Image: Croxteth Park, 2009, by the author
West Derby was once the centre of administration in the north west of England. As well as the seat of the Molyneux family, the township had its own castle and courthouse. However, as Liverpool grew in importance, West Derby was overshadowed by its near neighbour, and evolved into a wealthy suburb in the 19th Century.
Derbei, Domesday; West Derbie, 1177.
In a document of 1177 we first hear of ‘West Derby’ township, rather than simply ‘Derbei’ or the like.
The name comes from the Old English word deor (deer), and the place-ending by, meaning enclosure, so this was a park where deer were bred for the purposes of hunting. The relative importance of this township can be told from the ‘West’ added to the name sometime after the Norman conquest, to distinguish it from Derby in Derbyshire.
Other names: Alt (burn, mountain stream) is a word with a proto-Celtic (ancient British, related to Welsh) derivation, and Croxteth is a Norse name.
Historic Features in West Derby
Note: As with other township histories on this website, much of what follows comes from one source. In the case of West Derby it’s the second edition of A History of West Derby by JG Cooper & AD Power (1988), Bellefield Press.
It’s perhaps the longest of the books on Liverpool village surburbs, which might be a reflection of West Derby’s relative importance in south Lancashire history. It also ranges beyond just West Derby, especially in its early chapters. You get the full history of glaciation and how it formed this part of the country, before it slowly homes in on West Derby through the prehistoric, Viking and early Medieval periods.
It’s also got some great sketch maps, which reproduce in the authors’ own pencil lines information which is hard to come by elsewhere. I recommend it to West Derby historians and, more than any other village history, to those interested in Liverpool history in general.
The Landscape of West Derby
The natural landscape of south west Lancashire had an important effect on the origins and development of West Derby. The topography influenced its location, and still leaves clues in the layout of the suburb today.
The land to the north of West Derby was once mossland, reflected in names like Blackmoor Drive, which derived its name ultimately from a large house of that name, and Blackmoor Moss which once covered part of the district.
Blackmoor Moss lent its name to Black Moss Lane, which is now Black Horse Lane. The moss itself stretched from Queens Drive to the Alt north east of Croxteth Hall.
The underlying geology of Merseyside is glacial, where ice carved out valleys from the north west down to the south east. Later wind blown sand and other glacial deposits filled in these valleys, leading to sandstone ridges separated by flat areas. Geological uplift exposed coal measures in Croxteth Park, making it self-sufficient in the fuel (Cooper & Power, 1988: 21).
Queens Drive near the Jolly Miller sits on one of these ridges, and flat land stretches through West Derby to Knowsley.
Good building stone was easy to get at in West Derby. There were many quarries around here, like those in Sandforth Road and Derwent Road. Demand came initially from individual houses and farms (for things like field walls). Leyfield Road and Derby Lane still have modest sandstone buildings on them. Later, large residential houses needed great amounts of sandstone, and as their numbers increased so did the size of the quarries. But it wasn’t just local buildings that sourced quality stone from this area.
The quarry (later known locally as the Delph) behind the Queens Drive Hotel supplied stone to the first George’s Dock. Mill Bank’s quarry produced material for St. James’ and St Mary’s churches nearby, but also Childwall Church’s tower and Old Swan Police Station quarries].
The quarries have now all been filled in or otherwise landscaped, and haven’t been used since the 1920s. Road names survive as clues to their location, like Quarry Road near Mill Bank, and Rock Mount and Rock Street in Old Swan.
The Social Landscape
West Derby was the ‘capital manor’ of the hundred of West Derby, which stretched from the Mersey to the Ribble in the north.
The village of West Derby grew up around the gates of Croxteth Hall, which remains the centre of the village to this day. The township (distinct to the hundred) of West Derby was much more widespread than this, however. It reached close to the town centre, taking in Kensington and Prescot Road, one of the principal roads out of Liverpool.
The village was on the main route between Hale and Ormskirk and Aughton. This might have made it attractive as a site for the castle, and hunting lodge before it. It also had a supply of wood, the Alt nearby, and was an established centre.
‘Green lanes’ tended to be routes on the edge of villages heading out into the uninhabited areas. In the case of Green Lane this was Tuebrook. Almond’s and Hayman’s Green would have been green lanes leading out beyond the boundaries of West Derby.
In 1533 farms were aggregated and common land was enclosed, turning arable land into pasture. In 1667 the West Derby Wastes were enclosed.
A portion of West Derby was taken into Liverpool in 1835, and another part in 1895. But even by 1907 there were still areas of West Derby which lay outside the city boundaries.
