West Derby hundred: The City of Liverpool

A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 4. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1911.

This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.

'West Derby hundred: The City of Liverpool', in A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 4, (London, 1911) pp. 1-4. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/lancs/vol4/pp1-4 [accessed 19 April 2024]

In this section





Liuerpul (1207); Leuerepul (1229); Liuerpol (1266); Lyuerpole (1346); Leuerpoll (1393); Lytherpole (1445); Letherpole (1545); Litherpoole otherwise Liverpoole (1752). The form in th is found mainly in the 15th and 16th centuries.

The city of Liverpool extends for 6 miles along the eastern margin of the Mersey estuary, covering the western and part of the eastern slope of a ridge which runs from north to south, roughly parallel with the river, and varying in height from 100 ft. to 200 ft. In the southern part of the city this ridge rises by gradual stages from the water's edge; in the northern part it is more abrupt, and stands back at some distance from the river, leaving a broad margin of comparatively flat ground. The modern city (1906) includes not only the ancient township of Liverpool, but also the townships of Kirkdale, Walton, part of Fazakerley, Everton, West Derby, Wavertree, the Toxteths and Garston, as well as Smeddon or Smithdown, the Esmedun of Domesday. These areas have been added by successive enlargements in 1835, 1894, and 1902. The continuous house-covered or urban area economically dependent upon Liverpool includes also the townships of Bootle, Litherland, and Great Crosby. The history of these townships is separately treated elsewhere in this work, and the original township of Liverpool is all that has to be considered here.

There are few cities whose modern development has more profoundly modified the original topographical features of its site. The water-line has been pushed out for a considerable distance by the erection of a continuous line of 6 miles of docks. The first of these docks, opened in 1715, (fn. 1) was made out of the mouth of a tidal creek re-entering from the estuary, the upper reaches of which were at the same time filled in. This creek, known as the Pool, curved inland in a north-easterly direction along the line of the modern Paradise Street, Whitechapel, and the Old Haymarket for a distance of nearly half a mile. (fn. 2) It was fed by two streamlets, one coming from Everton at the northern end of the ridge, while the other ran a more rapid course from a marshy expanse, called the Mosslake, which lay halfway up the slope to the south-east, between the modern Hope Street and Crown Street. (fn. 3) The latter stream fed the chief water-mill of mediaeval Liverpool. At the inner or north-eastern end of the Pool there was a stretch of wet ground known as the Moor Green; the path which led to it from the village (the modern Tithebarn Street) was known as Moor Street until the 16th century. This 'moor' may have given its name to the great Liverpool family of Moore, More, or de la More. Between the Pool and the Mersey a small peninsula was thus inclosed, roughly triangular in shape, with its base to the north and its apex overlooking the mouth of the Pool. The peninsula sloped gently from each side and from the level ground on the north, reaching its highest point, about 50 ft. above sea level, near the apex of the triangle, at the top of the modern Lord Street. This point was the obvious site for the erection of the castle; while the whole peninsula formed a natural fortress, easily defensible except on the north until the age of artillery, when it was commanded from the ridge behind. The Pool divided into nearly equal halves the total area of the township, which amounted to 1,858 acres, and almost exactly corresponded to the modern parish.

Until the middle of the 17th century all the houses and all the cultivated lands lay to the north of the Pool and of the stream which ran into it from the Mosslake, while the southern half of the township as far as the wall of Toxteth Park (marked by the modern Parliament Street) lay waste. It appears that the limits of the Liverpool common were not precisely determined on the south-east; for in 1617 the copyholders of West Derby laid claim to a part of it, (fn. 4) apparently the Mosslake, which was valuable for turbary. The Mosslake in the 15th century seems to have been known as the West Derby fen.

From the earliest date all the streets of the borough were clustered in the form of a double cross on the gently rising ground within the small peninsula: Juggler Street or High Street across the modern Exchange Flags forming the centre from which Castle Street struck off to the south, Oldhall Street to the north, Water Street or Boncke Street and Chapel Street to the west, and Dale Street and Moor Street to the east. All these streets are known to have existed in the 14th century, (fn. 5) and no others were added until the 17th.

