History of the Priory and St. Mary's Church Birkenhead

Artist's impression of Birkenead Priory in the 14th century, watercolour E.W. Cox 1896.

The foundation of Birkenhead Priory is undocumented, but must have taken place in around 1150. It was founded by Hamo de Massey, 3rd Baron of Dunham , Cheshire (now known as Dunham Massey, near Altrincham, open as a National Trust property). He owned large parts of Cheshire, including much of Wirral, and the Prior of Birkenhead acquired interests in many of these. It was a great time of church and monastery building. The conquest in 1066 by William, Duke of Normandy, was still a relatively recent event and many of the new lords were attempting to replace older Saxon church foundations with Norman ones. Wealthy barons considered it money well-spent to create monastic foundations in their name: not only would their generosity itself help their chance of eternal life, but they could pay for the monks to pray for their souls too. The preamble to a 1278 charter makes it clear that gifts are given by the donor "...for the salvation of my soul, and of the souls of my ancestors. ..and for the repose of the souls of myself and of all my descendants".

The Benedictine order was not a remote, contemplative one, but rather a practical, working organisation. The monks took part in the community life, and would farm and care for lands they had in their charge. The only other Benedictine house in Cheshire was in Chester, and it may have been from there that the first group of monks were chosen for Birkenhead Priory. The other link with Chester is the unusual formation of the buildings, the cloister being placed on the north side of the church, instead of the south.

The location at Birkenhead, not even a village at the time, would have appeared quiet without being isolated. Whether or not a ferry existed across the Mersey at the time is unrecorded, but the river narrows at this point to make it the closest crossing point downstream of Runcorn. There must have been a reasonable number of travellers from Lancashire to Chester and into Wales. It was not uncommon for religious houses to be responsible for care of roads, fords or bridges, and a ferry is a similar undertaking, with a duty of charity to the traveller - St. Benedict asked his followers to treat every person as they would Christ himself.

The site was on a headland, bounded on the north by Wallasey Pool, now the location of Birkenhead and Wallasey Docks, and on the south by Tranmere Pool, covered by Cammell Laird, the entrance to the Mersey road tunnel and Borough Road. The name Birkenhead is thought to mean 'the headland of birch trees', and 'Woodside' is an indicator that trees may have run down to the river. The lands owned and farmed by, or on behalf of the Priory, extended to Bidston Hill, with the main part being in the area of Claughton, the far end of Grange Road and Grange Mount. A 'grange' was the name given to a farm attached to a monastery. The Prior also had rights over the full extent of the coastline of the headland, including rights to whatever was washed onto the shoreline.

Birkenhead Priory was not a large foundation, the largest number of monks at any time was around 16. Documents associated with the monastery's history are few. The earliest, and closest to a foundation document, is a charter of 1278 giving to the Prior property and rights in the church at Bowdon, near Dunham, granted by the founder's grandson, also Hamo. (Doc.1) Around the same time is confirmation that the Pope had given dispensation for the monks to elect their own Prior, instead of the appointment being made by the founder's family.

The history of Birkenhead Priory is not packed with incident, and relatively little documentation exists. The implication of this is that it was a reasonably well-run house, with little scandal or corruption attached to it, and there are not many places which could claim as much. The principal roles of farming and fishing would have produced more than enough for the monks, and surplus was sold at a market nearby. This would have been in Chester initially, but from 1207 a market in Liverpool existed, and would probably have been preferred. Certainly by 1346, and probably much earlier, the Priory owned land in Liverpool which entitled them to operate a market stall without paying dues to the city, and they built a granary or warehouse to service the market stall. They also charged higher ferry tolls on market days!

Between fifty and a hundred years after the original foundation the church was extended, probably because of further unrecorded benefaction from the Massey family. When the 6th Baron of Dunham died abroad in 1341, the estate passed through a female line to other families, and the Massey connection was broken.

While King Edward I was conducting his war with the Welsh, he visited Birkenhead twice. In 1275 he came to Chester expecting to receive homage from Llewelyn of Gwynedd, but after this was unforthcoming he travelled around the area. He issued documents from Birkenhead Priory on September 7th, 9th and 10th. Two months later as "thanks" for the monks' hospitality the King demanded a donation to the royal fund.

