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BIRKENHEAD, a rising sea-port, market-town, and township, in the union, and Lower division of the hundred, of Wirrall, S. division of Cheshire; situated less than a mile, by ferry, (W.) from Liverpool, 16 miles (N. by W.) from Chester, 32 (W. by S.) from Manchester, and 202 (N. W.) from London; containing about 25,000 inhabitants, and comprising the ancient extraparochial district or chapelry of Birkenhead, the former township of Claughton, in Bidstone, and part of that of Oxton, in Woodchurch. Though of recent origin as a town and port, this place is of considerable antiquity. A priory for sixteen Benedictine monks was founded here about 1150, in honour of St. Mary and St. James, by Hamon de Massey, third baron of Dunham-Massey: according to Leland, it was subordinate to the abbey of St. Werburgh, at Chester; but from the power exercised by the monks, Bishop Tanner considers it to have been independent. The priors sat in the parliaments of the earls of Chester, and enjoyed all the dignities and privileges of palatinate barons, seldom riding out unless attended by their chamberlains and marshals; while the office of their seneschal was a prize worthy of the emulation of the most knightly houses in the county. The priory had considerable endowments: the adjacent rectories of Backford and Bidstone, with most of the lands in those parishes, were among its possessions, and it had also property in various parts of Lancashire. The right of ferryage across the Mersey was given to the prior in 1282, and confirmed by subsequent grants; and in a charter dated the 20th February 1318 (11th of Edward II.), he obtained license to build houses for lodging all such persons using the ferry as should be detained on account of contrary weather and the frequent storms. Up to that time there had not been any accommodation for sojourners here, and the priory had in consequence been burthened, and the passengers "much wearied and very greatly grieved." Subsequently the priors obtained a house, situated in the present Waterstreet, where such produce as remained unsold on the market-days was deposited till the next market. The revenues of the establishment were, according to Dugdale, valued at the Dissolution at £90. 13., and, according to Speed, at £102. 16. 10. Of the buildings, the last use of which was as a girls' school, for all the country for many miles round, nothing remains but a small portion of a Gothic window covered with ivy. The Priory House, which was garrisoned by the royalists, and captured by the parliamentarians in 1644, stands at the back of the church of St. Mary.

The greater portion of the priory estates in Cheshire was granted to Ralph Worsley, a junior member of the family of that name settled at Worsley, in Lancashire; and after his death, without male issue, the lands became the property of his grandson, Thomas Powell, of Birkenhead, whose eldest son was created a baronet in 1628. The manor continued in this family until 1703 or 1704, when it was sold to John Cleveland, Esq., of Liverpool, during the year of his mayoralty. This gentleman, and his second son (the eldest having died young), were successively members for the borough of Liverpool for many years; they resided in Cleveland-square, several of the streets near which are called after parties connected with them. Alice, the only daughter and heiress of the former, married Francis Price, of Bryn-y-pys, in the county of Flint, and had issue Richard Price, Esq., who assumed the name of Parry, became a privy councillor for Ireland, and was buried in the old chapel at Birkenhead, yet occasionally used, in 1782. He was twice married, first to Dorothy, daughter of Sir John Byrne, and sister of Sir Peter Byrne Leycester, Bart., of Tabley; and had issue Francis Parry Price, of Bryn-y-pys. The last-named married Francisca, daughter of Henry Offley Wright, Esq., of Mottram, in Cheshire; and his son is Francis Richard Price, Esq., late lord of the manor of Birkenhead, which now belongs to William Jackson, Esq., of Claughton Hall.

