Since my childhood I have wanted to know the history of “The Priory” ruins of St Michaels in the Hamlet in South Liverpool. Although the Internet and a couple of history books provided glimpses, they didn’t give me a full picture. The Priory Woods as they are now called were a wasteland up to 1984 when they found a new purpose as a gateway to The International Garden Festival* This turned a previous Council rubbish dump into a tourist attraction. As the woods are right next to St Michaels train station they provided the perfect leafy entrance to the site. The woods were cleaned up and thankfully a lot of the character of the site was maintained.
*now reopened after years of neglect as Festival Gardens http://www.liverpoolfestivalgardens.com/
Priory Woods, St Michaels in the Hamlet, Liverpool as it is today. A walk a clear winter’s day like this shows more of the remaining ruins and adds magic to this charming and mysterious walk. Top row from left: The Archway in St Michaels Road, One of the original pillars that enclosed the whole site, a doorway provides a glimpse in the next field. Middle row: A tree grown into a gate post and two small bridges that span two brick cuttings. Bottom row: The Southwood Road entrance, Medieval style stone work on a curved wall and a boundary wall of the old Southwood Road that used to run all the way to the Mersey.
The Priory in the 1970s
My childhood was in the 1970s, the last decade before urban regeneration of Liverpool. As a consequence our playground was derelict remains of a once industrial Liverpool. Living in a terraced house in Aigburth, with the Mersey on our doorstep, this is where we inevitably chose to explore. Our playground extended from Otterspool to Dingle and this panorama took in a cricket ground, a rugby ground, a council rubbish dump, Second World War Anti-aircraft barrage bunkers and a disused oil jetty. This area was a narrow strip sandwiched between a closed down railway line (now the Hunts Cross to Southport line) and the Mersey. The railway, accessed via St Michaels was at that time, closed (between 1972 and 1978) so many of the places we explored were via this route. (I must point out that the lines were not electrified but still a stupid thing to do as we found whilst walking through a long tunnel when a diesel shunter came along. That was the last time we went on the railway!). The start of most of our adventures was what we called “The Cazzy”, or The Cast Iron Shore, although in our time the shore had long since disapeared. The gateway to this was the woods next to St Michaels train station.
For an inspiring history of the Cast Iron Shore and the neighbouring Dingle visit http://gerryco23.wordpress.com/2010/11/18/the-dingle-digging-into-the-past I also recommend http://www.allertonoak.com/merseySights/SouthLiverpoolTX.html
Before the Garden Festival in 1984 changed this area for ever, the Priory woods was quite scary place for an 11 year old, wild, with a narrow, dark path between overgrown trees that created a canopy over your head. Brambles and ivy covered most of the wood, through which the stone ruins of what we were told was a monastery would appear now and then. To the left ran a high wall that used to enclose petrol tanks and to the right as it is now is an open grassed area. Next to this wall on St Michaels Road was a lovers lane (but we didn’t call it that). Towards the bottom of the woods was a narrow, deep ditch that ran from east to west. Through this ditch ran a large diameter, elevated pipe that must of linked the old petrol tank to the jetty and tanks in the Dingle. At the bottom of the wood, after a drop, was the Council dump, beyond that, The Mersey. When the Merseyside Development Corporation developed Priory Woods they took some these ruins and rearranged them to there present locations. The pillars bearing the medieval style cross with the sans serif lettering “The Priory” is original but the celtic cross is an eighties addition I think, at least I don’t remember seeing it. The arch was not there but looks as though it was part of the original grounds.
There was a common misconception that a monastery once stood here and this was fueled by the number of houses built by John Cragg in the early Nineteenth Century who also built the church of St Michaels that uses cast iron for a lot of its construction. John Cragg (1767 – 17 July 1854) ran an Iron Foundry (The Mersey foundry) hence the area of shore being call the Cast Iron Shore. Most of the houses in this area were given ecclesiastical names such as The Cloisters, The Friars, The Hermitage and The Nunnery.