Wells were plentiful in this area, with one near the present Sefton Arms, and another in Meadow Lane. There were other private pumps for houses in Town Row and Hayman’s Green. Holly Lodge had a pump too, as did Lark Hill with its adjoining cottages (three pumped wells in all). A well could be found at the Town Row end of Hartington Road in the south east corner of the grounds of St Paul’s church. Another stood in Old Swan, at the corner of St Oswald Street and Prescot Road.
Some of the well-known roads of today were mentioned centuries ago in legal documents. In 1557 a record of the Halmote Court mentioned “a certain Robert Mercer of Townroe and a Will Mercer of Tubrucke”. Eaton Road North originally shrank down to a lane called Narrowback, which had 24 houses on it sharing a tap.
In the early decades of the 20th Century West Derby was noted as having a long line of houses stretching all the way from the city centre to West Derby village. The area was still relatively green, with wide spaces between the buildings.
South of West Derby Road (once known as Rake Lane) was Prescot Road, another route from the city centre. At Old Swan a traveller could continue on to Knotty Ash and out to Prescot, or they could turn southwards to Broad Green and out of the town that way.
A Free School was mentioned in a document of 1667. One Ann Dwerryhouse donated land on Edge Lane for a new school in the early 19th century. Money was raised by the local community for a schoolmaster, and the school was eventually built, not on the donated land, but near the ancient chapel in 1825. It had 60 pupils, and the older school building became a cottage for the master.
In 1859 the Earl of Sefton gave land in Meadow Lane for a new school. When it opened it became known as the West Derby National School and the previous school became a workshop. In 1974 this school building was largely demolished (except for the bell tower) and a new one built.
The Spring Grove site of St Paul’s School replaced an earlier church school in Bonsall Road. Blackmoor Park was built in 1938 to serve the growing suburb, expanding to a second site (now the infants school) in 1955.
Some of the earliest buildings in West Derby would have been cruck-framed houses, and some of these frames survive into the 21st century. At 54 Town Row the (possibly 16th century) frame was partly uncovered during renovations in the 1970s. At the same time, coins were found in the fireplace dating to 1797 and a little later.
In the 18th century the original cob had been replaced with brick, and the roof raised to a higher level, and tiled. This house was divided into two smaller houses in the 19th century, and the cruck survived in the dividing wall. [IMAGE Map of Town Row]. Cooper and Power (1988: 183) claim that six cruck-framed houses from before 1500 surviving on Town Row. These buildings survived because they were simply fronted in later centuries by brick walls, hiding and protecting the wooden structure.
Other houses survived for centuries, but are now gone. ‘Boltons’ in Knotty Ash and Birch Hill Cottage, both now demolished, were built before 1500.
Moss House, which once stood on the corner of Derby Lane and Queens Drive was demolished in 1910 to reveal a 17th century house within. (On a related note, the willow tree at this junction is said to have been in the garden of Moss House. It’s true that the garden of Moss House stretched the far into the junction).
Prehistory in West Derby
A Bronze Age stone axe or hammer was found on Clubmoor Recreation Ground when air raid shelters were built. Flint scrapers were found on the site of Elm House, on the outskirts of Old Swan near Edge Lane. And an adze was found north of Craven Wood, north of Croxteth Brook, in around 1930.
Medieval West Derby
In the years after 1066 the history of West Derby is closely linked with the feudal system which came into force with William I’s reign. At the time of Domesday, West Derby had 6 berewicks, one of which was Liverpool. How many (or rather, how few) people lived in the place called Liverpool at his point will probably never be known.
West Derby emerged early on as an important centre in the north west. As a result, it had several landmarks which set it apart from other suburbs of Liverpool.
Croxteth Hall was originally known as Barrett’s Hall. Barrett himself was a squire of John of Gaunt. The name of the present Hall was drawn from the existing name of Croxteth Park, already in use at the time the Hall adopted the name.
Croxteth Hall was originally built of timber, with plaster walls, in 1575. The estate was given to the Molyneux in 1473 by Henry VI.
The Forest: Croxteth, Toxteth and Smithdown
Roger of Poitou afforested Croxteth, Toxteth and Smithdown in the reign of Henry I. The forest was gradually de-wooded, and Croxteth forest was declared illegal in the 1228 Charter of Forests. In the light of this, all forest planted after 1154 was also declared illegal. This might have been in order to allow the cutting down of more woodland.
In 1461 the forestership of the wapentake of West Derby was given to the Molyneux family. This may have prompted their move from Sefton to Croxteth (the former Barrett’s Hall) in 1548.
