Across the River Dee
Across the River Dee is the shoreline of the Wirral Peninsular, an area rich with interesting people and places from the pages of history.
This exploration of the area starts in the little known village of Shotwick just outside Chester. It is unlikely that you would past through this village as there is only one road in or out. Today the river is several miles from St Michael's Church and its collection of houses but in the 13th century the river would have lapped up against the churchyard walls. It was the meeting place of Kings for not only did Edward 1 sail from here on his way to building Conwy Castle and town but his father Henry 111 also sailed into Wales in 1245. Henry 11 left Shotwick with a large army bound for Ireland in the 12th century.
Further up the river Dee is the town of Neston, the largest town on the Wirral before the growth of Birkenhead in 1820. Once a thriving port, Denham Quay had Packet Ships sailing to Ireland and Europe with passengers and freight. In 1760 John Stanley opened a colliery next to the quay that stretched over a mile under the river. A most unpleasant place to work and the first location in Cheshire to use George Stephenson's steam engine.
At Swan Cottage in the village of Little Ness just outside the town, a girl named Amy Lloyd was born on the 26th April 1765. Her father Henry was the local blacksmith but died shortly after her birth. Her mother Mary took the child with her when she went into service in Hawarden.
At a young age Amy left for London where she changed her name to Emma Hart and soon became the muse of the famous artist George Romney. He painted her many times, sometimes in very exotic poses. She was the main attraction at all the society parties in London and became the mistress of Charles Grenville. However, after a while Grenville needed to secure a good marriage and so asked his uncle William Hamilton to look after her until her could claim her back.
Before this could happen Hamilton was offered the post of Ambassador to Italy and was elevated to a peerage. Although he was much older than Emma they married and moved to Naples. Once again she was seen at every social event and was a friend of Ferdinand 1st of Naples and Queen Marie Carolina sister of Marie Antoinette.
During this time she was introduced to a naval officer. He was quite a vision, he had lost an eye and an arm and had hardly any teeth but she became obsessed with him and the three of them lived happily together particularly as Hamilton was by this time an old man. The naval officer was, of course, Lord Nelson.
Eventually William Hamilton was recalled to London and the three of them travelled back to England. Hamilton died in 1803 and Nelson bought Merton Place for Emma to live in with their daughter Horatia. However, Nelson wanted one more adventure at sea to secure his pension. As Nelson sadly never returned from the Battle of Trafalgar, and Emma and Nelson were not married, she had no claim on Merton Hall and Nelson's brother took occupation, leaving Emma on the streets with her daughter.
She tried to join the party scene again but by now her looks were fading and she was overweight. Eventually she fled the country to avoid the debtors prison and spent the rest of her life in Calais France. She died in poverty on 15th January 1815 age 49 and there is a monument of remembrance to her made of Wirral sandstone in the town.
Her daughter Horatia married Rev Philip Ward on Feb 19th 1822 and had 10 children but for the rest of her life she never mentioned her mother's name again.
As the river Dee continued to silt up there was need for a new port and outside Neston there was a small community named after the gates to a deer park.
Parkgate became a busy port with packet ships sailing to Ireland and also a place to take the sea bathing cure as the waters were believed to have healing properties. It is said that Handel sailed from there to Dublin in 1742 to give the first public performance of his Messiah. Although that was his intention, bad weather forced him to sail from an alternative port. However, he did return through Parkgate on his way back to Europe some weeks later.
At the other end of Parkgate, where the Boathouse is now situated, originally named the Beerhouse, was one of two deep water harbours on the river and from there ferries sailed over to Flint in the 1740's. Adjacent to that was a boat building yard where a ship called the Duke was built in 1754. She became a slave ship on the infamous triangle from Africa to the Caribbean and onto Britain. Across the road is Brooke House originally named Bleak House. In 1902 the home of Aubrey Thomas the architect who designed the Liver Buildings in Liverpool. The large wall around the property was to protect his three beautiful daughters from the locals who used to gather and stare at them when they were in the garden. In 1972 the cabinet minister Steven Morris bought the house for £25,000 including two live in maids. Today the property is worth around £1.3 million.