In 1277, during the great Welsh campaign the King and his Queen, Eleanor, together with a household, came north again. Llewelyn had been driven back into Wales and the King was aiming for total Welsh surrender. He moved around the region arriving at Birkenhead on Saturday 31st July staying until 5th August. The King was probably housed within the Priory walls, whilst his retinue camped in tents and pavilions nearby. The Queen meanwhile enjoyed a stay at Shotwick Castle.

On August 1st Edward received a most important group of envoys from the King of Scotland, including two bishops and Robert the Bruce's son, to announce the settlement of a boundary dispute. On the same day sixty three poor people came to Birkenhead to receive the King's alms of free food and drink. This probably took place in the Chapter House, as it was before any of the western range of guest buildings was begun.

There is a stained glass window in Wirral Museum, Birkenhead Town Hall, designed by Gilbert P. Gamon and completed in July, 1904. This depicts the Royal visit in 1277 and includes all the major historic figures.

The next major event in the Priory's history lies with the ferry, becoming increasingly popular, and the need to provide hospitality for travellers headed across the River Mersey. An increase in traffic on the road from Chester to the ferry had caused the Prior to apply to the King in 1284 to divert the main road around the Priory's precincts (up until this time it had evidently run straight through them) and construct a ditch or fence to preserve the privacy of the monks. Permission was granted. By 1318 the Priory was in a very impoverished state, owing to the burden of offering hospitality for free. The Prior therefore petitioned Edward II for permission to build a hostel and charge guests for food and drink, (Doc.3) and again, in 1330 petitioned Edward III for the right to run the ferry service, as it seems that the charges demanded by Liverpool ferrymen were considered extortionate.

The first Royal Charter granted that the prior and monks "may erect sufficient Houses on their own proper ground at Birkened, in the place of the passage aforesaid, or as near as can conveniently be done for entertainment of such men and hold the same to them and their successors for ever. And that the men about to dwell in these Houses may buy and sell victuals for the sustenance of the men about to pass over the said Arm of the Sea..."

The second Royal Charter granted that the prior and monks "and their successors for ever may have there the Passage over the said Arm of the Sea as well for men as for horses and other things whatsoever, and may receive for that Passage as may be reasonably done..."

The charters in effect guaranteed to the prior and monks the rights of ferryage, and to charge what was appropriate both for the ferry and any entertainment provided before the crossing. While not exactly making the Priory a wealthy one, the charters ensured that it would not again struggle to survive. The tolls for the ferry were not insignificant. In 1357 they were given as follows:

for a foot passenger on a market day   1/4d.
on other days                                      1/2d.
for a foot-man with a pack                     1d.
for a man and laden horse                      2d.
for a man and unladen horse                  1d.
for a quarter of any sort of corn             1d.

Names of most priors of Birkenhead are to be found amongst the records of Lichfield Cathedral, whose diocese covered Cheshire until Chester was made a cathedral following the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. One of the only bad notices received by the Priory was in 1348, when the prior was one Henry de Becheton who succeeded Robert de Becheton in 1339. His appointment was made by the Bishop of Lichfield following the election by the monks of James de Neston, who resigned immediately, but the reason is not recorded. One of the stipulations following the Bishop's visit in 1348 was that a priest be appointed to serve in the church, which suggests that none of the monks at that time was ordained as a priest.

It is thought that shortly after this time the scriptorium, above the chapter house, was built. This would have provided a warm space for work and study, assuming that the designation as a scriptorium ('writing place') is correct. At this time plague was rampant throughout the country, the 'Black Death', and monasteries were not exempt. In 1381 only five monks lived at Birkenhead, and the house continued as a small and relatively poor house - there were still only five monks in 1496 and the Priory was exempted from clerical taxation on the grounds of poverty. By 1518 there were seven members of the house and visitations at this time record a well run house, if one with debts owing to property disputes.


