On Four Bridges – around Birkenhead Docks

I had a walk around Birkenhead docks in the late afternoon sun.

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The ‘Great Float’ divides the towns of Birkenhead and Wallasey.  It is formed around a natural tidal inlet which has been used to develop the Birkenhead dock system which is split into two large docks, the East Float and West Float.  The docks run approximately 2 miles inland from the River Mersey.  The Great Float consists of 110 acres of water and more than 4 miles of quays.

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The Liverpool docks were built along the coastline of the River Mersey but Birkenhead Docks were designed as an inland system by enclosing the natural tidal inlet of the ‘Wallasey Pool’. A dam was built which enabled land to be reclaimed and excavations to take place which formed the Great Low Water Basin, Morpeth Dock and Egerton Dock. The Great Float was formed between 1851 and 1860 from most of what remained of the natural Wallasey Pool.

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The docks were designed by James Meadows Rendel, a pupil of the great engineer Thomas Telford with the scheme being managed by the Birkenhead Dock Company until a financial crisis in 1847. By 1858, the rights to dock ownership and its revenues from trade were transferred to the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board based in Liverpool.

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The entrance was originally through the Great Low Water Basin however this was enclosed in 1877 to become Wallasey Dock and access from the river was then via Alfred Dock and Morpeth Docks.  The Resurgam, one of the first submarines in the world, was tested in the Great Float in 1879.  A replica of the Resurgam is now on display at Woodside Ferry.

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In the early twentieth century, Birkenhead Docks became an important flour milling centre, with numerous companies, including Joseph Rank Ltd and Spillers who were located on the Great Float’s quaysides. In the 1990s, long after the industry had gone, most of these buildings were demolished but two large warehouses remained. The two Grade II listed grain warehouses known as East Float Mills are thought to have been designed by G.F. Lyster (the architect of Liverpool’s Waterloo Warehouse) and were built in 1850. The buildings were formerly used as a departure point for emigrants leaving the country for Australia and later as a destination for cargo ships bringing in grain for the flour mill industry.  The buildings continued to be used throughout the decline of the flour milling industry until 1999. The Warehouses were converted into new homes by Gregor Shore Ltd providing 168 modern loft style apartments in the ‘upmarket’ development of ‘East Float Quay’ in 2006.

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The docks have been in limited use over the last few decades with the decline in the traditional dock industries.  In the early 2000s The Great Float was the site of the Warship Preservation Trust’s collection of historic naval exhibits. From 2002 until its closure in 2006 the collection was moored in the West Float of the docks complex next to the two large remaining grain warehouses at East Float Mills. The fleet consisted of five vessels: the frigate HMS Plymouth; the submarine HMS Onyx (both from the Falklands War); the mine hunter HMS Bronington; the rescued German U-Boat U-534 and ‘LCT 7074’, the last surviving tank landing craft that took part in D-Day.

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However in February 2006 the museum closed as it was required to relocate following the decision to redevelop the Grade II listed East Float Flour Mills into the modern day apartments that they are now.  Without a replacement berthing agreement, the Trust subsequently went into voluntary liquidation and ownership of the collection transferred to the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company (MDHB).  The HMS Plymouth Trust was set up in a bid to acquire the ship and take the warship back to its home city however after several difficulties the bid broke down and Peel Ports (part of Peel Holdings one of the largest property investment companies in the UK who had bought MDHB) sold her to a Turkish ship breaker.  In 2006 HMS Onyx was sold to a Barrow-in-Furness businessman to form the centrepiece of a new heritage museum in Cumbria.  In 2007, Merseytravel the local passenger transport authority acquired the German U-534 to display at the Woodside Ferry Terminal.  The vessel was cut into four sections allowing visitors better access to view the exhibit.

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To travel from Birkenhead to Wallasey there are three road bridges which cross the Great Float.

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Furthest upstream is the Penny Bridge, which crosses the head of the pool to connect Poulton with Bidston in Birkenhead. Its name derives from the 1896 one penny toll to cross in one direction. The original wooden bridge from 1843 was replaced around this time and then again in 1926.  The Penny Bridge provided access to Bidston Dock. The bridge was replaced by a new swing bridge in 1996 but since the dock itself has was subsequently filled in the mechanism has fallen into disrepair through lack of use and the bridge is now effectively a static structure.  Further down the dock system is Duke Street bridge which is a bascule (see saw) bridge with painted green girders. It joins the southern end of the Poulton district of Wallasey with the north end of Birkenhead.

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I was exploring the docks next to the red girdered bascule bridge at Tower Road which connects the Seacombe district of Wallasey with Birkenhead and it is known locally as ‘The Four Bridges’.  This is because there were originally four movable bridges along Tower Road: two between the Great Float and Alfred Dock, one between the Great Float and Wallasey Dock and one between the Great Float and Egerton Dock. When originally built, all four were hydraulic swing bridge types. In the 1930s most were replaced by the current bascule bridges.

