Wallasey Ferries : The Beginnings
Considering Wallasey's position on an odd little peninsula, almost cut off on three sides by water from communication with the outside world and with only an execrable road outlet on the fourth. it is easy to realise the urge which led our forefathers to establish a ferry and their enterprising desire to improve and to supplement it by others, especially as the town and trade of Liverpool developed on the opposite shore.
After the Norman Conquest in 1066, Walea (Wallasey) formed part of the territory administered by the Norman Knight, Robert de Rodelent and is listed in the Domesday Survey of 1087, published one year before his death. De Rodelent's estates included lands on both sides of the Mersey so it is reasonably safe to assume that he either created a new 'right of passage' or confiscated an existing ancient passage, perhaps controlled by the deposed Saxon landlord, Untred. As de Rodelent controlled the Cheshire coast from Neston on the Dee - at least as far as the southern tip of Wallasey Pool on the Mersey - and possibly further, encompassing Tranmere Pool as well, it is equally likely that he established rights of passage to, from, and across the Wallasey Pool. As he died without issue in 1088, his lands were divided between other Norman families but no powerful single family emerged. In fact, the district was so inhospitable and inaccessible that the Normans may well have left their affairs in the hands of the local Saxons, who, according to the Domesday numbered 35 in Walea. To protect themselves, they combined together to administer the various 'rights of passage' on behalf of the community. However, in 1150, they found these communal interests threatened by the decision of Hamo de Mascy to finance the building of a Benedictine Monastery on Birchen Head.
De Mascy chose the location for the prior carefully; it was the spiritual home of 16 Benedictines of the Order of Black Monks who were enjoined by their Founder to provide hospitality to strangers as they would to Christ himself, at major road and river crossings. Woodside, situated on a narrow rocky foreshore, commanded the shortest and safest of the Mersey crossing passable at most states of the tide. Of the others, Seacombe was only of local interest and Tranmere, the use of which involved a shorter journey from Chester, then the primary source of traffic, was 500 ft from the water's edge at low tide. To support the Priory, de Mascy endowned it with lands at Moreton, Saughall Massie, Bidston, Tranmere, Higher Bebington, Claughton and Wallasey. The monks rented out some of the endowment to tenant farmers who, in the movement of produce to market, were frequently obliged to cross the Wallasey or Tranmere Pools.
Until the first decade of the 13th Century Chester, still a thriving port, exercised considerable influence over the area. However, in a determined bid to undermine its political importance. King John, attracted by the safe anchorage of the Liver Pool, elevated the unknown hamlet (which was not even mentioned in the Domesday Book) to the status of a Royal Borough, and started to fortify it in 1207. A weekly market, a three-day Martinmas Fair, a castle, court house and mill were established together with a 'right of passage' across the river to the Cheshire shore.
During the early years of the 14th Century, the Birkenhead monks were in dispute with neighbouring landowners who they claimed were abusing the 'rights of passage' within the Priory's jurisdiction. In order to strengthen their position, they petitioned King Edward III and secured a Royal Charter dated 30th April 1330 granting the prior and his successors for ever 'the right of passage' over the arm of the sea for men, goods, horses with leave to charge reasonable tolls. Within two weeks of the granting of the Charter, the Prior was accused by William Lascelles and other Seacombe men of removing an anchor and chain valued at £5 from a place called 'Mulne How'. The event was recorded in the Chester Pleas Rolls:-
William de Lasceles, Richard del Hogh the younger, Richard Sampson, John Corbyn, John and William Hondessone of Secum, William Hondessone of Thornton, Gregory, son of Robert de Secum, and John de Claghton, complained that Robert, Prior of Birkenhead, and John Wodenot, Woodward, had taken an anchor and rope of theirs at the Mulnehowe in Claghton (Claughton) in right of his church of St. James of Birkenhead, and he found plaintiffs with their anchor and chain at the Mulnehowe, where they had no right to be. Plaintiffs alleged that they were lords of the town of Secum and, therefore, had the right of passage across the Mercee and could load and unload their boats at Waleyespull (Wallasey Pool) and between Waleyespull and Ranildespull (Tranmere Pool) either in Claghton or in Secum. This had always been the right of men of Secum. The jury, however, gave a verdict for the Prior, and the plaintiffs were fined thirteen schillings.
