Wyre Heal

A Local History of the Wirral Peninsula

Chapter 9

Birkenhead Priory

The entrance to Birkenhead Priory from Priory Street

The outside wall of the Guest Hall adjacent to Priory Street

Birkenhead Priory was founded about 1150 A.D. as a home for Benedictine Monks. Today, the remains are a green oasis in an industrial desert surrounded by an industrial estate and a shipyard.

The view towards Hamilton Square from St Mary's Clock Tower

The main entrance from Priory Street

The Guest Hall

On entering the Priory from Priory Street, one passes through the Lobby. To the right is the Guest Hall, originally separated from the Lobby by screens. The main area of the hall is where guests would eat and rest. The far end of the hall was the Monks’ Parlour above which was the Prior’s living and bedrooms.

The Lobby entrance

The window of the Prior's Living Room

Exiting the Lobby, on the left, is the Buttery. Here, food was prepared. Above the Buttery was situated a guestroom. Carrying on, straight ahead through the Buttery is the Undercroft. Traditionally used as a cellar, this particular example may have been used as a second dining room. Today, it houses the Priory’s Exhibition Centre.

The Lobby with the Buttery on the left

The Undercroft and the Exhibition Centre

The Refectory before the addition of the new roof, seen from the Cloister Garden

Above the Undercroft is the Refectory. This is where the Monks ate. There is access to the Undercroft via a small spiral staircase inside the building, in addition to two new external stairways, which were added during restoration to allow access to the Large Hall and function suite.

The Refectory prior to restoration

The Spiral Staircase leading from the Undercroft to the Refectory

Looking down the spiral staircase from the Refectory

The new roof on the Refectory

The interior of the restored Refectory

The third doorway in the Buttery leads to the Cloister Garden. Originally, the Garden was enclosed on all four sides by covered alleyways or Cloisters around it’s perimeter. The alleyways have long since disappeared, as has the Priory Church opposite the Buttery entrance and the Prior’s Chapel on the wall adjacent to the Guest Hall.

The original Priory Church

The Cloister Garden

The Cloister Garden houses graves of many prominent Birkenhead people including that of John Laird M.P.… founder of the world famous ship yard along with his son William Laird. Their bodies are housed in family tombs.

The Chapter House with John Laird's Tomb on the right

Opposite the Guest Hall wall is the Chapter House. This building dates from 1150 when the Priory was founded, which makes it the oldest surviving building in Wirral and Merseyside, in addition to being the oldest Priory remains in England.

The entrance to the Chapter House

Originally used as the Monks’ meeting place, today, it is a consecrated Church. Regular services are held here including Weddings. The Alter level floor is made from gravestones, which include those of Thomas Rainford, who was a former Prior and Richard Parry-Price… one of the previous owners.

Looking down the centre aisle of the Chapter House

One of the smaller stained glass windows in the Chapter House

The original stained glass window over the Alter was replaced by a Ninian Comper window during the 1913 restoration scheme and is dedicated to Robert Sydney Marsden, the chairman of the Restoration Committee at that time. The roof is of quadripartite construction and is as strong as it is beautiful.

The quadripartite construction of the Chapter House roof

The Ninian Comper stained glass window

An interior view of the Chapter House

The Alter and main stain glass window in the Chapter House

Above the Chapter House is the Scriptorium. This structure was built on top of the Chapter House in 1375. Traditionally used by the Monks for reading and writing, it may have also been used as a strong room. In 1996 it became the HMS Conway Chapel dedicated to a naval training ship based for many years on the River Mersey and the sailors who learned and served on her. A new window commissioned by the Old Conways and designed by David Hillhouse was installed at this time. The Chapel is further enhanced by furniture and memorabilia moved from the Conway Centre on Anglesey.

The Scriptorium built on top of the Chapter House

The steps leading to the Scriptorium

The interior of the Scriptorium

The passageway to the north of the Chapter House was originally the Infirmary.  Today, it allows access to St. Mary’s Clock Tower, one of the few intact remains of St. Mary’s Parish Church.

The passageway to the north of the Chapter House

St Mary's Clock Tower from behind the Chapter House and Scriptorium...

... and from the location of the demolished St Mary's Church

St Mary's Clock Tower at Dusk

The view of the River Mersey from the top of St Mary's Clock Tower...

... and in the opposite direction overlooking the Chapter House and Cloister Garden

Housed in the Tower is a clock, completely restored in 1990. The clock can ring the Knox Bell named after Cannon Andrew Knox, the first Vicar of Birkenhead. During restoration of the Tower and the relocation of the Knox Bell adjacent to the clock, it was struck and the sound waves set off burglar alarms on the vehicles in the car park below. On the top of the Tower is a walkway, which allows superb views of the River and surrounding area. Housed in the base of the tower are pleasant modern public conveniences with disabled access.

The restored clock mechanism in St Mary's Clock Tower

The weights which provide the mechanical power for the restored clock

The Knox Bell

Looking up the Clock Tower Spire to the original location of the Knox bell

The entrance to St Mary's Clock Tower

Adjacent to the Tower are the remaining walls of St. Mary’s Church. The fine stonework tracery and intricate cast iron mullions are of particular interest. The re-inforcing buttresses were added to strengthen the structure in 1978.

The remaining walls of St Mary's Church viewed from above...

... and from ground level

Shadows cast by the window mullions

There are many buildings and extensions that have been lost during the mists of time. Reference is made to them in the guidebooks and their names conjure up mental images of what they may have been like. Names like the Fratter Range, the Miserycord, the Cloisters and the Dorter Range.

Location of the Fratter Range

Remains of part of the Priory that has long been demolished

One can only imagine them. But clues are given in the exposed foundations, blocked-up doorways and details in the stonework of adjacent buildings. The illustrations by Edward W Cox, one of the Historians of the Priory, may also help to furnish the missing pieces in the giant jigsaw puzzle of Birkenhead Priory.

One of the blocked-up doorways of a long-gone entrance

Chronology of Birkenhead Priory


Birkenhead Priory was founded by Hamo de Massey of Dunham Massey, near Lymm in Cheshire. It was a home for Benedictine Monks who were “Pious and meritous in duty of true charity to help wayfarers, pilgrims and travellers to the conduct of roads, bridges and ferries.” Hospitality was one of the attributes of the “Black Monks” as they were known.  The existence of an important ferry across the River Mersey was most probably the main reason for siting the Priory in this location on a headland jutting out into the River Mersey, covered with birch trees, (hence the name Birkenhead... “Head land of the Birches”) adjacent to Tranmere Pool.


Monks sought and obtained writs of protection from King John stating that they must not be molested or injured in any way.


Liverpool became a Borough with a market outlet for wares and goods.


The original Priory Church was built.


The first and second visits by King Edward the First. 


The Priory was forced to provide carts for carrying food to King Edward’s armies who were fighting the Welsh.


First Royal Charter decreed by King Edward the Second allowing the Monks to construct a boarding house for the use of travellers to Liverpool.


Second Royal Charter decreed by King Edward the Third, which allowed the Monks to charge a toll for the ferry to Liverpool.


Monks were granted permission to hold market stalls in Liverpool free of dues or charges in order to raise funds to help travellers who used their facilities.


The “Black Death” reduced the resident Monks from 16 to 5.


The Scriptorium was built on top the Chapter House and the Wirral Peninsula Disafforested (removal of Royal rights to hunting game, deer, etc).


For the next 160 years, the Priory quietly prospered.


Religious Reforms and the Church of England founded by King Henry the Eighth, which lead to the dissolution of the Priory.


The Priory Estate and buildings were bought by Ralph de Worsley of Manchester.


Priory Estate and buildings inherited by Alice Powell… Ralph de Worsley’s daughter.  The Priory Church was also dismantled and the stone used for the construction of the Manor House and other buildings.


