Smuggling was prevalent along the Wirral coast during the 18th century and Parkgate, with its shipping trade, certainly played a part in this activity. The government revenue men, generally outsiders, were kept busy trying to control the situation. Contraband goods were brought over from the Isle of Man, where tax rates were much lower than on the mainland, and spirited ashore from ships anchored in the channel, mainly at night, when there was less chance of the smugglers being caught. A number of Parkgate properties had connections with smuggling. It is a common belief that the former Sawyer’s Arms, for example, received some of its liquor as contraband.
The first customs house in Parkgate was a small, narrow building erected on the shore, where the Donkey Stand is now. This building was taken out of revenue use when a larger building was later built at the seaward end of Station Road. This later building survived until 1962, when it was demolished and incorporated into the site of the Old Quay. Because this customs house was not well situated for watching what might be going on at the other end of The Parade, the Customs service, in 1799, hired a former coastguard’s look-out, now The Old Watch House, for its officers to keep an eye on the shipping in this area. However, customs staffing was reduced in 1820 to a single officer, as a result of the end of coal exports from Denhall Quay and the import of cattle through Parkgate. These two premises were then both de-commissioned and put to other use in 1828, when it was clear that there was no longer any revenue to be raised from shipping and smuggling was no longer a serious problem, due to the cessation of maritime trading through Parkgate.
8. CELEBRITY VISITORS
During the time of the port a number of famous people are known to have passed through and/or stayed at Parkgate on their way to or from Ireland, including the satirist Jonathan Swift, Dean of Dublin cathedral, the essayist Thomas de Quincey, and the preacher John Wesley, who was a frequent visitor over many years. Mrs Maria Fitzherbert, the estranged wife of the Prince Regent, stayed at the former Talbot Inn in 1798, when troops were camping on the shore en route to Ireland. They were on their way to put down the rebellion of ‘the United Irishmen’ and, observing their dejected condition, she generously provided them with extra rations. The composer, George Frederick Handel, travelled to Dublin for the premiere of ‘Messiah’ but because of the adverse weather conditions his outward journey was via Holyhead. He finally landed here at Parkgate on his return in April 1742. The artist JMW Turner was another notable visitor, leaving in his ‘View of Flint from Parkgate 1797’ a tangible reminder of his time here. See right >
View of Flint from Parkgate 1797 JMW Turner
9. CHANGES IN FORTUNE
Sailing from Parkgate was always difficult because of the prevalent on-shore winds. Scheduled journeys were often liable to cancellation or delay because the wind was in the wrong direction. The port authorities in Chester sought to solve the problem of unreliable service by bringing the traffic back to Chester via a major feat of engineering - the canalisation of the river. It was the opening in 1737 of the ‘new cut’ of the River Dee on the Welsh side of the estuary between Connah’s Quay and Chester (10 miles) that produced the environment we have today. The completion of this scheme shifted the channel permanently to the Welsh side of the estuary and thereby caused further silting up of the old river channel, making Parkgate even more unreliable as a port. As a result the Parkgate shipping trade began its terminal decline. This was a lengthy drawn-out process, but by 1815 the Irish ferry service had finally transferred to Liverpool, bringing to an end this short, but important period of Parkgate’s history.
10. THE SEA WALL
With the de-escalation and eventual loss of the shipping trade, Parkgate entered into a period of decline and had to re-invent itself as a community. It was around this time that the present sea-wall was constructed, not for the shipping, but as a parade for fashionable visitors, who had already started to visit from about 1760 for sea-bathing. The first (central) section of wall between the Donkey Stand and The Old Watch House was finished by 1810, and the final section from there to the Boathouse was completed in the 1840s. Most of the stone for the construction of the wall came from the former Old Quay at Neston, derelict since 1704, which was bought by Sir Thomas Mostyn in 1799. Because of the sheer quantity of stone required for this project, however, it is likely that the material was obtained from several different sources..
Children playing on the foreshore, close by the former Convalescent Home
11. SEA BATHING
Parkgate became well known as a bathing resort from the late 18th century until the late 1930s largely due to the perceived beneficial effects of sea-bathing and the healthy sea air. A number of hotels and lodging houses owned bathing machines on the shore, so that their visitors could take to the water discreetly, without being exposed to public view. Emma, Lady Hamilton, (born Emma, or Emy, Lyon at nearby Ness in 1765, a blacksmith’s daughter, later the mistress of Lord Nelson) came all the way from London in 1784 to bathe at the resort in search of a remedy for a skin complaint. It is believed she lodged privately at Dover Cottage. At the time of her visit she was known as Emma Hart, her name later changing upon her marriage in 1791 to Sir William Hamilton, our ambassador to the kingdom of Naples. Unfortunately Parkgate’s pre-eminence as a seaside resort was short-lived. It began to decline in the middle of the 19th century, when New Brighton overtook it as a popular visitor destination. In 1923, however, new open air baths were constructed on the North Parade, beyond the Boathouse, for Mostyn House School. They were also made available to the public and became very popular with visitors from a wide area, who arrived at Parkgate in great numbers by car and by train. A second, smaller pool was added in 1930. These baths made use of the available sea water but, alas, they too fell into disuse as a result of the encroaching marsh stemming the supply. The baths finally closed in the early 1950s, despite various attempts to rectify the problem in the early post-war period.
There had long been a struggling fishing industry in Parkgate. In the early days the boats were simply drawn up onto the beach, but after the construction of the sea wall, the local fishermen were able to land their catches of herring and shellfish at the Middle Slip, by the Old Watch House. Originally, this was quite a small industry as there was a limited market for the product, but from 1866 things improved for the fishermen when they began to export their catch by train to more distant markets. The early boats were single-masted vessels known locally as ‘jigger boats’. These gave way to the still-remembered ‘nobbies’ around the turn of the 20th century. In the days of the former Parkgate regatta these sailing boats used to compete against each other. There was also a competition for the ‘punt’, a much smaller row boat used for catching shellfish. Before the Great War more than fifty men worked as fishermen in Neston parish, and most of these lived in Parkgate. Between the wars, however, the Dee fishery went into serious decline, as access to the water became increasingly difficult. The last landings were made here in 1939. The Parkgate fishery business continues to survive in a small way, though the catches (now shellfish only) are no longer landed at the Middle slip, but further downstream at Heswall.