Few places have, in the same short space of time, made such rapid progress as the township of Birkenhead. For centuries an inconsiderable place, it has suddenly become a large and important town; and what was once regarded as an outskirt of the great port of Liverpool, is now going hand in hand with that mart of commerce, in extending the facilities for the trade of the country, and in increasing the prosperity of those residing on the shores of the noble estuary of the Mersey. The first steam-boats were introduced on the Mersey in 1815, at which time Birkenhead contained but a few insignificant and isolated cottages. In 1833 an act was passed for the improvement of the place; in 1840 a railway was opened hence to Chester. The first stone of the docks was laid on the 23rd of October, 1844, by Sir Philip de Malpas Grey Egerton, Bart., M.P. for the southern division of the county; and on the 5th of April, 1847, a portion of the docks, a number of dock warehouses, the extension of the Chester railway to the quays, and the park, were all formally opened by Lord Morpeth. The increase in the population has been commensurate with the great and rapid improvement of the town and the establishment of its various public works. In 1818 there were only three houses besides the priory and a few straggling cottages, and Woodside ferry-house; and the population did not exceed 50: in 1821 it was only 200; it had risen in 1831 to 2569, and in 1841 was 8227. The number of inhabitants in 1844 was about 14,000, and there were then at least 2315 houses in the township, exclusively of 503 houses in the course of erection. An actual survey and valuation were made in August 1823, by the late Mr. William Lawton, land-surveyor, of all the property in the township, when it was found that there were only 61 houses, cottages, fields, or other property that could be assessed; and that their annual value was £3101. 4. 6. In 1837 the property was assessed at £25,781 per annum; in 1840, at £42,778; and in 1844, at £64,481.

The town is admirably situated on the Mersey, which separates it from Liverpool, on the east; while on the north it is bounded by Wallasey Pool, soon to be converted into the great Float and the low-water basin. The direction of the chief streets is from north-west to southeast; they include Conway-street, Laird-street, Beckwith-street, Price-street, and Cleveland-street, and are crossed at right angles by shorter streets, among which are Hamilton, Argyll, Lord, Camden, Park, Exmouth, Cathcart, and Victoria streets. Hamilton-square occupies 6½ acres of ground, surrounded on every side by elegant stone-fronted houses, four stories high, rusticated to the first story course, and built in the Doric style of architecture; the wing houses having four bold columns in front, supporting handsome friezes and parapets. The garden and walks of the square are inclosed by a parapet and iron-railings, and are tastefully laid out for the special use of the neighbouring occupants. The town is well drained: in 1833 an act was obtained for paving and improving it, for regulating the police, and establishing a market; this act was amended by another passed in 1838, and in 1841 an act was obtained for lighting the township with gas, and supplying the inhabitants with water. The Water-works are situated in Oxton (fn. 1), and are the property of a private company. Their level is 104 feet above the sea: the borings and sinkings are 294 feet in depth, through an uninterrupted stratum of red sandstone formation; and from the elevation of the works, a supply of water is provided even above the tops of the houses in Hamilton-square. The Market was opened in July 1845, and is very centrally situated; its general form is somewhat similar to that of St. John's market at Liverpool, being a quadrangular building, 430 feet long, and 131 wide. The hall is covered with wrought-iron roofs of a light and elegant construction, which are divided into three bays, the centre one supported upon two rows of columns, connected by arched cast-iron girders; an arrangement that divides the hall into three arcades. Of these, the middle arcade is of thirty feet span, and the two exterior arcades have each a span of fifty feet. The whole building, which is fireproof, is surrounded by an open area, protected by a low parapet wall with a handsome cast-iron railing; this area affords a free communication with the vaults, which form the basement story, and promotes the thorough ventilation of the stores, so necessary for preserving all articles of food in a fresh and wholesome condition. The cost of the market, including the outside footpaths and curbing, was nearly £35,000. The Slaughter-houses are situated in Jackson-street; they are built of freestone, and have walls of a massive character. The principal entrance is through a large gateway, over which is a lodge for the keeper, and on the right and left are sheds or pens for cattle, each butcher having stalls set apart for his own beasts, and for forage; the slaughter-rooms have all the necessary mechanical aids for the purpose, with abundance of hot and cold water, and thorough and efficient drainage. The ground purchased for these houses, and which will eventually be occupied by new erections when required by the increasing wants of the township, is 1000 yards.

