History & Archeology
The three islands are known today as Hilbre, Middle Eye and Little Eye. They originally formed part of the mainland and became tidal after the last Ice Age ended about 11,500 years ago. The first people to visit the islands after the Ice Age were hunter-gatherers about 5000BC. They used flint tools and lived off fish, shellfish, deer, nuts and berries. There are finds of flints and metalwork which tell us that the islands were also visited throughout the prehistoric period. The Romans also visited Hilbre, They did not appear to settle as there has been no evidence of any structures. 19th century suggestions that a Roman Pharos (lighthouse) was erected on Hilbre has not produced any evidence to support this idea.
Stone remains of graves found on Hilbre dating to the 10th and 11th centuries indicate that there was a religious presence on the island from before the Norman Conquest. An Anglo-Scandinavian cross head was found on Hilbre dated to the 10th or 11th century and a Hiberno-Norse grave slab found on Hilbre was dated to the 11th century. By 1140 West Kirby and Hilbre were controlled by Chester Abbey and a Benedictine cell of two monks and their servants lived on the island until the Dissolution. They maintained fishing boats and monitored the local anchorages and fisheries. They also collected the tithes from West Kirby parish and also ran a farm in Little Meols.
Hilbre’s place name did not appear in records until 1140, when recorded as Hildeburgheye, meaning Hildeburgh’s Island. As a Saxon personal name, this suggests a connection with an earlier time before the Norman Conquest. There was no English saint called Hildeburgh and the likelihood is that she was a relative of one of the local landowners in Cheshire or NorthWales.
Hilbre chapel’s dedication appeared in deeds from the 13th century as St Mary the Blessed Virgin. The rector of St Bridget’s, West Kirby, had renounced his claim over the chapel on Hilbre and his reward was an annual mass on 15th August, the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, in Hilbre’s chapel. He established an annual group visit of his parishioners to Hilbre starting in about 1234. The ‘pilgrimage’ was therefore likely to have been only a local festival, giving the people of West Kirby parish a holy day on Hilbre to hear Mass in the chapel of St Mary the Virgin. After the Reformation, Chester Abbey became the cathedral of a new diocese of Chester which included Hilbre.
In the 16th to 18th centuries Hilbre Island and Hyle Lake became an important anchorage for shipping in the Dee Estuary when the river at Chester was silting up. Erosion of the sand banks eventually split the protecting Hoyle Bank into two portions, and caused the Lake to disappear rapidly during the 19th century. Hilbre Island was also used as an embarkation point for shipping troops, horses and equipment to Ireland during Elizabeth I’s Irish wars and again during Cromwell’s Irish campaign. In 1690 William III travelled from Chester to Hoylake on his way to Ireland to fight the Battle of the Boyne. The local legendary story of 10,000 men camped together on Hilbre could have originated from the total figures of soldiers embarking from Hyle Lake in 1690. There would not have been space for so many men and officers’ horses on the islands at one time.
Salt refining took place on Hilbre in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Rock salt was discovered in Cheshire in 1670. In 1692 there was a scheme to produce salt on Hilbre. It was shipped to Hilbre via the Mersey along with coal from the Lancashire coalfield. The rock salt was boiled in seawater on the island. There are traces of this industry still visible in the north of the island.
A public house on Hilbre was first recorded in 1793 to cater for the crews of the small vessels who used the harbour. A traveller recorded in 1813 the local gossip about the Hilbre innkeeper and his wife that ‘their riches have been gained principally by wrecking, for which business their situation here is said to be admirably calculated’. Hilbre’s public house is still remembered locally as The Seagull Inn, a name which never appeared in official records.
Two tall wooden sailing markers were built at opposite ends of Hilbre around 1810. The footings of the northern marker can still be seen as two sets of perpendicular troughs cut into the bare rock. These
are mistakenly called monks’ graves. In about 1840 these markers were replaced by a new pair of markers, one on Little Eye and one on the shore off Hoylake. Sailing directions of 1840 showed how they should be lined up in the sight of sailors of small craft, to lead the ships into the Hilbre Swash and other safe channels. Rebuilt at least once in the next 100 years, the markers were demolished in World War II to avoid becoming landmarks to enemy aircraft. There are still remains of a base on Little Eye and traces of the other on the shore at low tide between Hilbre and Hoylake.
In 1826 the Trustees of the Liverpool Docks acquired the lease of the islands from Chester Cathedral in order to set up their first semaphore telegraph station for communicating messages from Holyhead to Liverpool. The line of stations ran through Anglesey, Puffin Island, the Great Orme, Llysfaen near Abergele, Foel Nant, Hilbre Island and Bidston Hill to Liverpool. The first station was a wooden structure just north of the present stone building. The first message was sent in 1827.