The 18th century
The oldest detailed map of the area is a survey of the Molyneux estate from 1769. It shows Town Row with around half a dozen houses on it, with almost all other buildings clustered in the village centre. Although the map stretches to ‘Moss Lane’ (the future Queens Drive), there is little else in the built environment
The early houses
Perhaps the oldest house in the West Derby areas is the Round House (Sandfield Old Hall), which was built in 1635. Other large houses would follow over the next three centuries.
In the 18th century West Derby could generally be considered in four quarters: Town Row, Woodside, Low Hill and Acker’s End. On Perry’s map of 1768 there are 36 dwellings in the whole village; on Yate’s map of 1786 there are 28 houses on Town Row alone.
In 1774 Joseph Jackson Jr. owned Fir Grove (opposite the top of Alder Road) and diverted Black Horse Lane, which ran in front of the house, apparently “for the convenience of the public”. That he diverted it to run further from his front door and cause the public to walk in a wide loop around him gives the lie to that statement. This is why there is a large loop in Queens Drive to this day.
Isaac Greene the lord of the manor (having bought West Derby along with other manors), was the instigator of a lot of the enclosure of the 18th century. He also owned the manors of Wavertree, Childwall, two Wooltons and Everton. He came into conflict with the copyholders of West Derby when he claimed that all the waste lands of the manor were his by right. The subsequent court case found in favour of the copyholders.
Norris Green existed as a rural estate prior to 1774, and a mansion was built by Arthur Heywood in 1830. The name came from the Norrises of Speke who had some land around here.
The house of Larkhill had a grand drive which is now Muirhead Avenue. The gateposts survived into the late 20th century. [MAP of Larkhill]
The residential boom
When the 19th century began, West Derby was on the cusp of a transformation. Large houses would be built, as men and women of wealth moved out of the city centre and inner suburbs, as the latter became crowded with terraces.
As late as 1825 the entrance to Croxteth Park was on Meadow Lane. In 1830 the Earl of Sefton bought two fields from the Marquis of Salisbury (the local lord of the manor by this time, and prime landowner). On this land he created a grand entrance to the park which opened directly into the centre of West Derby village. Part of this land ended up with St Mary’s church on it.
The 3rd Earl of Sefton redesigned the park beginning in 1850, including moving Croxteth Hall Lane away from the house. As part of this, the grand new drive was enhanced in 1856 with the construction of a tunnel under the Lane.
The Village Hall was opened in 1913.
Established and modern industries all existed in West Derby. Ropemaking can be seen on the map off St Oswald’s Street in Old Swan. In 1825 a glassworks opened on Edge Lane at the top of St Oswald’s Street. English glassmaking had fallen behind the superior French-made glass, which was flatter and more fit for window panes.
The owners of the factory made the clever decision to hire 40 French glassmakers to improve the quality of their product. Today, the site is occupied by B&Q, but the Glasshouse pub remains a testament to the factory that once stood nearby.
Transport and technology
From the middle of the 19th century the railways cut through the landscape. In 1879 the Cheshire Lines Railway opened, serving West Derby, Knotty Ash. This railway ran to and from Southport, and stopped at Knotty Ash and West Derby stations. The London and North West Company’s railway travelled out from Liverpool Lime Street, via Edge Hill Station to the Crown Street terminus of the Liverpool to Manchester line. The railway had stations at Edge Lane, Tuebrook and Breck Road.
The first horse-drawn trams reached West Derby in 1882. Horses were stabled in depot sheds behind the court house, and a ticket inspector’s hut was built next to the latter, which has been the Flower Pot florist’s for decades. One-horse ‘shuttles’ took people from West Derby to Green Lane, and from Knotty Ash to Old Swan. Here they could switch trams for onward travel to the city centre.
In 1900 the trams bringing passengers from Liverpool was electrified, and the inspector’s office was dedicated to ticket sales.
New technologies crept into everyday life. In 1896 the first telephone exchange was opened. A telephone exchange was built in West Derby, a 3 Town Row, and later at 11 Mill Lane. Eventually it moved to 40 Mill Lane. The 1886 Liverpool directory showed one telephone entry for West Derby. By 1900 there were 56 West Derby numbers.
Electricity was starting to become available to the wider public. A power station was built on Lister Drive, with two more taking over duties subsequently in 1904 and 1926 as demand increased.
A ‘street railway’ was laid through Old Swan from Fairfield in 1861. The tram system from Liverpool served West Derby, terminating at the village. Travellers could alight at a junction at Knotty Ash which linked up with the South West Lancashire tram system. The last tram ran in 1949.
In 1909 Queens Drive was built in Lark Hill, with the Moss Lane section constructed in 1911.
In 1914 Alder Hey hospital was built, in an attempt to give children the benefit of the clean air in the semi-rural district. Originally built for children of the West Derby workhouses, it was also used as a military hospital in both World Wars.
