Only in England: photos by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr at the Walker

Only in England: photos by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr at the Walker

On show at the Walker in Liverpool until June is a tremendous exhibition of photography by Martin Parr and Tony Ray Jones. I first saw the exhibition Only in England when it was on at the Science Museum in London in 2013, and it so captivated me then that I had to go and see it again. Continue reading “Only in England: photos by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr at the Walker”

Only in England: photos by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr

Only in England: photos by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr

Location unknown, possible Morcambe, 1967 – 68 by Tony Ray-Jones

Possibly Morecambe, 1967-68 by Tony Ray-Jones

Here they come. The bloody English… in their Zephyrs, Wolseleys and Anglias. Off to their beauty pageants, caravan parks and penny arcades. Off on their day trips and annual marches. Off to watch the children’s parade. Off to their dog shows and fancy-dress competitions. To eat their buns under umbrellas. To sit in deckchairs in their suits and ties. Here they are… in their cardigans and V-neck sweaters, their trews and short-shorts. Boys, girls, mums and dads, grandmas and grandads – resolutely cheerful on their joyless holidays. Off to follow their peculiar little rituals. The Punch and Judy. The ballroom dancing. The morris dancing. The coach and boat trip. The grim little street markets. The freezing beaches.

This is the novelist Mick Jackson perfectly capturing in words what the photos of Tony Ray-Jones, taken in the late 1960s, captured of English customs and eccentricities through the lens.  The photographs taken by Tony Ray-Jones form half of the exhibition Only in England that I saw at the Science Museum when I was in London last month.

Location unknown, possibly Worthing, 1967-68 by Tony Ray-Jones

Possibly Worthing, 1967-68 by Tony Ray-Jones

Between 1966 and 1969 Tony Ray-Jones documented English customs and identity, travelling across England photographing what he saw as a disappearing way of life. Humorous and at times melancholy, his images had a profound influence on photographer Martin Parr, who made this selection of Ray-Jones work, including over 50 previously unseen works from the National Media Museum’s Ray-Jones archive. Ray-Jones work is shown alongside The Non-Conformists, Martin Parr’s rarely seen early collection shot around Hebden Bridge in the 1970s, so   demonstrating the close relationships between the work of these two leading photographers.

Ramsgate by Tony Ray-Jones

Ramsgate, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones

Despite having a legendary reputation among photographers, Tony Ray-Jones’ photographs are not widely known. This is probably due mainly to the fact that he died tragically young, aged 30, in 1972 before he was able to secure a wider audience for his work.  His legacy persists, however, and the point of this show is to show how much Ray-Jones’ English pictures, collected in the book A Day Off – An English Journal, published four years after his death, influenced the young Martin Parr. Depictions of leisure and the absurdities of everyday life are at the heart of both photographers’ concerns, and both are fascinated by the British seaside and English customs.


Southport, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones

Tony Ray-Jones developed his signature style not in England, but in America – in New Haven and New York, wandering the streets with a camera between 1961 and 1965.  There, he learned to create sophisticated narratives from everyday life.  Energised by this experience, Ray-Jones returned to England in 1964 where he formed a plan to to record examples of English attachment to tradition and culture at a time when he felt that England was losing its cultural identity through encroaching Americanisation.

May Day celebrations 1967, by Tony-Ray Jones

The resulting images displayed in this exhibition, reveal a photographer interested in the eccentricities of human behaviour. Before visiting the locations where these photos were made, Ray-Jones did some thorough research, and his images are characterised by a wry humour, yet at the same time there is melancholy – a lament for a disappearing culture.  Ray-Jones photographed an England very different to that of today – a country on the cusp of social change and transformation.  Yet, looking at this collection, I realise how much of the stuffy, conventional culture of the 1950s hung on through the ‘swinging’ sixties.

Brighton Beach by Tony Ray-Jones

Brighton Beach, 1966 by Tony Ray-Jones

in the booklet that accompanies the exhibition, Martin Parr writes:

Perhaps the most influential moment of all was seeing the work of British photographer Tony Ray-Jones, shown to an eager group of first-years by Bill Jay in 1971, when I was a photography student at Manchester Polytechnic. […] It was his ability to construct complex images, with everyone perfectly placed in the uniquely English atmosphere and surroundings, which struck a chord of recognition – and envy – in me. Ray-Jones’s skills were learnt from a generation of street photographers he had encountered in NewYork in the mid-1960s. […] The group included Garry Winogrand, Joel Meyerowitz and many other photographers who would later go on to define this particular generation. Their ability to use the street as the backdrop to seek out their own personal dramas was key to the language that Ray-Jones acquired, and he was keen to return to England and apply this formula to a country that had never been photographed in this way before.