The project of turning the capabilities of Wallasey Pool to advantage was first conceived by the late Mr. William Laird, who purchased from Mr. Price, in May 1824, fifty acres of land on the margin of the pool, adjoining the site of the present Dock Company's warehouses, for an establishment for iron ship-building. Having bought other, additional, land, and with a view of bringing the matter prominently before the public, Mr. Laird and Sir John Tobin caused a survey to be made by Mr. Thomas Telford, Mr. Robert Stephenson, and Mr. Alexander Nimmo, civil engineers; and their report was so favourable, that a private company was formed, and every preparation made for proceeding to parliament, in 1828, for power to construct docks, warehouses, and wharfs. The corporation of Liverpool, on hearing of the project, made overtures for the purchase of the land on the margin of the pool from Mr. Laird and Sir John Tobin, the holders of it: after some negotiation the purchase was concluded, the amount paid being £84,657; and purchases were afterwards made from other frontagers on both sides of the pool by the corporation, to the extent of £100,000 more. The pool continued in the possession of the corporation until 1843, when that body, requiring funds to carry on various works they had then in hand, disposed of some land to Mr. John Laird for 10s. per yard; a large portion of the land thus transferred being that sold by Mr. Laird's father to the corporation in 1828, and for which only 3s. a yard had been paid. The conditions upon which Mr. Laird made the purchase were, that he should have the right of constructing docks or wharfs for the use of shipping, on a lease of seventy-five years; and no sooner had that agreement been effected, than other parties bought large portions of the land, in eligible situations along the pool, with the view of building docks and warehouses.

The commissioners of Birkenhead being then fully convinced of the practicability of the scheme going forward, and of the important influence it would exercise as to the future prospects of the town, appointed J. M. Rendel, Esq., as their civil engineer, and gave notice of their intention to apply to parliament for the requisite powers to construct extensive works, embracing a sea-wall from Woodside to Seacombe, docks at Bridge-End, and a tidal basin of thirty-seven acres, accessible at all times of the tide by vessels of not more than twelve feet draft; a basin, for the use of coasters, of sixteen acres; and a dam to pen up the waters of Wallasey Pool, and make that portion lying between Bridge-End and the Wallasey bridge into an immense float, similar to that at Bristol, convenient gates and locks being formed for the access of vessels to it from the tidal basin. The determination to proceed to parliament was formed on the 19th of July, 1843, at the house of Mr. Laird; and by a somewhat remarkable coincidence, the bill giving full powers to carry out the project passed the third reading in the house of lords on the 19th of July, 1844. In less, therefore, than four years from the original determination to proceed to parliament; in less than three years from the obtaining of the bill; and in less than two years and a half from the laying of the foundation stone, the public were called upon to celebrate, under Lord Morpeth's auspices, the completion of the first portion of the undertaking.

The docks bound, or will bound, the town on the north and north-east, and partly on the east; ranging from the pier of Woodside ferry to the Wallasey bridge. The Pool, which was originally an inlet or creek of the Mersey, will form the great Float of 150 acres; it divides Birkenhead from Poolton with Seacombe, in the parish of Wallasey, and will communicate on the east with a low-water basin of thirty-seven acres, and on the southeast with a three-acre dock, called Bridge-End. This last will be connected on the north with the low-water basin, and on the south-east has connexion with the Woodside dock, which communicates, also on the southeast, with a tidal basin of sixteen acres for coasters and other vessels: the entrance to the Woodside dock is fifty feet wide. Thus a total accommodation will be afforded equal to more than 200 acres. The great seawall on the east will be broken only by an entrance 300 feet in width to the low-water basin of thirty-seven acres: this basin is excavated to the depth of twelve feet below low-water spring tides, will be walled with convenient wharfs, and in every respect made suitable as a place of refuge for the numerous vessels visiting the port. At the southern extremity of the sea-wall is the basin of sixteen acres: this is bounded on the south by the Woodside ferry-pier, and has two entrances, north and south, formed by the construction of an oblong island between the basin and the river. It is thus seen, that the two great basins last described are the only portions of the docks of Birkenhead that immediately adjoin the Mersey.

