Kirkdale occupies an area of flat land on the banks of the Mersey, formerly consisting of sand hills, for which this part of the Sefton coast is still well known. It is one of the oldest coastal settlements, pre-dating Liverpool itself, and containing evidence for centuries of human occupation.
Chirchedale, Domesday; Kirkedale, 1185; Kierkedale, 1200.
Origins: from Norse kirk (church), and dale (valley / ‘road to’); therefore the name may mean “the road to the church”, referring to the road from Liverpool to its mother church at Walton-on-the-Hill. This would help explain the fact that there are no traces of an ancient church in the area, and only scant sign of an original village. Kirkdale Road was an important route into Liverpool too, once the emerging town became a market destination for traders and producers across Lancashire.
[J.A. Picton recorded that in 1699, when a case was being made for Liverpool becoming a parish in its own right, separate from Walton, one of the reasons was that parishioners were being distracted on their way to church by the ale house in Kirkdale! In that sense the place name referred to a village sitting on the road between Liverpool and Walton, namely Kirkdale Road, which becomes Walton Road at the suggested old centre of Kirkdale itself.]
Morley Street (on a site now occupied by football pitches) can be considered the next best thing to a founding village: it was the place where settlement existed before Liverpool engulfed the area, and can be seen on the early Ordnance Surveys. Kirkdale Marsh lay to the north of here, while Beacon Gutter, a small stream running to the south of Blackfield House, formed the southerly boundary with Liverpool.
James Picton, historian and architect, could write in the 19th century that Kirkdale consisted of two hills, with a road (the ‘dale’) running between. The Blackfield Terrace area was one hill, whilst the second hill can be found in the area formerly occupied by the Liverpool Industrial School (see below).
A stream ran between the two hills, from the suburb of Walton to the place where Canada Dock now sits. This route can now probably be identified with the rough direction of Bank Hall Street, which runs south west towards the River Mersey from Stanley Road. The stream entered the Mersey at Bank Hall, an important building in the history of Kirkdale.
The Moores and Bank Hall
Kirkdale became home to the Moore family from the 13th century onwards. Up until that time John de la More had owned a house – Moore Hall, first mentioned in 1236 – in the north part of the town of Liverpool. But the family began to acquire lands in Kirkdale, and eventually built a new home out there. This was called Bank Hall, and the ‘Old Hall’, which gave its name to Old Hall Street, was left to the family’s Lady Dowager to live in.
The Old Hall continued in use until the 19th century, although it passed into the hands of the Stanley family as the fortunes of the Moores waned. The Perry map of 1768 shows the Old Hall as a large house with wings and gardens to one side. In the hundred years which followed this, the house was gradually altered and eventually demolished.
Bank Hall itself was a moated house, with a causeway between two lakes giving access to the building itself. It stood on the corner of what are now Bankhall Lane and Juniper Street, although the roads have seen some reshaping in the intervening years.
The coast to the west of Kirkdale was, before the arrival of the docks, popular as a destination for bathers and those seeking the fresh air. Later, when the Wellington, Huskisson and Sandon Docks were built, Southport replaced Kirkdale as the preferred holiday destination for discerning Liverpudlians.
While Kirkdale was still an open landscape, a large gaol was constructed, incorporating a courthouse. Eyebrows were raised in Liverpool around the need for such as huge house of correction, which was said to be able to hold the entire population of Liverpool at the date it opened (1818). The building replaced the previous gaol, closer to the seafront, which had been described by the prison reformer John Howard as ” insufferably dirty, grimy and wretched”.
In 1835 the court moved to Liverpool itself (eventually to St George’s Hall), but the gaol’s catchment area covered the whole of south Lancashire. Prisoners who would previously have been sent to Lancaster now came to Kirkdale, and a good number were executed here in public.
The building itself was at the end of Sessions Road (appropriately), a place used since its demolition in 1897 as a recreation ground. The layout used the fashionable model of the ‘Panopticon’, with two towers in the centre which each looked over its own wing. The prison officers were thus able to watch the prisoners in their cells without the prisoners knowing precisely when (or by whom) they were being watched.
Kirkdale Industrial School
This school was another state-run institution, for the teaching of ‘pauper’ children, and stood on a site to the north east of the Gaol. It opened in 1845 to the designs of Lockwood and Allom, and was considered an attractive building at the time (some illustrations show a rather palatial-looking building).
