A Local History of the Wirral Peninsula
Wealas Eye - Wallasey
There has been a settlement at what is today known as Wallasey for many thousands of years. Archaeological investigations at the highest point of Wallasey... St Hilary's Brow unearthed artefacts dating back to the Stone Age. The name "Wallasey" is derived from the Gaelic... "Wealas Eye" which roughly translated means Welshmen's or Strangers' Island. This was due to the fact that Wallasey could only be reached by crossing water whether it be the River Birkett, Wallasey Pool, the River Mersey or Liverpool Bay. Even today, water has to be crossed to reach Wallasey but the crossing of the water might not be seen or appreciated.
This contemporary aerial photograph illustrates how Wallasey is cut-off from the Wirral Peninsula by water
As was previously mentioned, the earliest part of the town to have been a settlement was around St Hilary's Brow in Wallasey Village. The town as we know it today was originally a collection of villages that were amalgamated into the present day town. These villages were Wallasey Village, Liscard, New Brighton, Egremont, Seacombe and Poulton.
St Hilary's Church and Tower
Old Mother Redcap's
Mother Redcaps was built in 1595 by the Mainwaring family as a home, on a piece of moor land, just above high water mark of the River Mersey between what is now Caithness and Lincoln Drives, facing Liverpool's Dockland. Its previous names included Halfway House, White House and Seabank Nook, as well as mother Redcap's. Built of red sandstone, the lower walls were nearly 3 feet thick and it had two mullioned lower front windows. The outer walls were covered with thick wooden planks from wrecked ships. In time the wood fell off and was not replaced. The front door was of made of oak, being five inches thick and studded with thick, square headed nails. A Mr Kitchingman... one of the contemporary owners, found the remains of this door in a cellar when doing renovations in 1888. Marks on the door showed that at one time there had been several sliding bolts fitted to it. On the windows were found slots which gave evidence of strong shutters having once been fitted. There is, or was, evidence of a trapdoor fitted directly behind the oak front door. This led to a cellar concealed behind the door. In the event of the front door being forced, intruders would burst in and drop to the cellar which was 8 - 9 feet below them. Another passage from the back of the staircase in the passage from the south room to north room also led into the cellar. All this was still in existence in 1888. When the front door opened, the entrance to the south room was sealed, quite elaborate!
Old Mother Redcap's
Behind the stairs was a door leading to the kitchen at the back of the house and, from there, into a back yard. A small stream of good water ran through the rear of the premises. This supplied the house with water and was also used by small vessels moored nearby for their supplies. Also to the rear of the property was a Brew House. In 1840 it was noted for its strong dark ale. Another large cave or cellar was to be found underneath the south room. In 1930, someone noted that it "sounded hollow" beneath a greenhouse. Indeed, part of the yard was actually the roof of this cavern or cellar, being large sandstone slabs, supported upon large beams. On top of this stood a manure pile and a stock of coal, to complete the "disguise".
To facilitate the arrival of "goods", part of the manure pile was removed, and slabs lifted to enable goods to be secreted below. In an old book about smuggling in the Wirral, there is mention of a tunnel leading from here to the "red Noses", a sandstone bluff at what is now New Brighton. This led to a hidden entrance in a large ditch which ran downhill from the direction of Liscard. A large willow provided an excellent, concealed, look out, whilst activities were conducted to the rear. This tree was cut down in 1889. Mr Kitchingman, in 1890, planted a cutting of the tree to the rear, which grew higher than the house itself.
In the south room was found a hidden cavity of sufficient size to hide a man. also, in the same room, were hidden niches where sailors would hide wages and valuables, as well prize money from captured vessels. The present seawall was built by Mersey Docks & Harbour board in 1865. Outside the house stood a wooden seat. On one end of the seat was a wooden weather vane on a short wooden flagstaff. It was supposed to work with the wind but was in fact a signalling device. When the vane pointed towards the house it was safe to approach. When it pointed away, it meant stay away, danger. This was used mainly by smugglers. At the opposite end of the seat was a post with a sign upon it. A portrait of Mother Redcap holding a frying pan over an open fire with the words:
"All ye that are weary come in
and take rest,
Our eggs and ham they are of the best,
Out ale and our porter likewise the same,
Step in if you please and give 'em a name"
It is recorded that Mr Kitchingman's father, when aged 20, saw both the seat and the signs when he stayed there awhile in 1820. Many years ago I remember seeing an image of this sign, but I can't recall where this was, possibly in a library? Somewhere in the Wirral is a copy of this sign!!
