Last edited 22 Feb 2021

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

The Victorian new town of Birkenhead

Ambitiously planned as a new town in the early 19th century and boasting the world’s first park provided at public expense, Birkenhead’s development waxed and waned with the economy.

Hamilton square.png
Terraced houses in Hamilton Square, c1844, by James Gillespie Graham (Photo: Rodhullandemu, Wikimedia).

Two hundred years ago, someone looking across the River Mersey from the busy port of Liverpool would have seen this: the empty beaches, bushy headlands, rolling hills and green pastures of the Wirral peninsula; an immaculate landscape with sporadic human habitation whose agricultural character had changed little since the middle ages; in the foreground, the picturesque ruins of Birkenhead Priory with its Norman chapterhouse; the hamlets of Oxton and Bidston on the hills behind; and the wide marshes towards Wallasey down the estuary. For wealthy Liverpudlians with a boat at their disposal this solitude was the nearest escape from a crowded and dirty town; a haven of tranquillity where they could indulge in bathing, riding and hunting. One of the first to settle down for good on the west bank was the industrialist Henry Kelsall Aspinall, who left us a vivid account of Birkenhead’s development from a parish of 110 souls in 1801 to a new town of over 110,000 in 1901[1]. What happened in between?

All changed in the 1820s with the arrival of regular steam ferry services across the Mersey and the beginnings of shipbuilding along the river’s west bank under the Glasgow magnate William Laird. Having made a fortune with the construction of large iron ships, the landowner Laird commissioned the Edinburgh architect James Gillespie Graham in 1824 to design the new town of Birkenhead near his shipyard. It would be very different from Liverpool and the nearby towns in the counties of Cheshire and Lancashire. Layout and, crucially, architectural design mimic that of Edinburgh New Town, where Graham had been responsible for the successful design of the Moray Quarter, with elegant townhouses for the Scottish aristocracy. Birkenhead’s Hamilton Square, named after Laird’s mother-in-law, was to become the urban design centrepiece, with facades replicating those of the Moray Estate. The parallels are not limited to stone-faced frontages, but extend to social status. As in Edinburgh, the luxurious residences built in Birkenhead would be designed to attract the wealthy, who could indulge in an urban lifestyle, but with the countryside in easy reach.

Birkenhead’s imagined future as a second Edinburgh New Town took off with Laird’s and Graham’s ambitious plans for the infrastructure. Displaying the confident attitude of pioneers, the duo laid the foundations for what would eventually become an almost two-mile-long, rectilinear road grid on the former marshland, long before the town was built. The biggest innovation was achieved in the realm of landscape design. To an illustrious crowd of 10,000, Joseph Paxton’s Birkenhead Park (1843–1847) was opened as a magnificent 226 acres English landscape garden with lakes, islands, hills, rockeries and arboreta, as well as public buildings and follies such as the spectacular Grand Entrance, the Roman Boathouse and the Swiss Bridge. It was the first time that a communal park project had been initiated by public funds rather than as a private enterprise, and it inspired the American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted in his design of Central Park in New York.

This public space design of the highest calibre was intended to be paid off through the sale of land to the upper classes, who would build their houses around the park, or so it was presumed. In the same vein, St Anne (Christ the King), an Anglican high church in revivalist decorated style with lavish interior, was built 1846–1850 as a speculative project on a green field decades before any human habitation. The only residences anywhere near were a number of formidable new houses and lodges in the immediate periphery of the park. Further additions were mainly of a public nature, but in keeping with the pioneering spirit. In 1860 Britain’s first street tramway was opened, linking the ferry terminal in Woodside with Birkenhead Park via Hamilton Square. In 1871 Laird School of Art was opened opposite the park’s Grand Entrance as a purpose-built public school of art.

The anticipated building boom, however, did not materialise. A recession set in and plans for further distinguished residences were abandoned. When residential building resumed, it was for a very different clientele. The sudden need to accommodate thousands of general labourers near the docks and shipyards saw an explosion of low-standard habitation. To squeeze as much housing as possible into the already existing road grid, parallel streets and alleyways were added and built up densely with workerscottages. St Anne, finally in use, found itself engulfed by two-up-two-downs, when the terraced houses of St Anne’s Grove were raised opposite the church’s side entrances in the early 1880s.

