Birkenhead’s Dock Cottages: The rise and fall of a local landmark

Queen’s Buildings, known locally as the Dock Cottages, occupied a small triangular piece of land near to St. James’s Church in the North End of Birkenhead.

The construction of the buildings was completed in 1847 and were of such interest that they warranted a sizeable entry in the 1848 edition of the ‘British Almanac and Companion,’ in amongst the tide tables and sunrise and sunset times.

The reason for their inclusion was not because these were quaint contryside style cottages, but a brand new style of building imported from Scotland – the tenement.

The tenement blocks, each given a designatory letter, ‘A’ through to ‘K’ and each flat within numbered, so the address of ‘4B, Queen’s Buildings’ would represent flat number 4 in block B. These letters were painted in big figures on the end of each block.

As to their inclusion in the almanac, whilst not pretty, these buildings were built to a high standard and even included an indoor toilet in each flat – highly unusual for the time.

The area is described as being built in five or six blocks, divided by ‘avenues.’ The use of the word avenue is a bit misleading, as it brings to mind a wide, pleasant, tree-lined thoroughfare. In reality, the blocks were built very close together and the avenues would have just accommodated the width of a horse and cart.

End elevation of the Dock Cottages.

Queen’s Building was built for the influx of dockers and labourers, many of whom immigrated from Ireland during the Great Famine, which lasted from 1845-1852. The worst year of the famine was 1847, so there would have been a great many Irish men seeking work and accomodation in Birkenhead at the time that the Dock Cottages were under construction.

The patch of land that the buildings were on was a smaller area than that of the playing area of the pitch at Prenton Park and there were stated as being 3,000 people living there at one stage.

The red boundary shows the location of the Dock Cottages – to think 3,000 people used to live in this small patch. The black outline is the likely posotion of the block in the main image, facing on to Stewart Street.

This overcrowding, living cheek-by-jowl, had it’s consequences. There are no reports in contemporary newspapers of disease spreading through the blocks, but a disease of another kind certainly reared its ugly head all too frequently: crime.

There are reports of many robberies and fist-fighting and even a nasty double murder that made the national news. There was so much crime in the 19th century associated with the Dock Cottages, that it not only makes for grim reading through newspaper archives, but also difficult to sift out other non-crime related stories, to ascertain interesting facts about the buildings.

Just over 90 years after construction, the borough council decided that the Dock Cottages had passed their usefulness and in 1938, they were cleared to make way for ‘modern flats’ to be built on the site. A newspaper article of the time shows Charles McVey in a photograph, shirt sleeves rolled up, but still wearing his waistcoat, pickaxe in hand ‘assisting’ with the demolition.

Charles McVey, the Mayor of Birkenhead, was born in ‘D’ block of the Dock Cottages. With war in Europe on the horizon, he presided over and exercise for ARP volunteers to practice their search and rescue techniques in bombed buildings. The council used the demolition of the buildings to simulate the aftermath of an airborne bombing raid.

On 1 July 1938, six bombers of the 610th Bombing Squadron, Hooton, flew overhead and fires were set amongst the demolition debris for realism. Dummies were placed at various locations to represent those that needed rescuing.

A newspaper article of the time relates the events of the day; “So realistic was an air-raid precaution demonstration at Birkenhead that five persons had to be taken to hospital.

“The cause of the accident was the bombing of a large block of property [the Dock Cottages] in course of demolition at the North end of the borough. The proceedings attracted about three thousand persons.”

“Four of the injured – three men and a woman – who were amongst the spectators were struck by flying debris; and the fifth, a boy, was injured by the force of one of the explosions causing him to lose his balance and fall.

“One of the men, a septugenarian, received head injuries.

“Mr Charles McVey – Deputy Mayor, fired the first charge to coincide with an attack by six bombing planes.”

The first stage of the construction of the new flats, ‘St James Gardens’ was completed shortly thereafter. It appears as though the war delayed completion of the project until th 1950s, when Ilchester Square was built. This area was again demolished and cleared in the 1980s, though the infamous ‘Blood Tub’ pub lasted until the late 2010s.

Ilchester Park now occupies the area and is a well used and welcome greenspace in the North End of Brikenhead.

