History of New Ferry

Pre 19th century

Until the 19th century, the Wirral peninsula had remained a rural backwater noted only in history for its strategic location as the ideal place for foreign invaders to attempt to get a foothold on part of mainland Britain.  Following withdrawal of the Roman Empire in 410 A.D., Wirral subsequently became the home for Anglo-Saxon settlers in the 7th century, followed by invasions by Norse Vikings at the end of the 9th century.  


At that time, most of what is today the New Ferry area would have been a gently rising hill centred on where the Toll Bar Crossroads (junctions of New Chester Road/Bebington Road/New Ferry Road) is situated today.  To the east was the sandy (mud now!) shore of the River Mersey.  To the south was a tidal inlet that led to the River Dibbin with a further tidal creek coming off this which led northwards to border the western flank of the New Ferry "hill" (this creek was filled in by the Victorians when Port Sunlight village was constructed, the village school, the church and Lady Lever Art Gallery were all built on the filled ground). The various tidal creeks were surrounded by large areas of flat mashes. 


Below is what we think an aerial photo of the area might have looked like around 900 A.D. compared with today.  The coloured splots show the positions of New Ferry Park (yellow); Shorefields (blue); Toll Bar Crossroads (red); and Lever Art Gallery (lilac).

Painting of "Vikings Arrive" by Chris Collingwood

Painting of "Vikings Arrive" by Chris Collingwood


Map of Wirral in 1611

Wirral is the only place in mainland Britain with documented evidence of Norwegian Viking settlers.  Ancient Irish Chronicles report the first peaceful settlements led by the Norseman Ingimund in 902 A.D. when settlers began clearing some of the woodland to build homesteads and farms.  Although no evidence of settlement in the New Ferry area has been found, we know that Tranmere, the next community to the north is a name that dates from the Norse "Trani-melr" meaning "cranebirds' sandbank".  Meanwhile, immediately to the south of the River Dibbin is "Brunanburh", the old Norse name for Bromborough, a place that also gives its name to a famous battle fought in the area in 937 A.D. 

 

After invading England in 1066 and subduing Northumbria in 1069/70, William the Conqueror invaded and ravaged Chester, laying waste to much of Wirral. Between 1120-1123, Earl Ranulph le Meschin converted Wirral into a hunting forest where wild deer and boar were allowed to flourish undisturbed.  However, 250 years later, after local people complained about the wildness of the area, in 1376, King Edward III ordered the forests be cut down.


Unofficial ferries had been operated by fishermen as a means of earning extra income, from the New Ferry shore, for centuries. Records from the 14th century suggest that a man named Adam del Fere operated a ferry from here.


1764 seems to be the year in which the first “modern” reference to New Ferry is made, although it is a name that is likely to have been in common usage for some time prior to this date. The first occurrence of the name in an official record was in a legal action brought by the owner of the Rock Ferry who, apparently, considered that the entrepreneurial style of the New Ferry’s owners would cut into his potential profits. The name referred solely to the actual ferry itself and did not take in any part of what we today consider to be New Ferry. 


Wirral's lack of raw materials and undeveloped transportation network meant that it was ignored by the Industrial Revolution that started elsewhere in the country. Even the presence of Liverpool, one of the biggest and fastest growing cities of the 18th and 19th centuries, only two miles away across the Mersey, had failed to have an effect.  At this time, Lower Bebington was one of the bigger of Wirral’s townships with a population of about 300, three times that of Birkenhead. The majority of people lived in the immediate vicinity of St Andrew’s Church and the nearby junction of the Chester and Neston Turnpikes.  In what is now New Ferry, just half a dozen houses were situated.

 

But it was the 19th century which saw things change for New Ferry.


CLICK on each of the images below for more information.  

Useful links

  • Find out more detail about Wirral's history on Wikipedia


19th CENTURY (1800 to 1899)

In 1817, steam powered ferryboats came into service on both the Eastham and Birkenhead ferries.  Suddenly, everything began to change.  With land on the Cheshire shore of the Mersey far cheaper than in Liverpool, Wirral was ripe for development. Now easily reached by ferry, the shipping magnates and merchants who were keen to escape from the ever-expanding confines of the smoky city of Liverpool were offered an opportunity to escape the consequences of their greed and to live in the clean air and rural peace she offered.  Amongst their number were some entrepreneurs: men ready to take advantage of the cheap land and eager to make or increase their fortunes.  By 1831, at Birkenhead a whole new town of 2,569 inhabitants had arisen.  Following the coming of the Chester to Birkenhead railway and improvements to the Chester turnpike, by 1841 the population had grown to 8,223.


A number of the tranquility-seeking merchants bypassed Birkenhead, travelling further afield to take up residence in other local townships, amongst them Bebington and the New Ferry and Port Sunlight locality which had been an area of rough land, creeks, marsh and fields. In the wake of the merchants came other people:- shopkeepers, tradesmen, servants etc. to service their needs.  


Lower Bebington village, clustered around its church and the junction where the important Chester and the cross-Wirral, Neston roads met, began to grow. Once combined, and after having descended the hill to turn northwards to go on to Birkenhead, a lane or track appeared to run eastwards to meet the Mersey. This lane followed the line of today’s Bebington and New Ferry Roads to where the unofficial ferry had operated over the centuries.  