Adam’s Weekly Courant of
2 January 1757 records the wreck of the ship Cunliffe, from Virginia, laden with
tobacco, etc. She took the ground on Mockbeggar Wharf; was floated off but "a
violent storm" arose and drove her ashore ‘on the main’ opposite Wallasey
Church, where doubtless the inhabitants gave her their unwelcome attention. We
gather from Mr Kitchingman’s notes that contraband was temporarily hidden in
Mother Redcap’s and surrounding grounds. The goods were removed later secretly
over the moor, through or round the then small village of Liscard, along a lane
(now Wallasey Road) and down the old lane, now the footpath to Bidston, right on
to the Moss where the road as such ended. It was a most difficult and dangerous
passage to Bidston, the only way being round by Green Lane, Wallasey, and past
Leasowe Castle. Many people who attempted to cross the Moss without a guide, as
late as 1830 became bog foundered and had to be rescued. The Moss, undrained
till the making of the Birkenhead docks in 1844, was full of cross pools,
morasses and long, winding inlets forming a kind of labyrinth. There was only
one reliable but tortuous passage over it. At a dangerous place was laid a large
pair of whale’s jawbones across the water, which with rude crossbeams formed of
tree stems made a bridge. There were no posts or rails, and the jawbones had to
be found almost by instinct. This spot was said by the superstitious to be
haunted, and many persons would not cross the Moss, particularly the jaw bones,
where it was said that two people had been drowned at different times and
haunted the spot. The superstition was fostered and spread by the smugglers, and
the place was for years afterward known as the ‘jaw bones’ They were to be seen
in 1840, but soon afterwards decayed and felt into the Moss.
After crossing the jaw bones’ a track led to the left towards Wallasey Pool to an old farm afterwards known as ‘Hannah Mutche’s Farm’, situated at the east end of the Moss and surrounded by a moat. This old farm was the haunt of the contrabandists and a noted hiding-place from the Press-gang, the sailors escaping there from Mother Redcap’s. It is thought by some that the old Moss holds forgotten money and valuables. From the ‘jaw bones’ (which was a kind of marshalling place) in a southerly direction, a track led towards Bidston along which contraband was taken sometimes and delivered at the ‘Ring-o’ Bells’ at Bidston, where there were places of concealment in the farm buildings. The farm to the west of Bidston Church was formerly the Ring-o’-Bells Inn.
If it were reported (secret signs) at the "jaw bones" or on the Bidston side of the Moss that it was not safe to proceed to Bidston, the contraband was diverted to the westward along the edge of the Moss and taken to the old Saughall windmill. This was a most remarkable structure, built of wood with strong oak beams and gaunt, primitive sails standing on a rough base of stone, with a large wheel on the ground for turning the mill round. The mill stood entirely by itself, a little way from the edge of the Moss but a full mile away from the village of Saughall Massie. Secret meetings of various kinds, political and otherwise, were held in this old mill, which was the home of numerous ravens and said to be haunted. It was repaired and in use, and is shown in the Ordnance Map of 1840, but shortly after was demolished and later still a large house built on the site.
From Bidston a packhorse track continued in a southerly direction under the skirt of Bidston Hill and Wood to Noctorum, then southward along a narrow, packhorse road (too narrow for carts) and along a rough stone causeway, the stones of which are still to be seen for half a mile between Prenton and Storeton. Another hiding-place may have been a cave in the Yellow Noses, for the walls were profusely decorated with incised dates and initials, the earliest one being 1619. This cave had a narrow opening, which was obscured by a landslide some years before the promenade works made entry impossible. The cave was accessible from the garden of the house above, called Rock Villa. In the cavern proper is a well, which no doubt proved valuable to those who frequented it, and the air is quite fresh even at the furthest end, showing that there must be an outlet. There are several interesting stories of tricks being played by the smugglers on preventive officers but it is difficult to get authentic particulars. One is told of information being given to a preventive officer at Mother Redcap’s that two kegs of rum were about to be taken in a donkey-cart to Bidston via the Moss. As he lay in wait near Liscard, the donkey-cart came along and was pounced upon by the waiting officer, but on examination the kegs were found to contain ale which was stated to be for the ‘Ring-if-Bells’ at Bidston where a shortage had occurred. The rum had been removed from the kegs and sent on in cans by another route to be replaced in the kegs on arrival.