Living conditions were the opposite of what had been planned in the 1840s. With lodgers occupying the front room, large families used the kitchen behind as the only living room. Conditions were cramped and precarious. Matters were made worse by intense pollution due to the industrial emissions and the extensive network of steam trains operating in the docks nearby. The squalid conditions mirrored those on the opposite side of the Mersey, but this was not the only characteristic shared with Liverpool.

In 1845–1849 the potato famine in Ireland forced thousands of starving families to leave the country. Many headed for Liverpool, which in 1851 saw 160,000 migrants from Europe, including Ireland. Some of them found work in the docks in Liverpool and Birkenhead, and settled down. By the beginning of the 1860s a significant part of Birkenhead’s population living near the docks on the former Wallasey Pool was Irish. As in Liverpool, Irish families contributed to a steep increase in the Roman Catholic population, establishing a ‘Little Ireland’ in the new town of Birkenhead, where an estimated 15,000 Catholics centred round the new Holy Trinity Church.

Its vicar, an evangelical Irishman, managed to provoke a sectarian confrontation prompted, most curiously, by a matter of foreign policy. In the fight for a united Italian national state, Irish Roman Catholics supported the Pope in the defence of the Papal Territories, while English liberals aligned themselves behind the nationalists led by Garibaldi. The conflict culminated in the 1862 Garibaldi Riots in Birkenhead, when thousands of Catholic Irishmen protested against a meeting of Liverpool Orangemen at Holy Trinity and became involved in street fighting against a spontaneously formed police force, Birkenhead until then having had only one constable.

The experience ultimately led to policing and administrative improvements that culminated in Birkenhead being raised to a municipal borough in 1877 and county borough in 1889, two years after the completion of the new town hall in Hamilton Square. It was mainly there and in the commercial and retail quarter in the south and east of Birkenhead that construction thrived, including public buildings.

The last years of the Victorian era saw economic growth and increased prosperity, accompanied by a demand of more comfortable housing for employees on either side of the Mersey. The opening of the Mersey Railway Tunnel in 1886 had brought both sides closer together and enabled those working in Liverpool to choose their residence on the Wirral peninsula. At the turn of the century the industrialist and philanthropist William Lever built the model village of Port Sunlight for the workers of his soap factory a few miles south on the west bank. Conceived around the idea of temperance, it would raise the housing standards for workers considerably. One can detect the influence of Port Sunlight on Victorian Birkenhead’s latest development phase, which saw the remaining land between the park and the new railway line being developed consistently with terraces of three-bed dwellings. Each had two reception rooms and features such as double bay-windows facing on to front gardens, timber canopies and decorative gables – and no pubs.

Whereas the earliest phases of the new town’s development attracted the upper class and the following phase the poorest, the inhabitants of the latest phase at the dawn of the Edwardian era came from the centre of society: marine engineers and merchant sailors, teachers and policemen, clerks and typists, shopkeepers and artisans, and many other professionals working in the supply chain of the booming port. The design and appearance of this phase of development in Birkenhead is virtually undistinguishable from its equivalent in Liverpool. It is testimony to the ongoing convergence of the two sides of the river and a continuously improving cross-Mersey infrastructure, although it would take more than a century, until 2017, for a metro mayor for the Liverpool city region (including Birkenhead) to be elected.

Today the different components of the new town of Birkenhead from the long Victorian era are still visible: fragments of a replica Edinburgh New Town on Hamilton Square (c1825/1839– c1844); Birkenhead Park and lodges (mainly 1840s); workerscottages that once included a ‘Little Ireland’ between the docks and the railway (mainly 1840–80s); and terraces from the early 1900s between the park and the railway, which would move the new town firmly into the periphery of Liverpool. We tend to think of new towns being delivered as planned, but they are hardly ever conceived and built in an instant.


[1] Aspinall, Henry Kelsall (1903) Birkenhead and its Surroundings, Liverpool Booksellers’ Company, Liverpool.

This article originally appeared in IHBC's Context 164 (Page 29), published by The Institute of Historic Building Conservation in March 2020. It was written by Michael Asselmeyer, a former principal conservation and design manager at the London Borough of Islington, and senior lecturer in architecture at the University of Central Lancashire, who lives in Birkenhead.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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