I immediately recognised and was inspired by this new language he had applied so successfully, and also admired the work of his peers in New York. But the magic of some of Ray-Jones’s iconic images with their quirky English observations – especially at the seaside – most enthralled and excited me.  It is quite significant that the beach became the most important feature of Ray-Jones’s subject matter, for it is very similar to the New York street, where personal dramas can be explored and constructed. The streets of New York were very American and the beach peculiarly British.

Blackpool, 1968 by Tony Ray-Jones

Blackpool, 1968 by Tony Ray-Jones

Again and again, the Ray-Jones photos in this show return to the English seaside (as in Brighton Beach, 1966, above, its determined picnickers hanging on in quiet determination, windswept and with rain imminent; or Great Yarmouth, 1966, below, with its dilapidation, desperate couple, metal palm trees and desultory string of lights).

Great Yarmouth, 1966

Great Yarmouth, 1966 by Tony Ray-Jones

A great many of his photos depict holidaymakers and day-trippers determinedly eating in the most unlikely or unpromising circumstances (see Brighton Beach, above; or May Day celebrations 1967, above, in which people attending a village fete ignore the English rain and get on with eating sausage rolls under umbrellas; or, top, Worthing, 1967-68, in which a family have simply spilled out of their car onto steps by the parking place and eat there).  As Mick Jackson observes in the exhibition booklet:

All this Englishness requires regular sustenance. Sipped from up and saucer in front of tiny tea shop. Poured from Thermos flask. Brewed with water, freshly boiled on Primus stove. In car park and lay-by. On trestle table and fold-out chair. In church hall. Park. Garden. Seaside. Oh, where on earth would the English be without their cup of tea?

Untitled by Tony Ray-Jones

Untitled by Tony Ray-Jones

Brighton 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones

Brighton, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones

Glyndebourne by Tony Ray-Jones

Glyndebourne, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones

Ray-Jones was also very alert to the visible signs of English class differences – on the streets, on beaches or in parks. He had read Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier and that had set him off in search of telling images of English society at each level.

Eton,1967 by Tony Ray-Jones

Eton, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones

Durham Miners' Gala 1968 by Tony Ray-Jones

Durham Miners’ Gala, 1968 by Tony Ray-Jones

One pair of photographs – of dogs with their owners – seems to illustrate this attention to the details of class differences.  In Crufts, 1968 we see well-dressed owners with a superior and then very fashionable breed of dog – the Bedlington terrier while in Wormwood Scrubs Fair, 1968 Ray-Jones has portrayed a different class of dog and person.

Crufts, 1968 by Tony Ray-Jones

Crufts, 1968 by Tony Ray-Jones

Wormwood Scrubs Fair, 1968 by Tony Ray-Jones

Wormwood Scrubs Fair, 1968 by Tony Ray-Jones

Dean Brierly, writing for B&W magazine, puts his finger on the way in which Tony Ray-Jones combined this social observation with a ‘slyly subversive’ satirical humour:

One doesn’t often encounter a photographer who embodies the social satire of William Hogarth, the sociological thrust of George Orwell and the surreal humor of the Marx Brothers. But Tony Ray-Jones was nothing if not unique. […] His work, at once subjectively complex and slyly subversive, gave the impression that one was seeing England for the first time. […]

Channeling Fellini’s satiric instincts and Renoir’s visual poetry, Ray-Jones mined his particular vein of tragi-comic subject matter at carnivals and dances, folk festivals and beauty contests, dog shows and society events. He photographed working class families vacationing at seaside resorts like Margate and Brighton, and the privileged classes unwinding in the rarefied milieux of Eton and Ascot. In an era when street life was far more spirited and uninhibited, Ray-Jones bore witness to countless mini-dramas played out on England’s public stage, often with a sardonic eye and always with deep-seated compassion.

Eastbourne, 1968 by Tony Ray-Jones

Eastbourne, 1968 by Tony Ray-Jones

Beachy Head boat trip, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones

Beachy Head boat trip, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones

One of the most striking images displayed here is Beachy Head boat trip, 1967 in which a pair of young lovers, oblivious to the camera, are caught as if pulled straight from a film set.  The surrounding group of people appear unconnected to the couple, or to each other (this is a striking aspect, too, of the shot captured, possibly at Morecambe around 1967, that heads this post).