In the 19th Century, two Acts of Parliament were to totally change the traditional focus of importance within the township:

  • In 1833, permission was given for the re-routing of the ancient Chester Turnpike between Bromborough and Birkenhead. This resulted in the building of a bridge over Bromborough Pool and the construction of a new, shorter, more level toll road along the line of the present A41, New Chester Road. The Howey Lane Toll Gate, which stood 100 yards to the south of today’s Bebington Station, was moved to the new junction of Bebington Road and New Chester Road – on the site where Money Matters stands today.
  • The second Act in 1837 permitted the building of the Chester to Birkenhead Railway Line. Designed by the famous George Stephenson, the railway was rapidly built. Bebington Station became the first station out of Birkenhead (Rock Ferry and Green Lane stations were built much later as the township grew). 


Both these important civil engineering projects were completed by 1840. It was these, along with the coming of the steam ferryboat, which gave rise not only to Birkenhead, but also to New Ferry and, at the same time, lessened the traditional importance of places like Lower Bebington village. 


Through the early decades of the 19th century the river ferry itself had a somewhat chequered history, at times going out of service. All of this was to change in 1865 when a local man, a sugar refiner from Liverpool named MacFie, built – at his own expense (£10,000) – a new iron pier at New Ferry. It used to project into the river from the cobbled car park by The Esplanade, where there was also a hotel (replaced by the Derwent Court residential home in the 1990s) and a row of shops (also replaced in the 1990s by some small modern houses).  

 
From New Ferry pier, two steam ferryboats of the South End Ferry Company connected the rising Wirral settlement with South Liverpool via Harrington Dock. It was from 1865 that the name New Ferry became applied to a specific area bounded on the east and west by the River Mersey and the railway line respectively; to the north the rear of Stanley and Thorburn Roads; and to the south by Bromborough Pool (the mouth of the River Dibbin) - including land where Port Sunlight village would eventually be built from the late 19th century onwards. The ferry operated until 1922 in which year a Dutch ship, enroute to Manchester, ran through the pier demolishing two spans and putting an end to the ferry service.  


The first newcomers to Lower Bebington were a few merchants and businessmen from Liverpool. Later, others came from Birkenhead and elsewhere. In the decade following the coming of the railway and the New Chester Turnpike, the population of Lower Bebington rose from 440 in 1831 to 1,187 in 1841. By 1900 it had reached 8,398. The development of New Ferry followed a pattern: the richer newcomers tended to settle in large houses with extensive gardens well away from the new Toll Bar junction (where tolls were collected from people using the new road). Other, lesser, middle class newcomers settled in smaller, but still large villas, built closer to the centre.  Some of these can still be seen in Stanley and Thorburn Roads.   


This pattern of development continued to the point where, at the very centre, in the immediate vicinity of the Toll Bar in Woodhead, Olinda and Grove Streets, large numbers of poor quality, small, crowded, terraced houses were built. These were necessary to accommodate the workers who serviced the peripheral screen of larger houses and villas.  At the junction, as the population grew, there arose a commercial centre to service the needs of rich and poor alike. In many cases, rather than their being purpose built, earlier, existing residential premises were converted into shops. New Ferry was evolving to develop a natural, commercial centre. 


The final factor in the establishment of the New Ferry District Shopping Centre came with the building of two local works. The first came in 1853 when Price’s Patent Candle Company built Bromborough Pool Village. The second and most influential development came in 1888 when William Lever bought land within the bounds of New Ferry and built his soap works and Port Sunlight Village. With its already well established road links, New Ferry grew to serve the needs of an extensive area to the north, south and west. New Ferry also became the terminus for part of Birkenhead’s tram system – the first tram shed stood on the site of the current post office, but a later one was built in New ferry Road (now Rocket Training) behind Edge the Butchers.

The final factor in the establishment of the New Ferry District Shopping Centre came with the building of two local works. The first came in 1853 when Price’s Patent Candle Company built Bromborough Pool Village. The second and most influential development came in 1888 when William Lever bought land within the bounds of New Ferry and built his soap works and Port Sunlight Village. With its already well established road links, New Ferry grew to serve the needs of an extensive area to the north, south and west. New Ferry also became the terminus for part of Birkenhead’s tram system – the first tram shed stood on the site of the current post office, but a later one was built in New ferry Road (now Rocket Training) behind Edge the Butchers.


Throughout the century, the shore at New Ferry was used to break up old ships that were no longer needed. Much of their interior fittings were salvaged for auction or re-use elsewhere; most materials were recycled.  The most famous ship to have been dismantled here was the SS Great Eastern, an iron sailing steam ship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. She was the largest ship ever built at the time of her 1858 launch, and had the capacity to carry 4,000 passengers around the world without refueling.  Brunel knew her affectionately as the "Great Babe".  He died in 1859 shortly after her ill-fated maiden voyage during which she was damaged by an explosion.  After repairs, she plied for several years as a passenger liner between Britain and America, before being converted to a cable-laying ship. Finishing her life as a floating music hall in Liverpool, she was broken up in 1889 on the shore between New Ferry and nearby Rock Ferry.  The ship's artefacts were auctioned and a number of these we bought and fitted into the Great Eastern Hotel on New Ferry Road.  The bar and beautiful stained glass window depicting the old ship could still be seen inside the pub until recently. Unfortunately, the pub - New Ferry's last iconic building on the eastern side of the bypass - was demolished in 2010.


In the mid 19th century, quarantine ships used to moor in the river off New Ferry, to cater for people with tropical diseases such as cholera, smallpox, chickenpox and leprosy. As a more permanent facility was required, the New Ferry Isolation Hospital was built and opened in 1875.  Behind its high brick walls and railings were several wards, a laundry and houses for nurses and doctors. A flight of wooden steps led down the cliffs to the beach where patients were brought by ship – today you can just see the remains of a small stone jetty on the beach, whilst the broken stone pier cap lying upside down on the ground next to a red brick column on the edge of the woods at the end of Starworth Drive is all that remains of the surrounding wall.


TO BE CONTINUED.......