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Wirral History: A Brief Introduction

The name Wirral occurs in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as “Wirheal”. This literally means “myrtle-corner” from the Old English wir, a myrtle tree, and heal, an angle, corner or slope. It is supposed that the land was once overgrown with bog myrtle, a plant no longer found in the area but plentiful around Formby, to which Wirral would once have provided a similar habitat. The name was given to the Hundred of Wirral around the 8th century, although by the time of the Doomsday Book and for some time afterwards the name of the hundred changed to the Hundred of Wilaveston, which later became Willaston.

 

The earliest evidence of human occupation of Wirral dates from the Mesolithic period, around 7000 BC. Excavations at Greasby have uncovered flint tools and signs of stake holes and a hearth used by a hunter-gatherer community, and other evidence from about the same period has been found at Irby, Hoylake and New Brighton. Later Neolithic stone axes have been found at several locations including Oxton, Neston, and Meols, where Neolithic pottery has also been found. At Meols and New Brighton there is evidence of continuing occupation through to the Bronze Age, around 1000 BC, and funerary urns of the period have been found at West Kirby and Hilbre. Before the time of the Romans, Wirral was inhabited by a Celtic tribe, the Cornovii. Discoveries of artifacts at Meols suggest that it was an important port from at least as early as 500 BC. Traders came from as far away as Gaul and the Mediterranean in search of minerals from North Wales and Cheshire. There are also remains of a small Iron Age fort at Burton, which takes its name (burh-tún) from it.

 

A Subsidy Roll of 1545 shows that the total population of Wirral at the time was no more than 4,000. The peninsula was divided into about 15 parishes (Wallasey, Bidston, Upton, Woodchurch, West Kirby, Thurstaston, Heswall, Bebington, Bromborough, Eastham, Neston, Burton, Shotwick, Backford and Stoke). Most of these were divided into smaller townships, of which the largest in terms of population were Neston, Burton, Wallasey, Tranmere (then within the parish of Bebington) and Liscard. However, none of these were more than small rural villages.

 

Wirral's proximity to the port of Chester influenced the history of the Dee side of the peninsula. From about the 14th century, Chester provided facilities for trade with Ireland, Spain, and Germany, and seagoing vessels would "lay to" in the Dee awaiting favourable winds and tides. As the Dee started to silt up, harbouring facilities developed at Shotwick, Burton, Neston, Parkgate, Dawpool, and "Hoyle Lake" or Hoylake. However, there was not a gradual progression of development, and downstream anchorages such as that at Hoyle Lake (which replaced Meols) were in occasional use from medieval times, depending on the weather and the state of the tide. The main port facilities were at Neston and Parkgate.

 

At the same time, the use of larger ships and the growth of commerce and industry in Lancashire started to lead to the growth of Liverpool. The first wet dock in Britain was opened in Liverpool in 1715, and the town's population grew from some 6,000 to 80,000 during the 18th century. The need to develop and protect the port led to a chain of lighthouses being built along the north Wirral coast. The commercial expansion of Liverpool, and the increase in stage coach traffic from Chester, also spurred the growth of ferries across the River Mersey. By the end of the 18th century the Wirral side of the Mersey had five ferry houses, at Seacombe, Woodside, the Rock, New Ferry and Eastham.

 

Other communications were also improving. Turnpike roads linking Chester with Eastham, Woodside, and Neston were built after 1787. In 1793, work began on the Ellesmere Canal, connecting the River Mersey with Chester and Shropshire through the fluvioglacial landform known as the Backford gap, and the town of Ellesmere Port began to develop.

 

The excavation of the New Cut of the Dee, opened in 1737, to improve access to Chester, diverted the river's course to the Welsh side of the estuary and took trade away from the Wirral coastline. Although plans were made to overcome its gradual silting up, including one in 1857 to cut a ship canal from a point between Thurstaston and Heswall to run along the length of Wirral to Chester, this and other schemes came to nothing, and the focus of general trade moved irrevocably to the much deeper Mersey. However, from the late 18th century there was coal mining near Neston, in tunnels stretching up to two miles under the Dee, and a Quay at Denhall was used for coal exports.