Looking at Beachy Head boat trip, you marvel at the success of a photo that captures the tension between the chaos of a fleeting moment and what appears to be a carefully-staged scene. Another aspect of this image that exemplifies the best of Tony Ray-Jones’ work is the way in which he first draws our attention to the centre of the picture, before pushing it out to the small dramas unfolding at the edges (this is apparent, too, in Southport, 1967, seen earlier in this post).

Broadstairs, 1967, by Tony Ray-Jones

Broadstairs, 1967, by Tony Ray-Jones

Brighton Beach, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones

Brighton Beach, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones

In his essay in the exhibition booklet, Mick Jackson says how, in Ray-Jones photos, ‘the English appear to be a bit of a rum lot, not overly prone to fun or flamboyance. We go about our recreation gravely; fail to arrange ourselves in a still or photogenic manner’. There are certainly some rum goings-on in a series of images he captured in 1968 of the Bacup Coconut Dancers – black-face dancers who, every Easter Saturday, parade through working class streets performing traditional folk dances in blackened faces that may reflect mining connections, or may simply be a surviving element of racist stereotyping.

Tony Ray-Jones Bacup Coconut Dancers, 1968

Bacup Coconut Dancers, 1968 by Tony Ray-Jones

To quote Mick Jackson again, Tony Ray-Jones photos reveal people ‘busy with their everyday business’:

Standing on railway platforms… chatting… buying ice creams… waiting for the procession to pull away. If life is what happens in the meantime, then here is the meantime writ large.

Tony Ray-Jones’ photographs bookend this exhibition, which opens with already-published images, and closes with a selection under the title A New Look at Tony Ray-Jones compiled by Martin Parr from the Ray-Jones archive at the National Media Museum in Bradford. Parr examined over 2500 contact sheets and chose previously-unseen work that can only reinforce Ray-Jones’ reputation.  Parr also pays homage to Ray-Jones’ enduring influence on his own work.  Among the striking images in this section seen earlier in this post are the shots of the Bacup Coconut Dancers, Morecambe, 1967-68 and Worthing, 1967-68. Here, too, is Brighton Beach, 1967 in which a young girl listens to a Dansette record player on the beach, singles lined up on her blanket.  There are many more images of families eating picnic lunches in the most unpromising circumstances in various seaside resorts – such as Untitled and Brighton, 1967 in which a family sit having a picnic under umbrellas on the kerbside.

Here, too, are displays of material from Tony Ray-Jones’ notebooks, in which he meticulously recorded details of all his shots – and thoughts on his practice.  In several journal entries he questions his role as a photographer and is self-critical of his practice. I found his notes headed ‘Method’, a series of bullet points with underlinings and capitalized letters, a concise and worthwhile set of guidelines for any photographer seeking to take better pictures.

Approach of photographer Tony Ray-Jones

In between the two displays of Ray-Jones’ work is one drawn from Parr’s first major body of work, The Non-Conformists, which documented the people and landscape around Hebden Bridge in the late 1970s. As a photography student at Manchester Polytechnic in 1970, Martin Parr had been introduced to Tony Ray-Jones. In 1974, Parr moved to Hebden Bridge where, inspired by Ray-Jones, and fascinated by the variety of nonconformist communities he encountered in the town, he produced The Non-Conformists, shot in black and white in Hebden Bridge and the surrounding Calder Valley. The project started within two years of Ray-Jones’ death and demonstrates his legacy and influence.

Congregation making their way to Crimsworth Dean Methodist chapel annual service, 1975 by Martin Parr

Parr became very much a part of the tightly-knit community centred on Hebden Bridge where traditional ways of life, organised around chapel and hill-farming, were in decline.  A fine image that seems to sum up that sentence is the one shown above – in which four women, members of a shrinking congregation make their way up the lane to the remote Crimsworth Dean Methodist Chapel in 1975.

Parr took many photos of the chapel and its surviving congregation.  There is a superb image of the chapel, taken in 1977, standing isolated on the moors in an evening mist, its windows brightly illuminated in the encircling gloom, with two vehicles parked alongside.

Martin Parr Crimsworth Dean Methodist Chapel 1977

Crimsworth Dean Methodist Chapel, 1977 by Martin Parr

Crimsworth Dean Chapel. 1976

Crimsworth Dean Chapel, 1976 by Martin Parr

When Parr, two years out of art school, moved to Hebden Bridge it was 1975, and a traditional way of life was in decline. Factories were closing, industry was leaving and the town was gentrifying.  Beyond the town, farming was in decline and chapel congregations were getting smaller. A new community was emerging made up of people like Parr and his wife: ‘incomers — youthful artistic refugees… in search of alternative lifestyles and cheap housing’, as Parr’s wife Susie writes in her introduction to the book of The Non-Conformists.

