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Map of the Wirral
Wirral or the Wirral ( ) is a peninsula in North West England. It is bounded to the west by the River Dee, which forms the boundary with Wales, and to the east by the River Merseymarker. Both terms "Wirral" and "the Wirral" are used locally (and interchangeably), although the merits of each form are the subject of local debate.

The roughly rectangular peninsula is about long and wide. Under the Local Government Act 1972 the northern part constitutes the Metropolitan Borough of Wirral in Merseyside, and the southern part is administered as part of Cheshire West and Chestermarker. Historically part of Cheshire, the Wirral's boundary with the rest of Cheshire was officially "Two arrow falls from Chester City Walls", as mentioned in the Domesday Book. On this larger definition, even places such as Ledshammarker, Puddingtonmarker and Saughallmarker would be part of Wirral. The peninsula has also been a hundred.

Origin of the name

The name Wirral occurs in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as Wirheal, literally "myrtle-corner", from the Anglo-Saxon wir, a myrtle tree, and heal, an angle, corner or slope. It is supposed that the land was once overgrown with bog myrtle, a plant no longer found in the area but plentiful around Formbymarker, to which Wirral would once have provided a similar habitat. The name was given to the Hundred of Wirralmarker around the 8th century, although by the time of the Domesday Book and for some time afterwards the name of the hundred changed to the Hundred of Wilaveston, which later became Willastonmarker.


Prehistoric settlement

The earliest evidence of human occupation of Wirral dates from the Mesolithic period, around 7000 BC. Excavations at Greasbymarker have uncovered flint tools and signs of stake holes and a hearth used by a hunter-gatherer community, and other evidence from about the same period has been found at Irbymarker, Hoylakemarker and New Brightonmarker. Later Neolithic stone axes have been found at several locations including Oxtonmarker, Nestonmarker, and Meolsmarker, where Neolithic pottery has also been found. At Meols and New Brighton there is evidence of continuing occupation through to the Bronze Age, around 1000 BC, and funerary urns of the period have been found at West Kirbymarker and Hilbremarker.

Before the time of the Romans, Wirral was inhabited by a Celtic tribe, the Cornovii. Discoveries of artefacts at Meols suggest that it was an important port from at least as early as 500 BC. Traders came from as far away as Gaul and the Mediterraneanmarker in search of minerals from North Wales and Cheshire. There are also remains of a small Iron Age fort at Burtonmarker, which takes its name (burh-tun) from it.

The Romans and Britons

Around the year 70, the Romans occupied Chester, and traces have been found of their occupation in Wirral. These include the remains of a road near Mollingtonmarker, Ledshammarker and Willastonmarker. This may have continued to the port at Meols, which may have been used as a base for attacking the north Wales coast. Storetonmarker Quarry may also have been used by the Romans for sculpture, and remains of possible Roman roads have also been found at Greasbymarker and at Bidstonmarker. By the end of the Roman period, pirates were a menace to traders in the Irish Seamarker, and soldiers may have been garrisoned at Meols to combat this threat.

The Romans left in about 410, but later coins and other material found at Meols show that it continued to operate as a trading port. There is evidence of Celtic Christianity from the 5th or 6th centuries in the originally circular shape of churchyards at Bromboroughmarker, Woodchurchmarker and elsewhere, and also in the dedication of the parish churchmarker at Wallaseymarker to a 4th century bishop, Hilary of Poitiers. The Celtic names of Liscardmarker and Landicanmarker (from llan-Tegan) both suggest an ancient British rather than later origin. The name of Wallasey itself, meaning "Welsh (or foreigners') island", is evidence of British settlement. The Welsh name, both ancient and modern, for the Wirral is Cilgwri. In Welsh mythology, the Ouzel (or Blackbird) of Cilgwri was one of the most ancient creatures in the world.

The Anglo-Saxons and Vikings

The Anglo-Saxons under Æthelfrith, king of Northumbriamarker, laid waste to Chestermarker around 616. Æthelfrith withdrew, leaving the area west and south of the Merseymarker to become part of Merciamarker, and Anglo-Saxon settlers soon took over most of Wirral with the exception of the northern tip. Many of Wirral's villages, such as Willaston, Easthammarker and Suttonmarker, were established and named at this time.

