john davies
notes from a small curate

updated regularly
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Making of the English Landscape

    An essay for Liverpool University Continuing Education Short Course, Making of the English Landscape, August 2005

    Choose a landscape which is familiar to you and write about the factors which you think have most influenced its development over the past five hundred years,
    giving examples of places, types of landscape or historical evidence which
    support your ideas.


    I have chosen to write about the place where I currently live - the area of Liverpool covered by postal code L11. This is an area dominated by large municipal housing estates, its districts known as Norris Green, Croxteth and Croxteth Park, but much of this was built on former country estate land and the area still contains Croxteth Hall and Country Park, borders the ancient West Derby village, and carries hints of previous land-use in road names, place names and parkland.

    Conversations on the landscape history of this area often begin with the specious observation, "It was all just fields round here once." Whilst some local people would regard the history of their immediate surroundings as beginning with the construction of Norris Green estate in the 1930s, the land on which the housing estate is sited has a deeper history, largely regulated, I suggest, by the activities of the Molyneux family who have owned lands in this area since 1100 [1]. Henry IV granted Croxteth Park to Richard Molyneux in 1446 and the family were made Earls of Sefton in 1771. [2]

    The period covered by this essay begins, approximately, with the building of the first Croxteth Hall as the family's main residence in 1575. Almost precisely four hundred years later the last Earl of Sefton died and Croxteth Hall and Country Park were left to Liverpool City Council. [3] So in five hundred years most of the area has moved from manorial to municipal management, and the shape of the land has shifted accordingly. Until the development of post-war housing there were always farms in the area serving the Croxteth estate, and independent commercial interests have also played their part - other small businesses resourcing the country estate and later the housing estates, and industrial developments on the fringes following the opening of major arterial roads in the early part of the twentieth century.

    The Shape of the Land

    The main factor influencing the early development of the area was the nature of the land itself. Recent archaeological evidence demonstrates that from prehistoric times the area of Croxteth Park was surrounded by dense woodland, including oak, alder, hazel and elm trees, and was a rich source of food for hunter-gatherers. [4] The River Alt runs through the area and appears to have been the route by which Vikings arrived there - the name Croxteth deriving from Croc's Steath - Croc's landing place. [5] That they settled here appears to confirm the view that this was reasonable territory for farming and husbandry, low-lying, relatively flat and drained (not always successfully) by a network of brooks, most since culverted and hidden to sight, but remembered in place-names: Deysbrook, Tuebrook, Fallbrook.

    The Country Estate and its environs

    In 1483 Thomas Molyneux was appointed "Constable of Liverpool Castle and steward of West Derby and Salford, and Master Forester of Simonswood, Toxteth and Croxteth." [6] With this title came the responsibilities of running a large country estate and establishing a network of working relationships with tenant farmers, estate workers and contractors which would help determine the shape of the area for the next five hundred years. In Kelly's Directory of Lancashire 1918 Croxteth Park is described thus:

    The park contains about 300 acres ... The Earl of Sefton is lord of the manor and sole landowner. The area is 955 acres of land and 5 of water; assessable value, £1,110; population in 1911, 54. [7]

    Among the occupants were James Gribbins, head gardener to The Earl of Sefton, A. Powlett and L.M. Lefroy, agent and assistant agent to the Earl, Edward Saint, the Earl's head gamekeeper, and Robert Steel, his greyhound trainer. This illustrates the nature of the estate in this period: the Earl and his family actually divided most of their time between their other homes, in London's Belgrave Square and Abbeystead in the Trough of Bowland, but the Croxteth estate was managed as the base for their sporting pursuits. [8] Two miles from Aintree racecourse, which the Molyneux family had owned and developed, Croxteth Hall was busiest over Grand National week, but throughout the year staff managed the Park for pheasant shoots and riding.

    The wider area was served by farms, accessible to travellers on West Lancashire routes which cut through the district. A staging inn was established on one key junction which remains known to this day as Dog and Gun, though the pub closed in 2004. In 1884 the large West Derby Cemetery was opened, serving the rapidly-expanding city of Liverpool, and in this period small cottage settlements developed nearby, along Carr Lane and Lower House Lane, housing victuallers, engineers, grocers, carters, laundrymen, book keepers, grave diggers, nurserymen and monumental masons. [9] The other large house of note, on a manor of the Norris family, was occupied by the family of Liverpool banker John Pemberton Heywood. [10]

    The Growth of the City and the Municipal Estate

    Transport has been a factor in the changing landscape of the Croxteth / Norris Green area. Liverpool's outer ring road, Queens Drive, was conceived in the early 1900s by City Engineer John Brodie, a seven mile circular route linking the north and south ends of the city, avoiding congested areas by passing through what was then largely undeveloped agricultural land. [11] Later this was crossed by the new East Lancashire Road, built at a cost of £3 million to connect the manufacturing areas between Liverpool and Manchester and opened by King George V in July 1934. [12]

    At the Liverpool end of the East Lancashire Road one of the first major junctions was where it met Lower House Lane at West Derby Cemetery. This meant that the area was no longer considered as distant, outlying or rural, but as an accessible city fringe, ripe for housing and industrial developments.

