This large town is perhaps Wirrals best known area, famed for centuries of maritime trade and
commercial activity. The name Birkenhead derives from the Old English 'birchen' which translated into
'birch trees on a headland'. This of course refers to the area known today as Woodside which in
ancient times was a large piece of land filled with Birch trees that jutted out into the river Mersey.
Although today many people consider Birkenhead the centre of Wirrals economy, it is only in recent
years that this area has become heavily populated and the hub of Wirral industry. Prior to the 1800's
there was very little in Birkenhead to talk about other than the old priory, a ferry house and a sparce
Birkenhead had a meagre population of 110 people in 1801 suggesting that very little trade or activity
went on in this area. Within the short period of 50 years and thanks to some very clever town
planners, the population had rocketed to over 8000 residents sparking the boom which transformed
Birkenhead to the town we known today.
It was now the dawn of a new Birkenhead and planning of the towns lay out fell to some now well
known Wirral names, 'William Laird' and his son 'John Laird'. These two men were extremely influential
in the design of the town and its construction. The design of the town ensured that sections were laid
out in a iron grid pattern like Edinburgh's New Town with similar architecture. The chief architect was
James Gillespie Graham who was also from Edinburgh. This grid pattern was centred around Hamilton
Square which was started in 1826 and, apart from Trafalgar Square in London, contains the most
Grade I listed buildings in one place in England.
In 1847 William Mortimer wrote:
"Never were works of immense public utility, grand in conception, and admirable in design, commenced with
greater spirit and energy than in Birkenhead. Within the last few years the whole neighbourhood has
assumed a different aspect, a town now stands where only a few scattered houses could be seen. Upon
green fields which scarcely served for pasture, stately mansions, magnificent streets, squares and terraces
have arisen; and where the tidal waters even lats year flowed uninterrupted in their course; hundreds and
thousands of labourers are employed transforming the sanded shores and weed clad banks of the Mersey
into immense docks; for the accommodation of vessels from every nation and of every clime".
Shortly after an ironworks was initially established by William Laird in 1824 and was joined by his son
John Laird in 1828. A year later in 1829 ship building began at this site which was an immediate
success. This ship building carried on for over a century turning out many famous vessel under the
new business name of Cammell Laird.
|Birkenhead in 1870 by Charles Eyes
Soon came a huge increase in population and
with this Birkenhead Market was established
in July 1835. The old market stood on what is
now the site of Birkenhead Town Hall,
between Chester Street and Hamilton Street.
In 1842 a large abattoir was opened by
commissioners of Birkenhead to meet demand
for local slaughter of livestock.
This in turn led to a further increase in the
town's population by and in 1845 a new much
expanded market had to be opened on a
larger site nearby in what is now Market
Street. An interesting fact worth noting is
that Michael Marks, of Marks & Spencer,
opened one of his first seven 'Penny Bazaar'
stalls here during the 1880s.
|William Lairds Ironworks in 1824
With population came infrastructure and
transport, and by 1860 Birkenhead had
the first street tramway in Europe. The
first line ran from Woodside adjoining the
terminal of the Mersey Ferry, to
Birkenhead Park. This early system was
horse-drawn and was the brainchild of
flamboyant American, George Francis
Train. In 1886 Birkenhead and
expanding city of Liverpool were linked
by an underground railway system,
which today is part of the Merseyrail
network. The Queensway road tunnel or
'Mersey Tunnel' opened in 1934 and
gave rapid access to Liverpool. This
opened up the Wirral Peninsula for
development, and prompted further
growth of Birkenhead as an industrial
centre. The town had now seen its
population grow from 110 in 1801 to
110,912 in 1901. Then in 1915 this
figure had increased to 142,501 and
finally to current figure today of 279,000.