Towards the end of the ninth century, the Norsemen or Vikings began raiding the area. They settled along the Dee side of the peninsula, and along the sea coast, giving their villages names such as Kirbymarker, Frankbymarker and Meols. They also introduced their own system of local government, with its parliament at Thingwallmarker. Ancient Irish annals record the population of Wirral by Norsemen led by Ingimund, expelled from Ireland around 902 and getting agreement from Aethelflaed or "Ethelfleda", Queen of the Mercianmarker English to settle there peacefully. The boundary of the Norse colony is believed to have passed south of Neston and Rabymarker, and along Dibbinsdalemarker. Evidence of the Norse presence in Wirral can still be seen from place name evidence - such as the common '-by' (meaning "town" in Danish) suffixes and names such as Tranmeremarker, which comes from trani melr ("cranebird sandbank"). Similarly, archaeological finds (such as two hogback tombstones) corroborate this. On 10 September 2007, a 1,000-year-old Viking transport longship (Nordic clinker design) was discovered under the car park of the Railway Inn in Meols. Recent Y-DNA research has also revealed the genetic trail left by Vikings in the Wirral, specifically relatively high rates of the Haplogroup R1a, associated in Britain with Viking ancestry.

Bromboroughmarker on the Wirral is also one of the possible sites of an epic battle in 937, the Battle of Brunanburh, which confirmed England as an Anglo-Saxon kingdom. This is the first battle where England came together as one country, to fight the combined forces of the Norsemen and the Scots, and thus historians consider it the birthplace of England. It is thought that the battlesite was so large that it covered a large area of Wirral. Egil's Saga, a story which tells of the battle, may have referred to Wirral as Wen Heath, Vínheíþr in Icelandic.

The Normans and the early Middle Ages

After invading England in 1066 and subduing Northumbria in 1069/70, William the Conqueror invaded and ravaged Chester and its surrounding area, laying waste to much of Wirral. The Domesday survey of 1086 shows that Wirral at that time was more densely populated than most other parts of England, and the manor of Easthammarker, which covered most of the eastern side of the peninsula from Bidstonmarker to the River Gowy, was the second largest in Cheshiremarker. Of the 28 former lords of Wirral manors listed, 12 bore Norse names. By 1086, most of the area was in the hands of Norman lords such as Robert of Rhuddlan, his cousin Hugh d'Avranches, and Hamo de Mascy. The survey shows only 405 heads of families in the whole of the peninsula, suggesting a total population of 2,000-3,000.

For about 250 years the Earls of Chester ruled the whole of the County Palatine, including Wirral, almost as "a kingdom within a kingdom". Between 1120-1123, Earl Ranulph le Meschin converted Wirral into a hunting forest, an area in which game, particularly deer and boar, could be allowed to flourish undisturbed. A chief Forester was appointed with a ceremonial horn, and the position soon became a hereditary responsibility of the Stanley family. However, after complaints by the residents about the wildness of the area and oppression by the Stanleys, a charter confirming the disafforestation of Wirral was issued by King Edward III on 20 July 1376.

At the end of the twelfth century, Birkenhead Priorymarker stood on the west bank of the River Merseymarker on a headland of birch trees, from which the townmarker derives its name. The ruined priory is Merseyside's oldest surviving building and its Benedictine monks provided the first Mersey ferrymarker service around 1330, having been granted a passage to Liverpoolmarker by a charter from Edward III. At this time, large areas of Wirral were owned by Chester Abbey. In 1278 the Abbey was granted the right to hold an annual three-day fair at Bromborough, but the fair went into decline after the devastation of the Black Death in 1349. Another fair was established in 1299 at Burtonmarker. Meanwhile, Meols continued as an important port, and the eroded coastline there has provided what is described as "the largest collection of medieval domestic items to have come from any single site outside London".