The geography of the fields of early Liverpool forms a very obscure and difficult subject. The chief authorities for them are the numerous deeds of transfer of lands from the 13th century onwards, which were preserved in the muniments of the Moore and Crosse families; but it has not yet been possible to construct a detailed map of the mediaeval field system. Many field-names are given in the deeds, the chief being the Old Fields (Great and Little), the Heathy Lands (Nether and Over), the Brecks, the Dalefield, the Wallfield, the Milnefield, the Sheriffacres, the Castle field, the Whiteacres, the Wetearth. (fn. 6) Some of these doubtless represent approvements from the waste; but only one of these approvements can be definitely dated. This was the Salthouse Moor, of which 45 acres were inclosed between 1296 and 1323, (fn. 7) and 19 more between 1327 and 1346. (fn. 8) The Salthouse Moor probably lay at the north-west of the township by the Mersey shore, but it is not possible to be certain. (fn. 9)


Next to nothing is known of LIVERPOOL before the creation of the borough in 1207. In Domesday it is almost certainly one of the six unnamed berewicks attached to the manor of West Derby. (fn. 10) What degree of dependence upon the parent manor was involved in the berewick period cannot be determined; but probably the Liverpool tenants did suit at the West Derby halmote, as the tenants of the other berewicks long continued to do. (fn. 11) At some date between 1166 and 1189 Liverpool was granted by Henry II to Warine de Lancaster, along with other lands, and this may have involved separation from West Derby and the institution of a distinct court. The deed of grant does not survive, but is referred to in an undated confirmation (fn. 12) granted to Henry son of Warine by John Count of Mortain, after his succession to the honour. But Liverpool was not long permitted to remain in the hands of a mesne lord. On 23 August 1207 John reacquired it, (fn. 13) giving the township of English Lea near Preston in exchange. Five days later the so-called 'charter' (fn. 14) was issued which turned the vill into a borough. Henceforward the descent of the lordship of the borough follows the descent of the honour of which it formed a part; except during the brief interval, 1315–22, when it was held by Robert de Holand under grant from Thomas Earl of Lancaster. (fn. 15)


Liverpool is distinguished from most other boroughs by the fact that it owes its foundation absolutely to an exercise of the royal will; there is no evidence that the place was a centre of any trade before the date when John fixed upon its sheltered Pool as a convenient place of embarkation for men and supplies from his Lancashire lands for his Irish campaigns. He may have visited the place in February 1206, on the way from Lancaster to Chester; (fn. 16) and probably the creation of the borough should be regarded as part of the preparation for the great expedition of 1209. Some part of the new population which was necessary may have been found by a transplantation from West Derby, which is described in 1208 as having been remota usque ad Liverpul; (fn. 17) others doubtless came in response to the 'charter,' which may more accurately be described as a proclamation of invitation; and the original tenants of the township appear all to have been enfranchised. For the reception of the new population John had set apart a number of burgages facing on the seven main streets of the borough. The number of the original burgages it is impossible to determine. There were 168 in 1296, (fn. 18) and thereafter the number remained fixed. But it is probable that there were fewer to begin with. Nor is it possible to be precise about the area of the burgage proper, i.e. the building lot. It was big enough to be divisible into minute fractions, as small as 1/24 or 1/48. (fn. 19) Probably each burgage was a selion. In 1346 the commonest holding was half a burgage, and it is likely that the burgages were divisible from the outset. At the same date large holdings are found of 2, 3, 4, 5, and even 8 burgages. To each burgage proper was attached one Cheshire acre in the town-fields, usually consisting of two strips in different fields. (fn. 20) The rent for burgage and field-holdings together was 12d. per annum, (fn. 21) payable half-yearly, a figure which suggests the influence of Norman parallels. Or, rather, it would be more accurate to say that the rent was chargeable for the burgage, but 'acquitted' also the corre sponding holdings in the fields; for, as the Moore and Crosse deeds abundantly show, these could be separately sold or let by the tenant, still being 'acquitted' so far as the lord was concerned by the burgage to which they were originally attached. The 12d. rent, together with suit at the borough court, constituted the whole of the 'service' due from the tenants. (fn. 22) There is no evidence for the payment of a heriot, such as was exacted in Salford. (fn. 23)

Liverpool. Argent a cormorant sable beaked and legged gules holding in his beak a branch of seaweed called laver in-verted vert.

