As people drive through Garston and Speke, on their journeys in and out of the City or to visit the local retail, commercial, and enterprise parks, few realise that this entire district, with its large residential community, is a place of historic importance and with a considerable heritage.
Garston is one of Liverpool’s many ‘lost villages’ and it stands on the banks of the River Mersey between Speke and Grassendale, 5½ miles south of the City. Its name derives from the Saxon word ‘Gaerstun’, meaning ‘grazing settlement’, and the original Manor of Garston was once part of the ancient parish of Childwall.
There are now two parts to the district, the first of which is bisected by Woolton Road – on which stand the local bus terminus and an attractively laid-out shopping centre, and also by the more down-at-heel and older shopping street of St. Mary’s Road. The second part of Garston lies between the railway bridge and the river, which is where the original village became established, and is known as ‘Garston-Under-The-Bridge’, for reasons that are apparent.
For around 300 years, until the Reformation in the early 16th century, much of what was then South Lancashire was the property of the Cistercian Order of Monks, who had local monasteries at Whalley Abbey near Clitheroe, and at Stanlawe Abbey in what was then Cheshire – on the Wirral Peninsular where the Stanlow Oil Refinery now stands. In the 12th century, the River Mersey teemed with fish, and the land on the Liverpool side was particularly rich, fertile, and well-irrigated by fresh-water streams.
In 1264, the Lord of the Manor, Adam of Garston, whose seat was the now long-demolished Aigburth Hall, gave permission for the monks to farm the district. And so, to provision their religious communities and to generate income, the monks grew cereals and other crops in the Garston and Aigburth areas. They also bred pigs and built mills and granaries here. There were a number of watermills, which were fed by a stream that has its source in Allerton. This stream still runs to the river under modern Garston, through a culvert that was specially constructed in the 19th century, as the village expanded and began to become industrialised.
For many years during the Middle Ages the Cistercians held extensive fisheries in Garston, specialising in flat fish and shrimps, which were sold in nearby Liverpool Town and in the surrounding villages.
To get across from one side of the river to the other, the monks had to sail or row across the often turbulent waters of the Mersey. However, local legends say that the Stanlawe monks excavated a tunnel under the river, connecting their holdings at Garston and Speke to Bebington on the Wirral. These tales may indeed have some basis in fact as The Wirral, just like Liverpool, is riddled with underground passageways and caves, many of which are natural, but many more are man-made.
The only surviving evidence that the monks were once in South Liverpool is Stanlawe Grange. This stands at No. 2 Aigburth Hall Drive, in Grassendale, and was built around 1290, as a large, cruck-frame barn for the storage of livestock and produce; and with accommodation for 3 or 4 monks. Later becoming a farmhouse, the building was eventually and sympathetically restored and, for many years, it has been a private house. Even so, the ‘Grange’ has been continuously occupied since its construction, and it is the oldest structure within the Liverpool City boundary.
The Medieval community of Garston was large enough to warrant its own church, and this stood on the site of the present church of St. Michael, located in Banks road. The present building replaced an 18th century church, and was erected in 1875; with the tower, its battlements, four pinnacles, and clock, being added in 1898. However, The first mention of a Church in Garston is in 1235 – originally dedicated to St. Winifred, but the list of Vicars in the present Church records ‘Henry’ as Vicar, in 1225. This has given rise to speculation that there may have been a Church on the site even earlier than this.
As with many of the rural villages that once surrounded the old Town of Liverpool, the pastoral life of the original Garston community changed with the coming of the Industrial Revolution: in this case, with the building, in the late 18th century, of a Salt Works and Salt Dock. Then, in 1853 and to compete with the Mersey Docks at Liverpool, The London & North Western Railway Company constructed Garston Dock. From here, coal and timber from all over Lancashire was shipped to Ireland, and also was the main port for the importation of bananas into Britain. At the same time, ranks of streets of terraced houses were constructed in ‘Garston-Under-The-Bridge’, to accommodate the hundreds of dock and manufacturing workers who now crowded into the district.
Local people were not only employed on the Docks and Warehouses the railway yards, but also in a new window-frame factory; at the Hamilton Iron Works; in a copper works; a button making mill; a bobbin factory; and also in the Garston Gas Works and at the Garston Tanning Company. In fact, tanning had been going on for centuries at Garston, since the monks built the first tanning mill on the shores of the river here.
The mid-19th century was also the time of the great Irish Potato Famine, when hundreds of thousands of desperate people fled their homeland to seek a new life in Britain, and beyond in the ‘New World’. Many of these people settled in and around Garston where there was then plenty of work.
Garston was incorporated into Liverpool in 1902, and a decade later the village was connected to the tramway system, which by now was criss-crossing the City. At its height, over 1000 people were employed at Garston Docks and on the miles of railways that serviced and connected them. Hundreds more not only worked in the local factories, but in the supply-chain industries and businesses that serviced them. Consequently, Victorian Garston bore no resemblance whatsoever to the rural idyll that the village had once been. Indeed, public health, hygiene, and living conditions were extremely poor, and the working environment was dangerous and hard. So much so, that the London & North Western Railway Company had to erect a mortuary in Garston, because the number of deaths on the docks and the railways was so high.
Nevertheless, the district continued to expand, and Garston Docks became an important handling area for so wide a range of commodities that, by 1937, there were 93 miles of railway sidings serving the docks, with 8 miles of these running alongside the quays. This meant that the population continued to rise too, but conditions did not improve and the overcrowded district of Garston soon became one of the poorest communities in Liverpool.
The post-war economic and industrial decline that afflicted all of Liverpool’s docklands, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, had a particularly catastrophic effect on the people of Garston: unemployment rocketed as local industries and shipping declined and, by the early 1970s, the button-mill and window-frame factories had both closed and the tannery had more than halved its production. The closure of other businesses soon followed and, as there were few alternative sources of employment, many local families have now been out of work and unskilled for decades. The result of this was a community suffering from appallingly decayed housing stock, significant social problems, and a high crime rate.
However, over the last couple of decades, the docks have been able to increase their role, and a new Container Base, which opened during the 1980s, has made Garston Docks one of the most effective earners in the current holdings of Associated British Ports, who own and operate Garston Dock and the Container Base. The Dock continues to handle bananas, coal, timber, bulk materials, and animal foodstuffs: totalling over 522,000 tonnes of freight each year. But, whilst some local people are still employed at the docks, these are now much less labour-intensive, and so general unemployment locally remains high.
For many years Garston remained a deprived community; low down on the regeneration priority-scale and with Garstonians feeling that they were often regarded as ‘outsiders’. But now a major redevelopment of the district is underway, with ‘Garston-Under-The-Bridge’ at its core. The modern Urban Village Hall and an impressive new primary and nursery school provide a range of facilities, services, and opportunities to local people who are, once again, a socially-thriving neighbourhood with a genuine sense of community.
There is a good working partnership between the community, the City Council, and the other agencies that are regenerating the area, and all the old, sub-standard housing stock is being swept away. These are being replaced by architect-designed houses, in pleasant refurbished streets, managed by the social landlord, South Liverpool Housing – being occupied by existing Garstonians as well as by new people who are now moving into the district. The site of the old railway sidings, derelict for decades, is now the magnificent ‘Cressington Heath’ residential development: providing more modern houses, in a part of Liverpool whose fortunes are much brighter now, than they have been for many years.