The last remaining Dock Gateman’s Hut on Tower Road at Wirral Waters has been awarded Listed Building Status. It was built around 1866 and is thought to have been designed by John Bernard Hartley, the son of the famous dock engineer Jesse Hartley.
The dock gateman’s hut at the Wallasey end of Tower Road falls within the bounds of the Wirral Waters regeneration project. As part of the plans for the East Float, it is proposed to retain the building and convert it for use as a cafe.
The editor of birkenhead.news applied to Historic England for the important building to be granted listed status earlier this year. It is one of a few remaining Victorian industrial buildings in the Birkenhead dock estate, and that it was likely designed by John Bernard Hartley, son of the famous Jesse Hartley, designer of much of the Liverpool Docks, including the Royal Albert Dock.
The dock gateman’s hut at Tower Road is an important physical reminder of the second major phase of dock development, which took place in the 1860s when James Meadow Rendel’s earlier work was redesigned, altered and reconstructed.
As well as its own intrinsic special interest, the dock gateman’s hut on Tower Road also has further interest derived from its strong group value with a number of Grade II-listed buildings and structures. These include the nearby hydraulic generating station (1868) on the south side of the river entrance to Alfred Dock and accumulator tower on Tower Road, situated to the south of the dock gateman’s hut, which were both designed by John Bernard Hartley.
In the documentation accompanying the approval for listed status, it is stated that, “With a well-detailed design, historic interest as a physical reminder of Birkenhead’s maritime history, and group value with nearby listed buildings that collectively tell the tale of Birkenhead dock system’s development it is considered that the dock gateman’s hut successfully fulfils the national criteria for listing. Consequently, it is recommended that it be added to the statutory List at Grade II.”
A plan for docks at Birkenhead was first proposed in 1823 by the shipbuilder William Laird, along with (Sir) William Jackson, palm oil merchant, and Sir John Tobin, a merchant, privateer and ship’s master in the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
The scheme proposed to construct docks in Wallasey Pool with an outlet to the River Dee rather than the Mersey, which was believed to be silting up. Alarmed by the threat of rival docks, the plan was thwarted by Liverpool Corporation when they bought the required land at the edge of the Pool.
However, Liverpool Corporation sold the land in 1843 and plans for docks at Birkenhead were revived, with the proposals gaining parliamentary approval in 1844. James Meadows Rendel (1799-1856) was commissioned as engineer and the foundation stone was laid in the same year. The first stage of the docks was opened on the same day as Birkenhead Park on 5 April 1847.
Rendel’s plan was to enclose the upper part of a tidal inlet known as Wallasey Pool (to be named the Great Float) and form a huge low-water basin at the entrance to the River Mersey.
By the mid-19th century, Liverpool Corporation, under the guidance and expertise of Thomas Hodgson and Jesse Hartley, had already established the fastest growing port in the world and had assessed that Rendel had no local knowledge and as yet had not had much dock construction experience.
Their assessment proved to be correct as Rendel hit quicksand instead of rock, and rock instead of silt, and by 1847 the project was already in financial difficulty.
By this date the money raised for the construction of 160 acres of enclosed dock had been used to construct just seven acres at Egerton and Morpeth docks. Rendel was subsequently replaced by James Abernathy, but progress remained slow and increasing financial difficulties led to the docks being taken over by Liverpool Corporation in 1855 and transferred to the Mersey Docks & Harbour Board in 1857.
Jesse Hartley’s son, John Bernard Hartley was commissioned as engineer and work continued, but to Hartley’s revised plans, as much of Rendel’s work was found to be unsafe and had to be rebuilt. Hartley succeeded his father as engineer to the Dock Board in 1860, but resigned in 1861 and was replaced by George Fosberry Lyster.
The Great Float partially opened in 1851 and was completed in 1860. It is divided into the East and West Floats by an 1861 bridge known as Duke Street Bridge.
Alfred Dock to the east of the Great Float opened in 1866 and had originally been intended by Rendel as the site for his Great Low Water Harbour. Two hydraulic swing bridges and associated locks were constructed in the early 1860s at the eastern end of the Great Float (East Float) where it meets Alfred Dock, with gatesman’s huts constructed alongside, which would have acted as an office/shelter for the bridge and lock operator(s).
The gatesman’s hut that has been approved for listed status served the north bridge, whilst another now-demolished hut served the south bridge. The bridges originally spanned across three locks that were used to control water levels and reduce silting in the docks, and were separated by two islands, each with a smaller, circular gatesman’s hut sat atop; the two sets of southern locks have since been removed, along with one of the islands, and the circular huts have both been demolished, but one of the northern lock gates (a modern replacement) remains.
In the early 20th century, the north bridge was replaced by a bascule bridge. The bridge (now known as Tower Road Bridge) was replaced again by a modern bascule bridge in 2017/2018, and the southern bridge was replaced by a fixed deck.
Images credit: www.birkenhead2020.com