The privileges which John promised to the occupants of the burgages are included under the general phrase 'all the liberties and free customs which any free borough on the sea has in our land.' This, if taken literally, would place Liverpool from the outset at the same level of burghal liberties as Bristol and Southampton; but probably nothing of the sort was intended, (fn. 24) and the phrase is to be taken merely as securing to the burgesses personal liberty, freedom from service, free tenure of land, and exemption from the payment of tolls within the limits of the borough, though seemingly not beyond them. The grants of John are essentially promises to individuals, not formal concessions of powers to an organized community. During the next twenty-two years the borough was doubtless governed by a royal bailiff or steward, and the burgesses were represented, as in the rural period, by a reeve. (fn. 25) Probably, however, 1207 saw also the establishment of a weekly market and an annual fair, the erection of a mill, (fn. 26) and perhaps of a chapel. (fn. 27)

The gradual progress of the new borough is best illustrated by the history of its yield to the royal exchequer. From 1211 to 1219 the profits of Liverpool seem to have been included in those of West Derby, from which it may be inferred that the borough was administered in these years by the steward of the neighbouring manor. In 1222 and the following years (fn. 28) an assized rent of £9 was charged on the borough, being answered for by William de Ferrers as sheriff of Lancaster. How much was covered by this rent it is not easy to determine, (fn. 29) but if it included mills, ferry, and courts as well as the burgage rents the borough must have been poor enough, or the sheriff have made a substantial profit. Possibly the burgesses may themselves have paid the assized rent, but more probably the borough was farmed for this sum by the sheriff. The tallages assessed on the borough during the early years of Henry III show, however, a steady advance. In 1219 (fn. 30) Liverpool paid half a mark, West Derby a mark, Preston 10 marks. In 1222 (fn. 31) Liverpool paid 5 marks, West Derby 1 mark, Preston 15 marks. In 1227 (fn. 32) Liverpool paid 11 marks 7s. 8d., West Derby 7 marks 4s. 4d., Preston 15 marks 6d. In these years the parent manor of West Derby had been completely outstripped, while the new borough was rapidly overtaking Preston.

A very important step forward was taken when on 24 March 1229 Henry III granted a charter (fn. 33) to Liverpool, the burgesses paying for it 10 marks. The payment shows that they had learnt to take common action; perhaps they had formed an illicit gild. The charter of Henry III is of the first importance, as it remained the governing charter of the borough down to 1626, all the intervening charters being merely confirmations with or without modifications. The charter is on the most ample scale. It opens by conceding that Liverpool should be a free borough (liber burgus), for ever; but this, though it secured, probably did not extend the privileges already conferred by John. In the second place it grants independent jurisdiction to the borough court in the regular formula of sac and soc, thol and theam, and infangenethef, and exempts the burgesses from suit at shire and hundred-courts for their holdings in the borough. In regard to trade, the exemption from tolls in the Liverpool market granted by King John was now extended to all markets within the king's dominions, and the Liverpool traders were thus placed on a level with the burgesses of the most favoured boroughs. But the most important concession of the charter was the right to have 'a gild merchant with a hansa and all the liberties and free customs pertaining to that gild'; the privileges of trade, previously confined to holders of burgages, being now limited to members of the gild, while in future no one might be permitted to trade in the borough without licence of the gild. No evidence whatsoever survives as to the mode of organization of the gild thus granted, or its relation to the ordinary governmental machinery of the borough. Doubtless all holders of burgages were entitled to membership. (fn. 34)

During the first century of the borough's existence it is as difficult to say anything definite about the borough government as about the gild. With regard to officers, in 1246 the 'vill' was represented at the eyre of the justices by twelve jurors, including 'Ranulf de Moore, reeve of the vill,' (fn. 35) but this seems to be the only mention of a reeve; probably he was replaced by a bailiff. In 1292 (fn. 36) the burgesses asserted that they 'had been accustomed to have' a bailiff 'of themselves,' i.e. elected by themselves; numerous local deeds, (fn. 37) the earliest dating from 1309, show, however, that there were two bailiffs. The probability is that the burgesses normally elected one, and that the lord appointed the other to look after his dues. When the burgesses held the farm of the town they may have elected both bailiffs. In the only roll of the borough court (fn. 38) of Liverpool which survives from the mediaeval period, the lord's steward presides; but this may be because the burgesses did not then hold the farm of the town. (fn. 39)

The great advance marked by the charter of Henry III was completed by the concession to the burgesses on the following day, 25 March 1229, of a lease of the farm of the borough (fn. 40) at a rent of £10. The lease is in the most general terms, but it is clear from the items included in the same rent in 1256 (fn. 41) that it comprised the burgage rents, the market tolls, and the profits of two water-mills and a windmill. (fn. 42) If at this date the burgages at all approximated to their ultimate number of 168 the burgesses must have made a substantial profit on this lease. But the lease was only for four years, expiring in 1233. While it lasted, the lease freed the burgesses from the intervention of royal agents.