Thomas Powell, the grandson of Alice Powell, was made a Baronet.


His grandson, also Thomas Powell, died without leaving an heir.


John Cleveland of Leicestershire bought the Estate and Priory.  He was a Liverpool Merchant, past Mayor and an M.P. 


The Estate and Priory was inherited by John Cleveland’s daughter… Alice Price.


The New Chester Road  (A41) constructed. 


The Estate now only contains sixteen houses, including the Manor House.


Richard Parry Price rebuilds the Manor House.


Construction commenced on St Mary’s Church, the first Parish Church in Birkenhead.


St Mary’s Church is consecrated.


Remainder of Price Estate (excluding the Priory) is sold to the Township of Birkenhead and Birkenhead Iron Works founded by William Laird in Wallasey Pool.


The Priory Barn is destroyed by gales.


Richard Parry Price sold the ferries to the Township of Birkenhead.


The Manor House (also known as the Farmhouse, Lodging House, Boarding School, Birket House and Birkenhead Hall) was demolished.


Eliza Sitwell inherited the Priory Ruins.


St Mary’s Vicarage built next to the Priory.


Lairds Shipyard relocated to land adjacent to Birkenhead Priory between Monk’s Ferry and Tranmere Pool.


John Laird…founder of the shipyard dies and is buried in a family tomb in St Mary’s Graveyard adjacent to the shipyard.


Cammell Lairds expansion threatens the Priory.


Charles Aldridge and E W Cox launch the Priory restoration appeal.


The £3000 required to purchase the Priory was raised and Birkenhead Corporation was persuaded to take over responsibility of the Priory.  Restoration of the Undercroft, Buttery and Guest Hall commenced by W Halsall and Sons, Stone Masons, of Chester under the supervision of E W Cox.


Lairds Shipyard amalgamated with Sheffield based steel manufacturer Charles Cammell Ltd to become Cammell Lairds Co. Ltd.


Restoration of the Scriptorium and Chapter House commenced by Church authorities.


Second Phase of restoration completed.


Installation of Ninian Comper Window in the Chapter House completed.


Scriptorium roof damaged by a German incendiary bomb.


Scriptorium restored for the second time.


Cammell Lairds bought St Mary’s Graveyard and the graves relocated to Flaybrick and Landican Cemeteries.


Construction of new Cammell Lairds Dry-dock commenced on graveyard site.


A system of catacombs are discovered on the dry-dock construction site. They are said to run all the way to Red Noses in New Brighton, Stanlow Priory, Central Birkenhead, and to the small river that ran into the Mersey from the Green Lane area. The two former routes are improbable but the Green Lane tunnel could have existed in which the Monks hid directly after Dissolution in 1536. There is evidence of tunnel remains in central Birkenhead in the railway cutting behind Wirral Metropolitan College's  Conway Park Campus.


Phase Three of the Priory restoration project commences.


St. Mary’s Church is demolished leaving only the front wall wings adjacent to the clock tower.


Re-inforcing buttresses constructed to stabilise the remaining wall wings of St Mary’s Church.


Birkenhead Priory is scheduled as an Ancient Monument.


Restoration of Buttery and Undercroft commences.


Restoration of St Mary’s Clock Tower and relocation of the Knox Bell to lower down in the Tower commences.


Restoration of St Mary’s Clock Tower and clock completed.


Restoration of Refectory and Guest Room completed, including construction of new roof, floor, stained glass windows, extra entrances and stairways plus installation of electricity.

1996 HMS Conway Chapel located in the Scriptorium

Remains at the end of the Guest Hall

A Christmas Carol Concert organised by Wirral Metropolitan College

The remains of St Mary's Church at dusk

A period costume Summer Féte


Footnote to Birkenhead Priory

Although, in theory, the restoration of the Priory is now deemed complete, it could never be fully completed in practice due to the vandalism it has suffered over successive centuries. But what remains is there to be enjoyed by us and by generations to come. It is truly the jewel in Birkenhead’s crown.

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Updated - 24-09-09