Winter 2004

Sefton's Coastal heritage

Article by RA Yorke and JM Lewis, History and Archaeology Task Group

A Conference on the history and archaeology of the coast was held at Formby Hall Golf Club on Wednesday 15th September 2004. Organised by Sefton Coastal Partnership's History and Archaeology Task Group, with the assistance of Formby Civic Society, the cost of holding the Conference was underwritten by Sefton MBC. Nearly 170 delegates came from a wide geographical area. The Formby Hall Golf Club proved a satisfactory venue and there were some interesting displays by the Formby Civic Society, Liverpool Hope University College, Sefton Library Services, Liverpool Sailing Club, Merseyside Maritime Museum, Crosby Museum and RSPB Southport Group.

Ceri Jones opened the Conference on behalf of Sefton Council and the Partnership and Dr Jen Lewis of The University of Liverpool took the chair for the morning session. To provide a context for subsequent presentations, Dr Lewis described how archaeological and historical evidence help us understand how our forebears lived and worked.

The next three presentations looked at research into prehistoric activity on the coast. Ron Cowell of National Museums Liverpool described the coastal environment and suggested how it might have been exploited on a seasonal basis as hunter-gatherers moved across the landscape with no settled abode. The discovery of large quantities of flint objects in Little Crosby and Ince Blundell sheds light on hitherto unknown prehistoric communities in the area from the end of the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago through to the Bronze Age, about 1,500 BC.

Using examples of evidence for human and animal footprints in the muddy silts at Formby, Gordon Roberts, volunteer for the National Trust and Sefton Coastal Rangers, showed that the coast had been used not only by prehistoric people of different genders and age but by mammals and birds as they exploited the coastland resource. Changing sea levels resulting in stratified deposits of sands and silts in which the footprints are preserved, presented Dr Annie Worsley of Edge Hill, Ormskirk with a challenge to see whether pollen captured within such deposits could inform on changing environments. She found that the pollen showed changes from marsh and mossland vegetations to woodland over the millennia. She suggested that charcoal fragments trapped in silts deposited long before the introduction of metalworking showed evidence for the use of fire at temperatures higher than expected from accidental burning. Microscopes set up in one of the Conference side rooms allowed delegates to examine the exciting remains captured within the silts.

Moving forward in time Dr Rob Philpott of National Museums Liverpool drew on current research into the archaeological and documentary evidence for lost settlement at Meols off the north Wirral coast and suggested that Sefton's dune sands may conceal similar evidence. Whilst the occasional discovery of Roman material on our coast gives credence to the possibility of Roman exploitation before the 5th century, place names arising out of the Norse Viking language indicate the presence of coastal communities before the arrival of the Normans in the 11th century.

After lunch John Houston, former Sefton Coastal Management Officer and currently Consultant to the EU Life Fund took the chair. Barbara Yorke, Formby Civic Society, considered how problems of navigating a changing coastline were faced as the port at Liverpool developed and shipping in the Mersey estuary increased. She identified the location and structure of navigation beacons and lighthouses and described the establishment of the country's first lifeboat station at Formby in 1776. The presentation ended with a remarkable archive film of the last launch of the lifeboat when the Formby Station closed in 1916.

Sylvia Harrop of The University of Liverpool and Chairman of The Birkdale and Ainsdale Historical Research Society considered the role of the shore in the 17th and 18th centuries as a means of communication in a landscape backed by treacherous and almost impassable mosslands. Evidence was offered for a formalised arrangement of fishing stalls on the beach together with details of the structure and placement of nets. All along the coast, the shore provided opportunities for running in boats laden with smuggled goods from the Isle of Man to be unloaded and hidden in local houses - an activity in which many, if not all, members of the community were involved.

Dr Reg Yorke, member of Sefton Coast Partnership and Chair of the organising Task Group, considered the creation by local landowners of extensive conifer plantations both as a cash crop and as a means of stabilising the dunes. Dry areas within the dunes attracted new fields for the cultivation of asparagus in the mid-19th century. Development of the new railway line from Liverpool to Southport provided transportation of night soil from the city to Freshfield for use as a fertiliser as the fields were brought into cultivation.

The day concluded with a presentation from Sarah-Jane Farr, Merseyside Archaeological Officer. She showed examples of different approaches to archaeological fieldwork and described the role of the Sites and Monuments Record as an archive to hold information about the past and how this can be used to advise Local Authorities in the processes of Planning and Development Control. She noted the national and regional importance of the Sefton Coast and emphasised that management of the archaeological and historical heritage requires understanding of what it represents.

What next?

The Conference proceedings will be published by Sefton Library Services.

Feedback following the Conference has been extremely positive with over 91% indicating that they felt better informed about the Coast and 85% positively stating that they would be interested in attending future events of this kind. A number of people would have liked a site visit and one or two people asked why there was not more specific information about places such as North Meols and Bootle. The Conference organisers are aware that the programme omitted many interesting aspects of human activity on the coast. The Task Group intends to develop a series of topic-related leaflets on themes such as transport, military activity, wrecks and leisure pursuits and would be pleased to hear from anyone with ideas for particular themes or with specialist knowledge. Please contact Dr Yorke at 3 Wicks Lane, Formby L37 3JE.

RA Yorke and JM Lewis