Sefton Coast, Merseyside

Ancient Sefton

Prehistoric acorn cup from the peat shelf at Hightown
Prehistoric acorn cup from the peat shelf at Hightown

The Sefton coastline around the mouth of the River Alt has been occupied by humans for thousands of years, although it hasn’t always looked like it does today.  Around 7000 years ago during the Neolithic period a large sandbar had developed about one kilometre west of the present shoreline.  This sandbar prevented the silts carried downstream by the River Alt from reaching open water and protected the land behind it from the sea, these conditions created a broad area of salt marsh close to the sandbar and an area of scrubby woodland further inland.  The salt marsh was dominated by large beds of reeds, while alder and oak grew in the woodland.  The trees grew on islands of slightly higher drier land separated by stretches of water, in a landscape known as alder carr (Burns 2014, 8 and 16-18).  

The remains of this woodland can be found on the foreshore at Hightown, where tree stumps, fallen trunks and the root systems of alder and oak trees dating from the Neolithic can still be seen.  Surrounding some of the tree stumps and trunks is a layer of peat, which forms an oxygen free environment which can help preserve parts of trees such as leaves and bark.  Occasionally it is also possible to find the remains of human activity in the peat such as scrapers and arrowheads made from flint.  

Remains of the woodland at Hightown
Remains of the woodland at Hightown

The salt marsh and fen carr was a bountiful environment which would have been used by people living on, or passing along the Sefton coast for hunting, fishing, fowling and for the gathering of plants to eat and to use as medicines.  Moving around these areas would have been difficult and often required the use of boats or the construction of paths and trackways.  One of these trackways was discovered in 1996 and excavated by archaeologists from Liverpool Museum.  The trackway was at least 60m long and approximately 1.5m wide.  It was constructed from three distinct layers of wood, with the lowest part of the trackway made from sections of hurdle panel.  The hurdle panels were covered by pieces of wider, flatter timber that included oak and elm and occasional roots; above these flat timbers was a closely packed layer of small branches, some which had been inserted vertically through the trackway to provide support to the structure.  The trackway was radiocarbon dated to between 3795 BC to 3675BC (Merseyside Historic Environment Record, PRN: MME1074).  During the Neolithic and Bronze Age the sea level slowly rose, eventually flooding the salt marshes and alder carr that fringed the Sefton coastline.  “It is only in the last 350 years that the sea has reached the same level as the present beach” (Burns 2014, 11). 

The Formby Footprints

Perhaps the most iconic archaeological features to be found on the Sefton coast are the preserved footprints of our ancestors and the animals which they hunted through the Neolithic and Bronze Age between 5400 BC and 2300BC.  The prints were formed when humans and animals walked across the soft mud found in the salt marsh; the mud was then baked hard by the sun, preserving the imprint in the mud.  The imprint was then filled by windblown sand which was then covered by another layer of mud sealing the footprints until they were uncovered by the sea thousands of years later. 

The human footprints include groups of adults and children, with the footprints (and occasionally handprints) of children more frequently found than those of adults.  It is also possible to find trails of footprints leading for long distances across the mud, often indicating that more than one person was travelling at the same time.  The adult footprints in these trails seem to suggest people engaged in purposeful activity, while the children’s prints appear to meander backwards and forwards across the mud, perhaps suggesting children playing while their parents hunted or fished.  The quality of the persevered footprints is often so good that it is possible to see were people have missing toes or other damage to their feet (Burns 2014).

Trails of footprints from different people criss-cross the eroding layers of silts at Formby
Trails of footprints from different people criss-cross the eroding layers of silts at Formby

The preserved animal prints which can be found in the silt beds on the beach include auroch (an extinct species of cow that was six foot tall at the shoulder), red deer, roe deer, wild boar, wolf, oyster catcher and crane (Roberts 2009).  

Remembering Gordon Roberts (1930-2016)

The human and animal prints persevered at Formby were first identified by Gordon Roberts, who taught at Formby High School from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s.  Gordon became interested in the footprints he found in the silt beds along the Sefton Coast when walking with his wife and dog; at the time these ephemeral imprints from the deep past were unrecognised, undated and uninvestigated.  Intrigued Gordon set about becoming a pioneer in intertidal archaeology conducting a regular monitoring programme of the foreshore and recording each set of prints he saw.  Gordon would go on to publish several books and articles on the footprints at Formby and inspire many amateur and professional archaeologists to investigate the beach there.  Sadly Gordon passed away earlier this year, but CITiZAN were privileged to discuss our work on Formby with him and he will be greatly missed by everybody who knew him. 

Shipping on the Mersey

King John signed the charter creating the borough of Liverpool in 1207 and about 20 ships where based in the borough during the 13th century (Stephen 2008).  By the early 18th century Liverpool was at the forefront of dock development in the United Kingdom and the world’s first enclosed, commercial maritime dock was opened in the city in 1715.  Over the next 200 years Liverpool would build more than 50 docks and become one of the country’s most important ports.  However, before ships found the safety of the city’s docks they had to brave Liverpool Bay, an area that at low tide contained more than 20,000 acres of shifting sandbars.  Combined with strong winds and fierce currents this made Liverpool Bay one of the most dangerous stretches of coast in Britain, with over 300 vessels wrecked between the Mersey and the Ribble estuary alone (Merseyside Maritime Museum undated a; Sefton Coast Landscape Partnership 2016).   

