Before its spectacular industrialisation, Birkenhead was briefly an idyllic pastoral retreat for wealthy merchants who wanted to escape the grime, smoke and squalor of Liverpool.
When the advent of steam ferries provided a reliable cross-river service early in the 19th century, some of these businessmen built handsome villas along the pristine Wirral shoreline between Wallasey Pool and Tranmere Pool.
Among these was the father of Henry Kelsall Aspinall, a wealthy shipowner who moved his family to Birkenhead in 1824 because the foxhunting was so good. Henry was then aged about nine and was to see Birkenhead rise from an obscure rural backwater to one of Britain's industrial powerhouses.
In 1903, at the age of 88, Henry published his memoirs of the town’s early days in a book called Birkenhead And Its Surroundings.
These edited extracts give a tantalising glimpse of the Mersey frontage when it was still a splendid vista of green fields, white sand and sparkling waters. All too soon, it was to be swallowed up by the shipyards.
‘… On removing from Liverpool, my father took up his abode in a very pretty house near the river, on the site where Lairds’ shipbuilding yard now stands. Fronting the house, a large grass field sloped down to the riverside. Here the Hooton foxhounds met twice each season …’
‘… Ivy Bank was an exceedingly pretty villa, built in Birkenhead’s earliest days by Michael Humble (Humble and Mylchreest), shipbuilder, Liverpool, soon after my father came to Birkenhead. He was fond of yachting, shooting and dogs.
‘His house was built on the riverside, with river wall and iron railings, gates opening on to the shore, good stabling and gardens. Wild rabbits in his field and gardens abounded. Mr Humble used to have his yacht moored opposite his house during the summer season.’
‘… When Monks Ferry was opened, Ivy Bank was pulled down and the Monks Ferry Hotel built on its site. This, in turn, has since given way to Lairds’ sawmill.’
‘The Woodside beach, north of the slip, was composed of hard, dry sand, well suited for bathing. Many visitors from Liverpool and the country round came for the bathing season. The water was always clear and the bathing machines were well patronised. Donkeys were on hire and the merriment ran high.
‘The beach, south of Woodside Ferry slip as far as Birkenhead Ferry, was rocky and covered with beautiful seaweed; periwinkles and crabs abounded and much we enjoyed gathering and eating them…’Later, industrial development along the riverbank accelerated the tidal flow and increased pollution …
‘… The surface of the water, once smooth and clear as the water round the Isle of Man, is now broken and thick; while the beautiful seaweed once covering the beach from New Brighton to Eastham has given place to dirty grass and mud. Periwinkles, crabs, shrimps and whelks have almost disappeared from the banks of the Mersey ….’
‘… And yet it seems but the other day that white, hard sand between Woodside Ferry and Seacombe was covered with bathing machines and bathers, as was that between Tranmere and Rock Ferry. If it were not for the two tides rising and falling every 24 hours, the river would now be a veritable cesspool. What will be the outcome of the enormous amount of sewage continually discharged into the Mersey, who can say?’
Original editions of Birkenhead And Its Surroundings can be pricey, but you can now get a paperback reprint on Amazon for under £20.
Aspinall writes from the point of view of a wealthy and privileged observer and often goes off at a tangent on various subjects, explaining: ‘It is my purpose to compile a chatty little volume reminiscent of my native town and its progress from a small rural hamlet of a few score families to a thriving township of upwards of 100,000 souls. A connected History
is in no sense attempted ...’
But the book is well worth reading for its descriptions of that long-lost Birkenhead.