Mike Royden's Local History Pages


Michael Walsh

`Before the War we had our old inhabited community of city and town: the old rural community of village and hamlet. Now was added the new community, the New Estate - not merely a street of houses or a collection of streets of houses: it is a unit of social life' Professor L.Baker.

Once the Manor was the unit, now 30,000 people are referred to as a unit! The new Norris Green Housing Estate was a completely revolutionary idea in that whole communities were moved and supposedly re-created.

Norris Green is such a large, busy, bustling community today that it is difficult to imagine it being fields of agriculture and pastureland only seventy years ago, please see aerial view of 1921. It is difficult to see it as `only the northern end of the main street in West Derby', which it was considered only a hundred years ago. Indeed the two communities of Norris Green and West Derby are now unalike, the former being a huge working-class housing estate, and the latter being an area of conservation and predominantly middle class. To show the relationship between the two is one which goes back in history to when West Derby was a town and Norris Green was simply the surrounding fields which supplied their food needs. Today it is different. They are separate entities or areas. They do not mix or go together as they did in the past, relying on each other for subsistence.

Industrialisation in England has had an effect on Norris Green's existence. The housing estate was the life-jacket for those hard workers `living on the job' in poverty and poor housing, yet being the creators of wealth and prosperity for Liverpool.

The change from an agricultural area to housing estate in one move in the 1930's must have had a dramatic effect on those who worked the fields, and I am sure there are stories to be told which could be explored with interesting results for local history. The press at the time will probably have some comments to offer. There must have been some quite tense, difficult negotiations between the Council and the farmers of Norris Green who were to loose their land, lifestyle, and way of living.

Whichever way this is viewed, to `write-off' Norris Green's past as simply being fields cannot be justified since we have to remind ourselves that everything in our lives is held together by the need to supply food. This was Norris Green's role in helping the progress of Industrialisation in the nineteenth century - agriculture from the land. Also, it must have had just as traumatic effect on the people working for the farmers and involved in that area, just as much an effect as the enclosure movement had in the 19th century on the people thrown-off the Common.

In this short space of essay I cannot hope to look at all these points, but it is important to recognise they are there. Searching for the past of large council-housing estates does not show itself as well, by comparison to other areas such as neighbouring West Derby judged on its present standards. There is nothing striking about the pre-war estate of 1930 which is now a large community of unemployed people, and has reflected in its streets a large amount of lack of pride. Where in the past there was Nature, now it is a struggle to see Nature, say in the lack of trees in the streets. There are streets which have beautiful gardens, but there are large amounts of property which are run-down, and overgrown, windows broken or boarded up.

Seventy years ago Mrs.Bold's poem written in the `People of West Derby' makes us sit-up and think `was it really like this?'.... `it was 1914 when I came as a bride to West Derby. .....there were no houses beyond the end of Almonds Green, and just a few cottages down Hornspit Lane...'. She lived to remember`the fields of Norris Green': (see Bennison's map):

`Whoever thought we should have seen

Such changes here on Norris Green?

For `Green' it was without a doubt,

Miles of wheatfields here about -

A glorious sight! Such beautiful trees

And rustling corn in the summer breeze.

Lanes and hedges, and little stiles

Where lovers stood - exchanging smiles.

Favourite ways on Sunday nights

Before the days of electric lights'.

And all this less than a generation ago!

The poem goes on further, but please excuse the long quotation. I feel it is essential to set the scene that has to be looked for today. A scene that is well hidden today, despite being next to its well conserved parent-area of West Derby.

Today when you pass Norris Green Park, the origins of Norris Green, it is unstriking. It has a high stone wall backing against some beech trees and being opposite a council estate, some houses run-down, despite some being well kept and attractive. But in the main, the estate is very drab and plain, the streets lacking any natural life, such as trees and greenery (`O'Donovan,R.)

The name Norris has been a famous name in Liverpool going back to the Norman times, and linked mainly with the Speke Hall family. It is noted that they were a Catholic family who refused to accept the change brought about at the Reformation, and later on suffered lack of status within the community, and also were penalised with fines and confiscated lands for being recusants. The family of Norris's are recorded by Lumby, and show how spread-over the whole of Lancashire the family are, but unfortunately the records finish in the late 14th century. There is however a footnote:

` Leticia d. of Thos. Norris of West Derby married Thos. Norris of Speke(N.73) and brought the West Derby lands with her...The Speke family held West Derby lands until the end of XVIIc when they were forfeited for recusancy.....Norris Green is supposed to indicate the site of this estate'this being recorded in 1370'.

