Copyright 2014 Hidden Wirral
Carrying on from the Wormhole Complex page, here is a detailed account of the Smugglers tunnels that ran from New Brighton by Pepe Ruiz, Gavin Chappell and Tony Franks-Buckley.
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. Due to recent councils, the tunnels were blocked up and never to be walked again.
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.
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”
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.
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 Mr Cubbins has barred off the entrance. Leaving the Wormhole Caves closed and never to be entered again.
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 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.
Before New Brighton was called “New Brighton” it was nothing more than beaches and rocks. It held several names such as “Perch Rock” or even “Ye Black Rock” But what has hardly ever been covered by historians throughout modern history, is its association with pirates & smugglers, who frequented the area for personal gain, taking advantage of the busy shipping lane of the River Mersey.
Although mostly associated with Cornwall, smuggling was a common occupation in poor seaside communities along all the coasts of Britain. Like many forms of crimes, it came about as the result of legislature, when Edward 1 placed a customs duty of wool exports to Europe, a duty that increased throughout the Hundred Years War, in order to fund the king’s attempts to become King of France. He customs service was primarily concerned with collecting duties, but as time went on, illegal trade increased, particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries when smuggling reached industrial proportions. Wool exports were criminalised in 1614, and made punishable by death in 1661. Smugglers began to arm themselves against the dreaded Revenue men, who were soon provided with 'cutters' to patrol the coasts. (Wirral Smugglers, Wreckers & Pirates - Gavin Chappell)
Wallasey forms the northerly corner of the Wirral and has always been somewhat remote from the remainder of the Wirral. A town without a centre, visitors had difficulty finding their way about; locals prided themselves in being a breed apart. In the 18th and 19th Centuries all of North Wirral was remote and cut off from more densely populated areas.
Wallasey was more isolated than most and it gained a notorious reputation as a haunt of smugglers and pirates. The headquarters of local smuggling was a house that once stood on the river front between Lincoln Drive and Caithness Drive on what is now Egremont Promenade. Built in 1595 by one of the Mainwaring family beside what was at that time Liscard Moor, on the high water mark of the River Mersey, it went through a number of different names including the Half Way House, The Whitehouse and Seabank Nook. Next to it were 3 houses, some of which remain, called Seabank Cottages. The house became a tavern during the American War of Independence, when American and English privateers roamed the ocean and John Paul Jones raided Whitehaven in Cumbria.
The tavern gained the nick name Mother Redcap's after Poll Jones, who always wore a red cap or bonnet. Its normal title was The Half Way House. It was officially this until late into the 19th century.
One of the ports of call of the Smugglers transferring contraband across Bidston Moss was the Ring 'o Bells, now Stone Farm, in Bidston. Owned by a local family, some say the Radley's, others the Pendleton's. In the mid 19th Century Mary Radley or Pendleton married a Simon Croft under which the Ring 'o Bells became as notorious as Mother Redcap's. It also had a well established reputation for Ham 'n Eggs! It is described in The Adventures of Christopher Tadpole! Simon Croft kept his own pigs but became something of a drunkard. A lively and mixed crowd used the establishment including prize fighters Tom Sayers, Jem Mace and 'Tipton Slasher'. Four years after his death, in 1864, Lady Cust (Leasowe Castle) prevailed upon Squire Vyner, the lord of the manor, to revoke the licence. Bidston has been 'dry' ever since. Sept 2010. Note: I have had an email from Victoria Hart who tells me that the pub was indeed a Radley pub. She goes on: I can confirm that it was Mary Radley who married Simon Croft. Mary and Simon are buried together in St Oswald’s cemetery. . I also know that the Inn was originally nicknamed the Ham and Bacon house as the Radley's would cure their own ham and they were carefully preserved from damp.
On occasion revenue men may be found to be waiting near the moss for contraband. In such cases, the contraband was taken along the edge of the Moss and around to Saughall Massie, to a Mill, which stood in what is now Action Lane, Moreton. One such tale relates that a revenue man lay in wait as he had been tipped off that two barrels of rum were to be carried that night across the Moss to the Ring 'o Bells. As the carter approached the Revenue man leapt out of hiding and challenged the carter. You have rum in those kegs!! Nay, its ale - the Ring o' Bells has run out and I'm taking them some. On checking contents, it was indeed ale. The smugglers had got wind of the revenue man and switched the rum barrels for ale!!
Another instance was when Revenue men saw two men removing bales from the area of a wreck. After a pursuit, the bales were found to contain cabbages and ferns. The real stolen bales had vanished by the time the Revenue men returned to the shore. Mother Redcaps finally closed its doors in 1960 after an unsuccessful short lived nightclub venture, and was demolished in October 1974. During demolition the famous 'smuggler's well' was discovered by the workmen, they found lots of bottles, jars and flagons and they wanted to inform the museum authorities! The foreman insisted that the 'hole' be filled in and treasures of lost artefacts were found were lost again. He threatened to sack anybody who told the museum! Sadly there are too many of these short sighted idiots around and much has been destroyed here and elsewhere that could have been saved. Maybe the foreman had found something he would rather not be made public? Who knows? (Information taken from Wirral Smugglers, Wreckers & Pirates, a 2009 publication by Gavin Chappell which is on sale at local bookshops and Amazon.)
