The Rise and Fall of Birkenhead


 Birkenhead was a late starter. 

A short time after the industrial revolution had reached places such as Liverpool, Birkenhead was still an agricultural backwater. This was due to the River Mersey. There had been a ferry across the Mersey since 1150 when the Benedictine monks built a  priory on the Wirral side of the river, under the leadership of  Hamon de Mascy.  The priory was visited in 1275 and 1277 by Edward 1.  Crossing could take sometime particularly in bad weather and it wasn't until a new steam ferry service started from Liverpool to Tranmere in 1822 and then the paddle steamer, Royal Mail began operation between Liverpool and Woodside that a regular route was established. 

Birkenhead gets its name from the birch trees that grew right down to the 'head' of the river. It is said that back in time you could travel across the Wirral in the canopy of the trees without ever touching the ground. 

Wealthy merchants started to build large villas along the banks of the Mersey in places such as Tranmere and Rock Ferry away from the industrial pollution back in Liverpool. 

William Laird, a prominent local business man and owner of the Laird Iron works bought up land in the area and was commissioned to design the town in 1824. He modelled it on the grid iron patten of Edinburgh new town with similar architecture. Hamilton Square was laid out in 1826 and apart from Trafalgar Square in London, contains the most Grade 1 listed buildings in one place in England. He named the square after his wife's family name. 

Birkenhead park is acknowledged to be the first publicly funded park in Britain and was the forerunner of Central Park in New York. Grand villas were built around the park to pay for the work. In 1860 the first street tramway in Europe ran from the Pier Head to the park. 


In 1917 the Eisteddfod was held in Birkenhead Park,

one of the only times  it was held outside  Wales.

David Lloyd George attended and it was the event where Hedd Wyn posthumously received the black chair. 

By 1829 William Laird's iron works had moved into shipbuilding and merged with a Sheffield company Johnson Cammell.  At first, part of the new company produced rolling stock for the railways and pioneered the air compressed doors used on the London underground. However, eventually shipbuilding took over completely. 

In 1901 Michael Marks, a Polish Jew took over stall 11 and 12 on Birkenhead Market. He was joined by Tom Spencer a bookkeeper and they opened the Famous Penny Bazaar. They went on to open quite a few shops around the country! 

The Argyle Theatre, initially the Argyle Music Hall was opened on 21st  December 1868 and over the years stars such as W. C. Fields, Marie Lloyd, Harry Lauder, Charlie Chaplin,  Stan Laurel and Morecambe & Wise all appeared.  In 1921 George Formby appeared at the theatre but is wasn't a success as he was booed off the stage. Flanagan & Allen performed “Underneath the Arches” for the first time on that stage. The Argyle was the first place in England, outside London to display moving pictures and the first theatre to host radio broadcasts. On 21st September 1940 the theatre received a direct hit during the blitz of World War 11 and never reopened. A department store car park now occupies the site. 

Bidston Hill above the town is the highest point on the Wirral and looks across to Liverpool. At its highest point is Bidston Observatory built in 1866. One of its functions was to determine the exact time. Up to 18th July 1969, at exactly 1.00pm each day the “One  O'Clock Gun” overlooking the Mersey near Morpeth Dock would be fired electrically from the Observatory. In 1929 the Observatory and the Tidal Institution were amalgamated and in the Second World War predicted the tides for the D-Day landings. 

In the village is Bidston Hall, an imposing looking place with more ghost stories and tales of witchcraft than most old mansions and there are said to be tunnels running under Bidston Hill that have access to the house. The 6th Earl of Derby occupied the house in 1596  using it as a hunting lodge as he owned the deer park leading down to Leasowe. This was where he held his famous horse race, later to become the Grand National.

Sometime later the Bidston Estate came into the possession of Sir Robert Vyner a London goldsmith and to this day several of the nearby roads are named after him, Vyner Road North, Vyner Road South. Sir Robert lost his business in the Great Fire of London in 1666. He never recovered from the loss. 

Over the years Birkenhead has seen a steady decline from the elegant Victorian town with its palatial villas to a place of poverty. Birkenhead now has one of the lowest mortality rates for men over the age of 65 in Britain. A sharp contrast from the Deeside of the Wirral only 7 miles away.

In that 7 mile journey you can increase your life expectancy by up to 10 years.


My thanks to Hidden Wirral History and others for the information in this article.