The Dock Warehouses belong to a joint-stock company, called the Birkenhead Dock Warehouse Company, the bill for legalizing which was successfully carried through parliament in 1845. This company purchased a large extent of frontage on the south side of the Pool, and laid it out, with a view to the accommodation and increase of trade generally: the first portion of their warehouses, containing an amount of space sufficient for the stowage of 80,000 tons of goods, was opened in April, 1847. Adjoining their property is the new goods' station of the Chester and Birkenhead Railway Company, whose line is now carried round the whole of the Dock Company's property, by which all cartage is avoided, and the goods delivered direct from the vessel's side or the warehouse to all parts of the country, with safety, speed, and cheapness. The warehouses come under the denomination of what the insurance offices call fire-proof: each set is detached; water is laid on, and the whole are surrounded by a wall twelve feet high, with convenient entrance-gates and yards. In order to provide accommodation for the various workmen connected with the warehouses, the company have built a number of airy, well-lighted, and well-ventilated dwellings at the junction of Ilchester-road and Stuart-street. They are sixty in number, and have an abundant supply of pure water, with all the modern and most approved conveniences (some of them being perfectly unique) for sanitary purposes: they are built on the Scotch principle of having flats of four or five stories, one over another; and a good kitchen and two small bed-rooms are allotted to each family. The custom-house department is under that of Liverpool, and the entries passed on the Liverpool side answer for Birkenhead. A large establishment has been some time formed, belonging to Mr. Laird, for the construction of iron vessels, and at which many have been already built; there are also copper-mills, a varnishmanufactory, an iron-foundry, gun-works, a patent-slip for repairing ships, a boiler-yard, and other establishments.

There are three ferries, with an hotel at each; namely, the Woodside ferry, the Monks', and the Birkenhead. The right of ferry across the river has, for nearly five centuries, been a fruitful source of litigation: under the 27th of Edward III. pleadings were instituted against the prior; and it was the subject of two actions in the years 1838 and 1839, when it may be presumed to have been at length finally settled, as the jury returned in both cases that "Mr. Price had an ancient right of ferry from Birkenhead to Liverpool." These two actions were brought by the Woodside Ferry Company against the trustees of the Monks' ferry, who, soon after the verdict was delivered, sold their ferry, and their splendid building, the Monks' hotel, to the railway company, by whom it has been re-sold to the commissioners of the township. The commissioners have also purchased Mr. Price's ancient right of ferry, extending over all the township, except the Birkenhead hotel premises. The slips at Woodside are excellent: a fine pier runs down between them, which is twenty feet wide; a row of lamps illuminates each slip at night, and the pier forms a delightful promenade, where contractors with the ferry have the privilege of walking: at the extremity is a small lighthouse. The Monks' ferry hotel is the largest hotel in Birkenhead, and is advantageously situated on the verge of the river, from which it presents a very fine appearance. The Birkenhead ferry, the property of the corporation of Liverpool, by whom it was purchased a few years ago, is the most southern of the ferries, and has a fine commodious slip, but shorter than the slips at the other ferries, owing to the greater depth of water close to the shore. The hotel, which is very spacious, stands on a delightful and almost isolated site, close to the point forming the northern boundary of the indenture of Tranmere Pool. From the house and pleasure-grounds the most charming views are obtained of the river and shipping, the Lancashire shore from Bootle bay to Runcorn, with Liverpool on the east, and the whole basin of the Mersey on the south; also of the Cheshire shore, the Rockferry, &c. A new pier has recently been built from the top of the slip, running northward, parallel with the river; and this is found to be extremely convenient for passengers landing or embarking during the height of spring tides.

The Birkenhead and Chester railway, sixteen miles in length, connects the town with the midland counties and the metropolis; and in 1846 an act was passed for a railway from Hooton, about midway between Birkenhead and Chester, to Warrington, Altrincham, and Stockport, thus completing a direct railway communication between the town and Manchester, Lancashire generally, and Yorkshire. The Birkenhead and Chester line originally commenced at Grange-lane; but in 1844 an extension under the town was formed, which brings the line almost to the water's edge, at the Monks' ferry. The tunnel is about 500 yards long, and has excavated and embanked approaches; the inclinations fall towards the river, and the line curves a little to the right in going down: there is one shaft near the middle for ventilation. About 242 yards of the tunnel were driven through sand and clay, and 255 through indurated sandstone. The arch is semicircular, and two feet in extreme thickness: it is partly constructed of stone and partly of brick, as the emergencies required; and the crown of it is lined throughout with brickwork, and pointed with cement. The area of the station or yard at the ferry is very large; being, from the mouth of the tunnel to the quay, about 250 feet long, and about 120 in width between the high retaining rails. Another act was passed in 1845, for making a line from Grangelane to Bridge-End and the docks: this second extension is about a mile long, and has two new stations, one for passengers between Canning-street and Bridgestreet, and the other for goods, adjoining the dock warehouses.