William Withens is an Inventor, who lives in a seaside resort called New Brighton. Moving to a new home, he uncovers a secret that has been hidden for many years. The legendary tale of Mother Redcaps Treasure. It finally comes within reach when William Withens discovers the diary of Hector Hornsmith. With the diary in his possession and the mysterious clue that has been left behind. William sets out on a thrilling quest to find a hidden fortune in gold and jewels. However, the arrival of a new face in town, discovers the quest and arms herself with companions to capture the wealth for herself. In a race against time they compete against each other on the quest set by Hector Hornsmith. in search of the final resting place of Mother Redcaps missing treasure.
Wreckers and Smugglers
My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time
To let the punishment fit the crime
The punishment fit the crime. W.S. Gilbert
Wallasey and the Cheshire coast were known for ship wrecking. They called themselves fishermen or small farmers, but their main occupation was luring vessels onto the sand banks and causing wrecks.
There was also a great deal of smuggling going on in these parts of Britain. No one knows when it first started in Wirral as the practice had been going on for many years.
A smugglers' Act of 1735 carried the Death Penalty for killing or wounding or using arms against an Excise Officer.
Salt was smuggled in and landed on the shores of Cheshire and Lancashire. Large profits were made through this illegal trade. Salt Officers were appointed. Christopher Bibby of Seacombe held the appointment. His burial is recorded in the parish register in 1753. Francis Stuart, also of Seacombe, and Edmund Hayworth were Custom Officers in these parts in the 1760s.
In a report of the Royal Commission of 1839, Cheshire and Cornwall were said to be the worst in the Kingdom for wrecking. It stated "that on the Cheshire coast not far from Liverpool, they will rob those who have escaped the perils of the sea and come safe on shore and will mutilate dead bodies, for the sake of rings and personal ornaments."
They would hurry down to the beach, dragging carts, wheelbarrows and anything that would hold the loot. Horses and even oxen would be brought down to pull the heavier goods away.
If a sailor was trying to get out of the water, they would hit him over the head and rob him of what little he had on his person. Fishermen would use their nets to gather in floating casks of brandy. They seemed to adopt the slogan 'Seeking's finding and finding's keeping'.
Goods were taken into the cottages and the rest hidden in a sort of pit that was under what is now the New Palace Amusement Park. Some was hidden in the sand hills and collected later when the coast was clear. All manner of goods could be washed ashore, such as oranges, sugar, sides of bacon, tobacco and cases of silk. These wreckers would many into similar families and so the practice continued.
On one occasion, a ship was wrecked on the sandbank and her captain's body was washed ashore.
They took the clothes from the body and even cut off a finger in order to get the ring before the corpse could be taken away for the inquest. A woman even bit off the ears of a drowning woman in order to get the earrings. The old caves, known as 'The Worm Holes' were used by smugglers and wreckers. These caves ran well inland and once a smuggler or wrecker went in the tunnels it was a very difficult job to catch him. The situation became serious as the Coastguards and others were unable to bring the offenders to justice.
In the January of the year 1839, the gales wrecked many ships on the North West coasts and little was done by the Constables. The Liverpool Police decided to take action. Superintendent Quick and a band of about 20 men came over to try to save life and property. They were able to catch 25 villains as they went about their ugly business of plundering. These folk were brought before the Cheshire Magistrates who were very annoyed that the Liverpool Police should interfere in matters in Cheshire. Superintendent Quick reminded the Magistrates that as Constables of Liverpool, they had authority in Chester as it was within seven miles of the Borough.
The Magistrates were not happy with this view of the law and they appealed to the Clerk of the Court, who upheld them. However, Quick knew that he was right and he asked that the prisoners should be held in custody. This was granted and the following day, the Superintendent got the Town Clerk of Liverpool to send an extract from the Act to the Cheshire Magistrates. They had no alterative but to send the prisoners for trial. By 1860, the Liverpool Police Force had 982 men. Captain T Wylie was in command of the 242 ton brig Elizabeth Buckham when she was caught in a gale as she approached Liverpool and was wrecked on the Wallasey beach on26 November ] 866. The high winds drove the vessel ashore and the waves soon broke the boat up before any assistance could be rendered. Her cargo of coconuts and caskets of rum were washed overboard and the waves washed them ashore where the local inhabitants were waiting. The caskets were broken open and it was poured into jugs and buckets or anything that came to hand. It was quickly carried away and hidden in their houses; others just drank it on the spot which resulted in fights. Five men of the Wallasey Police Force (there were only about a dozen or so members in all) were called to the scene but they were greatly outnumbered and could do very little. Drunks had fallen asleep on the sands through drinking too much rum and as the tide came in, the Policemen were kept busy dragging the culprits to a safe place above the high water to prevent them being drowned. There were at least two deaths, one being 'The Boots' at the Victoria Hotel at New Brighton. The ship's log was washed ashore. At the inquest, Coroner Churton passed comment about the Rector at St Hilary's Church, who asked his congregation to wait till after the collection so that all could start fair, as the parishioners, having heard of the wreck, were heading for the door!
He also referred to the old Wallasey Prayer, "God bless feyther, and muther, and God send us a wreck afore morning".
None of the crew of the brig were washed ashore and it was several weeks before any of her timbers were seen on the sands.