The 16th to 18th centuries

A Subsidy Roll of 1545 shows that the total population of Wirral at the time was no more than 4,000. The peninsula was divided into about 15 parishes (Wallasey, Bidston, Uptonmarker, Woodchurch, West Kirby, Thurstastonmarker, Heswallmarker, Bebingtonmarker, Bromborough, Eastham, Nestonmarker, Burton, Shotwickmarker, Backfordmarker and Stokemarker). Most of these were divided into smaller townships, of which the largest in terms of population were Neston, Burton, Wallasey, Tranmeremarker (then within the parish of Bebington) and Liscard. However, none of these were more than small rural villages.
Wirral's proximity to the port of Chester influenced the history of the Dee side of the peninsula. From about the fourteenth century, Chester provided facilities for trade with Ireland, Spain, and Germany, and seagoing vessels would "lay to" in the Dee awaiting favourable winds and tides. As the Dee started to silt up, harbouring facilities developed at Shotwick, Burton, Neston, Parkgatemarker, Dawpoolmarker, and "Hoyle Lake" or Hoylakemarker. However, there was not a gradual progression of development, and downstream anchorages such as that at Hoyle Lake (which replaced Meols) were in occasional use from medieval times, depending on the weather and state of the tide. The main port facilities were at Neston and Parkgate.

At the same time, the use of larger ships and the growth of commerce and industry in Lancashire started to lead to the growth of Liverpoolmarker. The first wet dock in Britain was opened in Liverpool in 1715, and the town's population grew from some 6,000 to 80,000 during the 18th century. The need to develop and protect the port led to a chain of lighthouses being built along the north Wirral coast. The commercial expansion of Liverpool, and the increase in stage coach traffic from Chester, also spurred the growth of ferriesmarker across the River Merseymarker. By the end of the 18th century the Wirral side of the Mersey had five ferry houses, at Seacombemarker, Woodsidemarker, the Rockmarker, New Ferrymarker and Eastham.

Other communications were also improving. Turnpike roads linking Chester with Eastham, Woodside, and Neston were built after 1787. In 1793, work began on the Ellesmere Canalmarker, connecting the River Mersey with Chester and Shropshiremarker through the fluvioglacial landform known as the Backfordmarker gap, and the town of Ellesmere Portmarker began to develop.

The excavation of the New Cut of the Dee, opened in 1737, to improve access to Chester, diverted the river's course to the Welsh side of the estuary and took trade away from the Wirral coastline. Although plans were made to overcome its gradual silting up, including one in 1857 to cut a ship canal from a point between Thurstaston and Heswallmarker to run along the length of Wirral to Chester, this and other schemes came to nothing, and the focus of general trade moved irrevocably to the much deeper Mersey. However, from the late 18th century there was coal mining near Neston, in tunnels stretching up to two miles under the Dee, and a quay at Denhall was used for coal exports.

The nineteenth century

The first steam ferry service across the Mersey started in 1817, and steam-powered ships soon opened up Wirral's Mersey coast for industrialisation. The 1820s saw the birth of the area's renowned shipbuilding tradition when John Laird opened his shipyard in Birkenhead, later expanded by his son William. The Lairds were largely responsible for the early growth of Birkenhead, commissioning the architect James Gillespie Graham to lay it out as a new town modelled on Edinburghmarker. In 1847, Birkenhead's first docks and its municipal parkmarker, the first in Britain and the inspiration for New York's Central Parkmarker, were opened, and the town expanded rapidly. Birkenhead's population of less than one thousand in 1801 rose to over 33,000 by 1851, and to 157,000 by 1901. The town became a borough in 1877, incorporating within it Claughton, Oxton, Prenton and Tranmere.

The improved communications also allowed Liverpool merchants to buy up and develop large estates in Wirral. James Atherton and William Rowson developed the resort of New Brightonmarker, and new estates for the gentry were also built at Egremontmarker, Oxtonmarker, Claughtonmarker and Rock Ferry. Arrowe Hallmarker was built for the Shaw family in 1835.

The mid 19th century saw the establishment of docks at Birkenhead and in the Wallasey Pool, and continuing development for a wide range of industry both there and along the banks of the Mersey. The New Chester Road was opened in 1833. Wirral's first railway was built in 1840, planned by George Stephenson and connecting Birkenhead with Chestermarker. In 1852 Price's Patent Candle Company built a factory and model village at Bromborough. This was followed in 1888 by William Lever's establishment of the much larger Sunlight soap factory and Port Sunlightmarker garden village, designed to house its employees and provide them with a benign environment. The opening of the Manchester Ship Canal in 1894, with its outfall at Eastham, led to further port-side and industrial development beside the Mersey at Ellesmere Port.