 

 

The Nineteenth Century‎

 

The first steam ferry service across the Mersey started in 1817, and steam-powered ships soon opened up Wirral's Mersey coast for participation in industrialisation that was occurring in Britain. The 1820s saw the birth of the area's renowned shipbuilding tradition when John Laird opened his shipyard in Birkenhead, later expanded by his son William. The Lairds were largely responsible for the early growth of Birkenhead, commissioning the architect James Gillespie Graham to lay it out as a new town modelled on Edinburgh. In 1847, Birkenhead's first docks and its municipal park, the first in Britain and the inspiration for New York's Central Park, were opened, and the town expanded rapidly. Birkenhead's population of less than one thousand in 1801 rose to over 33,000 by 1851, and to 157,000 by 1901. The town became a borough in 1877, incorporating within it Oxton, and Tranmere.

 

The improved communications also allowed Liverpool merchants to buy up and develop large estates in Wirral. James Atherton and William Rowson developed the resort of New Brighton, and new estates for the gentry were also built at Egremont, Oxton, Claughton and Rock Ferry. Arrowe Hall was built for the Shaw family in 1835.

 

The mid 19th century saw the establishment of docks at Birkenhead and in the Wallasey Pool, and continuing development for a wide range of industry both there and along the banks of the Mersey. The New Chester Road was opened in 1833. Wirral's first railway was built in 1840, planned by George Stephenson and connecting Birkenhead with Chester. In 1852 Price's Patent Candle Company built a factory and model village at Bromborough. This was followed in 1888 by William Lever's establishment of the much larger Sunlight soap factory and Port Sunlight garden village, designed to house its employees and provide them with a benign environment. The opening of the Manchester Ship Canal in 1894, with its outfall at Eastham, led to further port-side and industrial development beside the Mersey at Ellesmere Port.

 

In 1886, the Mersey Railway tunnel was opened, linking Wirral and Liverpool. This led to the further rapid growth of suburbs along its lines in Wirral, particularly in Wallasey, Hoylake and West Kirby, and later Bebington and Heswall. Wallasey's population grew to over 53,000 by 1901, and the town also achieved borough status soon after the turn of the century

 

 

The Twentieth Century

 

The dockland areas of Wallasey and Birkenhead continued to develop and prosper in the first half of the century, specialising in trade with Africa and the Far East. A host of other port-related industries then came into existence, such as flour milling, tanning, edible oil refining and the manufacture of paint and rubber-based products. In 1922 a new oil dock was built at Stanlow near Ellesmere Port, and in 1934 oil refining began there. A large chemical and oil refining complex still dominates the area.

 

In 1929, the 3rd World Scout Jamboree was held at Arrowe Park and this celebrated the 21st Anniversary of the publication of Scouting for Boys. Thirty-five countries were represented by 30,000 Scouts, plus another 10,000 British Scouts who took the opportunity to camp in the vicinity.

The rail tunnel under the Mersey was supplemented by a vehicle tunnel in 1934, the Queensway Tunnel. A third tunnel opened in 1971, the Kingsway Tunnel, connecting with the M53 motorway which now runs up the centre of the peninsula. These new roads contributed to the massive growth of commuting by car between Liverpool and Wirral, and the development of new suburban estates around such villages as Moreton, Upton, Greasby, Pensby, and Bromborough.

 

In 1940-41, as part of The Blitz, parts of Wirral, especially around the docks, suffered extensive bomb damage. There were 464 people killed in Birkenhead and 355 in Wallasey, and 80% of all houses in Birkenhead were either destroyed or badly damaged During the Second World War Wirral held two RAF sites, RAF West Kirby (which was a camp, not an airfield) and RAF Hooton Park and a number of anti-aircraft sites in order to protect the docks of Birkenhead and Liverpool.

After the Second World War, economic decline began to set in Birkenhead, as elsewhere in the area which had started to become known as Merseyside. However, there continued to be industrial development along the Mersey between Birkenhead and Ellesmere Port, including the large Vauxhall Motors car factory on the site of RAF Hooton Park.

 

The major urban centres of Wirral are to its east; these include Birkenhead and Wallasey. To the west and south, Wirral is more rural. Two thirds of the populations of Wirral live on one third of the land - in Birkenhead and Wallasey, according to Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council. Other towns to the south and west of this area are usually considered part of Wirral; notably, Ellesmere Port is often described as one of its 'border towns'. For regional economic planning, The Wirral is considered part of the Liverpool City Region.