Martin Parr, Mythrolmroyd. Scarbottom. Redman's Factory. 1975

Mythrolmroyd: Scarbottom, Redman’s Factory, 1975 by Martin Parr

With four other artists, Parr opened up a storefront workshop and darkroom in the middle of town. Equipped with a Leica and a single lens, he began to explore the area – its landscape, people and traditions.  He says:

Places change all the time and the type of people who live there change. I was not so much looking at the new incomers, but at the traditional lifestyle there.

Parr would wander around, attend events listed in the local paper, and on Sundays go to services at the Non-Conformist chapels which were dotted all over town. In these chapels and their proud, independently-minded congregations, he found the focus for the body of work.  In one chapel in particular he documented the lives of an elderly couple, Charlie and Sarah Hannah Greenwood, who remained stalwart members of their religious community. The Greenwoods, befriended by Parr and his wife, were members of Crimsworth Dean Methodist chapel, part of a network of volunteers looking after the chapels – cleaning, making the tea, washing windows and maintaining the ancient heating. Parr’s superb portraits of the Greenwoods – in chapel and in their home at Thurrish Farm – became central to The Non-Conformists and are at the heart of this section of the Science Museum exhibition.

Crimsworth Dean Chapel Anniversary. Charlie and Sarah Greenwood put up their Anniversary curtains, only hung on special occasions. 1976.

Crimsworth Dean Chapel Anniversary: Charlie and Sarah Greenwood put up their Anniversary curtains, only hung on special occasions, 1976 by Martin Parr

Crimsworth Dean Methodist Chapel. Charlie Greenwood singing Hymms in the chapel. 1976

Crimsworth Dean Methodist Chapel: Charlie Greenwood singing hymns in the chapel, 1976 by Martin Parr

Sarah Hannah Greenwood at Thurrish Farm, 1976

Sarah Hannah Greenwood at Thurrish Farm, 1976 by Martin Parr

Crimsworth Dean Methodist Chapel. Sarah Hannah Greenwood at the Anniversary. 1976

Crimsworth Dean Methodist Chapel: Sarah Hannah Greenwood at the Anniversary, 1976

Tom Greenwood cleaning. 1975

Tom Greenwood cleaning, 1975 by Martin Parr

In his review of the exhibition Sean O’Hagen who writes on photography for The Guardian commented:

It’s easy to forget how quietly observational Parr was as a black-and-white photographer. There are scenes here in which you can almost feel the silence of a particularly English puritanical form of worship: severe-looking men and women seated in pews intent on their hymnals and bibles; a woman spooning sugar into her teacup beneath a grotesque painting of the Last Supper. There is unlikely drama, too: in one surreal shot, a young boy with a toy machine gun sprays imaginary bullets at an outdoor congregation from behind a plinth. In another, a besuited and bespectacled man holds up a single cabbage in a harvest auction.

Parr captures this world of worship in such telling detail that it may make you question everything you thought you knew about his work, and how he arrived where he is today. The influence of Ray-Jones is apparent here and there, but this is someone who had already found his own perception of the world.

Mankinholes Methodist Chapel, Todmorden, 1975, by Martin Parr

Mankinholes Methodist Chapel, Todmorden, 1975 by Martin Parr

Martin Parr Halifax, West Vale Park. Three local chapels combine to have an outdoor service. 1975

Halifax, West Vale Park: Three local chapels combine to have an outdoor service, 1975 by Martin Parr

There were so many images here that I admired: Tom Greenwood balancing precariously on a stepladder while cleaning his front-door window, opening on to the cobbled streets of Hebden Bridge; the superb shot of a butcher’s shop in Mytholmroyd, the butcher framed in one window, while his assistant wraps meat in the other; the pavement outside a terraced house in Hebden Bridge meticulously cleared of snow.  And then there were a couple of photos that, like Tony Ray-Jones’, spoke of the importance eating: the rush for the buffet at the Mayor of Todmorden’s inaugural banquet, and a 1977 Jubilee street party washed out by a storm, cakes and pies left out in the pouring rain.  All of these are superb compositions in black and white that speak volumes about the people and the community onto which they open a window.

Martin Parr, Mytholmroyd, Yorkshire, 1977

Butcher’s shop, Mytholmroyd, Yorkshire, 1977 by Martin Parr

Martin Parr, Hebden Bridge, February. 1978

Hebden Bridge, February 1978 by Martin Parr

from the Non Conformists Martin Parr

Todmorden: the Mayor of Todmorden’s inaugural banquet, 1977

Martin Parr West Yorkshire. Elland. Jubilee street party

Elland Jubilee street party, 1977 by Martin Parr

Martin Parr’s career took off after he left Hebden Bridge and moved to Liverpool to produce The Last Resort, the series of saturated colour photographs of holidaymakers at a rundown seaside resort of New Brighton.  Now he is a Magnum photographer with an international reputation.  Speaking about Tony Ray-Jones he has said:

Tony Ray-Jones’ pictures were about England. They had that contrast, that seedy eccentricity, but they showed it in a very subtle way. They have an ambiguity, a visual anarchy. They showed me what was possible.

Broadstairs, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones

Broadstairs, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones

In an essay on Press Leaf, Tony Ray-Jones and the End of Self-Sufficiency, Tom Young speculates on the meaning that Ray-Jones’ photos convey in the 21st century:

The British ability to show stoicism, both in the face of hardship but more commonly in the face of boredom – essentially making do – is a comforting self-image. From the Blitz to rationing, the three-day weeks to the 7/7 bombings, the British, we tell ourselves, make the best of it. Like German efficiency, French passion and American aspiration; British muddling through is now bound up in national stereotyping, unthinkingly woven into the very fabric of the Union Jack.

Ray Jones’s pictures don’t contradict this. Many of the photographs show families or groups of people, just pottering. Not pottering bravely, but certainly entertaining themselves when no entertainment seems present. In Broadstairs, 1967 [above] the scene is a busy, but strangely serene one. In the top half of the frame two boys play with footballs, separately. Behind them, rows of parents and grandparents sit, with no apparent distractions. A teenage boy is hunched in front of them all with his knees tucked up under his chin, looking out to sea, deep in an adolescent reverie. In the foreground a child swings awkwardly on a bannister. To his right, a couple, again, just sit.  It’s a picture of self-sufficiency; of everyone having a jolly nice time in their own company, thank-you-very-much.

Martin Parr, who co-curated the exhibition and spent a week in April poring over 2500 contact sheets of Ray Jones’s work, suggests there isn’t. In his notes that accompanied the photographs, he had a warning for exhibition-goers: ‘we must not become hostages to nostalgia’.  Of course, the first pitfall of gawping at photos taken during the 1960s is probably just that: nostalgia, even for those too young to remember it. “Look at their funny trousers and buttoned-up civility!” we must emphatically not say. Instead, we’re all the same – it’s just fashions that change.

But what if we can see that there has been a change? It’s visible in the contrast between the photos and the gallery they’re in, as a guard gently admonishes a young man for instagramming a photo just feet away from a sign banning photography. The endless possibilities – or seething static – aided by 4G connections and Xtra Power Chargers, mean that the age old British value of making do, of playing with a hoop and a stick; or just a stick if there’s no hoop, is redundant.

And if one day the internet and all its distractions collapses under solar flares, or a government shut-down, and the British have to return to old ways, how would we find it? Perhaps we’d go back to our coastal towns; to Great Yarmouth, Blackpool and Morecambe, and like subjects in Ray-Jones’s photos, sit and stare out to sea again, blankly and happily.

Only in England: Science Museum intro on YouTube

See also

Vikings on the Wirral

Vikings on the Wirral

Recently I went along to an exhibition at the Liverpool Nordic Centre of paintings by three local artists, exhibiting together as part of the Independent Biennial under the title Sea Scapes – Land Shapes.  What drew me particularly was that one of the artists whose work was on display was a former work colleague, local writer and poet Sylvia Hikins. Recently her paintings have been inspired by the wild and mountainous landscapes of Norway and Iceland.

Sylvia became fascinated by culture and terrain of these Nordic lands after learning about their connections with the Wirral peninsula through the Viking settlement of the peninsula in the 10th century. She has travelled extensively in Scandinavia and Iceland, including a flight over the still-erupting Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, resulting in film, photographs and paintings that capture the harshness and beauty of those lands. In 2011, she mounted a solo exhibition in Reykjavik.

Part of her fascination is the tangible link with once Viking Wirral where Old Norse was once spoken: the same language spoken today in Iceland. Her paintings capture the cold, empty landscape which she describes this as ‘huge, wild expanses of ice and fire, mountain and sea’. In oil on canvas, the paintings which include ‘Gathering Storm’ (below) depict, in shades of blue, grey and white, an unforgiving landscape.