On another occasion a ship with tobacco on board was wrecked, and the watching officers saw two men run from the part of the wreck on the shore, along the beach northward, with two small bales as though they were about to depart for the Wallasey side. It took some time on the soft sand to overtake them, and when they were caught the packages were found to contain cabbage leaves and ferns. In the meantime their friends had made free with the real tobacco in the wreck. On another occasion one of the wreckers crept down the beach from the Moor at the north end some distance away and lay down in his clothing in the water at the edge of the receding tide. The attention of the only officer, who was ins Mother Redcap’s drinking, was called to the supposed drowned man. He ran along the sand to the body and began by taking the man’s watch and was about to rifle the pockets when the apparently drowned man sprang up and knocked him down. Meanwhile a cask of rum and some other goods had been removed from the Redcap cellar by his confederates and started on their way to the Moss. No blame was attached to the drowning man, who said he had fallen down in a fit and thought he was being robbed by some stranger. See also Chapter 12 "The Rise & Progress of Wallasey -The Wreckers".
It is rumoured that, when the house was built, it was the only shore front building between Seacombe Ferry boathouse and the herring curing house at Rock Point (later to be New Brighton). During the years 1778 - 1790 it became a Tavern. Privateers frequented the Tavern and the following ships were recorded as having visited:
The Redcap, 16 guns (not the reason the Tavern got its name); Nemesis, 18 guns; Alligator, 16 guns; Racehorse, 14 guns; Ariel, 12 guns and other small vessels that made good use of the anchorage known as "red bets". Could that also have been the local nickname for the Tavern? A famous privateer, Captain Fortunatus Wright, was a Wallasey born man. See footnote:
A small cannon, marked with a broad arrow (government) was unearthed around 1890. It was evidently a "bow chaser" from a privateer. Mr Kitchingman had it placed in his garden, plus the remains of two flint muskets, also found nearby. Another find was a nine hole stone on a pedestal of brick. Nine holes, a forerunner of Bagatelle, was a French game. Its possible that this was made by French prisoners of war, confined in Liverpool, who were allowed parole locally.
Press Gang activity around 1797 was rife in the region, particularly Liverpool.
At that time there were no inner walls to divide the upper floor, just a few screens of 7 - 8 feet high, forming compartments. The room was not decorated, being bare beams ,joists and unplastered walls. mother Redcap was a great favourite with the sailors, and enjoyed their entire trust. It was believed that Mother Redcap had enormous sums of money stashed away in secret places. But, upon her death, very little in the way of possessions were found. It is known that only a few days before she died, a very rich prize was brought into the Mersey which netted each sailor on board £1000!! A rich prize indeed, enough for a young sailor to retire! Sailors from the Privateer involved swarmed over Mother Redcap's and it was known that Mother Redcap received a good deal of prize money from the sailors, yet none of it was ever discovered. Could one of Wallasey's prominent families have "suddenly become rich" shortly after this time? You never know?
Around 1850, a quantity of guineas was found in a cavity near the foreshore.
The Royal Navy was not the elite volunteer Force we know today. Life was hard, very hard, with bullying common. Merchant ships ran the gauntlet of Naval Press Gangs, not only locally, but across the world. Merchants would be boarded almost anywhere and sailors "pressed" into service with the Navy leaving the ship with barely enough sailors to make the trip home. Even when in home waters, they were not safe, many a merchant limped into harbour with a skeleton crew. Ship owners, mindful of this, would have spare men available, carpenters, riggers and longboatmen etc, who would be taken out, into Liverpool Bay, to take over merchants to bring them in to dock.
