Kirkby: evolution of a village

Kirkby is one of Knowsley’s most ancient townships. Although it entered the national psyche as a new town development in the 1950s and then as inspiration for the fictional town ‘Newtown’ in the BBC’s 1960s and 1970s police series ‘Z Cars’, the place has a much richer history than might be supposed.

The name finds its roots in the Old Norse, signifying a ‘settlement by the church’. It’s understood that Norsemen arrived in the area from Ireland in around 900 A.D., although it is believed that a settlement existed there before then.

In 1086, Kirkby appears as Cherchebi in the Domesday Book, William the Conqueror’s Great Survey, commissioned by William so that the distribution of land, power and wealth could be assessed and taxes levied. At this time, Lancashire did not exist but the lands between the Ribble (Ripa) and Mersey (Mersha) rivers were split into six districts for administrative purposes, called Hundreds or, from the Scandinavian, Wapentakes.

One of these was the West Derby Hundred, and within this, Kirkby was a small, agricultural village, with an estimated population of just 60-70 people. Kirkby is recorded as being one of six manors owned by the Thane (or Lord) Uctred, along with Roby, Knowsley, Crosby, Maghull, and Aughton.  

The manor’s ownership changed hands many times during this period. By 1176, Kirkby was held by Richard, son of Roger of Woodplumpton.  On his death, it was inherited by his daughter, Margaret. Margaret died childless and the lands were claimed by her sisters and their heirs.

Gregson’s ‘Portfolio of Fragments’ reveals a transcript of the ‘Testa de Nevill’. This names three individuals as sharing the lands at Kirkby in 1242:  Robert de Stockport, Roger Gernet and Thomas de Beetham. Gernet held the lands on behalf of his wife, Quenilda.

When she died in 1252, as she had no children to inherit her lands, Kirkby was held in half shares by Robert de Stockport, eventually passing through marriage to the Gerard family, and Sir Ralph de Beetham. The halves became known as Kirkby Gerard and Kirkby Beetham.

In 1565, the Gerard lands were purchased by Sir Richard Molyneux with the remainder of the manor acquired by Sir Richards’s grandson, also Sir Richard, in 1595.  Kirkby remained in the hands of the Molyneuxs, later Earls of Sefton, until 1947 when the 7th and final Earl, Hugh William Osbert Molyneux, sold the land to Liverpool Corporation.

From the 1500s onwards, the moss lands around Kirkby were drained to create fertile farmland, good for growing crops such as wheat, oats and potatoes.

Many farmers were tenants of the Sefton and Derby estates, with tenancies passing from generation to generation. Twice a year, the Earl of Sefton’s tenants would go to Croxteth Hall to pay their rents.

Farm workers’ pay and conditions were poor: a strike in 1913 demanded a pay increase from 18 shillings to £1 per week and a 4pm finish on Saturdays. The workers were rewarded with a settlement of 20 shillings per week with a 1pm Saturday finish.

Village life revolved around school and church. Villagers organised activities including dances, whist drives, hot-pot suppers, lantern slide shows and parties. Boating on Mill Dam Lake was popular and field days involved all with sports and a traditional fair.

Most families made their own butter, bread and cakes, whilst orchards provided fruit for eating and jam making.  Farmers and cottagers kept a pig for bacon, ham, pork and lard. Built in 1732, the Chapel House on Kirkby Row, known as the Cocoa Rooms, sold bread, milk, home cured bacon, ham, sausages, black puddings and brawn.

For many years, it was the only real shop in Kirkby. It doubled as a community hub: upstairs was used for meetings and it served as a local library during the 1920s. Before the motor car, churchgoers would stable their horses there.  

2018 marks the 170th anniversary of the railway in Kirkby.  The Liverpool, Bolton and Bury Railway opened in1848, 18 years after the first passenger line, the Liverpool – Manchester Railway which connected the two cities, but the impact was no less.

Until the mid 1800s, communication between the rural townships of Kirkby and Simonswood and outwards to the rest of the region was poor. People tended to live and work in a limited area, with horse power and the canal system the only viable options for transporting people and goods. 

For many, Shanks’ Pony was the only means of transport available.
The coming of the railway meant that ‘outsiders’ were encouraged to move to rural Kirkby, living in the newly constructed, grand Victorian villas built close to the station and commuting to their work.

In turn, these newcomers brought new wealth into the village. The other effect was that local people could move away from the area to look for work or to establish new lives. It could be argued that there was not as revolutionary a development to directly affect the village and its infrastructure until the outbreak of war in 1939.  

The threat of war prompted the Government to find sites on which to build a munitions factory. The rural nature of the area meant that land could be made available and with the railway close by and the East Lancashire Road recently opened, transport links were in place.

Construction of the Royal Ordnance Factory began in late 1939 and the factory, which at its peak employed up to 20,000 people from around the region, was completed in 1941. It had its own transport system and hostel facilities for up to 1000 people were built at Kirkby Fields; 200 key worker houses were built on the Park Estate and Admin staff were housed at Spinney Road and Spinney Close. After the war, the R.O.F. formed the template for a new industrial estate.

Immediately post-war, the growth of industry and Liverpool’s re-housing programme meant that many homes were needed to house both the workers and the people whose overcrowded and unsanitary homes were to be demolished.

The evolution of village to new town was underway.

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