The Liverpool Nautical Research Society, Maritime Archives and Library, Merseyside Maritime Museum, Albert Dock, Liverpool, L3 4AA UK


The Liverpool Nautical Research Society Maritime Archives and Library Merseyside Maritime Museum Albert Dock Liverpool L3 4AA UK


Ships in the Alt

Ships in the Alt
by Mike Stammers
First published in the Bulletin of June, 2000

The river Alt rises near Prescot, East Merseyside and flows in a north-westerly direction through Aintree and Maghull almost to Formby before turning south and entering the Mersey Estuary at Hightown (530 31’ N, 30 04’ W), about three miles to the south-east of Formby Point.
          Before the arrival of steam railways in the 1830s, water transport was often cheaper and more reliable than land transport. The River Mersey and its tributaries provided a water highway to move large quantities of goods and passengers inland from the Port of Liverpool. By 1750 there were several ferries sailing to Runcorn, Eastham etc., and the Irwell and the Weaver were made navigable to Manchester and to Northwich. Coal and salt were the main commodities carried in Mersey flats. But it was not only the large tributaries that were used. Bromborough Pool, the outlet of the River Dibben, saw the flats going up to the Bromborough Mills to deliver corn and take away flour, and Cotton Brook near Widnes received cargoes of tanning materials for the tannery sited on its banks, and the same was true of the Alt near Formby at the mouth of the Mersey.
          The harbour or quay was probably somewhere near Grange Farm on the Altar Rifle Range, and in 1908 the remains of a 230ft. long wall were found just below the farm whilst dredging operations were taking place. A ‘grange’ was the name given to an out-station’ of a monastery and in this case William Blundell gave a mill on the River Alt and fishing rights to the Abbot of Stanlow, Ellesmere Port, in 1220. It is likely that there were boats plying between the Grange and Stanlow and other places on the River Mersey to carry away the products of the mill. This trade presumably continued after the dissolution of the monasteries and seems to have given rise to a small community of seafarers owning ships in the 16th and 17th centuries. There has been some discussion as to where  the harbour was. The return of shipping for Lancashire of 1626 mentions both Formby and Alt. This suggests two separate ‘creeks’, i.e. places where vessels were permitted to load or discharge under the supervision of customs officers.
          According to a local oral tradition recorded in Edith Kelly’s ‘Viking Village, the Story of Formby’, the port of Formby was well to the north of the present mouth of the Alt, while other in the same work suggested there was evidence of a harbour under the present Altar Rifle Range – an area of sand reclaimed from 1797 onwards. However, the most likely quay rather than extensive harbour facilities, must have been at the Grange with its mill. To an extent this is borne out by Fearon and Eyes’ chart of the Dee and the Mersey of 1738. This includes soundings in the Alt as far as the Grange. They were local men who provided more detail of the estuary than the only pre-existing    Grenville Collins of 1694. It seems unlikely that they would have gone to the trouble of surveying the Alt unless it was navigable and in use. This seems to have been the case because the Liverpool Corporation paid the overseers of the Port of Formby £3 in 1722. This appears to be the only formal reference to such a body. Other piece of local oral testimony came fromDr. Sumner of Formby who died in 1883 aged 84 years. He mentions ‘large sized vessels sailing up the Alt’. This brings the use of the Alt into the 19th century and this seems quite reasonable when comparing the Alt to some of the other creeks and waterways to which Mersey flats delivered or loaded. This is not to imply there was regular traffic. It would have been occasional and probably seasonal, but this is not recorded. There is, however, one other source that shows the Alt in use for commerce. This is an oil painting by Harry Williams dated 1856 in the collection of the Walker Art Gallery. It is called ‘Near Altcar’ and was painted from what id now the Rifle Range 9established in 1862), looking towards Crosby and the Wirral. It shows the Formby and Crosby lighthouses and the surrounding sand dunes under a dramatic sky. In the foregone there is a fishing boat about 25ft. long being repaired and another twelve masts of other boats lying on the mud at low tide. There is ‘artistic licence’ but in the use the whole intention is to record the drama of nature but with a great concentration on the detail.
          As to the ships and mariners of the Alt; the first record is in 1577 when the Earl of Derby – Lord of the Isle of Man – was escorted from Liverpool to Douglas by a ship from Liverpool and one from ‘the Aulte’. Manx records also refer to the Jonas of Formby (6 tons) in 1583, and the Margaret of Alt in 1603. The Lancashire shipping return of 1626 recorded nine ships owned at Formby and three at Alt, totalling 294 tons. Liverpool also owned twelve ships, totalling 253 tons! Later in the same century the Liverpool port books of 1660 include a list of vessels frequenting the port of Liverpool:

          Ann Gabbard of Liverpool, from Formby and Bristol
          Providence of Grange, from Grange
          Godspeed of Grange, from Grange
          Nightingale of Grange

No tonnages are given. However, the Belfast Customs Book of 1683- 87  records a Providence of 40 tons, Thomas Fformbe master, delivering salt from Liverpool on 26th July 1684, and a Nightingale of 30 tons arriving also with salt on 7th April1683. Perhaps they are the same as the 1660 – 1 vessels. A survey of Irish Sea coasting vessels for the late 17th century suggests their average size was between 20 and 30 tons cargo capacity. Pictorial evidences suggests they would be carvel built with an open hold and rigged with one or two masts with square sails. This rig was replaced in the coastal trade by the sloop rig in 1700. They  were the predecessors of the Mersey flats of the 18th and 19th century which played such an important role i the development of the commerce of Liverpool.
          Finally, if any reader is interested in further details of the story of the ‘port of Formby’ and the Alt they should turn back to Volume 8 of our Society’s ‘Transactions’, pages 36 to 46, where Cuthbert Woods and John Rees debate the evidence as to whether Formby could ever have been a rival to Liverpool for the first dock.