Speke: Ancient & Modern

The modern community of Speke, which lies at the southernmost end of the City boundary, was specially created to accommodate a population that was moved out to what was then a backwater of Liverpool, in the years before, during, and also immediately after World War Two. However, this district also has a magnificent ancient history, and is another of Liverpool’s ‘lost villages’.

The original name for the area was ‘Spic’, meaning bacon, as there were swine fields all over this area. Uctred originally owned Speke: he was a ‘Thane’, which was the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of a Knight, and he held six large manors throughout Lancashire in return for service to the Crown. From Uctred, the Manor of Speke passed to an ancestor of the Molyneux family. These were later to become the Earls of Sefton, living at Croxteth Hall in what is now the suburb of Liverpool known as West Derby. From the Molyneuxs, in the 13th century, the Manor passed to the wealthy and influential Norris family, who took up residence in Speke Hall; an outstanding, moated, half-timbered manor house that still stands in its own grounds, near the river.

It was Sir William Norris who, in 1467, began the Tudor rebuilding of Speke Hall, on the site of a considerably older mansion. He had made his fortune as a soldier, and had won much prize money and taken quantities of loot during his battles. He demolished much of the original sandstone manor house, which had certainly stood there since 1314, but left some of the original foundations below where the Great Hall now stands, to support his much grander Manor House. Also, the sandstone mullioned window in the kitchen is a remnant of the older house.

Speke Hall is timber-framed, and was constructed in four separate parts at different times, over more than a century. The rear of the present building, incorporating the Great Hall, was the first part to be erected. The two wings on either side of the central, cobbled courtyard were next and, finally, the front was added by a descendant of William Norris. In the courtyard grow two ancient Yew trees; male and female, which were named ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’. These are believed to have been personally planted by Sir William Norris, which would make them at least 500 years old. The house is surrounded on three sides by its moat, which is now drained, and the front entrance is approached across an attractive, ornate, Tudor, stone bridge. Above the entrance to the front of the house is an inscription in the lintel, which reads, ‘This worke 25 yds long was wholly built by Edw: N: Esq: ano 1589’.

Speke Hall is alleged to be haunted, and legends tell that the ghosts of a woman and her baby disturb the tranquility of Speke Hall: She was the wife of an early Norris who, when she found that her husband had lost the family fortune, threw her baby into the moat through the window of the Oak Bedroom, and then hanged herself in the Great Hall. Her dejected moans and the tragic crying of the infant are said to be heard throughout the corridors, and the Oak Bedroom is the location of a distinct cold spot. However, the legend does not tally with the known facts; in that the wife concerned apparently outlived her husband and the baby went on to inherit the title! Unless of course, these spectral manifestations are those of other poor souls entirely!Like the other major Liverpool families, the Norris dynasty had a significant impact on the economy and the social fabric of the local communities. They also played a significant part in political life of the Town of Liverpool, and beyond, some becoming Aldermen and Mayors. Once the Norris family had moved on, later owners of Speke Hall included Charles Beauclerk, and then Richard Watt (1726 – 1796), who was a wealthy merchant and slave owner, with rich sugar plantations in Jamaica.

Speke Hall is now a Grade 1 Listed Building, and is recognised as being one of the most significant houses of its type in the country. It is currently managed by the National Trust and is open to the public.

For centuries, Speke remained completely rural, and was no more than a number of isolated cottages and hamlets connected by tracks and pathways, surrounding Speke Hall and its extensive farmlands, woods and streams. Its population was never more than about 400 people, and this remained largely the case until it became an overspill, evacuation, and ‘factory-fodder’ community of the inter-war years.

To help cope with the rapidly expanding population of the City, Liverpool Corporation needed to build a new housing estate to re-house workers from other parts of Liverpool, and to serve the growing industrial estate at Speke. A purpose-built community was planned and, in 1929, Liverpool Corporation bought the land and work began in 1937. Pre-Fab accommodation was available on the outskirts of Speke to accommodate the community, and these were replaced, in 1936, by houses that were to be constructed using the ‘Garden City’ model.

Many people were also moved here during and after the Second World War; being bombed-out of their homes in the City-Centre. In fact, Liverpool was the most heavily bombed of all British cities outside London, especially during the May Blitz of 1941. Large numbers of houses were rapidly built and filled with families from all over Liverpool’s devastated streets.

Then, after the War and during the massive slum-clearances of the Inner-City of the 1960s, hundreds more families were shifted from their traditional communities to the modern streets of the Speke Housing Estate – and to other ‘overspill’ estates and ‘New Towns’ such as Kirkby and Skelmersdale. Although their new homes, for the most part, were much better than the ones that they had left behind, the neighbourhoods and extended families to which these people had originally belonged had been split up and scattered around the City. This caused the break-up of some families and much social disorientation – and none more so than in Speke.

What had been initially hailed as a ‘model town for the rest of the country’ rapidly degenerated. This was because the designers had failed to provide adequate social and community facilities, or appropriate services or public transport networks to meet the needs of such a large and growing population. The success of the new estate was also tied to the success of the industrial estate and, as businesses failed in the post-war slump, unemployment rose rapidly as did all the social problems that naturally accompany economic failure. The final major blow to the people of Speke was the closure, in the 1970s, of Dunlop’s, and of Standard Triumph, the car manufacturers.

Crime rates soared and Speke became renowned for pockets of violence, drug-taking, poverty, and squalor. Money was either unavailable or just not being spent on maintaining the infrastructure of the community, so housing stock and civic amenity degenerated further, thus adding to the environment of neglect and desperation.

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