The burghal system of Liverpool had no sooner been completed by these deeds than the borough passed from royal to baronial control, as a result of the grant of the borough, along with the rest of the Lancashire lands of the Crown, to Ranulf, Earl of Chester. (fn. 43) During Ranulf's occupancy, which lasted for three years only, and that of the three Ferrers, Earls of Derby, whose tenure extended (with the interval of the minority of Robert de Ferrers, 1254–62 (?)) until 1266, the material for the history of the borough is singularly scanty. But the Ferrers family appear to have respected the burghal liberties, and to have renewed the lease of the farm (which fell in in 1233) regularly at the same rental throughout the period of their control. (fn. 44) In 1266, just before his last rebellion and confiscation, Robert de Ferrers confirmed the charters (fn. 45) of Liverpool; probably as a means of raising money.


  • 1. See below.
  • 2. See map.
  • 3. The evidence for these and other topographical details is to be found mainly in the numerous local deeds of land-transfer preserved by the Moore and Crosse families.
  • 4. See below.
  • 5. Moore and Crosse deeds, passim.
  • 6. The positions of these lands (in some cases conjectural) are indicated in the map. The names of most frequent occurrence are the Oldfields, the Heathy Lands, and the Dalefield, and it is probably in these that we should look for the original town-fields. It may be conjectured that the Dalefield formed originally a part of the Little Oldfield, which, lying round the village, was naturally broken up by the streets; that the two Oldfields thus reconstructed formed the lands of the township on a two-field system before the constitution of the borough; and that the Heathy Lands (as the name itself suggests) were an approvement from the waste on the north between Liverpool and Kirkdale, made at an early date, probably to meet the requirements of the new population whom King John introduced at the creation of the borough. Other field-names may represent either the original demesne (e.g. Castlefield), or distinct portions of the older fields (e.g. Milnefield, part of one of the Oldfields), or more recent approvements (e.g. Wetearth).
  • 7. See Muir in Trans. Hist. See. (new ser.) xxi, 16, 17. Cf. Inq. p.m. 25 Edw. I, no. 51, with L.T.R. Enr. Accts. Misc. 14, m. 76 d.
  • 8. Ibid. and Add. MS. 32103, fol. 140.
  • 9. The name seems to have been an official one, not popularly adopted, for it does not appear in the Moore or Crosse deeds.
  • 10. V.C.H. Lancs. i, 283.
  • 11. See Lancs. Ct. R. (Rec. Soc. of Lancs. and Ches. xli), passim.
  • 12. Original at Hoghton Tower. Printed in Farrer, Lancs. Pipe R. 432.
  • 13. Chart. R. (Rec. Com.), 171b. In the Charter Rolls the date is given as Aug. xxviii; but this is a mistake for xxiii. The deed is dated from Worcester, where John was on the 23rd (Itin. of John); on the 28th he was at Winchester.
  • 14. Orig. in Liv. Munic. Archives. Printed in Hist. Munic. Govt. in Liv. 153.
  • 15. Inq. p.m. 1 Edw. III, m. 88.
  • 16. Itin. of John prefixed to Pipe R. of John.
  • 17. Pipe R. of 1207–9 in Lancs. Pipe R. 220, 228, 234; where an allowance of £9 8s. is made to the sheriff 'in defalta de West Derbei quae est remota usque ad Liverpul, per breve Regis.'
  • 18. Inq. p.m. 25 Edw. I, no. 51.
  • 19. Moore and Crosse deeds. Also Add. MS. 32103 (extent of 1346).
  • 20. Moore deeds, passim.
  • 21. Add. MS. 32103.
  • 22. Add. MS. 32103; Reg. St. Werburgh Hall MS. 1965, fol. xviiib.
  • 23. For discussion of this, see Hist. Munic. Govt. in Liv. 13 n. 3.
  • 24. Ibid. 15–17.
  • 25. A reeve is mentioned in 1246; Assize R. 1404, m. 16.
  • 26. The mills certainly existed from 1256, and probably from 1229.
  • 27. The small chapel of St. Mary del Key was in existence before 1257; see below.
  • 28. Pipe R. 10 Hen. III; Hist. Munic. Govt. in Liv. 295.
  • 29. Trans. Hist. Soc. (new ser.), xxi, 6, 7.
  • 30. Pipe R. 3 Hen. III, m. 12 d.
  • 31. Ibid. 6 Hen. III, m. 5 d.
  • 32. Ibid. 11 Hen. III, m. 1.
  • 33. Orig. in Liv. Munic. Archives; Chart. R. 13 Hen. III, m. 9; Hist. Munic. Govt. in Liv. 155.
