Hamilton Square Christmas Lights switch on

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On Friday night I went down to Hamilton Square in Birkenhead to watch the Christmas lights being switched on along with a lot of other people keen to soak up the festive atmosphere.

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This was the first time for ten years that the Square has had Christmas lights.  This year’s event was organised by Birkenhead First and Wirral’s Chamber of Commerce.

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Birkenhead First is a Business Improvement District (BID) which enables businesses within a designated area to fund initiatives and improvements over and above those provided by the local council.

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The Business Improvement District is a partnership between local businesses and Wirral Council, led by a private sector steering group.  Birkenhead First aims to encourage more visitors to and greater investment in Birkenhead town centre. As part of its approach to brightening up Birkenhead they sponsored and funded the Christmas lights this year.

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There were a range of local stores selling everything from chocolate to locally made gin as well as a range of entertainment.  This included a number of attractions for children including Santa and his sleigh, characters from the film Frozen, Fusion Dance Academy and drumming displays from Wirral Samba.

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The team from Wirral Radio entertained the crowds and there was music and Christmas carols from local schools.  Liverpool FC and England footballing legend John Barnes switched on the Hamilton Square Christmas lights at 6pm.

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The couple walking on stilts around the crowd were popular as were the street merchants selling lights and lanterns.  As well as the lights and a Christmas tree outside the town hall there were lights in the trees and on the Square’s ornate street light columns.

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The area around the town hall was certainly jam packed so much so that I couldn’t get anywhere near the stage, but I did manage to get a few shots of the lights and activities around the Square.

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Birkenhead Town Hall

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On a bright St George’s Day I ventured down to see part of Birkenhead’s most impressive architecture around Hamilton Square most particularly the town hall building.

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Birkenhead Town Hall is a Grade II listed building and was built as the main civic building for the former County Borough of Birkenhead.  It continued to be used as council offices by the town’s successor council, the Metropolitan Borough of Wirral, and up until 2010 it housed the Wirral Museum.  It still remains the location of the town’s register office.

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When Hamilton Square was designed in the early 19th century, a plot of land was made available for the erection of a town hall between Hamilton Street and Chester Street. However, it wasn’t until 1887 that the current building was completed after four years of building.  It was designed by local architect Christopher Ellison in 1882 and was constructed using Scottish granite and sandstone from the now filled in local quarry at Storeton which I have written about in earlier blogs.

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The building consisted of a council chamber, offices, with a concert hall and function rooms known as the Assembly Rooms. Birkenhead’s magistrates’ court chambers are located in a separate building of the same design to the rear of the town hall.

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The clock tower is 200 feet in height and consists of four faces. After a fire in 1901, the upper part of the clock tower was rebuilt to a design by Henry Hartley. The rebuilding included the installation of a stained glass window by Gilbert P Gamon representing Edward I’s visit to Birkenhead Priory in 1277.

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The County Borough of Birkenhead was abolished on 1 April 1974 with the creation of the larger Metropolitan Borough of Wirral and nearby Wallasey town hall became the main civic centre for the new combined borough. The Birkenhead building continued to be used as council offices until the early 1990s, when work was undertaken to restore the external stonework and many interior decorations and features, including the former council chamber.

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The Wirral Archives Service was based in the building until 2008, when it transferred to the council’s Cheshire Lines Building nearby.  The service collects and stores all types of historical documents relating to the Wirral area, its people, businesses and institutions.

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Between 2001 and 2010, the Wirral Museum occupied a significant portion of the building.  It featured both themed and permanent exhibits such as the history and development of Wirral, the Cammell Laird collection, the Wirral Silver and Mayoral collections, Della Robbia Pottery and a detailed scale model of the historic Woodside area in 1934.

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Birkenhead town hall continued to house many council staff until the 1990s, but departments were then moved out to other buildings in the area and the town hall was only used as the museum and archives service together with the registry office for births, marriages and deaths.  However the civic building has also continued to be used as a venue for local and national elections and for the celebration of notable occasions as well as the town’s focal point for annual Remembrance Sunday ceremonies.

