HISTORY AND BUILDINGS OF WEST DERBY
Our April Talk - Reviewed by Mike Chitty
On Tuesday 17th April a small but appreciative audience heard Stephen Guy, Chairman of the West Derby Society, talking about the history and buildings of this ancient part of Liverpool. As Stephen was quick to remind us, Liverpool may be busy celebrating its 800th birthday this year, but West Derby is much older!
Stephen illustrated his talk with some colour slides old and new. He regretted that he didn't have a picture of the original West Derby - which he described as 'a mishmash of buildings around an ancient chapel'. It was the Earl of Sefton who had 'beautified' the village in the nineteenth century, and only the Court House and the Yeoman's Cottage survive from an earlier era. The Earl created the West Derby which we know today - 'a Victorian vision of old England' - around a new entrance to his Croxteth Hall estate.
In fact the ancient Court House was in a very poor state of repair until quite recently. The West Derby Society succeeded in persuading English Heritage to grant-aid its restoration, and the building is now open to the public on Sunday afternoons between 2 and 4 o'clock. Old prints of the village show wooden stocks on the north wall of the court house - to be used as a punishment for blasphemy, not attending church on the Sabbath, or having a pig without a ring in its nose! West Derby still has a set of stocks nearby, but they are of metal and were probably manufactured in the 1870s or 80s.
Stephen then showed us pictures of Lowlands, a beautiful Italianate villa built by Thomas Haigh, a Liverpool architect, in 1846 as his private residence. A later occupier was Thomas Randles Withers, Chairman of the Liverpool Stock Exchange, who raised 8 children there. In the 1950s and early 60s it housed the 'Pillar Club', and George Harrison was at one time a member of the resident band. Lowlands - which is nowadays home to a variety of community-based organisations - has recently secured a £1 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. It is a listed building - and the coffee bar (unchanged since 1962) has been specifically identified as being worthy of preservation.
In the nineteenth century there were about 60 mansions or large villas in West Derby, but few of them have survived. Some - like Gwalia on Queens Drive - are sadly neglected. Others - like Alder Hey, of which only the lodge remains - were demolished even before the First World War. Stephen showed us a variety of slides, including 'the Half Nelson' obelisk in Springfield Park. (The owner of a nearby mansion had commissioned it in honour of Admiral Nelson, and offered it to Liverpool Corporation - but they said it wasn't big enough!).
We saw scenes of Sandfield Park, vanished smallholdings in Leyfield Road, the picturesque Little Bongs in Knotty Ash - and Oak House, the home of Ken Dodd. We were reminded that West Derby was historically a very large township, and included places such as Old Swan, Newsham Park, Norris Green and the 'hamlets' of Dog & Gun and Clubmoor.
Stephen showed us slides of all of these, and then invited questions and comments from the audience. There were many questions, all expertly answered. No doubt many of those present will be heading for West Derby this summer, to see some of the places to which Stephen introduced us.