Seaport and industrial town in the Wirral, Merseyside, England, opposite Liverpool on the Wirral peninsula, on the west bank of the Mersey estuary; population (2001) 83,700. It developed as a shipbuilding town with important dock facilities, but other principal industries now include engineering and flour-milling. The Mersey rail tunnel (1886), the Queensway road tunnel (1934), and a passenger ferry service link Birkenhead with Liverpool.
History The first settlement on the site of Birkenhead developed around a Benedictine priory founded in 1150. Birkenhead was still a small village when William Laird established a boilermaking and shipbuilding yard in the town in 1824, the forerunner of the immense Cammell Laird yards, and in 1829 the first iron vessel in the UK was built here. The Laird shipyards were extended to cover the whole river front from Woodside Ferry Terminal to Tranmere. The Wallasey docks were constructed between 1842 and 1847 in the Wallasey Pool, an artificial basin created from a natural creek off the Mersey. They were amalgamated with Liverpool docks in 1855, and the creation of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board (1858) in effect made the Mersey a single port. By 1877 the dock system was complete, and the Bidston Dock was added in 1933. However, the shipbuilding industry declined in the 20th century, resulting in the closure of the last Cammell Laird shipyard in 1993. Europe's first tramway system was built in Birkenhead in 1860. The Wallasey Pool district was also a centre for engineering industries, many associated with shipbuilding, and other activities including sugar-refining and the manufacture of cement and fertilizers. The Scout Movement was inaugurated in Birkenhead by Robert Baden-Powell in 1908.
Features The Williamson Art Gallery and Museum includes a collection of English watercolours and Liverpool porcelain, and a separate gallery has exhibits illustrating the history of the town's shipbuilding industry. Woodside Ferry Terminal displays the history of Mersey Ferries, and the warship HMS Plymouth and the submarine HMS Onyx are preserved in the Historic Warships Museum.
Economy Birkenhead was in the worst 5% of the UK Index of Local Deprivation (2000). However, the Hamilton Quarter Initiative invested £82 million in the regeneration and restoration of Birkenhead town centre, in a seven-year programme scheduled for completion in 2002. The Wirral Waterfront project (2000), a regeneration initiative for the whole of the Wirral peninsula, also targeted Birkenhead for major investment, and is due to be completed in 2007.
Transport links with Liverpool The first ferries across the Mersey from Birkenhead were operated by Benedictine monks in the 12th century. When steamboats were introduced in 1817, Birkenhead became a centre for pleasure trips, and inhabitants on the north side of the estuary were encouraged to settle in Birkenhead and other parts of the Wirral peninsula. The Mersey rail tunnel was the first railway tunnel to be built under a major river.
Town planning Birkenhead was designed largely on a Scottish model, and was mostly developed between 1835 and 1846. Hamilton Square was laid out by the architect J Gillespie Graham, who was one of the architects of Edinburgh's new town. Birkenhead Park, opened in 1847, was the first public park in the country. Much of the 19th-century housing has been demolished and large areas have been redeveloped.
Famous people The painter Philip Wilson Steer was born here in 1860, and the poet Wilfred Owen lived here from 1900 to 1907.