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In 2009 Wirral Council put the town hall on the market but found there was relatively little interest and the council found no suitable options were put forward.  The Council therefore decided to keep the town hall and it is again being used as offices.  Now there are more than 100 staff based at Birkenhead town hall, mostly transferred from former council offices at Acre Lane which has been closed and is being sold off.  There are plans to bring many more staff to the town hall as the authority sells off unwanted buildings across the borough to save cash.

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The town hall has a rich history in itself.  Throughout the First World War the Mayors and Mayoresses who were in office arranged a number of fundraising events and relief funds. Funds were used such as buying ambulances for the Birkenhead Red Cross. With the vehicles touring the town, starting at the Town Hall then travelling to Birkenhead Park, where at times there were practical demonstrations given to the public by the Borough Fire Brigade and the Voluntary Aid Detachment.

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In September 1914 the Mayoress of Birkenhead started an appeal for Belgian Refugees, who were heading to the area after fleeing from the German invasion.

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The recruitment of the Birkenhead Bantam Brigade started at the Town Hall before moving to Bebington Showground.  Over 1000 men were expected to attend ready to enlist and have a medical examination. Other large recruitment events were also held at the Town Hall.

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From 1915 for the duration of the war a party was held before Christmas and in January for the children of soldiers and sailors who were serving in the HM Forces being paid for by the Mayor’s Annual Relief Fund.

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The first Annual Meeting of the Birkenhead Branch of the National Union of Women Workers was held at the Town Hall. At this meeting the authorities gave permission for patrols of women to be formed, with the support of the police, to maintain order as so many girls appeared to be loitering by the newly formed camps for soldiers.

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In 1916 concerts were held here to raise funds to provide comforts to men serving in the War and in November 1918 a Thanksgiving Supper Dance was held for American soldiers who were billeted in the area.

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The town hall looks out onto Hamilton Square which is surrounded on the other three sides by Georgian terraces. No two sides of the square are identical.

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Hamilton Square was one of the first residential areas for business people and the growing professional classes to be built in the newly formed town of Birkenhead, following the introduction of steam ferries across the River Mersey from Liverpool in the nineteenth century.  Whilst there is still some residential accommodation in the square, many properties are now used as offices and for commercial uses.

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The land on which the square was developed was purchased in 1824 by Scottish shipbuilder William Laird (1780–1841).and he commissioned Edinburgh architect Gillespie Graham, to lay out a square and surrounding streets, in a similar style to Edinburgh New Town.  Gillespie Graham envisaged vistas of long, straight and wide avenues lined by elegant houses. Hamilton Square, named after Laird’s wife’s family, was built piecemeal over the next twenty years as the focus of the regular street layout.  Nearby Hamilton Square railway station opened in 1886.

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The private gardens within the square were acquired by the local council in 1903 and were subsequently opened to the public. Features of the square include the town’s cenotaph immediately in front of the town hall, a large Queen Victoria Monument at the centre of the gardens and a statue of John Laird, the first Member of Parliament for Birkenhead and the son of William Laird. Laird’s house, at 63 Hamilton Square, is a Grade I listed building.

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Between 1995 and 2002 Wirral Council had access to around £80m of public funding through the then government’s ‘Single Regeneration Budget’ to rejuvenate the area around Hamilton Square in what became known as the Hamilton Quarter initiative.  This saw shop front renewals, conservation and landscaping works which included the installation of the ornate ‘moon and stars’ lamp posts which are found all around the square.  The Hamilton Quarter intiative also funded initially the Wirral International Guitar Festival which still goes on today.

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It may be a surprising statistic but Hamilton Square is second only to Trafalgar Square in London for having the most Grade I listed buildings in one place in England.

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The Giants come to Birkenhead

The Parade of Giants took place on Sunday 8th September in Hamilton Square, Birkenhead.  This was the first year the event had been staged.  The parade started at the corner of Hamilton Square and crossed the gardens before gathering in front of the old Town Hall under the watchful gaze of royalty.

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The Wirral Samba band led over 20 Giants including four representing Wirral’s own local ‘Giants’. The 16 other giants were provided by ‘Chester City of Giants’.  All the giants then went on show in the town’s Pyramids shopping centre.

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All the Giants were ‘walked’ by local organisations, community groups and businesses. These included Magenta Living, Cammel Laird, Forum Housing, YMCA, Beechwood Trust, the Shaftsbury Centre, Wirral Met College and Wirral Churches Ark Project to name the ones I could identify.