The commissioners of the town were originally constituted under an act of parliament, 3rd William IV., which received the royal assent on the 10th of June, 1833. The mayor and bailiffs of Liverpool for the time being, and the four junior aldermen, together with sixty other persons named in the act, were appointed the commissioners; the rate-payers having the privilege of supplying vacancies in the sixty, from whatever cause they might occur. The act of the 1st Victoria, which received the royal assent on the 11th June, 1838, repealed the clauses in the former act relating to the commissioners, their number, and mode of election; and enacted that there should be twenty-four commissioners, three of them appointed by the town-council of Liverpool, and the remainder elected by the rate-payers. In 1846 an act was passed for the exclusion of the three Liverpool members. The qualification for a commissioner is a rating to the poor to the value of £35, or the possession of property to the value of £1500: one-third of the commissioners retire annually, but they are eligible for re-election. For the convenience of public business, the following committees have been appointed by the board; Watching and Lighting, Improvement, Finance, Market, Road, Ferry, and Health: the chairman and vice-chairman are ex officio members of all committees. Birkenhead is not subject to church rates or any other claims of an ecclesiastical character; and it may be added that, as the general sewerage of the place is effected by the land proprietors, no rate is levied on the inhabitants for the purpose. The commissioners have only authority to levy dock dues on the shipping using their docks; on goods no duties are levied. The powers of the county debt-court of Birkenhead, established in 1847, extend over the registration-district of Wirrall. The town-hall contains the bridewell, and various offices for parochial purposes, and is situated in Hamiltonstreet; the front is of stone from the Storeton-hill quarries, and presents to the eye a neat elevation in the Grecian style. But the whole of the buildings have been found unsuited to the necessities of the township, and will be cleared away when the new buildings now in contemplation shall have been completed.

The township comprises an area, including Claughton and part of Oxton, of about 1388 acres, or two square miles: Claughton contains 575 acres, a large portion of which is converted into a public park and villa grounds; and it has, together with a small part of Oxton, been incorporated by a recent act of parliament with the township of Birkenhead. The project of a public park originated with Mr. I. Holmes, one of the commissioners, and a committee was appointed to take the subject into consideration: some time afterwards, the project was revived by Mr. Jackson; and the commissioners, having agreed to purchase the land, obtained an act of parliament, the royal assent to which was given on the 1st Sept. 1843. The area consists of 180 acres, laid out in admirable taste by Mr. Paxton, with every variety of landscape-gardening, including plantations of shrubs, flower-beds, verdant vales, picturesque lakes, ornamental bridges, and serpentine walks, with extensive drives, cricket and archery grounds, &c. A margin of 350,000 yards of land is available for sale to erect villas, and 114 acres are dedicated to the public for their free use and enjoyment for ever. It is expected that the sales of the marginal land will reimburse the township for the cost of the whole: from 70,000 to 80,000 yards have been already sold, at an average price of about 6s. 6d. per yard. The park entrance is through a handsome archway for carriages, and two minor archways for foot passengers; on each side are uniform lodges, two stories in height, and built of the purest freestone: the noble architectural appearance of the whole, presenting a fine specimen of the Ionic style, is deservedly admired. Claughton Hall, the residence of William Jackson, Esq., the lord of the manor, and late chairman of the commissioners, is a very elegant and commodious building, of fine white veined freestone from Storeton, erected with great taste, and having four fronts, one to each cardinal point; the principal entrance is on the west. The house stands on an elevated site sloping gradually eastward, and commands, as do the lawn and pleasure-grounds in front, an extensive and uninterrupted view of the public park below, the pool, the Wirrall peninsula northward, the river and shipping, and the whole of Birkenhead and Liverpool, which, save where the water intervenes, appear to be blended into one huge metropolis. Oxton Hill lies to the south of Claughton. Comparatively but a few years ago, it was a barren heath; it is now, to a great extent, covered with fine houses and villas, with gardens, fields, woods, and pleasure-grounds, and is, in fact, a village of itself. The air in this elevated locality is extremely salubrious, and the prospect from almost any point uninterrupted and delightful, embracing a vast extent of land, and town and marine scenery. Clifton Park is well worthy of being named among the beauties of Birkenhead; the entrance lodge is in Grange-lane: after a turn on the road there is a slight ascent, and on each side a number of elegant mansions have been erected, rising one above another on the slope of the hill. Other places within a short distance are also very attractive, especially to visiters from the counties inland; among these may be mentioned New Brighton, Leasowe, West Kirby, and, particularly, Hoylake, on the west point of the peninsula.