However, more of a danger existed when the sailor that did dock, made it to shore. When a ship docked at Liverpool, for example, the sailors would come ashore and head for the Taverns and brothels so long associated with docklands everywhere. After a few drinks he would leave a particular tavern to head back to his ship. Waiting in the dark alleys would be maybe a Royal Navy ensign or Midshipman with a couple of burly crewmen. Marlin spike on the head, and another volunteer had joined the Royal Navy, waking up in the bowels of a frigate or suchlike.
(It is fairly well known that Glass bottom Tankards were first designed to protect the drinker from the press gangs of the English Navy. The common misconception is that the reveller could look though the base of the tankard and see the press gang coming toward him. In actuality the Kings regulations stated that the press gang master could not assault you and take to as a new recruit, He had to see you take the "Kings Shilling".A common tactic of the Press gang master was to ply a potential recruit with ale...several pints later the unsuspecting victim would find a shiny new Silver Shilling coin at the bottom of the his tankard. The Glass bottom was to look upwards rather than through - hence the common drinking salute Bottoms UP! - Indeed, when we are next asked to "raise our glasses" in toast to the pride of the English Navy we would do well to look in the right direction.)
Such was the dread of this, that sailors would take to the boats that they might conceal themselves in Cheshire. The men would "abandon ship" in Liverpool Bay, rowing ashore near the "Red Noses" on what is now Kings Parade, New Brighton, to hide in the wilds of Cheshire. When their ships were ready to sail, they would return. A visitor to Mother Redcap's at this time describes it "as a little low public house known as Mother Redcaps, from the fact that the owner wore a red hood or cap". This is not by all accounts the definitive reason for the name, it may be just the writer's observation? But this is the generally accepted reason for the name. Red noses was rumoured to house tunnels which led to Mother Redcap's, and quite possibly, other destinations inland. Naturally, any further investigation was discouraged. This was not without risk. Wallasey Parish Church (St Hilary's) Register records the death by drowning of William Evans, escaping a cutter on 29th March 1762 and of John Goss, sailor, drowned from the Prince George. The Prince George was a Naval tender used to ferry those "pressed man" into service on board waiting ships, lying in Liverpool Bay. John Goss could either have been a regular sailor or someone trying to escape. The reason for his death by drowning is not known. Mother Redcap was, by all accounts, so "far out of the way" that the only approach was by boat. But, the smugglers knew the ways across the Moor behind.
In 1690, William III had his troops camped on The Leasowes awaiting ships to take them to Ireland. It is said that at that time despatches were conveyed to Chester from Meols and then to Mother Redcap's and then by fishing boat to Stoke and Poole instead of from Meols to Parkgate. (Stoke was apparently Seacombe, or very nearby Seacombe). Poole could have been another small region further up river. (Parkgate was not the landlocked town we know today, having been a thriving port and well known, and used, in Nelson's days). Earlier mention of the Privateer, Redcap, was made. She was used to take despatches from King James' supporters up to Stoke and Poole on the secluded reaches of the Mersey where many Ronan Catholic families dwelt. It is noted that "on one occasion 3 persons of some distinction were hurriedly landed at Mother Redcap's from a ship, horses ready, they galloped off towards "The Hooks". Very soon afterwards an armed boat crew landed from up river and made a hurried search". The Hooks were later identified by me as being in the region of what is now Duke Street bridge on the docks.
The explanation being that certain refugees had made good their escape from Ireland and had intended to proceed up river to Stoke or Poole. An armed boat was lying in wait up river from Seacombe, discovered the ship discharging her passengers and had raced to intercept.
Around 1750 a strange dispute took place at Mother Redcap's. A dead body had been found on the foreshore and taken to the house and in via the rear door and, later, passing out through the front door. "Certain people" claimed that if 12 bodies passed through a premises during a year, it gave right of way for the living to pass though at any hour, day or night. An attempt was made, once only, to gain access and a fierce fight ensued. After much discussion and advice, legal etc, the claim was refuted. It was almost certainly HM Customs and Coastguard trying it on!
Another tale has mother Redcap described as a "comely, fresh coloured, Cheshire spoken woman" and that at one time she had a niece to assist her. Her niece was "very active but offhand in her manner, who married a Customs Officer".
