Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation…
- TS Eliot, Four Quartets
There’s always a sense on city allotments of the ‘fields beneath’ – the land as it was before it was urbanised. Gillian Tindall explored this idea 30 years ago in The Fields Beneath, whose title was prompted by an inscription above the door of a Victorian terrace house in Kentish Town: ‘The fields lie sleeping underneath’. But here, on our recently-acquired plot on Dingle Vale allotments in the south end of Liverpool, that feeling of being close to ancient land seems especially strong.
The allotments stretch along both sides of the railway line that runs southeast to Aigburth and Garston, and here disappears into a tunnel under Shorefields school to emerge at Brunswick Dock. The plots tumble down the sides of a fairly deep declivity that, with a little bit of research, I discovered was the Dingle – the once-picturesque valley that ran down to the Mersey at Knott’s Hole, and which gave its name to this part of the city. The photo below reveals what it looked like around 1900, when it was a pleasant destination for a country ramble. The allotments came in 1923, and this is the view across the valley now: the Dingle ran down to the Mersey to the left, the railway line is to the right.
This land was once part of Toxteth Park, established in the 13th century for the recreation of King John when he visited the castle he had erected in the settlement to which he had granted the privileges of borough and seaport in 1207. The Domesday Book records Toxteth (Stochestede, the stockaded or enclosed space) as still being possessed by Bernulf and Stainulf, Saxon thanes, even after the Conquest.
The Dingle was one of four ‘lost’ streams that flowed through Toxteth Park to join the Mersey. The Dingle stream rose in the higher land around the present High Park Street, flowed down what is now Park Road past the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth, passed through the grounds of the Turner Home and the present allotments, before entering the Mersey at Knott Hole behind a rocky outcrop known as Dingle Point. This was a rural area of rolling hills and isolated farmsteads until comparatively recent times, as revealed on Perry’s map of 1768. It was only in the second half of the 19th century that the regiments of terraced streets that characterise this area now began their march along Park Road.
As late as the mid-19th century the Dingle was still a rural area of large houses, vast gardens, babbling streams and a long beach on the Mersey known as Jericho Shore that stretched from Knott’s Hole at the mouth of the Dingle towards Garston in the south east. Smith’s Stranger’s Guide to Liverpool described the Dingle in 1843 as:
A sweet romantic dell…It is a delightful retreat, extending to the river, having all the diversity of hill and dale, wood and grove, tastefully laid out in shady and winding walks, with numerous arbours and rustic seats [see the 1821 drawing at the head of this post]. Few persons in Liverpool are aware of the beauty of this romantic spot, which is certainly a rare acquisition for the neighbourhood of a large town. Admission is gratuitous, visitors only being required to enter their names in a book at the lodge, to prevent improper persons gaining access to the ground. The Dingle, in Park Road, is two miles from the Exchange, and is passed by an omnibus from town eight times a day.
In 1841 Thomas Kaye added this detail:
The projecting land around the place forms the western end of a sweet romantic dell, well known by the name of the Dingle, a favourite pleasure resort of the inhabitants of the neighbourhood, who have liberty of access to it at stated times and under certain restrictions, by the permission of the public-spirited proprietresses, the Misses Yates, by whom the grounds are kept in a good state of cultivation. The upper part of the tower of St. Michael’s, Toxteth Park, appears peeping through the rich foliage of the trees arising from the Dingle.
The ‘Misses Yates’ referred to in that extract were Anna Marie and Jane Ellen Yates. The two days a week on which they allowed the public access across their land to the Dingle in the 1830s and 1840s, before there were any public parks in Liverpool, became known locally as ‘Dingle Days’. It was their brother, Richard Vaughan Yates, who owned the estate (marked in red on the 1847 Dingle Tithe Award map, below). The property fronted onto what is now Aigburth Road (then known as Park Lane), on the site now occupied by the Turner Nursing Home and the old Shorefields school building. The site occupied by the allotments today is marked in green, as is the location of the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth. [Click on map to enlarge.]
Richard Vaughan Yates was the man who financed the first public park in Liverpool – Princes Park. Yates was a wealthy iron merchant and philanthropist who, ‘desirous…that a place of healthful and pleasant recreation should be secured for the people’, paid the Earl of Sefton the hefty sum of £50,000 in 1842 for the land and employed Joseph Paxton to do the landscaping.
The Yates family eventually sold their estate to Charles Turner, a shipowner, M.P, and first chairman of the Dock Board (Mersey Docks and Harbour Board). After he died in 1875 at Dingle Head, the home he had built on the estate, his widow gave £40,000, with an endowment, to establish the Turner Home to provide accommodation and residential care for chronically sick men and boys. The Home, named in memory of her late husband and their only son who had died in his twenties, was built in the grounds of Dingle Head and opened in 1884. Robert Griffiths in his History of Toxteth Park described it as a ‘princely monument…. an ideal home of rest, nestling peacefully in the seclusion of shady bowers….. remarkable for its chaste picturesqueness…. the material used, red sandstone…..’.
The Yates family were Unitarians, the dissenters with roots in Toxteth Park since the early 17th century. In 1823 the Yates family sold the nearby estate of Dingle Bank (outlined in blue on the map above) to the Cropper family, who were Quakers well known in Liverpool throughout most of the nineteenth century for their philanthropic works. James Cropper was a wealthy shipowner whose firm, Cropper, Benson & Co., formed in 1799, carried mail and passengers as well as cargo between Liverpool and America. At one stage the company was making £1,000 per day profit.
Cropper built three large houses at Dingle Bank for members of his own family, and Dingle Bank Cottages on the shore for estate workers. These buildings can be seen on the detail from the 1906 Ordnance Survey map below.
These watercolours, painted in 1893, depict the views from Dingle Bank across the Mersey to th Welsh hills, and southeast along the Jericho shore towards Otterspool and Garston docks. The site was one of outstanding natural beauty and was the subject of much envy. The land sloped down to the River Mersey, looking south away from the docks up the Mersey where it broadened out into a great lake with shining islands of sand at low tide. One contemporary commented that it was ‘like living in the country and at a very interesting seaside place at the time, with the shipping and yacht racing and yet within a couple of miles of the centre of a huge town’.
The Croppers had made the grounds of Dingle Bank’s even more exquisite with a walk around the property which followed winding paths lined with Japanese plants and trees and crossed a wooden bridge. Several arbours with seats were placed along the walk overlooking the sandy beach of the Jericho shore, where, according to a contemporary account, ‘peace and tranquillity could be found in the beauty of the surroundings’.
James Cropper set up a ragged school on Miles Street, just off Park Road, which provided teaching in moral and elementary education to pauper children. He was deeply involved in the campaign against slavery and Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin visited Dingle Bank on a tour of England. She was overwhelmed by the welcome she received there and from other dignitaries of Liverpool, and found the beauty of Dingle Bank captivating.
Other visitors to Dingle Bank were the feminist Josephine Butler, the novelist Mary Augusta Ward and her uncle, the poet Matthew Arnold, who died in Dingle Lane in April 1888 while visiting his sister, Susan Cropper. He was running to catch a tram to the Pier Head to meet his daughter, who was visiting from the United States. There’s now a primary school on Dingle Lane that bears his name.
James Cropper’s son, John was also committed to the anti-slavery movement and attended the first World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840 which attracted delegates from America, France, Haiti, Australia, Ireland, Jamaica and Barbados. He was the subject of a poem, Dingle Bank, by Edward Lear:
He lived at Dingle Bank – he did; -
He lived at Dingle Bank;
And in his garden was one Quail,
Four tulips and a Tank:
And from his window he could see
The otion and the River Dee.
His house stood on a Cliff, – it did,
Its aspic it was cool;
And many thousand little boys
Resorted to his school,
Where if of progress they could boast
He gave them heaps of buttered toast.
But he grew rabid-wroth, he did,
If they neglected books,
And dragged them to adjacent Cliffs
With beastly Button Hooks,
And there with fatuous glee he threw
Them down into the otion blue.
And in the sea they sway, they did, -
All playfully about,
And some eventually became
Sponges, or speckled trout: -
But Liverpool doth all bewail
Their Fate; – likewise his Garden Quail.
Despite the encroachment of city streets and industry (note the petroleum storage tanks on the 1906 map, above), Dingle Bank remained secluded and intact until 1919 when the whole estate was bought by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board and all the buildings were demolished to make way for the Dingle oil jetties and petroleum storage tanks.
