Mike Royden's Local History Pages

A Troublesome Little River

A discussion of the course of the River Alt and it's effect on the local landscape and communities.

Barbara Harvey

An article in a local news-paper , "The Evening Express" printed in August 1935 (1) gave an interesting slant on this seemingly innocuous river. It described the flooding and erosion of the land caused by the River Alt and the hardships felt by the affected communities.

The Alt flows in South West Lancashire ,the upper waters deriving from small streams and ,in particular, one arising at Hag Plantation in Huyton at 125ft.(2) The Alt then flows at a low gradient across an alluvium plain towards Croxteth Park in a north- westerly direction before turning south-wards and emptying into the River Mersey at Hightown- between Crosby and Formby.

The Alt's catchment boundary reaches as far as Banks & Crossens in the north and out to Burscough & Kirkby in the east. It flows through varying types of land : Sherwood Sandstone in the Huyton area , Coal Measures in the West Derby area and eventually Mercia Mudstone in the Maghull/North Sefton area.

This " troublesome little river" ( whose name according to E.Ekwall (3) is ' no doubt Celtic') winds it's way through many townships including it's derivation town of Huyton, through Croxteth & Fazakerley, outwards towards Aintree, Netherton, Maghull and Sefton . It then courses across the flat plain through Ince Blundell, Altcar and the ancient hamlet of Moorhouses at Hightown.

As an example of the trouble this river may have caused one should consult Christopher Saxton's "Map of Lancashire in 1577" (4) which shows there to be place called Altmouth, without a village symbol but later shown as a settlement located on the south side of the river where it flows into the River Mersey. Speeds map of 1613 , Bowens and other maps in the Binns collection (LRO) also site Altmouth on the southern bank of the Alt. However by Carys map of 1793 it is no longer marked. In an article for The British Association for the Advancement of Science, 22/10/1856, Joseph Boult (5) writes:

" An inquiry into the position ……..of the ancient village of Altmouth, near Sefton , the little River Alt, making it's way to the sea gives to a little village on it, the name of Altmouth." It is known that map-makers sometimes copy from another map so the village may have existed longer on maps than it did on land but, "like Ninevah, appears to be buried in drifting sands", a victim, perhaps, of the erosion caused by the Alt.

The flooding and erosion had continued for many years: in 1648 Joseph Thompson of Sefton (6) wrote: "I made soo many motions about the river Alt, that for some reasons I grew wearie and sate down".

One could sympathise with him as there are many documents relating to the hardships brought on by the continual flooding and even an 18c. picture of Sefton St. Helens Church (7) with skaters on the frozen flooded meadows which surrounded the church. There was, at this location, a diversion of the Alt named St. Helen's Gutter to form the Milldam to Sefton Mill alongside of the Church.

Alison Maddock in her study, "The River Alt Levels -1589-1779"(8) states that : "the Alt is small river …whose influence on life and livelihood in the area has been out of all proportion to it's size".

It would appear that the problem lies with the fact that the Alt may have been tidal to at least Showrick Bridge, before the erection of floodgates,and that high tides met the downstream and overflowed onto the low plain.

Further weight is given to this tidal theory by the fact that vessels had been registered on the Alt: In the "Transactions of the Liverpool Nautical Research Society" , (9) Woods & Rees list vessels so registered,

"le George" of Ault "le Marie John" of Ault in Liverpool Town Books 1571-2
"le Bartholomew" at 40 tons and others, in the Town Book of 1626

Indeed, the stone to build the Alt Bridge in 1676-7, was brought by sea from Toxteth Quarry upstream for two miles then carted to the site and W. Ashton writing "The Battle of Land & Sea " (10)+48 :

"a wide funnel-shaped mouth opening to the west- it formed a haven from which it was possible to sail boats inland for three miles"

Perhaps this was the reason for the paper,"Was the River Alt ever a possible rival for the River Mersey for the First Dock?" and the suggestion that the Alt was navigable. (11)

Whatever, it was not until the "Alt Drainage Act -1779" (12) that authorities addressed the problems facing the communities and , on investigation, found the changing course of the Alt to be the reason for the erosion at the shore. The problem of flooding was helped by the erection of strategically placed flood gates.

Dr. Aitken in his history of the country "30-40 miles around Manchester- 1795" (13) says: "Stone walls & earth banks had been formed on the shore at Ince Blundell near The Grange estate: floodgates have been erected across the river about 200yds below the landmark. Higher up there are traces of still more ancient flood gates having once existed but of which there are now no records extant".

The "Proceedings of Liverpool Geological Society-13th April 1920" C.B.Travis (14) writes: "the cause of the erosion is not far to see and is directly attributable to changes in the position of the channel of River Alt along the foreshore combined with the advance of the High water mark" On the OS map of 1893, the position of the Alt opposite Crosby Point is shown as 443 yds. West of the inner of two measured markers: by 1920 the position is 2yds.east of this marker. In less than 30 years, the position had drastically shifted: the river gnawing away at the land and taking with it houses, grassy gardens and walls.

In 1929 one Crosby resident ( aided by Lancashire County Council) attempted to check the erosion by using gelignite to blow a 500ft. channel . When this failed to halt the damage, a new plan to build a revetment wall from waste and slag was made and this to be topped with a promenade to give some benefit for the local residents. It is this wall and the channelling and culverting of the higher reaches of the river which has reduced the incidence of flooding and erosion.

And so it is, the "Troublesome River Alt" is now no more than a drainage river for the fields through which it passes ,a pleasant habitat for flora and fauna and an interesting leisure walk for the people of the communities once so badly affected.

Barbara Harvey (2002)


1. The Evening Express-Lancs. Battle with Erosion. Aug 20th 1935
2. Ref. O/S 351/353/352
3. Eilert Ekwall-“The Place names of Lancs. P 95
4. Christopher Saxton –Map of Lancs.1577
5. Joseph Boult-“An Inquiry into the position of the alleged old lighthouse of Wallasey/Leasowe and the Ancient Village of Altmouth” The Liverpool Courier Oct 22nd 1856 LRO H387/519
6. Joseph Thompson LRO QSP 3/10
7. Sefton Parish Church
8. Alison Maddock-“The River Alt Levels 1589-1779. C6 28 72/MAD
9. Transactions of the Liverpool Nautical Research Society Vol viii 1955
10. Mr W. Ashton-“The Battle of Land & Sea 1909” p.112 . Crosby Library.
11. Transactions of the Liverpool Nautical Research Society Vol viii 1955
12. Dr Aitken-“History of the Country 30-40 miles around Manchester” LRO
13. Alt Drainage Act 1779: compilation by Stanstreet & Littledale. LRO
14. C.B.Travis-“Proceedings of Liverpool Geological Soc.” April 13th 1920. LRO
H550/6 GEO

liver bird

Return to Home Page and Site Links

speke hall

Students Local History Contents Page