Edward the Confessor chose West Derby for his hunting lodge, and after the conquest West Derby was given to Roger of Poitou. The castle was probably built around 1100 by Roger, and was sited near St. Mary’s church in Meadow Lane.
The site may have been chosen because of its nearness to water (the Alt, and perhaps the stream which once flowed parallel with Meadow Lane). Coal was nearby (with outcrops at Croxteth) and there was plenty of woodland. The existing hunting lodge would also have been a factor. West Derby also stood on the crossroads of routes from Hale to Aughton and Liverpool to Warrington and Prescot.
Excavations at West Derby Castle
West Derby Castle was repaired in 1197 and 1202. Archaeological excavation in 1927 and 1956 revealed oak beams (probable cross-moat bridge supports), pottery, metal, leather, horn/bone. The later excavation also discovered the remains of a palisade.
In 2022 the Channel 4 programme The Great British Dig excavated a trial trench on the field in Meadow Lane that covers part of the site of the castle. They also excavated some smaller trenches in local residents’ back gardens. The archaeologists found pottery from the 12th to the 18th centuries (as well as more modern items like toy soldiers and a Second World War bullet case).
Eventually they excavated down to the moat itself, finding a sloping surface probably churned by later animals. They also found a loosely-built dry stone wall which may have been linked to post-castle farming. By measuring from one edge of the moat to the centre, and doubling the distance, they estimated it to have been around 9m (27 feet) wide. The excavation suggested it was no more than a metre (3 feet) or so deep. So while its defensive capability would have been less than imagined, the width would have been a fine reflective setting for a landmark castle like this.
The archaeologists also found the likely remains of the aforementioned stream, and the possible location for a water-powered mill that was known to have stood on the stream.
West Derby loses its prominence to Liverpool
In 1213 a garrison of 140 foot soldiers, ten knights and crossbowmen were posted at the castle. But by 1235 all garrisons had been moved to Liverpool castle. A 1326 document mentions the “site of a ruined castle in West Derby” (Cooper & Power, 1982: 41), and the castle had probably gone out of use entirely by 1297. It had lost its importance at the same time that Liverpool, with its own castle, had risen to prominence. The site was finally levelled in 1817.
Image: a Victorian reconstruction of the ruins of Liverpool Castle near the Rivington reservoir, taken by Martin Greaney.
Cooper, J.G., & Power, A.D., 1982, A History of West Derby, Causeway Press, Ormskirk
Droop, J P, Larkin, F C, ‘AAA’ in Excavations At West Derby Castle, Liverpool, , Vol. 15, (1928)
Eames, J.V.H., A Short report on the excavations at West Derby Castle, 1957, L’pool Univ School of Arch. (Pag 1-6)
The Great British Dig: History in your garden, series 2, episode 5, West Derby. Broadcast 26th January 2022 (accessed 27th January 2022) https://www.channel4.com/programmes/the-great-british-dig-history-in-your-garden