Birkenhead, a market-town, seaport, township, and municipal and parliamentary borough in the county of Chester. It is situated in the lower division of the hundred of Wirral, on the western bank of the Mersey, directly opposite to Liverpool, about 3 miles from the sea. The name of the town is supposed to have been derived from a small stream, Birken or Birket, which joins the Mersey not far from the present ferry. The origin of the town is somewhat ancient, as it took its rise in connection with a Benedictine priory which was founded about the year 1170, in the reign of Henry II., by Hamon de Massey, Baron of Dunham Mas-sey. Its priors sat in the parliaments of the Earls of Chester as nobles of the Palatinate, and in 1282 Edward I. gave them the right to maintain a ferry, which is still known as Monk's Ferry. A fine crypt and some interesting ruins of the priory still remain. The greater part of the priory estate was bestowed by Henry VIII. on Ralph Worsley, and passed successively to the Powells, the Clevelands, and the Prices. It is only quite recently, however, that Birkenhead has risen to its present important position. Even so late as 1801 Birkenhead had only 110 inhabitants, and twenty years later only 236. The first move towards a town was the purchase from the Corporation of Liverpool, in 1824, by Mr. Laird, the father of the celebrated shipbuilder of Alabama notoriety, of several acres of land on the shore of the Wallasey Pool, an inlet from the Mersey. The pool and the land around it were excellently suited for docks, but it was not till 1844 that the docks were commenced, and they have been constructed upon a great scale. The water area of the docks is 168 acres, and the lineal quay space about 10 miles. In 1857 the docks of Birkenhead were amalgamated with those of Liverpool under the public trust known as The Mersey Docks and Harbour Board; and although the Birkenhead docks have not hitherto realized the expectations that were entertained in regard to them, it is believed that these expectations may be realized at no distant time. At the present time the docks of Liverpool are crowded, and the docks at 'Birkenhead cannot fail to increase in importance with the growing development of trade. In 1862 a landing-stage was constructed at Woodside Ferry at immense expense?800 feet long and 80 feet wide, resting on pontoons in a similar way to the stage on the Liverpool side, rising and falling with the tide. It is connected with the piers by two iron bridges.
The town of Birkenhead is well planned, the principal streets crossing each other at right angles, and about 20 yards wide; but the streets are chiefly lined with cottage property, with unsightly gaps occurring at short intervals, giving an air of overgrowth and too sudden expansion, and showing that the dreams of its founders have not yet been fulfilled. It is celebrated for its public park, 190 1/2 acres in extent, laid out at a cost of £140,000. It was designed by Sir Joseph Paxton, and the arrangement of lakes and ornamental grounds is much admired. In Tranmere also there is another park?the Mersey Park?29 acres in extent, which was opened in 1885 at a cost of £38,000. An area of about 47 acres of the summit of Bidston Hill was in 1898 acquired as a park, at a coat of £12,100. The principal bufldingt in the town are the Market House, built at a cost of £80,000 exclusive of the site, the Post Office, the Free Library, the Borough Hospital, and the School of Art (the two latter having been the gifts of the late Mr. Laird, M.P.), the Albert Industrial Schools (the gift of another eminent citizen, the late Sir William Jackson), the Public Baths, the Children's Hospital, the Town Hall in Hamilton Square (a stately edifice, such as would do no discredit to the largest of our cities), St Aidan's College (a theological school connected with the Church of England), the Observatory on Bidston Hill, and the Young Men's Christian Association Rooms?a commodious and handsome structure built a few years ago by public subscription, and an institution which is the centre of much Christian activity. Birkenhead is well provided with churches. Besides the Established churches there are upwards of thirty non-established churches, and a great number of mission halls. Indeed, there are few places where so much evangelistic work is being done as in Birkenhead, in proportion to its population. The greatest impetus of late years to the development of Bir-kenhead was given by its connection with Liverpool by means of the railway tunnel under the Mersey?the part of it under the river being 1230 yards long. It was opened by the Prince of Wales on 20 January, 1886, but since then it has undergone considerable extension on both sides of the river. The tunnel railway runs from the Central Station, Liverpool, and on the Cheshire side it is connected with the Birkenhead and Chester line at Rock Ferry, and has also branch lines to New Brighton, Hoylake, and West Kirby. which are largely used. The opening of this tunnel railway lias led to a very great extension of traffic, and cannot fail to benefit the whole district. when its connection with the trunk lines is more fully effected. For the present it is true the railway has done serious damage to the ferry, which has all along been a source of large revenue to the corporation, and it has also acted unfavourably upon the trade of the town, inasmuch as the access to Liverpool is so much more direct, but there can be no doubt that all this will rectify itself in due time. Even already the ferry has begun to recover much of its old prosperity, and when the railway connection with North Wales is completed there can be no doubt that the tunnel railway will largely contribute to the increasing prosperity of the whole neighbourhood.
To a great extent Birkenhead is a residential suburb of Liverpool, the districts of Claughton and Oxton being almost entirely occupied by those in business in Liverpool, but still it has important industries of its own. In particular it has long been celebrated for its shipbuilding yards. The works of the Messrs. Laird, to whom the town has been indebted for so much of its progress, give employment to great numbers of men, and have produced some of the largest steamships and battleships on the sea. There are also the engineering works of Messrs. Cochran & Co., and several others. Besides, there are flour mills, oilcake mills, waggon works, and an extensive trade in coal, guano, and grain?the grain warehouses of Seacombe being well worthy of notice. Of late years the well-known Sunlight Soap Works of the Messrs. Lever, in the outskirts of Birkenhead, have formed a considerable addition to the industries of the place.
Until 1893 Birkenhead was the largest town in England, except Preston, without a School Board; but in consequence of the growing educational requirements of the town, a School Board became a necessity, and was introduced in that year. There can be little doubt that it will prove to be an important factor in promoting the future prosperity of the town.
The parliamentary borough of Birkenhead includes the townships of Birkenhead, Claughton, Oxton, Tranmere, and part of Higher Bebington, and sends one member to parliament. Population of parliamentary and municipal borough, 99,857.
The Visitation of Cheshire, 1580 is available on the Heraldry page.