|Hilbre island is 1 of a set of 3 islands in the Dee estuary off the coast of West Kirby. The three tidal islands,
Little Eye, Middle Eye and Hilbre Island and the surrounding foreshore's, are the freehold and managed by
Wirral Borough Council. Hilbre Island is approximately 47,000 square metres in area, and lies about 1.6 km
from Red Rocks, the nearest part of the mainland of the Wirral Peninsula. The other two islands are called
Middle Eye (or in older sources Middle Island), which is about 12,000 m² in size and Little Eye only 12,000
m². All three islands are formed of red Bunter sandstone. The main island and Middle Eye are several
hundred metres apart with Little Eye being nearly 1 mile away from the main island.
It is believed the that islands have been occupied on and off since the Stone Age with several finds of Stone
and Bronze Age items and Roman pottery items were discovered in 1926. Although not named directly, it is
believed that the islands are mentioned in Doomsday book. Mention is made of West Kirby having two
churches, one in the town and one on an island in the sea. During Roman times we know that the island
was inhabited and permanent residents were on the island of Hilbre as the island provided an important
signalling and defensive outpost for Chester.
A small cell of Benedictine monks from St Werburgh became established on the islands some time before
1080 and the island became a common place for pilgrimage in the 13th and 14th century. Around this time a
beacon of fire was established on the island to guide the mariners, the upkeep of which was paid annually
at the sum of 10s. The last monk left the island in about 1550 as they were no longer considered a
sanctuary as it had become a centre for commerce and a busy trading port, so much so that a customs
house was established on the island to collect taxes on the goods traded.
In 1692 a small factory was set up to refine rock salt. There was also a beer house or inn established on
the island for the thirsty traders. There are tales of wrecking and smuggling taking place on Hilbre, and
these ventures would certainly have taken place to some extent. Local gossip in the early 19th century also
notes that the Hilbre innkeeper of an unconfirmed name was a very wealthy man who alleged to add to his
income by robbing the dead bodies of unfortunates who drowned and were washed ashore by the tide onto
the Island. However with the silting of the Dee, trade switched to the ports of the River Mersey and the
trade vanished from the island leading to the closure of the beer-house. Part of the structure of this
building remains incorporated in the Custodians Residence today. In 1841 a telegraph station was built on
the island as part of a chain of signal stations which ran from Holyhead in Wales to Liverpool in England.
They relayed weather conditions and other important information to and from ships at sea and the ports.
The lifeboat station was erected shortly after in 1849 as an alternative deep water station for when Hoylake
lifeboat was unable to launch at low tide.
Today Little and Middle Eyes are both unpopulated, but Hilbre Island has a few houses, some of which are
privately owned, and some where the Warden of the islands lives. The Islands are said to be named after
St Hildeberg which is a corruption of a 17th century Mercian Saint Edburge and suggests a small religious
house was on the island before the Norman conquest. There is a small 3m high solar-powered lighthouse
on the islands now operated by Trinity House. It was established in 1927 by the Mersey Docks & Harbour
Board Authority, now the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company. The islands are tidal and can be reached on
foot from the mainland at low tide. This is a popular activity with tourists, especially during the Summer
months. Until the end of the 1970s, there was a route from Red Rocks in Hoylake, but this has now been
closed because of the danger of being caught by the tide and visitors are advised to set out from the town
of West Kirby. Little real archaeology remains on the island now, what relics have been found have been
placed into care or into a museum. Finds include a sandstone cross head, a cross in a wall slab, a old
masonry well, arrow head, Roman beads, port & sherry bottles, 17th century pottery and clay tobacco pipes.
Probably the most interesting finds were in 1864 when human remains were unearthed and an 11th
century grave slab; most likely part of the small graveyard suspected of being on the island. The
foundations of several buildings from different periods still exist no doubt some related to the old salt works.
When the Norman sepulchral cross was unearthed it was clear that it had been utilised from a later period
by placing it in part of the end wall of the stable. On closer examination it had been white washed to
protect it from the elements. Recent excavations in 2007 revealed the remains of a unknown building floor
with some walls and a door way but little else of value. On the West side of the island is a cave known as
Ladys Cave where it is said that a body of a woman forcibly taken from island was washed up after
drowning with her captors from being wrecked off the rocks. Other caves on Hilbre are reported to have
been used for illicit purposes, the island having witnessed many wild scenes especially when the public
house was in existence.
