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The Urbanisation of West Kirby

By Tony Franks Buckley

For many centuries West Kirby was a small agricultural community, it wasn’t until the arrival of the Railway that it changed It was the 19th Century and the Victorian influence of the Industrial Revolution and urbanisation that West Kirby’s landscape was shaped in to how we know it today. West Kirby is a town situated in the North-West corner on the coast of the Wirral Peninsula, in the county of Merseyside, England, at the mouth of the River Dee across from the Point of Ayr in Flintshire, Wales. To the North-East of the town lies Hoylake, with the suburbs of Grange and Newton to the East, and the village of Caldy to the south-east. At the 2001 Census, the population of West Kirby was 7,680, and as part of the West Kirby & Thurstaston Ward, its population in 2001 was 12,869. West Kirby was a township and parish within the Hundred of Wirral. It became part of Hoylake West Kirby Civil Parish and Hoylake Urban district in 1894. The population was 148 in 1801, 435 in 1851 and 4,542 in 1901. The name West Kirby is of Viking origin. The Kirby word was originally pronounced “Kirkjubyr” and means “village with a church”. However at that time there was already a place called “Kirkjubyr”, and that place was on the other side of the Wirral in Wallasey. In order to differentiate the villages the Norse added the “West”, as it was West of Wallasey which has also been referred to as Kirby on some maps.

 

The old village was originally located around St. Bridget's Church which played a large role in the expansion of West Kirby, however in modern times; the town is centred on West Kirby Railway Station, which is around half a mile away. At the time of the Doomsday Survey, West Kirby was originally owned by a Robert De Rodelent. The survey shows 5 tenements and a Frenchman with a Sergeant and two ploughs. The settlement was in an ideal position it had good farm land, an abundance of fresh water and wildlife, woods, scrubs and marshes as well as hills that looked across the surrounding lands and rivers and had complete access to the River Dee.

 

Many people do not know that several centuries ago, West Kirby was an island just like Wallasey. Given its strategic location at the mouth of the Dee just across from the Point of Ayr in North Wales, it is little wonder why maritime history is so prevalent in the West Kirby area. This is how West Kirby was described in Lewis's Topographical Dictionary of England (1848) It is bounded on the north by the Irish Sea, and on the west by the estuary of the Dee; and from some rising ground about a quarter of a mile from the shore, extensive views are obtained of the Irish Sea, the river Dee, and the Flintshire and Carnarvonshire hills. The quality of the soil varies materially in different parts. In the townships on the sea-shore it is very light and sandy, and, being in a great measure sheltered by hills from the easterly winds, is particularly suited for the growth of early potatoes, for which the district has long been celebrated. Some extensive commons are yet unenclosed, and much even of the best land in the parish affords scope for improvement.  The Dee today is much different to the River of over 1000 years ago. Back in the early centuries, large vessels could go into the River Dee until they reached the marsh land of Thingwall or Dingsmere, however today much of the River Dee Estuary is silting up and needs constant maintenance.

 

Did you know that Pirates & Smugglers once frequented the area? Not only has there been Romans & Vikings on these shores, Pirates have made their presence known too. Just like the well known Pirates & Smugglers of Mother Redcaps, whom took advantage of the busy trading routes through the River Mersey. The River Dee played an important role towards trading of goods with the likes of Ireland and it was a busy estuary that Pirates & Smugglers frequented until the silt got too bad that ships were no longer able to navigate the river. Parkgate is a prime example of how the river has changed through the years. You can find out more about the Pirates & Smugglers in Gavin Chappell’s excellent and well researched book “Wirral Smugglers”

 

West Kirby is also famous for its Victorian promenade, (rivalling the promenade of Wallasey) flanked by the Marine Lake that permits boats to sail even at low tide. In the Victorian days, West Kirby was a great seaside town, much like New Brighton which was the playground of the North-West until a disastrous fire in 1969. It had fine sandy beaches, many shops and a large variety of hotels and entertainment including children's and adult activities. Many early photographs show the beaches of both West Kirby and New Brighton to be packed with family’s. The dress code was not how we see things today; it was a religious sin to show flesh in them days, as religion played a huge part of life in the 19th Century. As depicted in the photographs, you would see people sporting large pants and shirts, the woman were well covered with large hats and the children with long pants and they would be seen building sand castles. Donkey rides were also a popular form of entertainment and many were available to pace up and down the beach front. Just like today, a short walk whilst the tide was out allowed a day trip to Hilbre Island and was always a hit for the more curious day trippers. The beaches were also packed with entertainers, hawkers and punch and Judy shows for the kids, a true picture of a Victorian seaside resort. More information can be found in my book An Introduction to the West Wirral Coastline, which is available on Amazon.

 

At the south end of the Marine Lake, which is now integrated into a modern house, there is a small circular sandstone tower. This tower is known as 'Tell's Tower'. This is a remarkable story of a man and his dog. The tower was built by John Cumming Macdona M.P in memory of a remarkable St. Bernhard dog for which he had great affection for. John Cumming Macdona lived at Hilbre House in West Kirby with his dog. After the animal died in 1871 he built the tower in the corner of his garden. The Macdona’s, were a family from Ireland. William Coules Macdona became vicar of St. Marks in Royton, Nr. Oldham and the benefactor of the land to the church was his older brother John Cumming Macdona who for a time was MP for Rotherhithe. He too was a reverend at some time in his life and he was also president of the Kennel Club. John Cumming Macdona lived in Hilbre House in West Kirby. The family are now all dead, the last of them was Mrs Macdona was alive in the 1960s or 70s. The Macdona’s gave the land for the use of the West Kirby sailing club and where Macdona drive is now situated was where their house stood. He buried the dog underneath the tower with a plaque and small inscription as a dedication to his beloved pet. The entrance to Tell’s Tower can be seen from Riverside, and the actual tower can be seen from the slipway down to the River Dee. Take a look next time you are out for a stroll.

 

The area has seen many changes over the years and the same in political sense. On the 1st of April in 1974, West Kirby was absorbed into the newly created Metropolitan Borough of Wirral as part of the reorganisation of local governments in England and Wales. At that point, West Kirby ceased to be part of Cheshire for administrative purposes and became part of the newly administrative county of Merseyside. The area boasts a football team that plays in the West Cheshire League and it has seen the prestigious Cheshire Amateur Cup been firmly placed in the Greenbank Road ground in 2012-13.

Like most places on the Wirral, West Kirby has turned from a small habitat in to a thriving populated area. Whilst doing so it still retains much of its natural beauty. You can enjoy a long stroll around the coast which can be extended to the area of Seacombe around the other side of the peninsula. You can also take a trip over to the island of Hilbre where much wildlife can be viewed, including Grey Seal’s. There is a thriving shopping area in the town centre, which also includes many places to grab a bite to eat. If you want to enjoy a day of exploration and wildlife or even a trip to the shops, West Kirby has everything to cater for your needs.

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