The idea that Birkenhead docks were ever intended to become the property of the public seems unlikely, although it may well have been the intention of some well-meaning souls who saw ‘commerce and philanthropy’ going hand-in-hand.
Developing docks along Wallasey Pool was undoubtedly a major factor in the rise of Birkenhead, but it was never an altruistic scheme – the hard-headed businessmen behind it aimed to make money.
And, as has been told previously on WikiWirral, their ambitions gave rise to some murky goings-on.
In 1824, William Laird
and another entrepreneur, Sir John Tobin, bought land along the south side of the Pool from the Lord of the Manor, Francis Price. Laird
set up his boilermaking yard on the Pool, founding the firm that would eventually become Cammell Laird
. Then in 1828 he and Tobin put forward a scheme for building docks, based on a favourable survey by the civil engineers Thomas Telford, Robert Stephenson and Alexander Nimmo.
But Liverpool Corporation took fright at the prospect of a rival dock system on the opposite bank of the Mersey and stepped in to buy up the land from Laird
and Tobin, who pocketed substantial profits. The corporation said it would build docks along the Pool, but had little intention of doing so and the land lay undeveloped.
Telford, the most famous civil engineer of the day, was appalled by what had happened. He suspected Laird
and Tobin had never intended to develop the Pool, but were merely indulging in land speculation, using his reputation to drive up the price of their property. He thought he had been used as a dupe – brought in to give the impression that the dock development was a serious proposition.
Then in 1843, William Laird
’s son, John Laird
, bought back a large portion of the land that had been sold by his father, getting it at cut-price rates from Liverpool Corporation. The new scheme for dock development was then put forward.
After the initial rush of building, the Birkenhead dock development deteriorated into a sorry tale of technical incompetence and financial mismanagement, and in 1858 the docks along both sides of the Mersey were brought under the control of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board.
The London Journal writer also seems to have got some of his figures in a twist. He says of Birkenhead that ‘seven years ago (1838) there were not three houses on that side of the Mersey – there are now about 20,000 inhabitants’. In fact in 1831, the population of Birkenhead was 2,569 and by 1841 had risen to 8,227.
I think the reference to Birkenhead as a city is just a contemporary usage, aimed to indicate the prospect of its rise to greatness. During the first heady days of its development, Birkenhead was famously dubbed ‘the city of the future’. And, of course, today it is still known as the ‘one-eyed city,’ for reasons that have been much discussed – not least here on WikiWirral.