The valley of the River Mersey was created during the last ice age. Thick glaciers moved inland from what is now the Irish Sea, carving deep parallel iceways. The iceways were later occupied by the Mersey, the Dee, the mid-Wirral channel and the Alt–Ditton valley. The meltwaters of the glaciers formed the rivers which still flow today.
Origins of the River Mersey
The word ‘Mersey’ is probably Old English in origin. Maeres-ea meant border river, the border most likely referring to that between the kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria.
Shape and Size
The River Mersey is 70 miles long, rising in Stockport at the confluence of the Rivers Tame and Goyt. In the centuries since it first gained its name, the Mersey still marked the boundary between counties. Lancashire historically lay to the north, with Cheshire to the south.
The Manchester Ship Canal has obliterated the course of the Mersey from Hollins Green to Rixton. The old river bed is visible outside Irlam and at Warburton.
The Mersey has a large tidal range – 8.4m (27’6”) – a range only topped by the Severn in south-west England.
Transport on the Mersey
The ferries that cross the River Mersey are Liverpool’s, perhaps the world’s – most famous river crossing. Monks from Birkenhead Priory founded the first Mersey ferry service in the 13th century. The Domesday Book (1086) records later services between Seacombe and the Pool. In 1317 a royal license gave permission to begin ferrying passengers from Woodside. Thus were created the three points between which most Mersey ferries travel to this day.
Other Liverpool to Wirral river crossings are underground. The Mersey Railway Tunnel opened in 1886, and was the first tunnel. This created a rail link from Liverpool to Birkenhead, going through Hamilton Square and Birkenhead Central to Green Lane. Eventually the Liverpool side extended to join up with Central Station in 1892. It terminated at a lower underground platform.
The Queensway Tunnel was the first road tunnel to open. It joined Liverpool with Birkenhead, and opened in 1934. The Kingsway Tunnel connected Liverpool to Wallasey by 1971.
Industry and Pollution
From the 17th Century onwards, industry on the River Mersey expanded at a greater and greater speed. Industry began as small scale yards and mills, but grew into massive industrial structures like the Herculaneum pottery factory near the southern docks.
Later, the river provided a perfect place for other industrial works to use the water for cooling. Large amounts of industrial waste were simply dumped straight into the Mersey. The banks of the river also played a part: the relatively flat land on both sides meant good transport links were easy to build.
Coal came from Lancashire, salt from Cheshire and limestone from the Pennines. Merseyside acted as a magnet for many industries to gather. Liverpool, as a growing port, was developing widespread rail and canal links. The links with the industrial areas of north-west and central England encouraged further manufacturing plants .
Eventually, the Mersey became infamous as the most polluted river in Europe. More recently, however, efforts like the Mersey Basin Campaign have succeeded in cleaning up the river channel. Those species seen hundreds of years ago have returned to the Mersey, such as salmon, squid and cuttlefish.
River of Life, by David Ward
A large feature in the Guardian Society section (19 September 2007) tells of David Ward’s journey to find the source of the River Goyt, a Mersey tributary, and a walk along quite a length of the River Mersey itself. As well as the oft-celebrated salmon, local fishermen regularly catch cod as far upstream as Otterspool; the only reason they’ve not been found further up being that “we haven’t fished there”. Porpoises, grey seals and an octopus – predators – followed in the fishes’ wake. (Ward contributed to a chapter in the book Mersey: the River that Changed the World (Amazon UK), published in 2007 by Bluecoat Press)