    At this point post-war housing policies come to play a key role in the development of the area. Since the early 20th century the development of Garden Suburbs had generated a move out of the densely-populated cities into what became 'a mangled, sprawling suburbia'; [13] an average of 300,000 houses were built every year during the 1920s and 1930s. The 1924 Wheatley Act enabled local authorities to claim a subsidy from central government to build houses. This meant that Liverpool's first city architect Sir Lancelot Keay could set about designing new garden estates to permit slum clearance and tackle overcrowding. [14]

    Liverpool Corporation's major project was the Norris Green estate, constructed on 680 acres of primarily agricultural land in the area bounded by Queen's Drive, the East Lancashire Road and the Croxteth Hall estate. Work began in 1926 and in the first two years 5,351 houses out of a projected 8,000 had been completed. Built in densities of 12 to 16 per acre they allowed occupants far more space than the inner districts where they had been housed, set in blocks of 2, 4, 6, or 8 and with gardens front and back. [15]

    To avoid rows of monotonous streets the houses were grouped in crescents, closes and concentric circles, though wide boulevards severed the area - Muirhead Avenue, Utting Avenue, Townsend Avenue, Parthenon Drive, built to permit rapid connections between the city centre and the East Lancashire Road for trams, emergency services and private motor vehicles. Local farms, bought out by the council, were swallowed up in the new developments, as was the remains of Norris Green mansion, whose grounds became a municipal park in 1931. The expansion continued post-WW2 with Croxteth and later, in the grounds of Croxteth Hall, the vast Croxteth Park housing estate.

    New industries began to grow alongside the East Lancashire Road. Occupants of the new estates found employment in the large factories of English Electric, Plesseys, Jacobs, and the smaller companies which served them. By the mid-1930s the area was unrecognisable from how it had been a decade previously.

    The Shrinking of the City and new commercial patterns

    Though many families have settled happily there and remained for generations, the dominant history of the Norris Green estate has been one of instability. When it was built there were few amenities on the estate. [16] The concrete houses turned out to be badly-designed: the metal used in construction started rusting almost immediately. By the late 1990s homes were declared beyond restoration. Families were cleared in anticipation of promises of a completely new, well-designed, estate, which have so far come to nothing. [17] In addition to these social factors, the big industries began to leave Merseyside in the 1970s and 1980s, and unemployment on the estates grew.

    Clearly, municipal mismanagement and economic changes are among the factors which have most influenced the development of these estates, mostly outside the control of local people. However tenant and residents groups played key roles in the council housing stock transfer to Cobalt Housing, a registered social landlord in February 2002. Cobalt has promised to invest nearly a hundred million pounds in double-glazing, central heating, new kitchens and new external doors, which will change the look of the area again. [18]

    Some of the Norris Green housing estate has been demolished awaiting rebuilding, and much of the ex-industrial land has been similarly abandoned, and nature is already reclaiming these areas. Changing economic and commercial trends have initiated more recent developments, notably a leisure park alongside the East Lancashire Road; there is the promise of a vast supermarket on the abandoned industrial land, and the first of the proposed new Liverpool tram routes will pass through the area.


    I hope that this essay has demonstrated that the area in which I currently live is a suitable subject for investigation in landscape studies. From ancient woodland, farmland and country estate, to municipal housing estate and industrial use it has been subject to many changes over the past 500 years. These have been influenced by many factors, but as with all landscapes, principal amongst them have been the priorities of human beings: earls, city planners, businessmen and common people.

    [1] Parrott, K, Croxteth Hall 1906, Old Ordnance Survey Maps, Lancashire Sheet 106.04, Consett: Alan Godfrey Maps 2002
    [2] Horton, S, The Earls of Sefton in Street Names of the City of Liverpool (Birkenhead: Countryvise, 2002): 7
    [3] Horton, ibid: 7
    [5] Wikipedia
    [7] Kellyıs Directory of Lancashire 1918
    [8] Lavelle, M, Avignon to Croxteth (Birkenhead: Countryvise, 2004): 9
    [9] Goreıs Directory 1906
    [10] Walsh, M, From Norris Green Manor in 1660 to A Unit of Social Life in 1926, in Mike Royden's Local History Pages
    [11] Parrott, K, West Derby and Norris Green (Stroud: Tempus, 1996): 40
    [12] Parrott, ibid: 43
    [13] Hunt, T, Building Jerusalem (London: Phoenix, 2004): 448
    [14] Timmins, V, A History of Norris Green (Norris Green Local History Group CD-R, 2002)
    [15] Parrott, K, Croxteth Hall 1906
    [16] Parrott, K, ibid
    [17] Timmins, V, op. cit
    [18] Timmins, V, op. cit