within the foundations the tunnel network was created. The Tunnels are like a maze and they run from the location of the "New Palace" all the way to the Bottom of Rowson Street. The caves originally became a link up between Mother Redcaps and the Wormhole Caves. As time went by, disaster struck the palace and it burnt down. Several years later the New Palace was built and opened not long before the outbreak of World War 2. The Ministry of Defence took ownership of the tunnels and they became a scret munitions factory for the war effort. In the 1960s the tunnels were utilied as a Gentlemans nightclub and by the 80s became better known as "The Creep" It was not to last for long and the Acid House era formed in the 2990s, the tunnels were then known as Subway. As you will see from my pictures, smiley faces and murals were drawn onto the tunnel walls. As for the munitions factory, the tools still remain in the tunnels as they were never recovered by the Ministy of Defence. The Tunnels became unused for many years until Hidden Wirral Utilised them as a Paranormal Investigations Venue. They are still used as a horror walk through, but they no longer look as they once did in the photographs with the long tunnels and original features. Who knows, one day The Creep Nightclub may return?