Between 1333 and 1339 the Monks established a new 'right of passage' across Wallasey Pool at a place called 'The Hooks'. The Hooks were pieces of land jutted out into the Pool. This was situated between the present day Duke Street Bridge and the end of Limekiln Lane, Poulton under reclaimed land later occupied by Wallasey Gas Works. This new passage caused further issues with the local landowners but it meant that the monks could reach their lands in Wallasey. Strengthening their position further, as loyal subjects who took burgage in Liverpool (tenure of land in the town on weekly rent) were offered free use of the right of passage, the monks of St. James erected a granary or warehouse in Liverpool in 1346, thus entitling them to cross the river in either direction without paying tolls.
Between 1396 and 1397 the Lascelles family were prominent in an Inquiry which examined evidence that they had suffered various deprivations at the hands of the Priory, having lost the right to load and unload boats on any of the Priory land. The Inquiry was told that that Lascelles and other Seacombe men held shares in a ferry with boats from the 'high street' which ran from through the County of Wirral to Tokesford, a name implying a ford at low water and a ferry at high tide. Tokesford was situated where Poulton Bridge stands today and was approached from a turning off Black Street, the main track connecting Woodside with Bidston and Moreton. Tokesford was used, not only for crossing the upper reaches of the Pool, but also as a starting place for sailings to Liverpool. It is arguable that the original Seacombe 'right of passage' may also have included Tokesford and the whole of the north shore of the Pool. Lascelles grievance was that 'the religious of Birkenhead had established a rival ferry under the wood of Birkenhead to the injury of their (the men of Seacombe) rights'. However, Lascelles and his supporters had failed, through ignorance or default, to register their ancient rights at the special courts set up to verify such claims and the Inquiry ruled that they had forfeited their right. The Tokesford passage was put under the control of the Earl of Chester who, in due course, either sold or transferred it to the Stanleys of Eastham and finally the Vyners of Bidston who, in 1814, were responsible for building the first embankment across the upper reaches of the Pool.
It's not clear if the Lascelles also lost the right to use the Seacombe passage; it depends on whether Tokesford and Seacombe were one and the same. It could be possible that Seacombe was quite independent or may of been created as a result from the Inquiry. However, there is no doubt that Seacombe continued to prosper albeit in a secondary role to Woodside which became the main ferry crossing. In 1516 Robert Dod and Margery Dod sold certain lands to John Porte including 'a fourth part of the passage of Secum'. indicating that the passage was still jointly owned. But it is not clear if there was a well-defined landing place in the vicinity of the present Seacombe stage or whether it applied to any of the many inlets along the shores of the Pool as far inland as Poulton. These inlets would have afforded greater protection from the weather, been closer to the farms of Liscard and Poulton, involved shorter land journeys and avoided the exposed confluence of the Pool with the Mersey.
After the dissolution of Birkenhead Priory, the 'Hooks' passage passed to the Crown in 1541. In the same year it was then leased at an annual rent of 9s. 8d (49.1p) to William Bromley .In 1543 Bromley transferred the lease to John Minshull, the Lord of Tranmere who had ulterior motives in wishing to acquire it.
About 1552 proceedings were commenced when John Minshull and his ferry man, John Bromborough, were accused by Ralph Worsley, owner of the Woodside passage, of violating his rights as successor to the Priory estates. Minshull had set up a rival ferry and a busy fish yard within the confines of Birket (Tranmere) Pool and claimed as he owned 'the ferry of Secum', he had ancient rights to the rights of Tranmere; Bromborough stated that he was the only ferryman entitled to operate from Tranmere. Minshull produced documents which purported to show that's as Birket's Pool was from time immemorial known as Raynolde's (or Raynylde's) Pool, he had an indisputable right to fish therein through his title of Lord of the Manor of Tranmere. Worsley maintained that the former Priory rights covered the whole coast from a creek known as Wallasey Pool in the west to a certain water 'Gonell's Pool' in the east. He reminded Minshull that only the Woodside boats had conveyed passengers and goods from these shores and the Seacombe boats had been limited to carrying goods only from the west bank of Wallasey Pool. Worsley lost the argument and the Tranmere crossing was permanently established as a rival to Woodside, continuing in operation with a few interruptions until 1904.
The ferries of Tranmere and Seacombe appear to have been connected in some way for in 1586 Seacombe had apparently fallen into decay as, when John Poole, an important landowner in Wallasey and elsewhere on the Wirral, addressed a Plea to the Queen's Exchequer seeking to obtain the lease of the Tranmere passage, he wrote 'I am [also] further informed that since the decay of the said passage at Seacombe there hath been a passage used and a boat set up at Tranmere within two miles of Seacombe. And that the suitor humbly prayeth he may have a lease of Her Majesty's interest in the said boat or passage at Tranmere; and in consideration thereof he will revive the said rent of 9s 8d now decayed for the said passage of Seacombe and yield the same rent yearly with 12d of increase for the said passage of Tranmere for the which there hath hithertofore been no rent answered to my knowledge'. The Exchequer agreed.