Front elevation – possibly fronting onto Stewart Street

The idea of a flat was so new to the readers of the almanac, that the author felt it necessary to describe what a flat was.

From the 1848 edition of the ‘British Almanac and Companion’, published by ‘The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.’

When the Birkenhead Docks were in progress, the Dock Warehouse Company, “finding that they must either provide accommodation for their numerous workmen, or submit to great inconvenience, expense, and delay, in consequence of the want of it, they determined to erect a number of dwellings for their labourers and mechanics. After calculating the cost and returns for various descriptions of cottages submitted to them, they determined to build to the plans designed by C. E. Lang, Esq.” The houses were brought to a completion about the commencement of the present year, 1847.

The buildings stand on a triangular piece of ground, bounded by three streets. They are divided by parallel avenues into five or six distinct clusters or ranges. Each avenue is well paved and drained, and is entered between handsome iron gates at the two ends. In each avenue are the fronts of the houses on one side, and the backs of those on the other.

The entrance to each house has a stone passage, whence proceeds a stone staircase up through four ranges of flats or stories. Each story is divided into two distinct dwellings, one on either side of the staircase. The rooms forming each dwelling open into each other; and a door opening from the outermost of these rooms into the staircase, and provided with lock, bolts, and key, forms in fact the street door for the family inhabiting that dwelling.

The whole group is fire-proof, being formed of brick, stone, and iron; woodwork being provided only where, for domestic comfort, it is desirable. As there are four stories to each house, and two dwellings on each story, eight families may have distinct and independent tenements in each house.

The tenement, in each case, consists of three rooms, opening one into another-one sitting-room and two bed-rooms; or a parlour, kitchen, and bedroom; according to the wants of the family. The sitting-room is provided with range, oven, shelves, cupboards, and a jet of gas. A small compartment closed off from these rooms, contains a scullery, sink, and water-closet, all abundantly provided with water; so that the set of rooms forms a complete habitation, secluded from all besides its inmates.

The arrangements for drainage are admirable. Down through the middle of each house proceeds a large square shaft or well, reaching from the roof to the ground. In this shaft are contained, 1st, the water-pipe, which conveys water to a fine large cistern on the roof, capable of containing 1000 gallons; 2nd, a dust-pipe, which brings down all the dust and sweepings from the eight tenements; 3rd, a gas-pipe, to convey up gas to all the 244 tenements: and 4th, a sewage-pipe, which brings down all the sewage and waste water from the tenements, and the rain water from the roof. On each landing of the staircase is an iron door, kept under lock and key, which gives access to the interior of the shaft, in the case of repair being needed to any of the pipes.

The dust and sweepings from each tenement of three rooms, are collected into a corner of the little scullery, where an iron trap door, near the floor, being lifted, the whole are swept into the dust-pipe, whence they descend to a large receptacle underground, which is emptied at stated intervals. The dust from all the eight tenements descend into the dust-pipe in the same way. The sewage and waste water from all the eight sculleries descend through the one sewage-pipe, which collects them all into a main sewer underground, connected with the excellent system of main sewers provided for Birkenhead. There are no yards or gardens behind the houses, but there are flat roofs that serve as terraces. All the windows are formed of iron, glazed with plate glass. Front and end views are shown in the two cuts.
In this way, the group of buildings is made to furnish 350 distinct dwellings, each comprising- such accommodations as have just been described. There are air-bricks in the front and back walls, to ventilate each room, and ventilating flues for each house as a whole.

The main image is an accurate (if fanciful!) recreation of what the Dock Cottages would have looked like when new. It is based on an engraving and description from the 1848 almanac previously mentioned. It is difficult to ascertain which block the engraving represents, but being a block of three in a terrace, it is likely that this block faced outwards from the development facing onto the now lost Stewart Street that ran from nearly opposite the Stanley Road junction with Townsend Street to Ilchester Road. The very last remnants of Stewart Street can still be seen on Ilchester Road, were there is a footpath into the park and a very narrow road entrance is evident as a break in the pavement.

Thanks to the members of the local interest Facebook group, Birkenhead Memories for their input into this article.