Secret Southport

Secret Southport

By Jack Smith
Amberley Press

Book review by Joe Coventry

This is a strange book to grasp at first look. The title suggests a lot of hidden secrets but what the author has produced is either steeped in the historical mists of time or hits you straight in your face. Having said that it becomes a fascinating read.

The area along the northwest coastline to the Wirral peninsula and 15 miles either side of the seaside resort inland to the meres of the Lancashire Plain was once a huge forest which became inhabited in the Neolithic Period, (5,000 to 7,000 BC). Isolated hut communities developed in the Bronze and Iron Ages and after The Romans left successive Saxon, Viking, and Norman influxes helped shape the local population.

By 1190 Churchtown was on the map and the story of Southport proper begins.

How the resort came into being is down to one man’s ambition to make money out of a bathing hut for punters who wanted to have a dip in the ‘briny’, two miles away through the sandhills on the coast. With the help of St Cuthbert’s Church Fair and Market Day enterprising pub landlord William ‘Duke’ Sutton is the man who transformed the largely wasteland North Meols landscape. There was no going back as a fledgling community grew up around his brick ‘Folly’ of an hotel to accompany his bathing hut close to the River Nile (midway between Birkdale and the current town centre.)

That was in 1798. It sounds improbable but a tourist industry was born as the populations of the likes of Liverpool, Preston and Manchester flocked for recreation as improving transport networks – more reliable roads and the nearby Wigan to Liverpool Canal – brought increased traffic to the fledgling town. By the 1820’s the population to service the incomers had grown to around 300.

How the resort’s name came into existence is another story. Smith tells of sea going vessels along the coast needing safe anchorage. This was afforded amongst the shifting sandbanks and sandhills by Fairclough’s Lake. It was popular with smugglers and slave ship owners, (there was an illicit sugar cane refinery there) and others wanting to avoid the gaze of Customs Officers. When a legitimate vessel carrying timber to extend Sutton’s new building safely docked a toast went up and the embryonic ‘South Port’ was born.

The town grew rapidly with all the accoutrements of civic and civil society. A Town Hall, MP, Library, Pier, Sea Wall, trams and train stations added to the expansion; all of which the author gives chapter and verse on. Fine buildings and architectural styles, putative walks through the manicured gardens, along the promenade, or under Lord Street’s canopied mall are all covered in graphic and pictorial detail and a ‘secret’ Southport, (including a stay by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1838), begins to manifest itself for those with eyes to see.

The author admits that there is more to explore and leaves a tantalising water spout topped by a lion’s head, yet to be found by this reviewer, as one last secret to uncover.

Good reading and good hunting.

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