In 1819 William Daniel travelled around the coast of Britain and published a book of his journey. An
"At the mouth of the Dee, off Cheshire shore, are three small islands, which it was our object to see. They are
small scraps saved from the general waste committed on this coast by the sea, in consequence, i imagine, of
being a little more elevated than the land by which they were surrounded;but they are gradually falling away,
being all composed of sandstone, so soft that it may crumble in your fingers. We landed on the larger more
remote of them, called"Hilbre Island" which is almost half a mile in circumference and lies distant a little more
than a mile from the mainland. Upon it there is a public house, the only habitation, and a few rabbits, the only
quadrupeds, to which nature supplies a very meagre provision, only part of the island being covered with scanty
sprinkling of grass. It is most important as a station for two beacons, which are raised upon it as guides to
vessels through the swash, a channel between Hoyle Sands leading into Hoylake. An admirable road stead for
ships of 600 tons burden. There is another entrance into this road; but the wind in any degree from the
eastward, the swash is the only outlet by which vessels can escape".
William Webb writing in 1622 wrote:
"Here in the utmost western nook of this promontory, divided from the land, lies that little barren island called
Ilbree or Hilbre, in which it was said there was sometimes a cell of monks, though i scarce believe it; for that kind
of people loved warmer seats than this could ever be".
An extract from A Perambulation of the Hundred of Wirral by Harold Edgar Young in 1909 reads:
"I set of on my pilgrimage to spot where at one time rested the shrine of the lady of Hilbree, for it was here the
Benedictines monks of Saint Werburghs established a small cell dedicated to the virgin Mary. May back was now
set fairly to Hoylake, and i went forward over the sands to visit the three islands, the largest and westernmost,
Hilbre, then Middle Eye, whilst south of both i stood for a moment of Little Eye, just to say i had been there.
They are called islands abut twice a day, embraced by Neptune only at the full tydes and twice a day shakes
hands with Brittayne. Although William Webb doubted the fact that there was a cell of monks on Hilbre, and very
celebrated place it was, and miraculous too, for Richard Earl of Chester who when a young man, was performing a
pilgrimage to St Winifreds Well in Flintshire, nearly opposite the islands, was set on by a band of Welsh
marauders who drove him for refuge to the abbey of Basingwerk, where, not feeling too secure, by the advice of a
monk of the cell of Hilbre, he addressed himself to St Werburgh, who is said to have instantly parted the waters
of the Dee throwing up a huge sand bank, over which his constable, the Baron of Halton, marched his men to the
rescue and that is why the sands are called the Constables Sands. Not the slightest traces of the cell remain,
but a relic of the early church of Hilbre was found about 1853, consisting of a fine cross of red sandstone, said to
be of the ninth or tenth century, similar in design to some still remaining in Ireland, and what appears to be a
sepulchral cross is built into the wall of an outhouse, but it is covered with whitewash, as is the rest of the
building, and its form is only revealed on a near examination. There is also a well, nearly 40 feet deep, cut
through the solid rock, and which may possible have been sunk by the monks".
Mr Ferguson Irvine published a book in 1895 called Village Life in West Kirby 300 years ago, which
"300 years ago a somewhat eccentric Lincolnshire knight, a certain Mr Richard Thimblebye, after whom
Thimblebyes tower of Chester walls was named, was a resident on the island as a tenant of Sir Rowland Stanley
of Hooton, though how Sir Rowland came to be the land lord i am at a loss to conceive. In addition to Sir Rowland
there must have been several shipowner's living on the island of Hilbre, for in the list of shipping for 1572,
mentioned above, 11 of the ships are definitely stated to be of "Hilbre" and only 1 from West Kirby. And in 1544
six ships are entered at Chester as of Hilbre and 1 from Caldy.
Another account by Mr John Brassie of Tiverton of date unknown writes:
"About 40 years ago, being of child, I was one of the boys of the Chamber to Abbot Birkenshaw, then abbot of St
Werburghsm Chester and by reason thereof familiarly acquainted with Dom John Smith or Dom Robert Harden,
monks dwelling on the isle of Hilbree. I stayed for a fortnight together at certain times at which i had seen fish
taken for the monks use within the water running about the island with nets, but whether with boat or not i
doth not remember, and further saith i never heard that the said monks paid any tythe (tax) of fish taken there
to the parson of West Kirby or any other, for the saith isle was then taken to be of no parish, but was called a
cell, belonging to the monastery o Chester and therefore free from all manner of tythe paying".
Another witness states that he lived at Hilbre with the monks for 14 years, his account reads:
"I knoweth very well that the said prior monks had a fishing boat called Jack Rice and used to fish there by their
servant, and I had often seen much fish taken their for their use. The monks had certain kine on the same
island of Hilbree and yet paid no tithes of the same".
|Safe Route to the Island
Check the tide times if you don't want to be
stuck on Hilbre for longer than you want. As a
general rule you are safe to leave for Hilbre 3
hours before high tide to get back to West Kirby
and three hours afterwards.