Until 1974, Birkenhead was a county borough in Cheshire on the Wirral Peninsula, along the west bank of the River Mersey, opposite the City of Liverpool. It is now a town within the Metropolitan Borough of Wirral in Merseyside, England. At the 2001 UK Census, the town had a population of over 83,500. Birkenhead is perhaps best known as a centre for ship building, as a seaport and its related industries.
Birkenhead originated as a township in Bidston Parish of the Wirral Hundred. It was incorporated as a municipal borough within the county of Cheshire in 1877, and became a county borough with the passing of the Local Government Act 1888.
Further townships were added in 1928 and 1933:
On 1 April 1974, Birkenhead and the rest of the Wirral Peninsula, was transferred to the Metropolitan Borough of Wirral, in the newly established metropolitan county of Merseyside. The implementation of the Local Government Act 1972 caused Birkenhead to lose its county borough status. It still remains the largest conurbation within the Wirral.
The earliest records state that the Mersey ferry began operating from Birkenhead in 1150 when Benedictine monks under the leadership of Hamon de Mascy built a priory there. Distanced from the Industrial Revolution in Liverpool by the physical barrier of the River Mersey, Birkenhead retained its agricultural status until the advent of steam ferry services. In 1817 a steam ferry service started from Liverpool to Tranmere and in 1822 the paddle steamer, Royal Mail, began operation between Liverpool and Woodside.
Shipbuilding started in 1829. An iron works was initially established by William Laird in 1824 and was joined by his son John Laird in 1828. The business eventually became Cammell Laird. Notable vessels built at Birkenhead include HMS Achilles, HMS Affray, CSS Alabama, HMS Ark Royal, HMS Birkenhead, HMS Caroline, Huáscar, RMS Mauretania, the pioneer submarine Resurgam, HMS Thetis which sank on trials in Liverpool Bay, and was refloated and commissioned as HMS Thunderbolt which was sunk in the Mediterranean Sea in WW2.HMS Conqueror and HMS Prince of Wales. Many famous merchant vessels were built such as the Windsor Castle.
In addition to the ferries, the Mersey Railway tunnel in 1886 and the Queensway road tunnel in 1934 gave rapid access to Liverpool. This opened up the Wirral Peninsula for development, and prompted further growth of Birkenhead as an industrial centre. The town's population grew from 110 in 1801 to 110,912 one hundred years later and stood at 142,501 by 1951.
In September 1932 thousands of unemployed people protested in a series of demonstrations organised by the local branch of the National Unemployed Workers Movement. After three days of rioting, police were brought in from elsewhere to help quell the rioters.
Shipbuilding and ship repair still features prominently in the local economy. Cammell Laird entered receivership in 2001. The shipyard was sold and became 'Northwestern Shiprepairers & Shipbuilders', which grew into a successful business specialising in ship repair and conversion, including maintenance contracts for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. In September 2007 NS&S acquired the rights to use the Cammell Laird name.
The following two maps illustrate the Wirral Peninsula at earlier dates: