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Birkenhead Priory, Cheshire

(53°23′23″N, 3°0′42″W)
Birkenhead Priory
SJ 328 886
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Cheshire
now Merseyside
medieval St James
  • Ron Baxter
19 May 2004

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Feature Sets

The priory was originally isolated on a headland overlooking the Mersey, but is now entirely hemmed in by what remains of the shipyard graving docks and by a recently built industrial estate. A promenade has been built along the waterside, offering splendid views of Liverpool across the river, but no part of the priory is visible from this.

The original foundation is attributed to Hamo de Masci, 3rd Baron of Dunham Massey c.1150, but Pevsner prefers a slightly later 12thc. date. What remains is the cloister, without its arcades, and some of the surrounding monastic buildings. It lay to the N of the church, and of this only fragments of the N walls survive. To the E of the cloister square stands the chapter house, of red sandstone, the only part of the original foundation to survive. It is a simple rectangular building of two rib-vaulted bays, preserving only one of its original side windows - a completely plain splayed opening in the S wall of the E bay. The W front has the usual arrangement of a doorway flanked by windows, but these are completely plain and are not described in this report. A second storey was added to it in the 14thc., now called the Scriptorium, although Pevsner doubts whether that was its function. In the N range stands the 14thc. vaulted undercroft of the refectory, and to the W the 13th-14thc. buildings of the guest hall and prior's lodging.

The priory was bought by public subscription in 1896, and Birkenhead Borough Council took responsibility for it. It was restored 1896-98, and the chapter house restored from 1913-19, when it was dedicated as a chapel. Romanesque sculpture is found in the vault supports of the chapter house. This picture is confused by the presence on the same site of the remains of St Mary's church. The church, by Thomas Rickman (1819-21) was built as part of F. R. Price's plan to develop the town as a resort. It was enlarged by the construction of transepts in 1832-35, but closed in 1971 and all except the tower demolished four years later. This remains as a viewpoint.


No document records the foundation, and the generally accepted ascription to Hamo de Masci comes from Sir Peter Leycester (1673), generally reliable and with access to documents in the hands of the Cheshire gentry. His writings are most easily accessed via Ormerod.

The priory was dissolved in 1536. The site was restored from 1898-1919 and the Chapter House was dedicated as a chapel in 1919. The site was scheduled as an ancient monument in 1979.


Interior Features

Vaulting/Roof Supports


Leycester was cautious about the date of foundation, but suggested the reign of Henry II (1154-89). On the basis of the style of the chapter house, Stewart-Brown preferred the 1st half of that reign, which fits well enough with Pevsner's opinion.


N. Pevsner and E. Hubbard, The Buildings of England. Cheshire. Harmondsworth 1971 (repr. 1978), 79-81.

G. Ormerod, History of Cheshire. 3 vols 1816-19. (ed. T. Helsby, 1882)

P.Leycester, Historical Antiquities. 1673.

R. Richards, Old Cheshire Churches. London 1947, 54-60.

R. Stewart-Brown, Birkenhead Priory and the Mersey Ferry (and A Chapter on the Monastic Buildings by H. Brakspear). Liverpool 1925.