Where there is faith there is light and strength
The translation of the moto above.
My father’s family have lived in Birkenhead since around 1870, after moving from St Albans in Hertford via Derby. My mother’s family were relatively newcomers having moved from Caernarvon in North Wales in 1921. I was born in the same terrace house in Lower Tranmere, Birkenhead in which my father was born. The house was built around 1870.
Birkenhead was an amalgamation of four boroughs in 1877 – Birkenhead, Tranmere, Oxton and Claughton-cum-Grange and the seal of Birkenhead was created from the four seals of the original towns.
The single lion and the crosier is from the Massey family of Birkenhead who founded a monastery in 1150. The oak tree is from Tranmere, and the dual lions from Oxton, and I think the blue ‘star’ symbol is from Claughton-cum- Grange.
On the top you will see a blue lion with his front paw on an anchor, which symbolises how Birkenhead depends on the sea and shipping.
Odd facts about Birkenhead – particularly with connections to the United States of America.
In 1847 Birkenhead opened the first public funded civic park in the world. It was designed by Joseph Paxton. The idea of a public park came about in 1841 when the town bought 226 acres of land, which was marshy and grazing land on the edge of the town.
Main entrance to the park.
The above park pictures have been taken from the internet – all of mine are black & white!
Frederick Law Olmsted, an American landscape architect, arrived in Liverpool in 1850 to stay in the north west of England. During his time in England, he visited a number of parks, including Birkenhead Park.
In 1858 he and Calvert Vaux won a competition to design a new park for New York, which was to be called Central Park. He was impressed with Joseph Paxton’s design of Birkenhead Park, and this influenced his overall design of Central Park.
Birkenhead Park was also the template in 1872, for the design of Sefton Park in Liverpool
Central Park NY
Boat lake Central Park
Central park is nearly four times the size of Birkenhead Park.
In 1860 an American, George Francis Train, visited Liverpool to try and persuade them to build a tram network – Liverpool did not respond to his idea, so Mr Train crossed the river to Birkenhead, and they listened, and opened the first tramway in Europe, which was from Woodside (which is on the river bank) to Birkenhead Park. It was horse drawn.
The above two pictures are to illustrate the horse drawn tram – both were taken by me in Victor Harbor, South Australia, this Australian service began in 1894.
Mr Train told Birkenhead council that if the service was not a success, he would return the streets to their original state, at his own cost. He did not have to spend any money.
In 1828 William Laird and his son John started a ship building company on the banks of the River Mersey at Birkenhead.
In 1839 he built the first screw propelled steamer, the Robert F Stockton, which was a tug for use on the North American Waterways.
They were successful at building iron ships and one of the best customers was the East India Company. Relations with China began to deteriorate so the Company wanted war ships to protect their China trade. Laird built the Nemesis, which was 184 foot long, 29-foot beam, 6- foot draft and 660 tons. She was armed with two pivoted mounted 32 pounders, four six pounders and rocket launchers. She had 120 hp steam engine as was the first iron ship to round the Cape of Good Hope. She was a paddle steamer.
Nemesis, (Goddess of retribution).
Nemesis wreaked havoc amongst the wooden junks of the Chinese navy during the First Opium War. The first rocket that she fired hit a large junk and caused it to blow up with a huge explosion. The Chinese did not stand a chance against such modern weapons.
In 1848 they built the 1400-ton paddle frigate HMS Birkenhead for the navy. She became famous when she was being used as a troop ship and was wrecked off South Africa in 1852.
She didn’t have enough lifeboats for all of the passengers, so the troops stood in their regimental lines so as to allow the women and children to get away in the lifeboats.
Only 193 of the 643 people on board survived and the soldier’s bravery gave birth to the call ‘ women and children first’ when abandoning any ship. This became known as the Birkenhead Drill. All the women and children survived.
Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem in their honour and part of it is below
‘To stand and be still
to the Birken’ead Drill
is a damn tough bullet to chew’.
Some years later the Confederate States of America ordered an iron clad ship from the same shipyard in Birkenhead –
1050 tons, 222 foot long, 31-foot 8 inch beam, 17 foot 8 inch draft, single screw, with 6 x 32 pounders, 1 x 100 lb cannon and 1 x 68 lb cannon, BUT none of her armaments were on the vessel when she was handed over to the Confederates because of the British neutrality Act. Laird’s were legally able to build and sell the ship without arms. She sailed to the Azores where she was handed over and then rigged with her armaments. Her decks had been built with reinforcements to take the cannon.
Her moto was – ‘God helps those who help themselves.’
She burned 65 union ships (mainly merchant ships) but did not harm the crews but put them on neutral ships. Eventually she was sunk by a Union vessel off the coast of France. In 1984 the French navy found the resting place of the Alabama in 200 feet of water off Cherbourg, France.
Birkenhead was not always building ships because sometimes ships were run aground to be broken up.
SS Great Eastern
Brunel’s Great Eastern, launched in 1858 and was the largest ship ever built. 18,915 grt, 692 feet long, 82 feet wide with four decks built to carry 4000 passengers non-stop to Australia from the UK. The world had to wait until 1899 before a longer ship, RMS Oceanic was built, and 1901 before a heavier ship was built RMS Celtic, 21,035 grt.
The Great Eastern never carried passengers to Australia, but did carry them to America, before becoming a cable laying ship.
Later she was used as an advertising ‘hoarding’ and sailed up and down the River Mersey advertising Lewis’ Department store. I suppose it was ‘fortunate’ that Brunel died in 1859 and never saw what happened to his world class ship.
The Great Eastern was beached between Rock Ferry and New Ferry not far from the Laird’s shipyard.
Her stern is towards Rock Ferry and her bow points to New Ferry, although many comments state that she was broken up at New Ferry.
Behind the Great Eastern’s stern (which is not shown in this photograph) is HMS Conway.
It took eighteen months to break up the Great Eastern, it was far larger and stronger than the breakers had imagined, and it is thought that they made a big loss on the job.
Finally, to end on the park again –
The Birkenhead war memorial in Hamilton Square has my uncle’s name inscribed up on it – he is buried a short distance outside Ypres in Belgium, having been killed in action in 1917 – he was nineteen.
He signed up at seventeen, and just before he left, he and his parents visited a show for the troops. It was held at a theatre across the road from the main entrance to Birkenhead Park. I believe my father would have been with them – he would have been six years old at the time.
Opening day for the park in 1847.
I found the program among some old papers of my father’s. As you see the theatre is reopening on Good Friday, 2nd April 1915, only a hundred and two years ago tomorrow (Good Friday).
The theatre was later renamed as the Park Cinema, before being pulled down in 1938 and replaced with a more modern building called the Gaumont Cinema.