Apart from squabbles over local matters, forestry rights and the like, the history of the Priory was quiet until 1536. It was in this year that Henry VIII caused Parliament to pass the Act which suppressed all monasteries with an income of less than £200 per year. The richer houses suffered the same fate in 1539. There were 376 smaller monasteries, three of them in Cheshire: Birkenhead, Norton and a nunnery in Chester. In the preceding couple of years commissioners had made full assessments of the value of the monasteries, and of their conduct and condition. One of the monks, Richard Chester, was accused of 'incontinence' (which at the time meant a looseness of morals, rather than of bowels), but no other charge was made against the house. The finances at Birkenhead were modest, amounting to a net annual income of only £91.

The Prior of Birkenhead, John Sharpe, appears to have offered no resistance to the Act, and gave up the Priory peaceably. For this courtesy he received a pension of £12 per year, until such time as he was appointed to another post of that value or more. What became of him, and of the other monks, is unclear, as is their number. There was provision in the act for monks to go to religious houses exempted at that time, so they may all have travelled to Chester, the only neighbouring Benedictine house.

No inventory of the Priory's contents at the dissolution survives, and there is no evidence whatever for the oft-repeated legend of monks buried while trying to protect their treasure from the soldiers. Almost certainly, whatever existed was gathered in the same way that it was throughout the country for the 'Court of Augmentations'. The property was now managed by a royal bailiff, Randle Arrowsmith, aided by Randle Poole whose family had been lay stewards of the monastery for several generations. Much of the land was let: the Priory, its immediate land, and the ferry, were leased by Ralph Worseley, a close servant and confidante of the king, for the sum of £14 14s. 3d.

On 17 March 1545, Ralph Worseley obtained a grant of considerable lands in exchange for the sum of £568 11s. 6d., including: "all the house and scite of the late Priory of Byrkenhedde, in our county of Chester, suppressed and dissolved by the authority of Parliament, and all the Church Bellfrey and Church Yard of the same late Priory. And all our houses, edificies, Mills, Barns, Stables, Dovehouses, Orchards, Gardens, Land, and Soil whatsoever, as well within as without, and being by or near to the scite, inclosure, compass, circuit, and precinct of the same late Priory... And all the Ferry and the Ferry house and the boat called the Ferry boat, and the whole profit of the same".

A Private Estate
Exactly what happened to the Priory's buildings is unclear. Some of them may have been adapted for domestic use and the chapter house seems to have become almost a private chapel for the Lord of the Manor, before being designated an extra-parochial chapel in the 18th century. Registers of baptisms, marriages and burials are preserved from 1719.

The church itself was probably substantially damaged at this time. The earliest visual reference we have is from the mid-17th century, which is little different from the better view of 1 727 by Samuel Buck, showing three arches still standing. The other buildings are very much as they still are today.

Ralph Worseley died in 1572, and his will settled his Priory estates and rights upon two of his daughters, but the whole appears to have come to one of them, Alice, who married Thomas Powell of Horsley in Denbighshire. The lands, ferry, etc. remained in their family possession, and things were fairly uneventful, until another Sir Thomas Powell died without heir in 1706. His executors sold the property in around 1 713 to John Cleiveland, a Liverpool merchant and sometime Mayor and MP. for the town. He in turn died in 1716, succeeded by his daughter Alice, who married Francis Price of Bryn-y-pys in Flintshire, and the township of Birkenhead, with Claughton, and the ferry, remained in their possession well into the 19th century.

The Priory buildings would have been little more than a picturesque garden ornament for the manor house, which became known as The Priory by virtue of its location. Whether this house had any remains of the mediaeval lodging house, or if it was entirely rebuilt merely on that site, is difficult to say. It was certainly much altered. It appears that Royalist troops occupied the house and fortified it during the English Civil War, in 1644, but that it fell to the Parliamentarians and suffered damage which was not rectified until after 1660, and possibly rebuilt in 1706.

The only visual records of it are from 1780 and 1843, and apart from identifying that it appears to have been extended at various times it is not possible to judge what the interior was like. An account of the house in the early 19th century records the appearance of a 17th century house and it seems probable that it partly dated from that time. It was demolished in 1843 to make way for the streets between Church Street and Chester Street. The only other building of note was the monastery's old stone tithe barn, south-west of the house and adjacent to one of the town's two farmhouses, though whether this too had been rebuilt is unknown. This blew down in a gale in 1839, but had it survived it too would no doubt have gone in the town's redevelopment. It is a mercy that the Priory survived at all, even if the site was hemmed in on all sides and very much tampered with.