The 400 children were taught reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as religious instruction and useful trades like carpentry, shoemaking and needlework. Eventually the buildings proved too small for the number of children needing to be taken care of, and new buildings were designed by Picton & Son.
When the need for such institutions fell out of favour in the 20th century, the building became the Kirkdale Homes for the Aged and Infirm, and were eventually taken into ownership by the council and Hospital Board. Now, however, the buildings have been demolished, and a network of modern roads and houses occupy the site.
Kirkdale, Liverpool and urban development
A village so close to the ambitious and growing town of Liverpool could not expect to stay rural for very long. The old Moore Hall on the edge of town was already becoming surrounded by buildings as the 18th century wore on, and was altered and demolished to make way for road improvements from 1820 onwards. Picton tells us that Kirkdale was still mostly rural at the beginning of the 19th century, and was still only half-developed by around 1850, and the 1851 Ordnance Survey backs this up. But new roads were being added onto Liverpool’s northern fringes to cater for the growth in businesses which were spreading out from Dale Street and Castle Street.
As Liverpool’s wealth increased, the richest merchants looked for room to build the large houses that would reflect their status in society. Kirkdale was one of the first areas to become a suburb, and a fashionable one at that. As the Industrial Revolution approached, the area of Kirkdale began to be developed with large houses and new roads, along with other desirable places like Toxteth Park and Mosslake Fields.
Two arrivals in the 19th century put paid to Kirkdale’s days as a semi-rural suburb. The first was the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, which brought trade and goods into north Liverpool, and immediately attracted a huge number of businesses to its terminus around Leeds Street. The second was the Liverpool & Bury (later the Lancashire & Yorkshire) Railway which opened in 1848. This not only encouraged even more industry into the area, but itself contributed to the smokey, sooty atmosphere taking over from, no doubt, the mellow airs of cut grass and cow dung.
Kirkdale’s proximity to the docks was always going to make it a great place to build houses for the thousands of casual workers who were too poor to live more than walking distance from their potetnial employers. As Liverpool’s growth reached its peak in the late Victorian period a grid-iron pattern of terraces crept across the landscape. The richer classes – from the clerks all the way up to the shipping line owners – moved further from the town centre. The clerks tended to move to Anfield and Walton while the richest built new villas in the countryside around Woolton and West Derby, or north of Bootle.
Finally, Kirkdale was incorporated into Liverpool itself in 1835, and was one of the earliest suburbs to do so.
Twentieth Century Slum Clearance
The swathes of unsuitable housing which blighted places like Kirkdale in the 20th century were the inevitable result of unscrupulous landlords throwing up as many properties as possible for the lowest cost. The bombing of the Liverpool docklands during the Second World War spilled over towards Scotland Road and the surrounding houses, and combined with ambitious slum clearances the post-war council took the opportunity to reshape the inner city.
Parts of Kirkdale became a blank canvas on which to draw in physical form the shape of Liverpool’s hoped-for resurgence. The most obvious feature, looked at on a map or from the air, is the loop road leading to the Kingsway Tunnel entrance, but many other parts of Kirkdale were reshaped too, and now the area immediately north of Liverpool city centre is dominated by large industrial units and warehousing, where there was once a mixture of dense housing, and a multitude of workplaces. Many of the roads in Kirkdale, such as once-major thoroughfares like Bevington Bush, have changed beyond all recognition: reshaped, remodelled, diverted, demolished.
The living and working conditions of Kirkdale have no doubt improved a lot since this process took place, but communities were separated when the houses came down, and nothing can quite reproduce the way of life experienced by millions of Liverpudlians in the 200 years since the area urbanised. Some people stayed in Kirkdale, and Logan Towers, one block, was the tallest prefabricated building in the world. Liverpool rivalled, or maybe even surpassed, London as a centre of high-rise living.
Greaney, M., 2013, Liverpool: a landscape history, The History Press, Stroud
Picton, J, 1875, Memorials of Liverpool : historical and topographical, including a history of the Dock Estate, Longmans, Green, London
Philpott RA 1988 ‘Historic Towns of the Merseyside Area: a survey of urban settlement to c1800′ Liverpool Museum Occasional Paper, No 3, 60 pp.
Kirkdale (British History Online) http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=41286
Kirkdale Gaol, Liverpool Mercury Nov 9th, 1857, Liverpool Life http://www.old-merseytimes.co.uk/kirkdalegaol.html
Liverpool, Lancashire http://www.workhouses.org.uk/Liverpool/