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The parade was organised by local volunteers with the help and expertise of the Chester City of Giants who are a community interest company, encouraging ‘social enterprise through creativity’.  They offer training and experience and encourage inclusivity and teamwork whilst having fun.  Throughout August the Giants ran workshops in the local shopping precinct allowing volunteers to work with professional artists to make the giants for the parade.  The Chester Giants (‘Chester: the Giant City’ www.thegiants.org.uk) were formed a few years ago and they have re-enacted the spectacular parades that took place in Chester for hundreds of years, which were originally based around the famous Mystery Plays which were organised by the old local ‘City Guilds’.  These parades featured fabulous creatures and giants and the modern event celebrates this heritage by putting on show with a cast of giants, fantastic beasts, musicians and dancers in a colourful display around Chester’s city streets.

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The famous Wirral giants included Old Mother Redcap.  She was ‘Poll’ Jones an infamous innkeeper in the 1770s of an inn between New Brighton and Egrement in Wallasey.  Poll Jones always wore a red hood or cap and this gave the inn its nickname ‘Mother Redcap’s’.  The inn was on the coast which was cut off from the rest of Wirral by Bidston Moss and it became a notorious haunt of smugglers and their contraband. Underground passages were reputed to link it with different parts of New Brighton. It was well known for its strong, home-brewed ale and the sailors trusted Old Mother Redcap to look after their wages while they were at sea. They also used to hide here to escape the Press Gang. It was rebuilt in 1888 and demolished in 1974 as it had become badly vandalised.

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Another Giant was Lottie Dod was born in Bebington into a wealthy family who made a fortune in the cotton trade.  She was an outstanding sportswoman. She won the Wimbledon Ladies’ Singles Championship five times, the first one when she was only fifteen in the summer of 1887.  She remains the youngest ladies’ singles champion.  She also won the British Ladies Amateur Golf Championship, played twice for the England women’s national field hockey team (which she helped to found), and won a silver medal at the 1908 Summer Olympics in archery. The Guinness Book of Records named her as one of the most versatile female athletes of all time.

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John Laird whilst being born in Scotland was a true local giant.  He moved to Birkenhead in 1824 where his father William Laird established the Birkenhead Iron Works which manufactured boilers.  John Laird joined his father to found William Laird & Son a shipbuilding company.  John Laird realised that the techniques of making boilers by bending iron plates and riveting them together could be used to build ships and he was one of the first to use iron in the construction of ships.  The business was taken over by his sons and it merged with Charles Cammell & Co to form Cammell Laird in 1903 as it is still known today.  He was the first mayor of Birkenhead and was chairman of the Birkenhead Improvement Commission which was appointed to erect a market, to light and clean the streets and to maintain a police force in the town.  When Birkenhead became a Parliamentary Borough in 1861, he retired from shipbuilding to become its first Member of Parliament. He served from 1861 to 1874 as a Conservative. He contributed a great deal to the continuous improvement of the town as a generous benefactor.  He made donations for the erection of Saint James Church, the Borough Hospital and the Laird School of Art.  He died at his home at 63 Hamilton Square following a riding accident and he is buried in the grounds of Birkenhead Priory, next to his yard and his statue now stands in Hamilton Square.

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The final local giant represented a priory monk.  The monks formed one of the earliest communities in the Wirral.  Birkenhead Priory is the oldest standing building on Merseyside.  It was founded in about 1150 by Hamon de Masci, 3rd Baron of Dunham Massey for the Benedictine Order.  The Priory was visited twice by Edward I due to its strategic importance being close to the borders of Wales and the Irish Sea.  In 1318 the monks from the Priory were granted ferry rights by Edward II. The monks of the monastery looked after travellers for nearly 400 years and supervised the first regulated ferry across the Mersey.  They would provide travellers shelter if the weather was too bad for the ferry to cross the River Mersey.

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The Deputy Mayor of Wirral Councillor Steve Foulkes visited the volunteers and their Giants.

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The rain managed to keep away whilst I was there but I’m told by the afternoon the heavens opened.  I’m not sure if this event is happening again next year but it did bring the crowds into the historic Hamilton Square in the heart of Birkenhead and I lost count of the number of Queen Elizabeth IIs who were on the parade.

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