1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Birkenhead

BIRKENHEAD, a municipal, county and parliamentary borough, and seaport of Cheshire, England, on the river Mersey, 195 m. N.W. of London. Pop. (1901) 110,915. It lies opposite Liverpool, on the east shore of the peninsula of Wirral, and is served by the Birkenhead (London & North-Western and Great Western joint) and the Wirral railways. It is wholly of modern growth, although the name of Byrkhed is traced to the forest which is believed to have extended between the mouths of the Dee and the Ribble in Lancashire. A Benedictine monastery was founded (c. 1150) by Hamon de Mascy, third baron of Dunham Massey, and dedicated to St Mary and St James. It drew its main revenues from tolls levied at the Mersey ferry; and its prior sat in the parliament of the earls of Chester, enjoying all the dignities and privileges of a Palatinate baron. A fine crypt, along with remains of the prior’s lodging, refectory and chapel, may still be viewed, as the priory was purchased by private subscription and handed over to the municipality in 1896.

The rise of Birkenhead, from a hamlet of some 50 inhabitants in 1818 to its present importance, was due in the first place to the foresight and enterprise of William Laird, who purchased in 1824 a few acres of land on the banks of a marshy stream, known as Wallasey Pool, which flowed into the Mersey about 2 m. west of the village. Among other engineers, Telford and Stephenson favoured the project of converting Wallasey Pool into a great basin for shipping; but, largely owing to the fears of Liverpool lest a formidable rival should thus be created, it was not until 1843 that parliamentary powers were obtained, and the work entrusted to James Rendel, who finished it in less than five years. The docks, which covered an area of 7 acres, were opened in 1847, and after thrice changing hands were made over in 1858 to the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, a body created by act of 1857, to control the harbourage on both sides of the river.

Meanwhile, the town itself grew rapidly. In 1833 an act was passed for paving, watching, cleansing and improving the streets; as well as for the regulation of police, and the establishment of a market. The Improvement Commissioners constituted by this act included the mayor, bailiffs and four aldermen of Liverpool, under whose care the main streets were laid out on a regular plan, intersecting one another at right angles; and the first iron tramway in England was laid down. Electricity was subsequently applied to the tramway system. Noteworthy public buildings are St Aidan’s College, a large brick building in Tudor style, for the use of Anglican students in theology; the market hall (1843); town hall, a free library with branches, borough hospital, built at the cost of Sir John Laird; and many schools both public and private, including the industrial schools built as a memorial to Albert, prince consort, at the cost of Sir W. Jackson, and the school of art, given by Sir John Laird. There are many handsome modern churches, all built since 1821. Roman Catholics are especially numerous, owing to the presence of a large Irish population. The town is well furnished with open spaces. Birkenhead Park was opened in 1847, Mersey Park in 1885; while a tract of moorland 6 m. distant in the township of Thurstaston, was allotted to the borough of Birkenhead in 1887; and Meols Common, comprising over 50 acres of pastureland on the shores of Liverpool Bay, was made over to the corporation in 1900.

The increase of railway accommodation has been swift. In 1878 the old Monks Ferry station on the Great Western system was superseded by the opening of the Woodside passenger station, and a few years later the Birkenhead town station was opened. In 1886 the Mersey tunnel, connecting Birkenhead with Liverpool, was opened by the prince of Wales. The system extends from Rock Ferry and Park stations on the Cheshire side to the low-level at Central Station in Liverpool, and has connexions on the Cheshire side with the Great Western, North-Western, Wirral and various local lines. The Wrexham, Mold & Connah’s Quay railway, which was taken over by the Great Central company in 1905, helped to bring the mineral wealth of Flint and North Wales generally into the Birkenhead docks.

Woodside Ferry may still be regarded as the principal entrance to Birkenhead and the Wirral from Liverpool. The exclusive right of ferryage was granted to the priory in 1332. In 1842 the Birkenhead Commissioners purchased it, under an act of parliament, from the lord of the manor, Mr F. R. Price. In 1897 the corporation further acquired the rights over the Rock Ferry and the New Ferry at the southern end of the town. Despite competition from the Mersey tunnel, these ferries continue to transport millions of passengers annually, and have a considerable share in the heavy goods traffic.

Though at the outset a mere commercial offshoot of Liverpool, Birkenhead has acquired a large export trade in coal and manufactured articles, importing guano, grain and cattle in return. Iron foundries, breweries, oil-cake and seed mills also exist side by side with such immense engineering and shipbuilding works as the Britannia Works, Canada Works, and, above all, Laird’s shipbuilding works, where several early iron vessels were built, and many cruisers and battleships have been launched. Huge warehouses and sheds have been erected along the quays for the storage of freight. In 1847 the Birkenhead Dock Warehousing Company opened its first warehouse, capable of holding 80,000 tons of goods. A line called the Dock Extension railway was carried round the whole, and the company erected, for their workmen, the Dock Cottages. This entire property is now under the authority of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. The pile of buildings known as the corn warehouses are traversed by a canal which gives access to its several departments, and are provided with mechanical grain-elevators. There are also extensive lairages for live-stock, and cold storage for dead meat. On the north and north-east, and partly on the east, Birkenhead is bounded by its docks, which extend, for a distance exceeding 2 m., from the landing-stage at Woodside Ferry to the Wallasey Bridge. Of these the principal are the Egerton, Morpeth, Morpeth Branch and Wallasey Docks; while the Alfred Dock, with its three entrances, nineteen pairs of lock-gates, 8 acres of water, and 460 lin. yds. of quay-space, fulfils the part of an entrance-lock to the whole system. The great Float, now occupying the site of Wallasey Pool, separates Birkenhead from Poulton-cum-Seacombe in the parish of Wallasey. It forms an immense dock of 120 acres, with a quay-space of about 5 m.; and communicates on the E. with a low-water basin of about 14 acres and with the Alfred Dock; on the S.E. with the Morpeth, Morpeth Branch and Egerton Docks. The Morpeth Dock (about 11 acres, quay-space 1299 lin. yds.) is in communication with the Morpeth Branch Dock (about 3½ acres, quay-space 600 lin. yds.); both being set apart for the use of steamers. The total water-space of these docks amounts to 165 acres, and the lineal quay-space is about 9½ m. The entrances to the Birkenhead Docks are capable of docking the largest class of steamers afloat. The massive iron bridges across the dock entrances are opened and closed by hydraulic power, which is likewise applied to the cranes, coal-hoists, warehouse-lifts and other machinery about the docks. At the extreme western end of the West Float are three large graving docks, two about 750 ft. in length, and 130 and 80 ft. respectively in width; while the largest measures about 900 ft. in length and 130 ft. in width.

In 1861 Birkenhead was created a parliamentary borough, returning one member. In 1877 it received a municipal charter, the boundaries of the borough including the suburban townships of Tranmere, Claughton, Oxton and part of Higher Bebington. The borough is under a mayor, 14 aldermen and 42 councillors. Area, 3848 acres.