St. Mary's church is an elegant and well-built structure of stone, in the pointed style, erected by F. R. Price, Esq., then lord of the manor. In 1817 a considerable purchase of land was made by Messrs. Grindrod, Hetherington, and Addison, who, in their contract with Mr. Price, stipulated, among other things, that a new church should be built, which was accordingly commenced in July, 1819, the foundation stone being laid by Lord Kenyon, and the direction confided to the eminent architect, Mr. Rickman. The living is in the patronage of William Jackson, Esq. The churchyard includes the ancient burial-ground of the abbey, in which are a number of tombs of very old date. The church of the Holy Trinity, situated in Price-street, is somewhat remarkable, as regards design and architectural ornament; it is in the Norman style, but considerably modified, is built of stone, is 102 feet in extreme length, 56 feet in breadth, and will accommodate 1000 persons. The principal entrance is by a deep, recessed, ornamented doorway, having two windows above supported on small arches, grotesque heads being introduced at the various points of contact; the tower rises to the height of 88 feet, and is highly embellished with mouldings and pierced work. The living is in the patronage of H. Williams, Esq. St. John's church is of new red sandstone, and was built at the expense of J. S. Jackson, Esq., Joseph Mallaby, Esq., and others; it stands in Grange-lane road, and presents one of the most perfect specimens of the early English style in the neighbourhood, is of very imposing appearance, and of large dimensions. In the chancel are stained-glass windows representing St. John, St. Paul, and St. Peter, and in the north and south aisles are others, with various arms. The living is in the patronage of Trustees. St. James's church, of yellow sandstone, and in the early English style, was built at the united cost of W. Potter, Esq., W. Jackson, Esq., and the Messrs. Laird, for the use of the labouring classes resident in the dock cottages. A church dedicated to St. Anne, and situated in Beckwith-street, has just been completed from designs furnished by William Cole, Esq., architect, at the expense of Mr. Potter; it is of red sandstone, and in the pointed style of architecture. The last-named gentleman has erected another church at Claughton Firs, in a similar style. There are places of worship for Calvinists, Independents, Quakers, Welsh Methodists, Wesleyans, and Roman Catholics, one in connexion with the Scottish Kirk, and one for Seceders. The Scottish church is situated in Conway-street, and is one of the principal edifices in the locality, combining neatness of form with internal convenience and fitness: there is a small portion of land attached, used as a burial-ground.

A Theological College, under the patronage of the Bishop of Chester, prepares young men as clergymen for foreign missions, and others as pastors to foreigners in the port of Liverpool and Birkenhead: the course of study includes the ordinary University course, with a greater proportion of theology and biblical literature. The Birkenhead Mechanics' Institution was established in 1840, and has been perseveringly carried on under very fluctuating circumstances. Numerous schools have been founded for the poor. A house is at present used as an infirmary, but the erection of a spacious building has been determined on; the commissioners have agreed to give an acre of land for the purpose, and a sum amounting to several thousand pounds has already been subscribed. A lying-in hospital has been established in a house at the entrance of Clifton Park, through the exertions of several charitable ladies and those of Dr. C. E. H. Orpen; and there is a dispensary, yet but an infant institution. Flaybrick hill, where extensive stonequarries are formed for the town purposes, especially for the construction of the docks, is intended ultimately to be the public cemetery. From the bowels of this hill fine stone has been for many years extracted; but the excavation made has been filled up with the rubbish thrown out, and in such a manner as to leave a hill of pyramidal form, the high side of which will be appropriated to catacombs and tombs, ornamented with shrubs and flowers.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, seventh edition, published 1858.