It was the first time I had set foot in the Nordic Centre, formerly known as the Swedish Seamen’s Church or Gustaf Adolfs Kyrka (named after a 17th century King of Sweden) – though I had long admired the elegant and energetic red brick building from outside.  It’s a beautiful, light infused building with a high vaulted ceiling and blue painted pews, dominated by the octagonal tower with its pyramidal roof. It is one of only four octagonal church buildings in the UK,  and one of about 30 in Sweden. It was the first Swedish church built overseas, built to meet the pastoral needs of Scandinavian seamen and the growing number of emigrants on their way to North America. It was erected in 1883, at at ime when the number of transient Scandinavian people in the Liverpool area was growing.  By the early 1880s, the annual number of Scandinavian emigrants passing through Liverpool had reached 50,000.

The commission to design and build the church was given to a young architect, William Douglas Caroe, who went on to be a major representative of the closing phase of the Gothic revival in Britain.  He created a unique building, which contains many Scandinavian features, including stepped gables and a concave sided lead covered spire over the entrance.

Today there are still regular acts of worship at the Gustaf Adolfs Kyrka, but the building is now owned and managed by the Liverpool International Nordic Community, and, apart from religious services, provides community events and language courses for citizens and descendants of Scandinavia – Norway, Sweden and Denmark – and their fellow Nordic nations, Finland and Iceland – reflecting the continuing presence of a strong Nordic community in Liverpool.  The story of the fight to save the building is told in this Seven Streets blog post.

While I admired the church interior and studied the paintings, activities were going on all around me – a language class (I know people who have learned Norwegian here), a music group setting up, and refreshments being served.  But my eye was caught by a small library of books on Nordic topics, including a couple devoted to Merseyside’s Viking connections.  I was aware that there was a connection – in place names, for instance, and as the likely location of the battle of Brunanburh  in 937, when Saxon forces of Wessex and Mercia united to defeat combined forces of Norsemen and Celts from Scotland.  But flicking through these books, I realised there was a lot more to learn, and so I ordered the books from my local library.

It’s a fascinating story, different in many ways from the pattern of Scandinavian settlement in eastern and north-eastern England, areas that were pretty much exclusively settled by Danish Vikings. I should say, by the way, that another reason for my interest in the Vikings had been as a result of watching Neil Oliver’s recent BBC TV series Vikings, in which (unless I wasn’t paying attention) he didn’t properly explain why these people from different parts of Scandinavia were all called Vikings.

A lengthy discussion of the etymology of the term at Wikipedia makes clear that it does not refer to any particular people or culture, but instead indicates an activity and those who participated in it – the explorers, warriors, merchants, and pirates from different parts of Scandinavia who raided, traded, explored and settled in wide areas of Europe, Asia and the North Atlantic islands from the late 8th to the mid-11th century.  The Old Norse feminine noun víking refers to an expedition overseas. In later texts such as the Icelandic sagas, the phrase ‘to go viking’ implies participation in raiding activity or piracy, and not simply seaborne missions of trade and commerce. The related Old Norse masculine noun víkingr refers to a seaman or warrior who takes part in an expedition overseas.  In Old English, the word wicing appears first in the 9th century and is synonymous with pirate and a Scandinavian.

One of the highlights of Neil Oliver’s series was his visit to the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo to see the truly beautiful Oseberg ship (above) discovered in a large burial mound from 834 AD.  Elegant this ship might have been, but it was frail and designed only for coastal journeys, not the great ocean-going voyages that the Vikings embarked upon, voyages that took them to the Shetlands, and down the western sea ways to the Hebrides, the Isle of Man and Ireland.

The Vikings who landed on the Wirral actually came from Ireland.  The first to come were Norsemen driven out of Ireland, later joined by fellow Scandinavians from the Isle of Man, the Isles of Scotland and the Viking homelands of Norway and Denmark. In 902 AD a group of Vikings expelled by the Irish from their settlement of Dublin, pleaded with Aethelflaed, Queen of the Mercian English (and daughter of Alfred the Great), for permission to land and settle peacefully in the peninsula.  Granted rights, the settlers established themselves throughout the peninsula.

Some historians have drawn evidence of this settlement from Irish annals and Welsh texts that speak of a Viking named Ingimind leading a party of Norsemen, first to Anglesey, and then, being driven from that place, to the Wirral.  Though these stories are heavily embroidered, the broad outline of the narrative is confirmed by the Norse place names found especially in the northern half of the Wirral – and, most convincingly, by recent DNA evidence.