In 1886, the Mersey Railway tunnel was opened, linking Wirral and Liverpool. This led to the further rapid growth of suburbs along its lines in Wirral, particularly in Wallasey, Hoylake and West Kirby, and later Bebington and Heswall. Wallasey's population grew to over 53,000 by 1901, and the town also achieved borough status soon after the turn of the century.

The twentieth century

The dockland areas of Wallasey and Birkenhead continued to develop and prosper in the first half of the century, specialising in trade with Africa and the Far East. A host of other port-related industries then came into existence, such as flour milling, tanning, edible oil refining and the manufacture of paint and rubber-based products. In 1922 a new oil dock was built at Stanlowmarker near Ellesmere Port, and in 1934 oil refining began there. A large chemical and oil refining complexmarker still dominates the area.

In 1929, the 3rd World Scout Jamboree was held at Arrowe Parkmarker and this celebrated the 21st Anniversary of the publication of Scouting for Boys. Thirty-five countries were represented by 30,000 Scouts, plus another 10,000 British Scouts who took the opportunity to camp in the vicinity.

The rail tunnel under the Mersey was supplemented by a vehicle tunnel in 1934, the Queensway Tunnelmarker. A third tunnel opened in 1971, the Kingsway Tunnelmarker, connecting with the M53 motorway which now runs up the centre of the peninsula. These new roads contributed to the massive growth of commuting by car between Liverpool and Wirral, and the development of new suburban estates around such villages as Moretonmarker, Upton, Greasby, Pensbymarker, and Bromborough.

In 1940-41, as part of The Blitz, parts of Wirral, especially around the docks, suffered extensive bomb damage. There were 464 people killed in Birkenhead and 355 in Wallasey, and 80% of all houses in Birkenhead were either destroyed or badly damaged. During the Second World War Wirral held two RAF sites, RAF West Kirbymarker (which was a camp, not an airfield) and RAF Hooton Parkmarker and a number of anti-aircraft sites in order to protect the docks of Birkenhead and Liverpool.

After the Second World War, economic decline began to set in in Birkenhead, as elsewhere in the area which had started to become known as Merseyside. However, there continued to be industrial development along the Mersey between Birkenhead and Ellesmere Port, including the large Vauxhall Motors car factory on the site of RAF Hooton Park.


Wirral can be defined as both a geographical peninsula and socio-cultural area. The current Metropolitan Borough of Wirral has a population of 312,293 people (according to the 2001 census), and covers an area of 60.35 square miles, bounded by the Cheshire Plainmarker, the River Dee and the River Merseymarker. The Irish Seamarker lies to its north west side.The Shropshire Union Canalmarker joins the River Mersey at Ellesmere Port and the River Dee at Chester. This makes the geographical peninsula, as a technicality, an island.

Although it has been stated that "it is difficult to find any work in which there is a written description of the exact area defining The Wirral Peninsula", historian Stephen Roberts defines it as "the peninsula which is bounded by the Dee and Mersey estuaries, Irish Sea and... the route of the Shropshire Union Canal between Ellesmere Port and Chester". The original Hundred extended slightly further east, to the River Gowy.

In the north of the peninsula, the River Fender, Arrowe Brook and Greasby Brook drain into the River Birket, which itself flows into the River Mersey via Wallasey Poolmarker (Birkenhead Docks). Further south, the River Clatter and River Dibbin drain into the Mersey at Bromborough Poolmarker.

Two approximately parallel Triassic sandstone ridges run down the length of the peninsula. The western ridge is made up of Grange and Caldy Hills at 256 feet in height, then Thurstaston Hillmarker (298 ft), Poll Hill in Heswallmarker (350 ft, the highest point on the Wirral) and Burtonmarker (222 ft). The less continuous eastern ridge consists of Bidston Hillmarker (231 ft), Prentonmarker (259 ft) and Storeton Hillmarker (229 ft).