Shown left is the Church of St Michaels and right is “Carfax” one of the charming houses built by John Cragg that make up the Hamlet.
Shown here is John Cragg’s house as it appears in Robert Griffiths “History of the Royal and Ancient Park of Toxteth” in 1907 and next to it the same view as it is today.
Plans for Sale of The Priory
In Robert Griffiths “History of the Royal and Ancient Park of Toxteth” he mentions the Priory belonging to John Sothern, father of Lord Dundreary, a google search of him brings a wealth of information. In the University of Liverpool Special Archive I found documents relating to the Priory. These plans, drawings and a photograph are from the sale of the property on the death of the owner James Sothern (John’s brother) and are not dated but must be from the second half of the Nineteenth Century (1859 see update below), prior to the 1880s as by then it was owned by the Rogerson family. The land is marked belonging to John Cragg Esq. The site that is now Priory Woods was originally home to four large houses, St Michaels Mount, The Friars, The Grange and The Priory as well as stables, coach houses and a lodge.
(Update October 2014, Advertisement from Liverpool Mercury 1859 detailing the sale https://theprioryandthecastironshore.wordpress.com/2014/09/30/for-sale-the-priory-and-dudley-house-1859/)
Built at the start of the Nineteenth Century for John Sothern, a merchant and colliery proprietor. He was also a shipwright who owned Steam Paddle Ships called the Duke and Wallasey was involved with a ferry service from Toxteth to Egremont with John Fletcher who lived in St Michael’s Mount in the neighboring grounds to the west. He had his own ship building yard called South Bank: http://www.historyofwallasey.co.uk/wallasey/Wallasey_Ferries_Egremont_1761-1861/index.html.
The family were close friends with the Duke Of Bridgewater and were associated with The Bridgewater Canal. Benjamin Sothern, John’s father, was in the service of the Duke and was engaged on the canal and colliery works. Benjamin was the successor of Brindley, and had the charge of the construction of the canal from Worsley to Leigh.
The front of the documents, showing the south east of the woods. Lot 1 is The Priory, Lot 2 is Dudley House (later The Grange). Not shown is The Friars which stood right of Lot 2 on this plan to the north in reality, and St Michaels Mount which was in the grounds owned by John Fletcher at the top of the plan.
The Priory is on the left, The house on the right is The Grange. The owner of The Priory, John Sothern owned a paddle Steamer The Duke, much like that shown in the foreground. The posts on the boundary wall show the crosses that can be seen at the Priory Woods entrance today.
The scale and grandeur of the buildings can be seen from the drawings and plans. The Priory was the property closest to the Mersey and its boundaries are edged with a stone wall that features the crosses that can still be seen on the entrance to Priory Woods today. The plan of the building shows its library, two drawing rooms and two conservatories. A shippon was a cattle shed.
My favourite from the documents showing groups of people in top hats and crinoline dresses with parosols taking a stroll a small child can be seen with the group in the foreground. Clear in this illustration are the pillars with the crosses. The illustration also shows the shape of the land as it drops towards the Mersey that is accessed via a railed pathway. Sail ships can be seen in the background. By the 1970s that whole drop had been filled with rubbish by the council.
From the enlarged frontispiece (rotated 90 degrees to give a better idea of its geographic location) a lot more detail of the site can be seen with stables and what appears to be a pond surrounded by trees. These trees can be seen on the right of “General view from the Mersey” drawing.