Though the first Viking settlers on the Wirral came from Ireland, they were part of the great exodus of people out of Norway that seems to have followed the unification of Norway from 880 AD by Harald Harfagre: families forced to leave because they were opponents of Harfagre, or because land became scarce as Harfagre settled his own supporters in the narrow coastal strip.  These were the people who headed westwards, settling in the Orkneys, Shetland, Faroes and Iceland.From there, some headed further west to Greenland and North America, while others headed south to the islands and lands bordering the Irish Sea.

The Mersey Vikings were not only raiders and traders, but also farmers, fishermen, and moneyers with their own representative assembly place or thing. Not all were pagans: though there is some evidence of pagan burial mounds, they were also Christians who built churches.  In the  14th-Century some were still naming their children the traditional Viking way, with name suffixes such as  –doghter ‘daughter of’ and  –sson ‘son of’, as in Iceland today.

It’s the Scandinavian origins of so many Wirral placenames which reveals the extent of Viking settlement along the peninsula, but especially in the northern half.  There is Birkenhead – from birki-hofud, meaning ‘headland growing with birches’; Frankby – from Frankisbyr or Frakki’s village; Irby – from Ira-byr, meaning sttlement of the Irish; Ness and Neston from nes, meaning promintary; Storeton – from Stor-tun, the great farmstead, the same element found in the name of the Norwegian Parliament, Storting, ‘the Great Assembly’; Thurstaston – from Thorsteinns-tun, meaning ‘Thorstein’s farmstead’; Tranmere – from Trani-meir, meaning ‘crane’s sandbank’.  West Kirby derives from Old Norse Vestri-Kirkjubyr, meaning ‘the village west of the church’.  Kirkby, on the other side of the Mersey, has the same derivation.

Viking placenames on the Wirral

Two place names are the most evocative: Meols and Thingwall.  Meols (from meir, ‘sandbank’), was the Viking seaport and shares its name with a place name of identical origin in Iceland (Melar).  Judith Jesch, writing in Wirral and its Viking Heritage, say:

Finds of coins and metalwork from Meols dated to the tenth and eleventh centuries show regular trading contacts with the rest of England, the Irish Sea and beyond.  While Chester was an official port and mint for the (English) kingdom of Mercia, Meols seems to have operated as a trading centre for the politically separate Norse enclave on the peninsula, serving its own local Anglo-Scandinavian community. It has even been suggested a that a mint, producing ‘Viking-style’ imitations of official English coins, operated there in the 1010s and early 1020’s.

The Viking settlement was most probably on the sandbank that gave it its name: a promontory that later disappeared under the waves as the coastline altered.  But in the 19th century, a succession of low tides exposed the remains of the settlement as well as a an ancient forest.  It was then that the major finds of coins and metalwork to which Jesch refers were found by local people searching the beach.  Many of these artefacts can now be seen in Liverpool’s World Museum – such as the axehead, shield boss and bent spear head below.

Thingwall was the site of the Viking assembly field or thing, the centre of Viking administration and decision-making.  Thingwall is a place name that can be found throughout the former Viking areas of the British Isles, as well as in Scandinavia (such as Iceland’s Thingwall, below).

On the other side of the Mersey there’s a Liverpool suburb named Thingwall, and there are additional sites at Whitby, on Orkney and Shetland, and the Isle of Man (where the local assembly still bears the name Tynwald).  Things were usually situated in safe and secure locations: Wirral’s Thingwall (celebrated below by proud locals) was situated right at the centre of the network of Viking villages on the Wirral.

But it wasn’t just the Wirral that the Viking settlers occupied.  Soon large numbers of Scandinavian settlers arrived across the Mersey, establishing themselves in villages and farmsteads throughout present-day Merseyside and then along the coastal plain up to the Ribble estuary.  There is a significant 1945 essay by Frederick Wainwright, The Scandinavians in West Lancashire, (reproduced in one of the books I’ve been reading, Viking Merseyside by Stephen Harding) which suggests that the Norsemen settled mainly on the low-lying, marshy coastlands which the native English eschewed in favour of higher ground.  ‘The distribution of place names’, Wainwright writes, ‘therefore suggests that the Norse settlement was characterized not by dispossession but by a willingness to accept the less attractive districts which had been neglected by the English’.