It is intriguing to read from the statement that Seacombe was decayed. He continues, 'I am credibly informed the ground where the same [Seacombe] passage and ferry boat hath been used is grown into nature of an island so as people cannot have recourse to it as in times past they have been accustomed'. This suggests, perhaps, coastal erosion and the location of the landing is again unclear. A site further up the Pool would have had greater advantages, as previously mentioned. When Mother Redcap's Inn was built in 1595 it was described as the only building on the coast between the Rock Point herring house and the Seacombe boat house. Maybe the latter might have been the building depicted in the Vyner estate map of 1665 at the foot of Limekiln Lane but it suggests that the ferry once again in existence before the turn of the century.
A land transaction record in Poulton in 1565 fuels further confusion which included the ferry. Perhaps this referred to the Tokesford crossing but it could of been a part of the Seacombe rights. Alternatively there might have been a quite separate Poulton right of passage of which records have disappeared. Poulton was a thriving port; according to the Liverpool Year Book for 1765 there were three fishing boats of 8, 14 and 20 tons, compared with Liverpool's twelve. It prospered and by 1839 there were sailing packets to Ireland. It declined swiftly following the damming of the Pool in 1844 prior to its conversion into docks.
Since 1537, the Liverpool right of passage had been hold by the Molyneux family under lease from the Crown. The Liverpool ferrymen had two major grievances the first being resolved in 1577 when they were ordered to continue the traditional custom of providing free transport for all Liverpool burghers and their families; it was agreed that a toll of ½d. should be levied if a burgher was accompanied by his horse. The second concerned the Cheshire ferrymen whom it was alleged were stealing the Liverpool trade, In 1584, Liverpool Town Council ordered that no Cheshire boat was to take or receive any goods originating on the Lancashire coast but this was widely ignored and in 1626 the Council reacted for demands for action by convening a Public Inquiry. The Liverpool men reasoned that one of their boats should be the first to load on their side of the river and there should be fixed tolls applying to all Mersey ferrymen, this preventing queue jumping, overcharging and undercutting. If approved, the agreement would apply only to Liverpool and not Bootle, Kirkdale and Toxteth who, to some extent, supported the Cheshire men.
In the course of evidence by individual sailors, John Jumpe of Liverpool testified that the farmers of Eastham, Tranmere, Wallasey and Birkett boats usually paid to the farmers of the King's Ferry (Woodside) for such fraught (sic) and passengers as they carried from Liverpool. Before 1609, Jumpe stated that the owners of the Birkett boat paid half their receipts for goods taken at Wallasey to the owners of the Wallasey passage but he believed that due to a dispute the Birkett boat no longer loaded in Wallasey. Contradicting him, Peter Smith of the Birkett boat, said he still loaded at Wallasey and paid tolls. From this contradictory evidence it would seem that the Tranmere and Seacombe passages were still linked but Jumpe refers to the owners of the Wallasey passage. Perhaps they embraced both Poulton and Seacombe and it would be interesting to know the distinction between the Birkett and Tranmere ferries. Two witnesses cited examples of summoning the Liverpool Sergeant to arrest certain Cheshire ferrymen for non-payment of tolls.
The Inquiry advised that Cheshire boats loading in Liverpool should keep accurate accounts and proffer half their monies to the Liverpool ferrymen and the reverse procedure should apply on the Cheshire shore. Twenty years later, Liverpool made a further attempt to stamp out abuses, ordering that all cross-river traffic should be divided equally by allowing the home boat priority loading from its own base; tolls were again regulated. During the English Civil War (1642 - 45), the boats were requisitioned by both sides for conveying troops.
In 1777 Liverpool Town Council acquired the right of passage from the Molyneux family, the annual revenue being £20. Having failed to control the number of Cheshire boats using their quays and wharves, the Council decided to make them available to all comers. In doing so they effectively surrendered their rights and opted out of the ferry scene. At an Inquiry in 1856, they were accused of squandering their traditional 'right of passage' over the Mersey with the result that only the Cheshire ferry owners could benefit from the enormous increase in cross river traffic. Birkenhead and Wallasey ultimately secured the right to levy tolls for journeys both to and from Liverpool providing that no monies were taken on the Lancashire side.