The major urban centres of Wirral are to its east; these include Birkenheadmarker and Wallaseymarker. To the west and south, Wirral is more rural. Two thirds of the population of Wirral live on one third of the land - in Birkenhead and Wallasey, according to Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council. Other towns to the south and west of this area are usually considered part of Wirral; notably, Ellesmere Portmarker is often described as one of its 'border towns'. For regional economic planning, both parts of Wirral are considered part of the Liverpool City Regionmarker.

Places on Wirral

The towns and villages on the Wirral are in one of two local authorities:


Despite containing urban and industrial areas, Wirral still has picturesque villages, sandy beaches, large areas of land owned by the National Trust as well as views across the two estuaries and out into the Irish Seamarker. Among the areas of open land are Bidston Hillmarker, Caldy Hillmarker, Eastham Country Parkmarker, including the Victorian Pleasure Gardens, Hilbre Islandmarker, North Wirral Coastal Parkmarker, Thurstaston Common and Thor's Stonemarker and the Wirral Waymarker. Ness Botanical Gardensmarker are part of the University of Liverpoolmarker and have won many awards.

There are places of architectural interest such as Hamilton Squaremarker and Port Sunlightmarker. The view of the buildings on Liverpool's Pier Headmarker when crossing on the Mersey Ferrymarker is famous. Many villages of Wirral such as Burtonmarker also well preserved with their characteristic red sandstone buildings and walls. The old port of Parkgatemarker also attracts many visitors. The arts are well represented by the Lady Lever Art Gallerymarker at Port Sunlight and the Williamson Art Gallerymarker in Birkenhead. The historical sites include Birkenhead Priorymarker, Leasowe Lighthouse, Hadlow Road railway stationmarker and the buildings and ancient carvings on Bidston Hillmarker.

Accents and dialects

The peninsula has a range of accents, though the proximity of the accents of Liverpool and Cheshire means that many people's are between the two. In Birkenhead, Wallasey and Moretonmarker the influence of Liverpool is particularly strong. Accents in the South and West Wirral areas are not as strong, however. Nestonmarker once had a distinctive dialect derived from the migrant workers at the Denhall Colliery but this is now all but extinct.

Wirral in literature

The wilderness of Wirral:
few lived there
Who loved with a good heart
either God or man
Olaf Stapledon, a writer, spent much of his life in West Kirbymarker and Caldymarker, and many landscapes mentioned in his works can be identified.

Notable people

The area has been home to many notable people, including: Ian Botham (cricketer), Daniel Craig (actor), Matt Dawson (rugby player), Emma Hamilton (mistress of Horatio Nelson), Glenda Jackson (actress and politician), Paul O'Grady (TV presenter), John Peel (disc jockey and radio presenter), and Harold Wilson (Prime Minister who was Head Boy of Wirral Grammar School for Boysmarker). Several pop groups and artists also come from the area including Elvis Costello, The Boo Radleys, Half Man Half Biscuit, The Coral, The Rascals and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. A full list of notable people from the Wirral can be found on List of notable people from The Wirral.

Television and film


The M53 motorway runs along the length of Wirral, from near Chestermarker. At the north eastern end, Wirral is joined to Liverpoolmarker by three tunnels under the River Mersey: two road tunnels Mersey Tunnelsmarker, one from Wallasey (Kingsway) and one from Birkenhead (Queensway) and the Mersey Railway tunnel.

The Wirral Line of the electrified Merseyrail network links West Kirby, New Brighton, Chester and Ellesmere Port via many other suburbs to Liverpool Lime Street stationmarker through the underground Liverpool Loop line. Another National Rail line (known recently as the Borderlands Line or "Mid-Wirral line") offers hourly diesel services from Bidston (on the West Kirby branch of the Wirral Line) to Wrexhammarker in North Wales.

The Mersey Ferrymarker regularly crosses to Liverpool from both Woodside and Seacombe, providing both a commuter shuttle service and pleasure cruises.

The nearest airports are Liverpool John Lennon Airportmarker and Manchester Airportmarker.


  • Hoylakemarker, in north west Wirral is one of the premier European land sailing or sand yachting sites, and was host to the week-long European Championships in September 2007.

See also


  1. Haplogroup R1a1 in the Wirral, The Council for British Archaeology
  2. Web site of Ness Gardens

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