Merseyside and West Lancashire place names with definite Scandinavian origins

In 2004, an enthusiast with a metal detector discovered a hoard of Viking treasure that had been buried around 905 AD at Huxley, just outside Chester. The hoard (below) is a collection of 22 silver objects, consisting of one small cast ingot and 21 bracelets or arm rings that had been folded flat, probably for ease of burial. Sixteen of the bracelets are intricately decorated with stamped designs using a distinctive type of punch work.

In 2002 a survey was launched looking for evidence for Norse descendants in Wirral and West Lancashire, since the place name and other evidence suggested this area was once populated by Scandinavian settlers. The team sampled the DNA of male volunteers from old families in Wirral and West Lancashire who trace their male line back before 1700.  In this way the researchers could bypass the large population influx since Medieval times.  30% of the men surveyed in West Lancashire and 50% of the men surveyed in Wirral had their top DNA match in Scandinavia.

Tony Tottey from Moreton Wirral had top DNA matches with men in Norway, Sweden and Denmark and, interestingly, is the nephew of the late Gordon Tottey of West Kirkby featured in an article in the Liverpool Daily Post in 1971, The last of the Wirral Vikings.  You can read more about the survey on the University of Nottingham’s project website.

In his short series, Neil Oliver didn’t touch on the Viking settlement on Merseyside.  But there was one story that he told that was a revelation to me: the one about King Cnut attempting to turn back the waves.

Cnut succeeded as king of Denmark in 1015, after just over a century of Viking settlement on Merseyside and in the wake of centuries of Viking activity in northwestern Europe. A year later his forces invaded England; a passage from Emma’s Encomium quoted on Wikipedia, provides a picture of Cnut’s fleet:

[T]here were so many kinds of shields, that you could have believed that troops of all nations were present. … Gold shone on the prows, silver also flashed on the variously shaped ships. … For who could look upon the lions of the foe, terrible with the brightness of gold, who upon the men of metal, menacing with golden face, … who upon the bulls on the ships threatening death, their horns shining with gold, without feeling any fear for the king of such a force? Furthermore, in this great expedition there was present no slave, no man freed from slavery, no low-born man, no man weakened by age; for all were noble, all strong with the might of mature age, all sufficiently fit for any type of fighting, all of such great fleetness, that they scorned the speed of horsemen.

By October 1016 Cnut was firmly in control of England and was to rule England for almost twenty years. The protection he lent against Viking raiders – with many of them under his command – restored the prosperity that had been increasingly impaired since the resumption of Viking attacks in the 980s. The resources he commanded in England helped him to establish control of the majority of Scandinavia too.negotiated settlement made peace, dividing the kingdom between them.

I recall being taught at primary school the story of how Cnut set his throne by the sea shore and commanded the tide to halt and not wet his feet and robes as one that demonstrated overweening pride.  But, as Neil Oliver pointed out in a portrait of a wise ruler who had tremendous influence and authority across Europe, the story has an opposite meaning.  Failing to halt the waves, he king said: ‘Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.’ He then hung his gold crown on a crucifix, and never wore it again.  The story reveals Cnut’s kingship skills: a demonstration of his piety and allegiance to the Christian church and a rebuke the flattery of his courtiers.

Oliver presented Cnut as  an early adopter of European monetary standardisation, minting coins that were accepted right across Europe, fuelling trade and prosperity. Oliver argued that Cnut was drawn to England in the first place because, for several hundred years since Offa’s reform of the coinage, there had been a well-organized monetary system in England, unlike in Scandinavia.

Silver penny of Cnut, minted in Bath

Cnut took over the Anglo-Saxon system of coinage, minting coins like the one above which shows him wearing a typical helmet of the type worn by Anglo-Saxons, Normans and Vikings in the eleventh century. Contrary to the popular myth about Viking helmets, they had no horns.

Returning to the Wirral: for several years stories have circulated about the discovery of a Viking longship under a car park at Meols.  It’s a story that is rejected by Liverpool Museum here, but in 2013, the largest ever reconstruction of a Viking longship will sail across the North Sea to the Wirral.  Work to construct the 114 foot boat has been under way in Haugesund, Norway for the last 18 months.  The vessel is due to be launched in June and will embark on its maiden voyage in summer 2013.  The project – coordinated by Wirral’s Viking expert, Stephen Harding – aims to consolidate the growing links between Wirral and Scandinavia.


The books I read before writing this post were:

  • Viking Merseyside by Stephen Harding
  • Wirral and its Viking Heritage by Judith Jesch
  • Viking DNA by Stephen Harding, Mark Jobling and Turi King

See also