Thurstaston hill is the location of Thor's Stone a large sandstone outcrop and a place of romantic legend. It was supposed that early Viking settlers may have held religious ceremonies and other activities there. You would be forgiven for thinking this is where it gets its name. However, the name means “ Village of a man named Thorsteinn.” an old Norse name from the early Viking days. From the top of the hill are spectacular views across the Wirral from Liverpool to North Wales.
Part of the common incorporates Roydon Park originally home of the Roydon family who lived at nearby Frankby Hall, now a cemetery. They started out as carpenters in Chester but saw a future in boat repairs and then boat building as Liverpool started to grow as a port. Eventually they progressed to their own shipping line. In 1905 Sir Thomas Roydon became a baronet, Mayor of Liverpool and Tory MP for Toxteth and his eldest son, also Thomas was chairman of Cunard. The youngest son Ernest, 3rd baronet and Sheriff of Anglesey, owned Bidston Court on the other side of the Wirral originally built for Robert Hudson the soap magnate. When Ernest's wife inherited Hillbank, the land that is now Roydon Park, she was keen to move back to her place of birth. Ernest was so attached to his home on Bidston Hill that he arranged for the house to be moved in its entirety across the Wirral at a cost of several millions in today's money. Quite something for a family that had started as carpenters only a couple of generations before that.
Today Hillbank is a hotel but it still retains many interesting features. A Jacobean fireplace from 1517 owned by Sir Walter Raleigh, a Robert Adam fire surround dated 1715 and stained glass windows by William Morris.
Down in the village, Liverpool shipowner Thomas Ismay founder of the White Star Line built Dawpool House in 1882. Ismay is said to have used his influence to have the West Kirby to Hooton railway line routed a mile away along the Dee Estuary rather than closer to the village. He was also successful in moving the main Heswall to West Kirby road which came too close to his mansion. Thomas Ismay had retired and it was his son who was running the company at the time of the Titanic disaster.
The riverside at Thursaston known then as Dawpool Reach was the other deep water harbour on the Dee. Not as popular as Parkgate as there were fewer amenities but still a busy port. Because it was a deep water harbour it was suggested that Thomas Telford built a large port there and that
would have been the start of the Manchester ship Canal. It would have cut right across the Wirral to
Ellesmere Port where the canal was eventual based.
Another visitor to the Dee was the 1st Royal Yacht. Both into Parkgate and particularly Thurstaston because of its more remote location, better for loading the currency they regularly took back for the Irish economy.
The 1st Royal Yacht, the Mary, was given to Charles 2nd by the people of Amsterdam when he came to the throne in the May of 1660. However after a while Charles commissioned a larger ship, the Kathryn and gave Mary to the Governor of Ireland Lord Meath, to use when he regularly returned to England for meetings. On a stormy night in 1675 the ship ran aground off Anglesey and both Captain William Burslow and the Governor of Ireland were lost. Charles went on to have 25 Royal Yachts and in total there have been 84 ships with the name Royal Yacht up to the present time.
The river continued to prove a problem. Long delays were incurred waiting for the tide to turn and also the effects of bad weather.
One regular passenger was the Irish writer Jonathan Swift and it is said that during his time waiting
for the ships to sail he would walk along the cliff top composing. Sayings such as: “ All the world and his wife,” “ Hand in glove,” “Butter wouldn't melt in her mouth,” “Bread is the staff of life,” “Tell the truth and shame the devil,” “ With my own fair hands,” and many more. All these sayings are still used to this today.
By 1820 Liverpool was developing as a alternative port and things came to a head when a Packet ship sailing from Parkgate ran aground off Thurstaston beach due to a delay with the tide. At first it was fun and games and people clambered onto the sandbank and children ran around playing. However, when the tide turned the ship was stranded in the sand and all but one of the passengers and crew drowned within sight of land. As a consequence of this disaster the Packet Ship business switched to Liverpool bringing to an end passenger shipping on the River Dee.
This is just a snap shot of the many people and places of our near neighbours on the other side of the River Dee.
By Rob Naybour.