Alder Hey was originally the name of one of the large houses in West Derby, and its estate was bought in 1906 for the hospital. Parts of the house survived in the hospital complex until 1964. The lodge, Alder Lodge, still stands on Alder Road.
In 1835 a large portion of West Derby was taken into Liverpool, with the rest brought in in 1895. In 1871 the population was 50,681. This was the time when the first large houses were built. The suburb attracted international consuls, who built large houses on Eaton Road from the middle of the 19th century. The houses on Hayman’s Green date from this period, as West Derby changed from a village to a suburb.
The first boom in housebuilding was caused by the demand for domestic labour in these large houses. Domestic staff were unlikely to be able to commute far, and cottages grew up in the West Derby area, particularly on Almond’s Green.
In 1850 Owen Hughes, builder, bought the Wall Hill Farm area (where Hartington Drive meets Town Row) and built houses on the land.
In 1850 Sandfield Park was laid out as an exclusive estate with two lodges, but from 1935 more houses were built. These were initially large residences like the existing Sandfield Old Hall, but later smaller houses joined them later. Sandfield Park can therefore be considered part of the suburban development of West Derby rather than the initial phase of house building.
Sandfield Old Hall was already there, and dates at least in part to the 16th century (with some parts of the stable block certainly dating to around 1635). Over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries it changed its name, from the Round House (1768) to Sandfield, Sandfield House, Sandfield Hall and finally, in 1892, Sandfield Old Hall.
There is a rumour that the Old Hall has tunnels leading to Blackmoor Moss (in the direction of Queens Drive). Indeed, the Hall has a bricked up door way in the cellar, but nothing more is known of this.
Bellefield was another of the large houses built in Sandfield Park. The Park had an upkeep charge for residents to maintain the roads and environs, but Sir Edward Bates, the owner of Bellefield, refused to pay. A drive led from his house on Sandforth Road onto North Drive, which made him liable for the payments. Because he refused, the gates were permanently locked shut, and the only gates used were directly onto Sandforth Road itself.
The end of the large houses
The large houses which had belonged to consuls and merchants were demolished in the 1920s and 1930s. Oliva, once standing on Eaton Road between Alfriston, Alvanley and Apsley Roads, was bought by the Scarret Brothers, builders, in 1932. Eaton House, to the south east of Oliva, was demolished in 1933 for semi-detached houses, so it’s likely that the Scarret Brothers were the builders of all the houses between Apsley Road and Honeys Green Lane.
The former Cheshire Lines Railway closed to passengers in 1960, and goods in 1965. Trains continued to pass through the station, and use the sidings at Knotty Ash, but in 1972 the whole line shut, and the tracks were pulled up in 1979. Today, the line has a tarmac surface and is used as the Liverpool Loop Line cycling route.
Areas of West Derby
West Derby is a township with several recognisable areas within it.
Broad Green began life as a village around a wide green triangle. This area is now occupied by the Turnpike Tavern and housing estate to the south of Broadgreen Station.
One of the landmarks of the area on Edge Lane was the Oak Vale plant nurseries. This gave rise to the Gardener’s Arms pub which once stood at the end of Broad Green Road. Cunningham Road is named after George Cunningham, the head gardener.
Trees were brought to this part of the city from Ladies Walk, when that lane was cleared to make way for industry in 1778.
The area now known as Old Swan gets its name from the pub of that name, once known as the Three Swans. The swans were those on the coat of arms of the Walton family, who owned land around here.
The pub was built on a sandstone outcrop on the heath, on the pack horse (and later stagecoach) route from Liverpool to Broadgreen and Prescot. The Three Swans itself became a post office, and was a stopping off point for horses and, later, trams.
In 1973, during construction of St Oswald’s Church in Old Swan, 3500 bodies were excavated. It’s been suggested that these were plague victims, but it’s not known why so many were buried here. It could have been that this spot was a safe distance away from the main centres of population on Merseyside, but not too far from West Derby Village itself.
Knotty Ash grew up at a crossroads on the route from Liverpool to Prescott, Warrington and Manchester. Roads went north to West Derby and south to Broad Green.
A community grew up around the Turk’s Head pub and other establishments. Literal cottage industries were practiced in the small residences at Little Bongs, and a brewery grew up on Prescott Road.
Radley, G., 1971, Knotty Ash, Parochial Council of St John the Evangelist Church, Liverpool
Radley, G., 1986, Knotty Ash, Old Swan and West Derby, A & R Publications, Liverpool
Cooper, JG, & Power, AD, A History of West Derby, Bellefield Press.
Cooper, John & Power, David, 1988, The People of West Derby, Bellefield Press, Liverpool