As early as the start of the 19th century the stream that had once flowed down the Dingle had long since dried up, prompting William Roscoe to compose his fanciful poem, The Nymph of the Dingle:
Stranger, that with careless feet
Wanderest near this green retreat,
Where through gently bending slopes
Soft the distant prospect opes ;
Where the fern, in fringed pride,
Decks the lonely valley’s side ;
Where the white-throat chirps his song.
Flitting as thou tread’st along :
Know, where now thy footsteps pass
O’er the bending tufts of grass,
Bright gleaming through the encircling wood,
Once a Naiad rolled her flood.
If her urn, unknown to fame,
Poui-ed no far extended stream,
Yet along its grassy side
Clear and constant rolled the tide.
Grateful for the tribute paid.
Lordly Mersey loved the maid ;
Yonder rocks still mark the place
Where she met his stern embrace.
Stranger, curious, wouldst thou learn
Why she mourns her wasted urn ?
Soon a short and simple verse
Shall her hopeless fate rehearse.
Ere yon neighbouring spires arose,
That the upland prospect close,
Or ere along the startled shore
Echoed loud the cannon’s roar.
Once the maid, in summer’s heat,
Careless left her cool retreat,
And by sultry suns opprest,
Laid her wearied limbs to rest ;
Forgetful of her daily toil,
To trace each humid tract of soil,
From dews and bounteous showers to brine
The limpid treasures of her spring.
Enfeebled by the scorching ray,
She slept the circling hours away ;
And when she oped her languid eye,
She found her silver urn was dry.
Heedless stranger ! who so long
Has listened to an idle song,
Whilst trifles thus thy notice share,
Hast thou no urn that asks thy care ?
The poem was very popular and for many years a statue commemorating the water nymph stood in an ornamental alcove on the rocky outcrop above Knott’s Hole (the white columned shelter with a domed roof visible above the tree-line in the watercolour above). According to Robert Griffiths writing in 1907 in his essential History of the Royal and Ancient Park of Toxteth, the statue had by then been moved to the grounds of the Turner Memorial Home where it could be seen ‘damaged by some vandal in a deplorable manner’. There is a probable copy of it in the Walker Art Gallery.
The five views (above) of Dingle Point and Knott’s Hole around 1900 reveal a landscape that is still rural, with the shoreline as yet unchanged. In the top photo is the rather odd sight of a tennis court set in the middle of the dell.
However, by the time Robert Griffiths published his History of Toxteth Park in 1907, the city was encroaching. Herculaneum Dock had appeared to the north, marking the expansion of the docklands along the Toxteth waterfront. Inland were rows of terraced houses and the old lanes of the area had been developed into the road pattern with which we are familiar today. The Dingle was now spanned by a viaduct carrying the railway line. Griffiths wrote:
Standing beneath this viaduct and looking towards the river, which is here just hidden from view by a bend in this ancient watercourse, one is confronted with one of the most beautiful glens in this part of the country…On either side the verdure-clad embankments rise to a height over-capping some of the hoary trees with which the the whole of the slopes are covered. Leading up through the gnarled and bent trunks on each side of the ravine are the moss-covered remains of the ancient ‘Wishing Steps’. …The deep solitude is broken only by the gentle murmur of the Mersey water, the joyous note of the feathered songsters, secure in their lofty homes, or the whirr of the martin’s wing as it hastily rises from its covert amid a little cloud of summer dust at the unusual sound of a stranger’s footfall.
The photo above shows the Wishing Steps at the time Griffiths was writing. The 1821 drawing at the head of this post shows the valley from where Griffiths was standing in 1907. He remarks that the rustic summer house had been burned down one 5th of November a few years previously ‘probably, it is thought, by a gang of roughs’.
In the early 1920s, the dell under the railway viaduct was filled in and the land was allocated to allotments. But part of the Dingle remained green. By this time, the land behind where the photographer stood had been allocated to the allotments, while an area stretching down to Knott’s Hole (seen on the 1908 OS map, below) was still part of the grounds of West Dingle, the large house on the hillside built for Joseph Yates in 1824, but since 1897 converted as the House of Providence, a home for ‘destitute women’.