The first ever steam voyage from Liverpool to the USA left Liverpool in 1838. The Royal William, 617 tons, left the Mersey on 5th July. A party of the Liverpool Dock Trustees and ship owners assembled at Mother Redcap's to witness the departure. A cannon was fired from here as the ship passed. Overheard at this meeting was the belief that the ship would not get beyond Cork (Eire).
In 1888, Mr Kitchingman, who was born in Withens Lane, later the Horse & Saddle Inn, retired from Legal work in Warrington and bought Mother Redcap's, which had previously been a fisherman's cottage. He gave the land in front of the house on the express desire that no carriages would be allowed to perambulate along it. The Mersey Dock & Harbour Board were planning to build the embankment right along this stretch, from Seacombe. When Royalty came to open an extension to the Navy League premises, carriages did use the promenade. This so enraged Mr Kitchingman that he left the house for use as a Convalescent Home for the people of Warrington instead of to the district. Being unsuited for this purpose, powers were obtained to set aside the wishes in his will, a Mr Robert Myers bought the house, opening it as a cafe. Bearing the name Mother Redcap's, again. This survived for many years but closed in the 1980s and fell into disuse before being demolished in 1994. A nursing home bearing the same name now occupies the location.
Wallasey’s Central Park was originally the grounds of a mansion called Moor Hey’s House. The mansion, later to be known as “Liscard Hall”, was built in 1830 by Sir John Tobin, one of the benefactors of Wallasey.
In 1890, the grounds and house, complete with stables, were purchased for £17000 by Wallasey Local Board, the precursor to Wallasey County Borough Council. Their plan was for the grounds to be used as a public park and the house to be converted into a science and art school. The stables were to be used for council purposes including stabling the local fire engine horses.
Liscard Hall was known, for many years as “The School of Art” and in 1982 came under the control of Wirral Metropolitan College. The College facilities were transferred to Withens Lane during the summer of 1986 and the building was leased to “Serve Wirral”… a training agency that specialised in vocational training for local unemployed persons. Serve Wirral closed it’s doors in 2002 and the building was mothballed until a suitable use could be found. During 2004, Wirral Metropolitan College showed an interest in the building again with the possibility of using it as an “outreach” college but it's Grade 2 listed status was a stumbling block as it would be for what future use is identified. On Monday 7th July 2008 vandals broke into the building and set it alight. The resulting fire caused irreparable damage and it was demolished shortly afterwards. Redevelopment plans for the site of the building have not been finalised.
The park has changed very little since it’s opening in 1891. Parts have disappeared, like the bandstand in front of Liscard Hall and various buildings that were scattered throughout the park. At one time, there were rowing boats on the large lake but these have also disappeared.
At one time, the only organised activities held in the park were the model boat exhibitions and the annual Wallasey Gala, although the occasional circus did pay a visit. Today, there are numerous activities held throughout the year. These include a summer fair, pop concerts, football, cricket and bowls matches, orienteering, fireworks and a bonfire every November the fifth.
There are many facilities within the boundaries of the park. There is a “Secret Garden” and ranger station, the lake on which fishing is allowed, allotments and playing fields to name but a few. Also, there are wooded paths in areas that are teeming with wildlife such as squirrels, hedgehogs, numerous varieties of birds and even the occasional fox.
The park’s area was originally 351/2 acres but this has steadily grown to today’s 57 acres, which includes the land used for allotments.
In one corner of the park is situated St. John’s Church of England Church. At one time this building boasted the widest unsupported roof span in Cheshire. A walk around its small graveyard will be rewarded by discovering the graves of many prominent residents including that of Sir John Tobin who, incidentally, also built the church.
In October 2004 the congregation transferred to St Paul’s Church in Seacombe and St John’s Church and its associated buildings were put up for sale in November 2004. At the time of writing the future of the building is uncertain. I hope that a new owner will find a sympathetic use for the buildings that Sir John Tobin would approve of.
A walk around the park at any time of the year will be rewarded by seeing children and adults using the facilities, walking their dogs or generally having a good time in Wallasey’s hidden gem that is Central Park.
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Updated - 19-03-10