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A striking building close to the Four Bridges is the Central Hydraulic Tower and Engine House.  Jesse Hartley, who was responsible for many of Liverpool’s maritime buildings including the Albert Dock, designed the Central Hydraulic Tower and Engine House in line with the wider plans for the Birkenhead Docks proposed by George Gillespie Graham and James Rendel in 1844.  It provided power for the movement of lock gates and the bridges at Birkenhead Docks, it was completed in 1863.  The design of the building was grandly based on the Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza Della Signoria in Florence, Italy.

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The building sustained considerable damage from bombing during the Second World War and was repaired in a functional fashion with little regard to its architectural style.  The large lantern at the top of the tower was not replaced. The building is now disused and in a dilapidated condition.  However in March 2008, a planning application was submitted for a £12 million restoration and redevelopment of the building by Peel Holdings to be converted into a bar and restaurant with a ninety-two bed hotel complex also being planned to be constructed immediately adjacent to it as part of Peel Holdings ambitious plans to rejuvenate the docks known as ‘WirralWaters’.

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Peel Holdings announced the Wirral Waters project in September 2006. This would see a £4.5 billion of investment in the regeneration of the dockland area, it would completely transform the run down and derelict docks system as they have done at Salford Quays at the end of the Manchester Ship canal which now hosts amongst others the Lowry arts centre and Media City. The plans for the East Float are to establish a series of five different quarters each with its own character and approach to design. These quarters are Sky City, Northbank West, Four Bridges, Marina View and Vittoria Studios.

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At the East Float and adjacent Vittoria Dock, the development would include several 50-storey skyscrapers, 5,000,000 square feet of new office space and 11,000,000 square feet for new residential apartments. A retail and leisure quarter at the former Bidston Dock site would cover another 571,000 square feet of space. The whole project is estimated to create over 27,000 permanent new jobs, aside from the employment required for its construction.  Planning permission was granted in November 2010 but the development is expected to take up to 40 years to complete.

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Early plans are to redevelop the Central Hydraulic Tower and Engine House, and to build an international trade centre which will have in excess of 2.5 million square feet with plans to enable up to 1,000 separate companies from China, India, South Korea or other emerging economies, to exhibit, sell, assemble and distribute their goods into the UK and European markets.

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In amongst the current dereliction you cannot miss the wreck of a ship close to the hydraulic tower.  The wreck of the RV Sarsia is partially submerged and derelict in the East Float dock.  I am told that she was built by Philip & Son, in Dartmouth, Devon in 1953.  She was a Marine Biological Association’s survey vessel in the 1960s and was sold in 1981 and was taken to West Africa and used as an oil survey boat until 1986 when it returned back to Dartmouth and then on to Plymouth where it remained in Millbay Docks for two years.  She was then sold in around 1988 and towed away and it appears has been left here in the docks ever since.

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The docks have seen many changes over their long history with the system being reduced in size over the years.  The Alfred Dock now provides the sole access to the docks system from the Mersey.  Vittoria Dock is still operational within the East Float with limited traffic today unlike earlier times.  Between the 1920s and 1970s, the Clan Line and Blue Funnel shipping companies had loading facilities at Vittoria Dock but it fell into disuse as container shipping came to the fore. Morpeth Dock which was originally connected directly to the River Mersey via locks has seen the entrance channel being partially in-filled and the locks removed after being disused for some years. Access to the Great Float via Egerton Dock has also been removed, making both docks effectively landlocked.  Part of Morpeth Dock was also filled in to provide a site for a water treatment plant.  Bidston Dock was opened in 1933 and was used to unload iron ore for the nearby Bidston Steel Mill which closed in the mid 1980s. Bidston Dock was subsequently closed and was in-filled by 2003.  The Wallasey Dock was opened in 1877, replacing the Great Low Water Basin, which had opened directly onto the River Mersey to the east. Situated between Alfred Dock to the north and Morpeth Dock to the south, access to the river was westwards through the Great Float.  In 2001, Wallasey Dock was filled to provide space for a vehicle park for the new Twelve Quays ‘roll on-roll off’ ferry terminal nearby.

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We will have to await Peel Holdings ‘Wirral Waters’ plans to see what the future holds for the Birkenhead docks system and whether they can re-capture some of their former splendour.

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4 thoughts on “On Four Bridges – around Birkenhead Docks

  1. I started work in vittoria dock as a young lad in 1952 as an apprentice electrician at Dock Services and was there until 1982 and have many memories of the changes over the years, I now live in Perth WA but still miss the good years I spent at the Port of Liverpool and MDHCo,

    • Hi Allen

      I hope my blog tells a little bit of the story of the Docks and that you enjoyed reading it. We are still waiting to see what Peel Holdings plans for the docks system will be and how they will change the face of the area with their ambitious Wirral Waters re-development scheme.

      Best wishes

      Brian

  2. Very sad to see the dock system in this state. I visited the docks in the late 70s, to take photographs. Even then, there were some convential cargo liners using the docks. I also remember catching buses at the Pier Head, in the 60s and youd always see three blue flue ships in Vittoria docks.

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