Up to the 1930s, the view from West Dingle was still picturesque, with the valley stretching down to the low cliffs at Knott’s Hole. But then a wall was built across the shore, and the area became a rubbish tip. After the Second World War, rubble from buildings in the city centre destroyed by the blitz was used to fill in the valley, and once the level had been raised the whole area became an extension of the the oil and petro-chemical site seen on the 1906 OS map of Dingle Bank earlier. The oil terminal heralded the complete transformation of the landscape of the lower Dingle, beginning with the infilling of the shoreline down to Otterspool. By 1949 gas storage cylinders had been built behind the pier. By this time, too, the houses on the hill, including Dingle Bank, had been demolished. More gas storage cylinders were built in the period up to 1960 and the long beach of the Jericho shore was reclaimed for building land. By 1964 the beach had totally disappeared. By the 1980s the whole area had been filled with household waste.
Then came the Thatcher era and the social and economic devastation of the city: the docks were already in decline as trade moved elsewhere, while the deepening crisis, rising unemployment and inner-city tensions led to the Toxteth riots in 1981, which focussed national attention on the social and economic problems facing Liverpool. The arrival of Michael Heseltine, Thatcher’s ‘Minister for Merseyside’, began a new phase for the Dingle. The International Garden Festival in 1984 was an attempt to spark regeneration in the area. Whether or not it was a success, it completely reshaped the landscape. The area of landfill waste was developed into extensive gardens. Where once the shaded bay of Knott’s Hole opened out on the Mersey, the Garden Festival Arena now stood.
On the aerial view (above) the line of the original Dingle stream has been marked in deep blue, and the original shoreline in light blue – showing the extent of the infilling along the shore since the early 20th century, and especially in the preparation for the Garden Festival. When the Festival was over, the Dingle waterfront once again became neglected, as no long-term future for the site could be secured, though new housing that now backs on to the allotments was built at Knott’s Hole, while Riverside Drive, the new waterfront road to Otterspool, was another legacy of the Garden Festival.
Last September it was announced that work would soon begin on redeveloping the site, with the Chinese and Japanese gardens being restored, as well as the lakes and associated watercourses and the woodland sculpture trails. The developers also announced that they still intend to build the 1300 homes planned for the site ‘as soon as the market conditions allow’.
Dingle Point (seen above in a photo from around 1890) was the most southerly part of the Dingle. Remnants of the sandstone cliffs of the Point can still be seen near the roundabout on Riverside Drive close to the Britannia Inn (below).
This stretch of shoreline is remembered by older Liverpudlians as the ‘Cast-Iron Shore’ or ‘Cazzy’, a reference to the cast iron (used in the construction of St. Michael’s church) forged at the Mersey Foundry, a vast site on Grafton Street that was operative through the 19th century. The Cast-Iron Shore is referenced in John Lennon’s lyric for the Beatles’ Glass Onion and recalled in ‘Norra Lorra Otters’, by local poet Justine Tennant:
I’ve never seen a otter
Down at Otterspool
I’ve rode me bike
An flown me kite
An even bunked off school
Burrive never seen a otter
On the banks of Liverpool
I’ve never seen a otter
Down on the Cast Iron Shore
Me ma’s seen one around der
but long before the war
No, I’ve never seen a otter
Cos, ders none der any more!
Standing on the cast iron shore,
Lady Madonna trying to make ends meet.
Looking through a glass onion.
We can no longer wander down the wooded valley of the Dingle to the Cast Iron Shore, forever blocked off and buried. But if you’re fortunate to have an allotment in Dingle Vale, you can still sense the old landscape, see the birds wheel and the trees bend, dig deep into that old earth:
Let the day grow on you upward
through your feet,
the vegetal knuckles,
to your knees of stone,
until by evening you are a black tree;
feel, with evening,
the swifts thicken your hair,
the new moon rising out of your forehead,
and the moonlit veins of silver
running from your armpits
like rivulets under white leaves.
Sleep, as ants
cross over your eyelids.
You have never possessed anything
as deeply as this.
This is all you have owned
from the first outcry
you can never be dispossessed.
- Earth, Derek Walcott
- The History of Toxteth: Historic Liverpool