The Ionic Star, wrecked off Formby Point on her way into Liverpool in 1917
The Ionic Star, wrecked off Formby Point on her way into Liverpool in 1917
The foundations of Britain’s first purpose-built lifeboat house
The foundations of Britain’s first purpose-built lifeboat house

Britain's first lifeboat station,  Formby Point

It was in part due to the perils of Liverpool Bay that the Trustees of Liverpool Dock constructed the first purpose built lifeboat house at Formby Point.  It’s not known exactly when the lifeboat house was established but a footnote written on a plan of Liverpool harbour drawn in 1771 and corrected in 1776 notes a boat and station for “the saving of lives” about one mile below the navigation aid known as the “Formby Lower Land Mark”.  While a reference in the minutes of the Liverpool Common Council from the 5th March 1777 suggests that the lifeboat house required repairing (Yorke 2003).  In 1777 a sailor called Richard Scarisbrick was appointed to take care of the boat and boathouse built to protect it and given a salary of two guineas a year.  Over the years the lifeboat house has been rebuilt several times and for brief period closed completely between 1888 and 1892.  The lifeboat house was reopened after a fatal wreck off Formby and finally closed as a lifesaving institution in 1918, before opening as a café for a little while in the 1950s (Yorke and Yorke 1982).  Today the sandstone and brick remains of the lifeboat house can be seen raising above the sands of Formby Point. 

World War Two Merseyside

During the Second World War many of the navigation lights guiding ships safely into the mouth of the Mersey were disabled to prevent them being used by the enemy, sadly this made Liverpool Bay even more dangerous.  One ship which was wrecked in the Bay during this period was the Pegu.  The Pegu was travelling from Glasgow to Rangoon, carrying 103 passengers when she intended to call into Liverpool in November 1939.  As she steamed towards the mouth of the Mersey rough seas forced her onto the stone walls that mark the edges of the Crosby navigation channel, where she ground to a halt.  The local lifeboats managed to rescue all the passengers and crew from her, but despite several attempts to pulled her free the Pegu remained stuck on the walls.  

Local legend tells that the hold of the Pegu was filled with barrels of whisky which were spirited away by locals before they could be secured by customs officials (Sefton Coast Landscape Partnership 2016, 3).  

Today the remains of the Pegu's engine room are still visible at low tide
Today the remains of the Pegu's engine room are still visible at low tide
Reused Blitz rubble shoring up the coastline
Reused Blitz rubble shoring up the coastline

At this time, Liverpool was Britain’s main port for receiving transatlantic convoys and by early 1941 was also a significant naval base.  This made Liverpool a major target for the German airforce and the Luftwaffe launched 68 bombing raids across Merseyside between July 1940 and January 1942.  The Luftwaffe’s main target on these raids were the docks that lined the Mersey, but the city and surrounding towns on both sides of the river were heavily damaged.  The human cost of these raids was tragic with some 4,000 people being killed and 4,000 seriously injured, tens of thousands of homes were destroyed and 184,000 damaged.  The biggest explosion on Merseyside during the war happened on the night of 3rd May 1941 when the ammunition ship SS Malakand was hit while alongside in Huskisson Branch Dock Number 2.  The SS Malakand was carrying 1000 tons of ordnance bound for the Middle East when she was hit, and despite the heroic efforts of the crew and fire brigand the ship eventually exploded devastating a wide area around the dock, which was never used again (Merseyside Maritime Museum undated b).  The rubble from these bombing raids was eventually cleared away and in several places was placed along the coast as a flood defence to help prevent the erosion of the local sand dunes.  One of these areas runs from the Blundell sailing club at Hightown to the Crosby coastguard station, where you can see large sections of brick wall, tiled floor and ornamental stonework. 

Tobacco warehouse on Stanley Dock, Liverpool, built 1901
Tobacco warehouse on Stanley Dock, Liverpool, built 1901

Tobacco

After the war, Liverpool continued to be a significant port with tobacco being one of the city’s major imports.  Not all of the tobacco crop was suitable for sale after it had been transported across the Atlantic and thousands of tons of cargo was thrown away.  During the 1950s and 60s the British Nicotine Company decided to dump its waste tobacco at Formby, which at the time was considered an area of unproductive waste land, in sand dunes some distance from the high tideline.  When the tobacco was dumped it was so soft that trucks had difficulty driving across it, so sections of caterpillar tracks from World War Two tanks were laid down to help the trucks gain traction.  Today the sand dunes at Formby are an important nature reserve. Coastal erosion here has exposed the tobacco cliffs to the sea and short sections of tank track can be occasionally found on the beach.

Mounds of dumped tobacco being eroded by the sea (scale: 1m)
Mounds of dumped tobacco being eroded by the sea (scale: 1m)

References

Burns A 2014, The prehistoric footprints at Formby, Sefton Coast Landscape Partnership

Merseyside Maritime Museum undated a, ‘Why Liverpool’s docks are needed’, http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/maritime/about/why-docks-needed.aspx, accessed 23/11/16, 15:00

Merseyside Maritime Museum undated b, ‘Liverpool’s docks and the May Blitz 1941, http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/maritime/collections/boa/history/may-blitz.aspx

Roberts G 2009, ‘Ephemeral, subfossil mammalian, avian and hominid footprints within Flandrian sediment exposures at Formby Point, Sefton Coast, northwest England’, Ichnos, Volume: 16, 33-48

Sefton Coast Landscape Partnership 2016, Shipwrecks of the Sefton Coast: A guide to shipwrecks on the Sefton Coast

Stephen 2008, ‘Medieval port’, Merseyside Maritime Museum Blog, http://blog.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/2008/09/medieval-port/, accessed 23/11/16, 15:00

Yorke R 2003, Origins of Britain’s first lifeboat station, www.formbycivicsociety.org.uk/2003%2003%20originsbritainsfirstlifeboatstation.html 

Yorke B and Yorke R 1982, Britain’s first lifeboat station, Formby, 1776-1918