(V.C.H.L. iii17)

Recusancy was defined in the Test Acts of the seventeenth century, and were called Test Acts because `they made legal tests of a persons faith'. Fines of money were exacted for not attending the official Church, and land officially was confiscated under this Act. Sir William Norris in the first half of the 1600's nearly took the whole family to the brink of losing all possessions, land and money.

From A.J.Tibbles' guide for Speke Hall we know that a Sir William brought the family nearly to ruin in the Civil war period, and the estates were confiscated by Parliament. Thomas, son of Sir William, who took over from him` appears to be the first member of the family to embrace Anglicanism', and of his seven sons four were to hold Speke after his death in about 1687. It could be conjectured that after the Restoration period, the estates having been restored to the Norris's, and Speke being the main estate, possibly the Norris Green land referred to above in 1370, was rebuilt by one of the Norris family. A large manor, when compared to the small symbols for other dwellings on the map, is shown in Yates and Perry's map of 1768 (see map).

From this map there are several houses in Almonds Green, and a scattering in the village itself, but none of these appear to be on a par in size to Norris Green. So, from this map it could be taken that Norris Green was owned then, in 1768, by someone of esteem, not just a wealthy person of the local community.

In the map of 1786 by Yates, the name Goodwin Esq. is written right across and under the Norris Green house. From Cooper and Power we know that Goodwin was the Lord Mayor of Liverpool in 1757. The Lord Mayor would have been a position of great importance at a time when Liverpool was growing economically, financially, and politically. So, this mansion would have been seen as a place for people who were higher in status than those around him could hope to achieve, namely the farm workers. One can imagine them setting their time by his carriage passing on its way to the town hall in Liverpool. The size of the house shown by the map makes a point that it is significantly bigger than all those around, only equalled by Lark Hill bearing the name Heywood Esq. It has a clear view all around the fields, the motte and bailey castle of West Derby would stand-out on the landscape less than half a mile away, please see illustration - view from tower of St. Mary's Church.

However, when we look at the Greenwood's map of Lancashire 1818, there is no sign of any building at all on this spot, which suggests that it was pulled down some time prior to this. From reference to miscellaneous archives this mansion would have been in existence from about 1669; records held in the Atheneum:`Hearth Tax of 1669 - Mr.Richard Norres, 6 Hearths'; to 1750 at least: Cooper and Power again in the Atheneum records: `West Derby Modus dated 1750 - William Goodwin esq., 2s.2d for Hay - Smoke one and a half pence'.

This suggests the mansion existed just over a hundred years, not very long for a grand building, which suggests it was built `on the cheap'. This would be borne-out by the fact that the Norris's were only financially recovering at the time of building due to their lands being given back to them at the Restoration period.

The person who rebuilt Norris Green in 1830 had a position of greater influence than the Mayor of Liverpool. He owned Heywood's Bank, Arthur Heywood, and as such would be very much at the centre of Liverpool's growth industrially and commercially. This was a time when Liverpool could be regarded as the second most important city and port in the Country. It is interesting to notice that Arthur only lived there for six years, dying in 1836 at the age of 83. It could be that he decided to cease to be involved in the Bank when he was 77, and retired to the countryside of West Derby, for a rest.

A nephew of his, John Pemberton Heywood, who worked with him in Liverpool and lived in the Bank house in Fenwick Street, married in the same year. He now came and took over the Norris Green mansion, please see illustration. He would be 33 years of age, very successful as a banker, and very wealthy and influential.

At the time of his move from Liverpool to Norris Green mansion there were housing and health problems in the city which were causing the richer people to worry about their own situation. The typhus epidemics spread across the community, and whilst Dr.Duncan, the first medical officer of health in the Country, did say that people were safe in their large Georgian houses in Abercromby Square and Duke Street, and the like,it was seen that several of their group had caught the disease, and died.

So John Pemberton's moving house `fitted-in' with what all that peer-group did. They looked for the fresh-air of the countryside. The houses that were left in the city were then taken over by the desperate poor-people's search for a roof over their heads. The population of Liverpool was increasing so fast that there were not sufficient houses for them. People in the previous century had come to Liverpool from areas surrounding it, for example the Northampton Potteries, and North Wales, and also from nearby where the fields were being built-on, and farm labourers losing their jobs by the progress of Industrialisation. The explosion of people who came from Ireland in the 1840's due to the Potato Famine, in search of a home and a living, put intolerable pressure on Liverpool's housing and health problems, albeit they supplied a large source of cheap labour for the burgeoning industries and Port. This all created a problem without precedent, and the question was, who was responsible for the organisation of welfare of this dense population?

