Wirral was once an area of scattered villages and hamlets engaged in farming and fishing. Its peninsula is mentioned in the Domesday Book and by other ancient chroniclers.
In around 1150, Birkenhead Priory was established on the west bank of the Mersey. In 1330, Edward III granted permission for the monks to run a ferry across the river. Most people at this time lived in the old villages of Oxton and Claughton. The Birkenhead population in 1800 was only 110. The church was in ruins. It had been ransacked by Henry VIII as part of his dissolution of the monasteries.
Partly financed by the slave trade, Liverpool in the early 19th century was extremely prosperous. Victorian Birkenhead was populating with incredible speed and by 1845 there were 40,000 people living there.
In the 1820s, steam-powered boats were introduced into the ferry service. This encouraged Liverpool businessmen to establish homes in Wirral away from the overcrowded city. From 1824 onwards John Laird made ships in what eventually became Cammell Laird. One of its most famous vessels was Alabama, the Confederate Raider. The Alabama was purchased by the South in the American civil war. She sank off Cherbourg in 1864.
1840 saw Wirral's first railway being built and Birkenhead's first docks were opened in 1847. This improvement in communications encouraged the growth of Wirral. In around 1860 William Hesketh Lever established a business making soaps and soap powder. Eventually he merged with the Dutch company ‘Uni', to become Unilever, the multinational corporation.
Birkenhead Park is acknowledged to be the first publicly funded park in Britain. It was designed by Sir Joseph Paxton who went on to design Crystal Palace. The design of Birkenhead Park was copied by Frederick Law Olmsted when he designed Central Park in New York. Birkenhead Park was recently rated one of the 10 best historic parks in a survey by the Independent.
John Laird was Birkenhead's first Mayor in 1877. His father was buried in the Priory grounds, and his statue stands in Hamilton Square, one of the finest 19th century squares in Britain.