  • 34. In the 16th century it had become the practice to admit to the freedom of the gild all sons and apprentices of freemen (Munic. Rec. passim) on payment of a small fixed fee, whether they held burgages or not; and as early as 1525 nonresident merchants were admitted in large numbers; Duchy of Lanc. Misc. vol. 95, fol. 36b; Hist. Munic. Govt. in Liv. 402. Whether or no this practice existed from the beginning it is impossible to say; but in any case the grant of gildpowers rendered possible the admission to trading privileges of persons other than burgage holders, and thus prevented the limitation of these privileges to a narrow landholding oligarchy. But the nonburgess members of the gild, in so small a borough, must always have been few; and there can have been little distinction between the burgess body proper and the gild. Hence it is probable that, as in other cases (Gross, Gild Merchant, i, chap. v.), a single assembly and a single set of officers served for both. There is, indeed, throughout the Middle Age no allusion in any document to separate officers of the gild. In the 16th century gild business and borough business were indifferently transacted in the same assemblies and by the same officers. In 1551 there were elected two 'seneschals of the Gild Court' (Munic. Rec. i, 2a. But they were then only keepers of the gildhall), whose existence suggests that there had once been a distinctive court for the enforcement of trade regulations, which would not naturally fall under the review of the borough-court. But that is the only mention of any such officials. Probably, therefore, the gild added little to the complexity of burghal organization; and it should be regarded, not as a distinct body, but rather as simply adding certain new executive and legislative powers to the existing ruling bodies of the borough. The question is discussed at length in Hist. Munic. Govt. in Liv. 31–6.
  • 35. Assize R. 404, m. 16.
  • 36. Plac. de Quo War. (Rec. Com.), 381.
  • 37. Moore D. passim.
  • 38. Roll of 1324; Lanc. Ct. R. (Rec. Soc. xli), 77–88.
  • 39. As to lesser burghal officers there is no evidence before the 16th century, when we get the titles (Munic. Rec. i, 2a) of a hayward, two burleymen, two mossreeves, two ale-founders, all of whom must have had mediaeval predecessors; and two water-bailiffs, four merchant prysors, and two leve-lookers, who were probably officials required by the gild powers obtained under the charter of Henry III (Gross, Gild Merchant); the 16th century also shows us in existence a body of jurats like those of Leicester (Bateson, Rec. Leic.), Ipswich (Little Domesday of Ipswich), and other towns. They numbered twelve or twentyfour, and made regulations for the better government of the town, besides making presentments in the portmoot. Their decrees were at that date disregarded, but they were considered to be the representatives of an institution which had once been powerful (Picton, Liv. Munic. Rec. i, 52). It is likely, therefore, that in mediaeval Liverpool, as in Leicester, Ipswich, 'and all the other boroughs of England' (Little Domesday of Ipswich), there was a standing body of jurats who exercised a general control over the administration carried on by the bailiff and other elected officers. In the 16th century all the officers were elected at an assembly of all freemen held on St. Luke's Day, 18 October. Other assemblies were summoned for special business as occasion required. There were also two solemn courts, or portmoots, in each year; the great portmoot being held a few days after the electoral assembly. In the mediaeval period the only general bodies of which there is mention (Add. MS. 32103; Court Roll of 1324, Lanc. Ct. R. 77–88) were two great courts, corresponding to the portmoots of the 16th century, at which all burgesses were bound to be present, and a lesser court held theoretically every three weeks, but in practice at irregular intervals. Thus in 1324 twelve courts were held, at intervals varying from a week to three months. It is likely that the 16th century differentiation between the portmoots for legal business and the assemblies for general business did not exist in the early days of the borough; but that the single governing organ of the borough was the portmoot, at which all burgesses were entitled to be present, and, on two solemn occasions a year, required to be present. For a fuller discussion of the burghal constitution under the charter of Hen. III see Hist. Munic. Govt. in Liv. 20–36.
  • 40. Pat. 13 Hen. III, m. 9; Hist. Munic. Govt. in Liv. 296.
  • 41. Trans. Hist. Soc. (new ser.), xxi, 8.
  • 42. On the history of the mills and milling soke of Liverpool, see Bennett and Elton, Hist. of Corn-milling, iv, chap. iv, where the facts are fully marshalled.
  • 43. Cal. Close, 1227–31, p. 221; Chart. R. 13 Hen. III, pt. i, m. 2.
  • 44. This is a fair inference from the fact that in 1256, during the minority of Robert and the occupancy of his lands by the king's son Edward, Edward's bailiff renders account for the farm of the vill of Liverpool at the old rent; Duchy of Lanc. Mins. Accts. bdle. 1094, no. 11; Hist. Munic. Govt. in Liv. 39, 296.
  • 45. Hist. Munic. Govt. 156. Original in Liv. Munic. Archives.