This resulted in overcrowding, and related to this a total breakdown of health and hygiene, with disease taking hundreds of lives each week. The hovels in Ireland were no worse than this, they had daylight and fresh-air.

How ironic that, almost the same time a hundred years later, possibly those same poor families' children were being moved into new houses built on the fields surrounding John Pemberton's country mansion.

The mansion was demolished in 1931. One wall now stands showing the classical architecture of what was once there. The site and the grounds were converted into a Park for the new huge, burgeoning council-housing estate in 1931. The Park today is not attractive, the area is used mainly for walking dogs. There are a few flower beds, but most sadly of all, the wall left standing is covered in `sprayed-on' graffiti.

Pemberton's generous nature is recorded in the book `the People of West Derby', and the pride he took in where he lived, the money he gave to the local area, is not recorded or noticed today. When the property was sold in 1894 by auction, the handbook alone gives the reader an idea of the splendour of the place: the amount of rooms, the people working there: the articles used. There was so much to auction it took seven days. What a shame it was not left in one-piece like its parent-estate, Speke Hall, where it may have acted as a symbol of the past, and been a landmark for the people living in Norris Green.

On the outbreak of War in 1914 the professor of Public Health, E.W.Hope, says `the complete cessation of building subsequent to War accentuated need of the people in regard to housing and placed an obligation on the City Council.' Private building had always been used but now in 1918 there was a deficit for 6 years meaning 12000 homes, a figure based on pre-war standards. In the defence of the Planning Department it can be seen from statistics that in 1921 there was an overcrowding percentage of 11.6%, representing 92,871 people. This meant that Norris Green was the principle suburban development in the Country, rehousing over 30,000 people, please see illustration. This, according to Stephen Bennett, could have been a planned centre-piece of an ambitious programme. Instead `it was determined by a simple desire to build as many dwellings as cheaply as possible'.

All the houses were of three bedrooms, resulting in rooms empty in some cases, and in others overcrowded bedrooms. The result of hasty planning was the creation of social problems,`people were moved in when: roads were unmade, there were no shops, several houses had no lights, schools were crowded out, and there was a total absence of social amenities'.

Despite these problems the majority of the people saw their living standards as being much improved. However, forty per-cent of those originally rehoused left within ten years, and returned to their old haunts. The beautiful corn and wheatfields had become an area were people had difficulty finding there way around. There were no landmarks or public buildings, what they were used to.

Time did overcome the problems, and families have thrived in the area and facilities have much improved, but there still remains the greatest thing missing, the fresh-air in the countryside which Pemberton sought a hundred and fifty years previous. Strangely enough neighbouring West Derby, less than a half mile away, manages to retain its charm and feeling of the open-places. Could it be that this is because it has kept hold of its buildings of the past, and also it has the green wide-open spaces of Croxteth Park?

Michael Walsh (2000)


1. New Merseyside Series No.9. Population Problems of new estates - N.Williams, 1939
2. illustration 1.
3. The People of West Derby - John Cooper and David Power, Bellefield Press, 1987 page 97.
4. Illustration 2.
5. Norris Papers - Lumby J.H., 1939, Vol. 93 R.S.L.C. - No.1146n.(VCHLiii17)
6. This Sceptred Isle - Christopher Lee: Penguin Books, 1998, page 521.
7. Speke Hall - A.J.Tibbles, Merseyside County Museum. page 6.
8. Illustration 3.
9. " 4.
10. A History of West Derby, Cooper and Power; Causeway Books 1982, page 260.
11. Illustration 5.
12. A History of Lancashire, J.J.Bagley, Phillimore 1976, page 10.
13. The People of West Derby, op.cit. page 189.
14. " " 191.
15. " " 262.
16. Illustation 6.
17. The People of West Derby, op.cit. page 262.
18. Branch & Leete - Auction Handbook, 1894.
19. Health at the Gateway - E.W.Hope, 1931, Cambridge Univ.Press.
20. Future Development of South West Lancashire, 1930 page 17.
21. Illustration 7.
22. A study of Liverpool Corporation inter-war suburban housing policy 1989 - Stephen Bennett, M.A. Social Policy.
23. " "
24. " "
25. New Merseyside Series No.9. op.cit. N. Williams.

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