The stone telegraph building which is there today was built in 1841. Rotating sockets in the wide bay window allowed several telescopes to be trained on the neighbouring stations of Foel Nant and Bidston Hill and on the flag signals from ships at sea. In 1860 the semaphore system was replaced with an electric cable which remained in use until 1939. A separate house for the Telegraph Keeper was also built in 1841 which later became the residence for the islands’ wardens.
By late 1837 Trinity House had installed a buoymaster and his family on the island. His job was to maintain the buoys around Wirral and the Mersey coast. A new two-storey house was built for them in 1850 which is now the museum. Trinity House ceased occupation in 1876.
In 1848 a stone boathouse and launchway were built on Hilbre for the Hoylake No 2 lifeboat. It had become very difficult to launch the Hoylake boat at every state of the tide due to the severe silting in the area of Hoyle Lake. The lifeboat was still operated by the same Hoylake crew, who would walk over to Hilbre to launch the boat at low tide. In 1894 the Royal National Lifeboat Institution took over all the local lifeboats. The Hilbre station closed in July 1939 as the motor boats at Hoylake, New Brighton and Rhyl were now able to ensure the safety of shipping in this part of Liverpool Bay. The Hilbre lifeboat saved 21 lives in 44 launches before its closure.
Lying beside the lifeboat slip there is a deep narrow cutting in the sandstone rock. This is part of the system to measure the depth of the tide along with a wooden ruler to mark the tide depth. It is all connected to a recording system above to provide a record of tide heights and times to predict future tidal cycles. It was decommissioned in 2009.
In 1856 the Dean and Chapter of Chester Cathedral sold the freehold of the three islands to the Trustees of the Liverpool Docks. Two years later they became the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. Hilbre Island as it appears today is almost completely the creation of the Dock Trustees and the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. In addition to the buildings, they also carried out extensive repair work to prevent erosion of the cliffs during the 1890s.
Hilbre was a frequent venue for prizefighting in the 19th century. The contests usually took place in the early hours of the morning to foil the authorities but the police constables stationed at Frankby and Hoylake had some success in preventing them. The prize fights attracted a lot of interest, being reported as far away as Preston and Birmingham. There are also stories of cock fighting which were arranged in the deep hollow near to the present Mersey Canoe Club. The organisers made use of steamer boats to bring the audience to Hilbre, and to remove them promptly when the tide ebbed, so as to evade the law.
The property built by Trinity House was leased to a succession of individuals after the buoy store was discontinued. Leases were also granted for the construction of holiday bungalows in 1896, 1904, 1908 and 1923.
The Dock Board and their various tenants became increasingly concerned at the number of day trippers. August Bank Holiday of 1911 brought 2,000 visitors. As an aid to control, iron railings and gates were erected around Hilbre Island and Middle Eye in 1912 and a Dock Board policeman was employed on Sundays and Bank Holidays to enforce regulations.
During the First World War a small group from the Army were placed on Hilbre as part of a plan to defend Liverpool and Birkenhead which were classed as a Defended Port. During the Second World War Hilbre was one of 14 ‘starfish’ sites for Liverpool. These ‘starfish’ decoys were a series of controlled fires set off in fire baskets during an air raid to imitate an urban area targeted by bombs. A ‘QL’ decoy was added as part of a series of decoys to protect Bootle Docks. This was all operated by the RAF from a control room on Hibre and the fire baskets and lights were placed on Middle Eye. The control room mound on Hilbre was nicknamed the air raid shelter.
In 1945 Hilbre was sold to Hoylake Urban District Council with a number of covenants designed to safeguard it from undesirable development. In 1974 when local government was reorganised, the newly elected Wirral Borough Council placed on record its determination to pursue a policy safeguarding the islands from undesirable development and to preserve and maintain their character for the enjoyment of the public.
A succession of Wardens have lived in Telegraph House to look after the interests of the islands. In 1985 the post of Warden was changed to Countryside Ranger with wider responsibility for the Dee Estuary. In 2010 the Hilbre Island Ranger post was lost as part of a cost cutting exercise and the islands were managed by the Local Area Parks and Countryside team. In 2020, following a restructure within Wirral’s Parks and Countryside, the islands are now looked after by a Manager and team of Rangers responsible for Wirral Country Park, Hilbre Islands and Heswall Dales and based at Wirral Country Park.
Christine Longworth 2021
History of the Islands