A-Z Of Liverpool + The Mersey Road Tunnels (Book reviews)

Amberley Publishing’s range of local interest books has served Merseyside well over recent years, and here are two more fine additions to the canon.

Ken Pye, the author of A – Z Of Liverpool, is of course a well-known local historian and radio broadcaster. As he explains at the outset, his book deliberately avoids the obvious in its compendium of people, places and events. Instead we get an exploration of ‘lesser known’ Liverpool, which has the advantage of increasing the book’s interest for local readers who don’t really need another potted account of the Liver Buildings or St George’s Hall. Another notable feature is that Pye has put together a genuine A – Z, with one entry for each letter of the alphabet, from the Athenaeum Club (which preceded its better known London namesake by 27 years) to Walton’s Zoological Gardens (now gone, though part of the original ticket office and turnstile can still be seen on Rice Lane, between a Chinese restaurant and the Plough pub).

The entry for the zoo, which opened in 1884 and closed just three years later, tells us that the star attraction was Pongo the Man-Monkey, billed as ‘The Missing Link’. Some speculated that he was a man inside a monkey costume, but it’s thought more likely he was some kind of ape. The book’s full of such curiosities, making it a surprising, interesting and thoroughly entertaining read.

The many fascinating stops along the way as we travel from A to Z include King John’s Hunting Lodge in Toxteth (parts of which survive today), Gog and Magog (the Herculean figures on the gateposts of Harthill Park) and Little Bongs (a hard to find but very attractive collection of old cottages in Knotty Ash). Colour photographs on virtually every page add to the pleasure of leafing through the book. Often entries broaden out from the particular to the more general, so that the sum of what we get is more than a collection of alphabetically arranged parts. The entry on Garston’s Stanlawe Grange, for example, uses the history of this 13th century building to tell us about the communities of monks who lived in Merseyside during the Middle Ages. They’re known to have regularly crossed to Liverpool from the Wirral by boat (the original Mersey ferry), but Pye reports that legend has it they also dug a tunnel – as he says, maybe not such a far-fetched idea when one considers the profusion of underground tunnels and caves on both sides of the river.

Which brings us neatly to Peter Jackson-Lee’s The Mersey Road Tunnels. The book’s sub-title ‘The first eighty years in pictures’ is a little misleading, as while the many period photographs are undoubtedly a prominent feature there is also plenty of written text, providing us with a comprehensive and authoritative history of the Birkenhead and Wallasey tunnels. The author is from the Wirral and his own experience in the construction industry makes him an excellent guide to these engineering miracles.

The Queensway (Birkenhead) tunnel was the first to be built; work began in 1925 and it opened in 1934. It was a groundbreaking achievement in more ways than one. No tunnel of a comparable diameter had ever been built before, and much of the digging was done by hand. It was dirty, dangerous work and 17 men died during the tunnel’s construction. Two gangs of excavators worked towards each other from each side of the river, guided by engineers and surveyors whose care and precision meant that they eventually met at a pre-determined point in the middle. The technical detail of Jackson-Lee’s account may in places be a touch excessive for the general reader, but anyone with an interest in construction methods is likely to find much of interest in these parts of the book.

The author doesn’t however neglect other aspects of the story. We learn for instance of the Brexit-style negotiations between Liverpool, Birkenhead, Bootle and Wallasey councils over the financing and co-ordination of the project. There is also a full account of the tunnel’s opening ceremony, attended by King George V and Queen Mary, who on the same day also opened Birkenhead Central Library. This replaced the Carnegie Free Library, sadly demolished to make way for the entrance to the tunnel.

In 1959 options for a second river crossing began to be discussed. A six lane bridge was one of the proposals, but the eventual outcome was the Kingsway tunnel, opened by the Queen in 1971. Again various councils and vested interests sought to influence the project, and some questioned whether a second tunnel was necessary. But demand was by now exceeding capacity in the Queensway tunnel and rush-hour traffic congestion was a regular occurrence (the tunnel authorities even tried assisting the flow of traffic at peak times by using three lanes in one direction). More sophisticated construction equipment was now available than had been the case with the Queensway tunnel, but the tunnel was still a triumph of engineering expertise and innovation, entailing several ‘world firsts’.

Jackson-Lee has researched his subject well and discovered many photographs that few readers will have seen before. They include atmospheric photos from all stages of the tunnels’ construction, plans, maps and newspaper cuttings. The book’s a veritable mine of information, and reading it will give you something to think about if you’re ever stuck in traffic waiting to enter (or leave) either of these great Merseyside marvels.

A – Z Of Liverpool by Ken Pye (£14.99) and The Mersey Road Tunnels by Peter Jackson-Lee (£12.99) are both published by Amberley Publishing.