Parkgate is a small town on the western coast of Wirral, facing across the Dee to Wales, and downstream from Chester.
It’s popular with people from the region for days out (and home to a famouse ice cream parlour!). But it’s not widely known that Parkgate not only has a history to rival that of Chester, but it also played a foundational role in the development of Irish migration into England in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The geography of Parkgate was central to its rise, its attempt to become a sort of coastal spa town, and the decline in its fortunes in the late 19th century.
The village at the park gate
Two historical events or processes triggered the emergence of the town. First, the hunting park of Neston was sold off, allowing a small community to be founded at the gate of the park – Parkgate. Secondly, the Dee began to silt up, making navigation to Chester more difficult. Chester had long been an extremely important town for both trade and political power, and its difficulties owing to this silting opened a gap which Parkgate would exploit.
Parkgate also became a place to set off to Dublin, both in trading goods and transporting people. This traffic had once belonged to Chester, but the increasingly treacherous channels meant that Parkgate was a more inviting harbour. The seaside town remained a stage on the journey to its upstream neighbour, though.
Parkgate was also closer to London than the traditional landing place of Holyhead, and so travellers could avoid the long overland journey through North Wales by landing on the Dee and using the roads from here.
Merchants came to live in the town during this rise in its fortunes. They built some of the houses that still stand today. A Customs House once stood in Parkgate (demolished in the 1960s to make way for the Old Quay pub). We more readily associate buildings of this sort with large ports like Liverpool.
By the late 17th century Parkgate was important enough that a map of anchorages, drawn by one Greenville Collins for the king, marks the town by name.
Although the map doesn’t necessarily show it, there were good, deep anchorages just downstream. Sailing ships moored here on their cargo’s trip towards Chester or London. Dr. Anthony Annakin-Smith has suggested that the area around the junction of The Parade and Station Road was once a site of shipbuilding.
The buildings here sit back from the road, unlike the tightly aligned buildings along the rest of the Promenade. This would give a space for the activity, plus the man who lived in the double-fronted Seaward House was himself a shipwright, just metres from the junction.
The growth of Parkgate
As Parkgate’s reputation as a stopping off point grew, so did its fortunes.
The Red Lion pub was once the middle of three cottages. Such was its success that it expanded to occupy all three buildings. Other hotels grew up in the town, like the Chester Hotel, the Ship Hotel, and the Mostyn Arms Hotel.
It was not only the trade in goods that started to flow through Parkgate. Dr. Gillian O’Brien has research Parkgate’s role in some of the earliest migration into England from Ireland. The Dublin connection, established in the 19th century, was clearly a factor. O’Brien thinks that more people should be aware of the town’s role in Irish migration. Migration via Liverpool, while still extremely important, is often seen as the only route.
The interesting thing about this early migration is that it could be seasonal. The harvest in Ireland is a little later than in England and Wales. People could come over to Parkgate to take part in the harvest nearby, then travel back to Dublin for a second season of work. Again, this is migration of a different nature to the one we’re so familiar with. Normally we think about the Liverpool-based descendents of those Irish people who migrated permanently.
The decline of Parkgate shipping, the rise of a seaside town
By the 1780s Parkgate was thriving, but the seeds of its decline were already sown. In 1737 Chester had looked to salvage its trade by cutting a new channel down the Dee. This channel, to Connah’s Quay in Flintshire, not only solved the silting problem for Chester, but changed the Dee’s flow to increase silting at Parkgate.
By 1800 shipping was no longer viable, so the town looked to other industries. Looking at the landscape of Parkgate today we see the results. The sea wall, built in 1810, was not necessarily to keep the sea out. The wall has no mooring rings for boats, as they were no longer arriving here. The wall was to create a flat piece of land for a promenade: Parkgate was reinventing itself as a seaside resort.
As the Dee silted, a beach formed, and Parkgate became a place for families to come and enjoy the sea air and the ‘healing’ waters that lapped its shores. Doctors prescribed all sorts of ‘treatments’, including salt water bathing, for their clients. The promenade was just one aspect of investment that changed the town, as Parkgate competed with inland spas like Buxton and Bath for those in search of healthy living.
Throughout this time, work went into preserving Parkgate’s fortunes. As the Dee continued to deposit silt at its front door, marsh grash was planted to try to halt the movement of the sands. But marsh grasses spread on their own, and likely increased the area of salt marsh rather than maintaining it.
Eventually, the river disappeared to the horizon, the sandy beach replaced by grassy knolls much loved by birds and other coastal animals. It’s too dangerous for boats to get close, as even a mile from shore the water is only feet deep.
And so Parkgate has seen its fortunes shift over the years, just as the sands themselves have shifted. The people here have been entrepreneurs, taking advantage of whatever opportunities the current situation affords. That goes for seasonal Irish migrants as well as those building a business in a hotel or shipyard.
Today Parkgate is still a popular tourist destination, with people still coming for the sea air, the views of Wales, and of course the famous ice cream shop. No doubt things will continue to change, but Parkgate will go on.
The Parkgate Tour, Neston Pictorial http://www.monologues.co.uk/Neston/Parkgate-Route.htm, accessed 21st October 2022
Parkgate, Villages by the Sea (BBC) https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m001c3wm accessed 17th October 2022
Parkgate Society https://www.parkgatesociety.co.uk/ accessed 26th October 2022