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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 Wallasey Pool and then cross Bidston Moss to Continue in tunnels from Bidston beyond. They are said to have been used and expanded by the smugglers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Historian 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.
James 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.
WALLASEY'S UNDERWORLD If half the legends of smugglers' tunnels under Wallasey are true. then parts of the borough must be riddled with them. Bulldozers and builders have lost to us forever the chance of finding out the truth about some of them In 1932, workmen demolishing houses in Mersey Street area, found a subterranean passage leading from the river. Adjoining it was a four feet wide shaft 130 feet deep The light of a torch shooed the existence of a passage at the end. Before Corporation officials could be told, workmen filled in the shafts. ' A similar thing happened at Wallasey's old rectory of St. Hilary. In 1938, the then rector found an irregularity in his cellar wall. Closer inspection revealed a doorway blocked with masonry. When this was partly cleared, it uncovered a steep stone stairway descending Into the earth. The outbreak of war prevented the tunnel ever being fully explored. It was bricked up in preparation for the building of a new rectory.
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 was 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. 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. 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 closed due to flooding from the lake at high tide. The Tunnels are now utilised by Hidden Wirral Myths and Legends for Exclusive Historic Tours and Paranormal Investigations. 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, Local Historian 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 Street and Victoria Road 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 Grosvenor Street, 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.
It remains an enigma.
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”