This Attractive scene is the the forerunner to St Michaels Road. Southwood Road is the other entrance to the woods, accessed via the Train Station, which at that time ran all the way to the Mersey. George Melly the jazz singer and writer remembers this avenue in his memoir “Scouse Mouse”:
“Beyond the semis was the entrance to a lane, its surface unmacadamed, partially cobbled, dusty in summer, muddy in winter. It was, according to its street sign ‘unadopted’, which meant that it was not the responsibility of the Liverpool Corporation . It was darkened by great Arthur Rackham-like trees and there were fields behind its tangled hedges and sandstone walls. At the end was a tiny lodge which served the four or five houses which surrounded it. The lodge keeper was a gnomish, startlingly white-haired Welshman called Mr Griffiths, who would emerge suddenly from his pointed nail-studded door to identify visitors, cackling highpitched forelock-tugging greetings at those he recognised.”
Also included in the archive is a photograph of The Priory and although blurred it gives an insight to the building. A child can be seen sitting on the wall to the left of the picture and stripes can be seen in the well tendered lawns.
The houses locations
From the left, Picture 1 is 1905 Ordnance Survey Map with the houses coloured: Green is St Michaels Mount, Blue is The Friars, Pink is The Grange and Yellow is The Priory. Picture 2 shows the 1905 OS map overlayed over Google Earth. Picture 3 shows 1960s with all houses demolished and a petroleum storage tank enclosed by a rectangular wall occupying most of the site. The last picture shows the houses locations over the satellite photograph, all but St Michaels Mount were on the site now occupied by Moel Famau View housing estate.
Lord Dundreary: The Priory, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and Grand Theft Auto
On April Fools Day 1826 at The Priory Edward Askew Sothern was born. Edward went to school with Mr. Redhead of Rock Ferry and it was intended by his father John that he would become a doctor or minister but Edward wanted to become an actor:
“In spite, however, of parental advice and admonition (you might as well have advised a duckling not to take to water) the boy contrived to gratify his inclinations. While still at school he managed to pay surreptitious Saturday night visits to a penny theatre hard by his home. His soul was fired by the blood-curdling melodramas that he saw there, and the glorious and never-to-be-forgotten experience of having been permitted to cross the stage of a real theatre during a ” rally ” in the clown’s scenes that succeed pantomime”.
Lord Dundreary, a memoir of Edward Askew Sothern (1908)
He began acting as an amateur in 1848 under the stage name of Douglas Stewart and travelled to America in 1852 having several stage appearances including Barnum’s American Museum in New York.
Whilst appearing at Wallack’s Theatre, Sothern was given the part of Lord Dundreary in Tom Taylor’s Our American Cousin at Laura Keene’s Theatre. Lord Dundreary was a caricature of a brainless English nobleman, the original Nice-but-dim Tim. He made the role his own with his lisp, adlibs and famous ‘Dundrearyisms’ such as “birds of a feather gather no moss”. He is also credited as coining the phrase “The Tail wagging the Dog”:
“Calling to mind Lord Dundreary’s conundrum, the Baltimore American thinks that for the Cincinnati Convention to control the Democratic party would be the tail wagging the dog.”
The Daily Republican, April 1872
The fashion of the time for enormous side burns became known as “Dundrearies” after him. Sothern was to play this role in a series of spin offs. There is some irony that being from such a wealthy family he would achieve fame by lampooning the English upper classes to an eager American audience. A stereotype still popular today with American audiences that in someway explains the career of Hugh Grant. What took his fame to another level was that it was at that play that President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865. Sothern wasn’t performing that night but it was his name that would be forever linked to the play.
A playbill from Our American Cousin, the play President Abraham Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated.
A stereoscope image from: http://thecrushedtragedian.blogspot.co.uk/2008/10/before-there-was-television-stereoscope.html
“Mr. Gladstone himself went to see Sothern act Dundreary, and laughed till his face was distorted-not because Dundreary was exaggerated, but because he was ridiculously like the types that Gladstone had seen–or might have seen–in any club in Pall Mall. Society swarmed with exaggerated characters; it contained little else.”