Growth of Birkenhead - St. Mary's church

The development of the town of Birkenhead is important in the Priory's history, because it explains what has happened to the site. The most important repercussion for the Priory was the building of St Mary's church on the very site itself. As the Chapter House had been in use for three centuries as a chapel, it may have seemed obvious to make the connection with a new church, but it may also have been a way for the buildings to be preserved. Had the church been built elsewhere, there might have been cause to demolish the Priory to clear the land completely for other use.

The foundation stone for St. Mary's was laid in 1819, and the church opened in 1822. The population of Birkenhead barely warranted such an investment at that time, however the growth of the town had begun around 1815 and Francis Richard Price, Lord of the Manor and sole owner of the land, realised the potential, especially with the advent of steam ferries. The chapter house was small and would neither accommodate newcomers to the town, nor attract residents, neither would the churchyard be large enough to continue burials at a higher rate. So Mr Price built, at his own expense, a new church, designed by Thomas Rickman, a leading church architect of his day, walling in a large area to act as the extended churchyard for burials. In 1832 the church was extended to house the continually growing population.
The vicarage for the new church was built immediately adjacent to the Priory ruins, on the site of what was probably the kitchen, with a columned arcade next to the main door into the guest hall: the building may be seen in some old views of the Priory. This was built in 1854 for the Rev. Andrew Knox, a leading figure in Birkenhead's Victorian years, and remained standing until bought by the council following restoration of the Priory buildings, in about 1904.

At the same time as building the church, Price erected a large hotel to which a ferry was attached, just to the south of the Priory. This opened in 1820 and, with spacious gardens down to the river and surrounded by trees, was a popular and successful venture. It was built to cope particularly with coach traffic, and soon the coach services were very regular, linking to the steam ferry to Liverpool, running daily from Chester, Shrewsbury, Birmingham and Bristol. This was quite independent of Woodside Ferry, and in competition to it, and in fact for many years Birkenhead and Woodside were often regarded as two separate places. The hotel site is now covered by Cammell Laird's yard, as is most of St Mary's graveyard.

The town began to grow under the influence of a number of businessmen, and particularly with the advent of William Laird, a Scottish engineer who built a boiler works on Wallasey Pool in 1824 and took in hand the development of the town, Hamilton Square and the rectangular street plan which is still seen today.

In the 1840's in particular Birkenhead was seen as a model development, a real Victorian new town, with the growth of the park and the docks, with broad and elegant streets, even if many of them had been laid out and never built on. These changes brought increasing numbers to Birkenhead, both passing through and as residents. The new population was not only working class labourers, though a significant number of them came, but also merchants and businessmen, many of whom had the leisure to be interested in history and antiquities.

Until the latter part of the 18th century ruined buildings were at best considered to be a useful source of building material, at worst an eyesore. The setting of Birkenhead Priory did not make it a great romantic ruin, though it was picturesque enough. These qualities only really came to be recognised in the 19th century, and the first evidence we have of it in Birkenhead is in two poems, one published in 1819, by Thomas Whitby following a visit in 1814. He wrote of the place, "Of the venerable pile, enough still remains to gratify the exploring antiquary; the situation and surrounding scenery will afford true delight to the more ardent admirers of wild and animated scenery". The other poet was one Spencer Thomson. Neither poem is very good, but they do betray an interest in the site for its history.

Ormerod's History of the County Palatine and City of Chester, first published 1819, was the first attempt to gather antiquarian information on the county, including documents, and Birkenhead Priory figures in the text, albeit briefly. Mortimer's History of the Hundred of Wirral examined the history in more depth, published in 1847, but the buildings were published in detail for the first time in 1854 by Mason and Hunt in The History and Antiquities of Birkenhead Priory. The text added no new information, but the illustrations and measured drawings show a new level of interest in the physical remains: "The ruins of the Priory, although neither extensive nor imposing, are decidedly picturesque - picturesque enough to surprise many who may be scarcely aware of their existence." It was a little before this that Frederick Law Olmsted, an American visitor, declared, a little fancifully, "though I have seen far older ruins, and more renowned, I have found none so impressive".

The Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire was founded around this time, with the specific intention of pursuing local studies, and gradually interest grew in the history of the site and in its preservation. It was already hemmed in by buildings and streets on all sides, but the ancient remains themselves should not be allowed to deteriorate any further. Charles Aldridge's paper, read to the society in 1890, sums this up: "...it will be seen that of this once beautiful building very little remains, and what survives can hardly last much longer, unless prompt means are taken to preserve it. Should perusal of this paper lead anyone to help in so excellent a work, the writer will feel more than rewarded for any trouble he has been at in putting together these notes on the only ancient building in Birkenhead".

This work was followed up by Edward W. Cox, who devoted much time to the Priory and produced conjectured drawings and plans, some of which are not now considered accurate. However, such was the interest generated by these scholars, that the few hundred pounds required to buy the ruins and the freehold of the site was raised, and the corporation of Birkenhead was persuaded to take responsibility for them in 1896. E.W. Cox took over superintendence of restoration work in the following year, carried out by the Chester stone masons, Haswell & Son. A photographic survey of the work completed is the first comprehensive such study of the site, and shows details like the numbering, stone by stone, of the Guest Hall's south wall, which had to be taken down and completely rebuilt. The work was completed on 2 April 1898.

In July 1913 permission was granted to work on the chapter house building, furnishing the chapter house as a chapel which was dedicated in 1919. In addition the scriptorium was completely restored with oak roof and decorative panelling to the design of Edmund Kirby and alterations to the fireplace and chimney. Some of this work had to be redone following damage from an incendiary device dropped, intended for Cammell Laird's, during the Second World War. Subsequently, further work has been completed here (in 1996) to convert it to a space dedicated to the memory of HMS Conway, which for many years floated in the River Mersey as a naval training ship, moving furniture and memorabilia from the Conway Centre on Anglesey and installing a new window in the ship's honour.

The period since the Second World War has been one of significant change. The most notable event was the decision to dramatically enlarge one of the dry docks adjacent to the site, and swallow up the bulk of St. Mary's graveyard. There was much negotiation over this during the 1950's, and graves were moved to Landican prior to building work commencing. This event, leaving the large stone wall which dominates one side of the Priory, destroyed much of the remaining character, and followed discussions about the possibility of the preservation of the site as a public park. Nevertheless, it is very much in keeping with the continuing history of Birkenhead, where the Priory has adapted to the circumstances which have surrounded it. The Princess Dock was opened in 1962.

Owing to a declining town centre population, and the prohibitively expensive repairs which were required, the church of St Mary was closed in 1971. Various items were preserved from the building, monuments and some furnishings went to Merseyside County Museums, an example of the cast iron window tracery to the Victoria & Albert Museum, some stained glass was kept, and has since been installed in the Chapter House. Rather than demolishing the entire building, the tower and spire were left to stand as a landmark in 1975, following a campaign by the Birkenhead History Society reminiscent of that which led to the initial restoration in the 1890's.

The status of the Priory ruins themselves was recognised in their scheduling as an Ancient Monument in 1979. Substantial restoration of the fabric of the buildings was completed in 1988 and the museum on site opened, which displayed for the first time at the Priory itself, some of the archaeological remains found there. Subsequently the Refectory has been completely refurbished and roofed over, in a
modern but entirely sympathetic way, to give covered space which was sorely needed for a wide variety of events, 7- including use as an Education Room.

As the surrounding area has changed, it has developed from woodland to parkland, from housing to industry, the Birkenhead Priory site has continued to give both pleasure and pause for thought in its shifting landscape. It has not been an unchanging jewel, set in precious isolation, but has been forced to adapt to the economic and social life about it. So much so, that we are left with a small proportion of what was once here. However, the Priory can be truly seen not just as the starting point for the history of Birkenhead, but as a part of the life of the town, in all its phases.

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