The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams
Whilst Sothern was employed by PT Barnum, he had a medium act then known as a “mesmeriser” and had formed “A Miracle Club”. It was because of this experience in his early career that later he took to publicly debunking the spiritualist movement on both sides of the Atlantic, insisting that he could expose any fake spiritualist. This led to a counter attack in the press by Benjamin Coleman, a Spiritualist Promoter. The shocking article accuses Sothern of using his skills as a mesmeriser to take advantage of a woman under his spell. Sothern succesfully sued for libel.
For more on this affair see: http://ehbritten.blogspot.co.uk/2011/03/emma-benjamin-coleman-and-e-sothern.html
Sothern was also famous as a practical joker and hoaxer, apt for someone born on April Fools Day.
“When the husband of actress Adelaide Neilson, Philip Henry Lee, visited New York, he had been warned about the wild behaviour of American authors, but gathered that it was a joke. Sothern assured him it was true and arranged a private dinner for Lee with twelve “writers and critics” (who were really actors). During the dinner, an altercation arose over the passing of the mustard with a fight breaking out, the men brandished both knives and revolvers. The room was filled with shouts, shots, and struggle. Someone thrust a knife into Lee’s hand, saying, “Defend yourself! This is butchery, sheer butchery.” Sothern advised him to “Keep cool, and don’t get shot.” The performance ended with Lee hidden behind a door as the real police burst in because of all the commotion”.
“Sothern and his friends demanded that clerks sell them goods not carried by the store in question, staged mock arguments on public omnibuses, ran fake advertisements in newspapers, paid street urchins to annoy passers-by and so forth. At one restaurant, Toole and Sothern removed the silver and hid under the table. When the unfortunate waiter found the dining room empty and the silver gone, he ran to report the theft. By the time he returned, Toole and Sothern had re-set the table as if nothing had happened”.
He married Frances Emily “Fannie” Stewart (d. 1882) and had four children, all became actors:
Lytton Edward (1851–1887),
Edward Hugh (E. H.), See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E._H._Sothern
George Evelyn Augustus T. (stage name Sam Sothern) and
Aged 54, Sothern died in January 1881 at his home in Cavendish Square, London, and is buried in Southampton. It is often reported that as he was so fond of practical jokes his friend didn’t attend his funeral believing that too was a joke. This cutting from The New York Times may provide another explanation.
In 2007 an auction at Christies, a carved and painted figure of Lord Dundreary by Samuel Robb circa 1895, realised a price of $409,000
It is interesting to note that the Dundreary character has found its place in the most modern of art forms, the video game:
“Dundreary is an automotive company in Grand Theft Auto IV and Grand Theft Auto V…a reference to Lincoln Motors.”
Louis Samuel Cohen
The next prominent resident of The Priory is a Lord Mayor of Liverpool and owner of Lewis’s Department Store, Louis Samuel Cohen.
Lord mayor of Liverpool in 1899; born at Sydney, New South Wales, in 1846; son of Samuel Cohen, who represented Morpeth in the Parliament of New South Wales. He was educated in London, at Edmonton House (H. N. Solomon’s school) and University College, and went to Liverpool in 1864, where he became connected with the firm of Lewis, subsequently becoming its head.
It was not till 1895 that Cohen began to take a prominent part in public affairs. In that year he was elected member of the city council for the Breckfield ward (Everton). He now (1901) holds several public positions, and has made himself thoroughly acquainted with all the details of municipal government. He is chairman of the Estates Committee and member of the Hospital Sunday Committee. In 1897 he was elected chairman of a subcommittee of the Unsanitary Property Committee. In 1899 Cohen was unanimously chosen lord mayor of Liverpool.
Update December 2015
St Michaels Mount
This would of been the first house when approached via St Micahels Road.This house stood in the grounds to the west of The Priory and was owned by John Fletcher. Of all the houses in the area, St Michaels Mount had the largest grounds. According to “History of Wallasey Ferries”, John Fletcher bought the Liverpool to Egremont Ferry service from his neighbour, John Sothern on 28th July 1847.
History of Wallasey