Formby by-the-sea 2008

F C Beardwood – 26 June 2008

When Formby had a promenade

Within a few years after the completion of the Liverpool-Southport Railway another ambitious project was launched which would have radically changed the face of Formby had it succeeded. A company was incorporated in 1875 under the title of the Formby Land and Building Co., with a capital bf £50,000. The original subscribing members were:- Richard Bentinch, Asabel Pilkington Bell, Edward Iddon James Parker, John Barnes, Joseph Witham and Abraham Lord.

With the exception of Mr. Bell, a Manchester man, they were from Southport, The first directors were:- Thomas Walkden, Abraham Lord, John Carr, Edward Iddon, Joseph Witham, John Burnett, John Barnes, Thomas Chapman, Asabel P. Bell and James Parker. The last named three were from Manchester; Mr. Chapman was a Liverpool man; the others were from Southport.

The Memorandum of Association of the company gave as its first object the purchasing of a freehold estate at Raven Meols, Formby. £12,100 was “expended on “the four several plots of freehold land situate at Raven Meols in the township of Formby, containing 105 acres”. The accompanying map showed an oblong area bounded on three Sides by Andrews Lane, Barton Heys Rd. and Miles [sic] Lane, which obviously refers to Raven Meols Lane. (At one time the latter name is understood to have applied to the entire length leading to the coast). In between these roads they acquired a field of 11 acres, and two narrow fields connecting them to the shore.

The Company raised a mortgage on at least a portion of their property at an early stage. This was discharged in 1878, and as a result, several new names came into the picture, James Carr, John Elson and Samuel Foster, subsequently to be perpetuated by street names in this part of Formby.

The remainder of the Company’s objects were set out as follows:- 

  • The ‘purchasing of any other lands and hereditaments;
  • The erection, construction, or alteration of buildings;
  • The laying out, forming, and sewering of streets, roads, parks, gardens, squares, crescents, terraces, boulevards, Promenades and other open spaces;
  • The making of piers, jetties, and landing places in, upon and connected with lands purchased;
  • The laying of tramways, railways, and running carriages thereon, by steam or other motive power, for hire or profit;’
  • The forming of waterworks and reservoirs, for supplying water for rent or for sale; The erection of gasworks, and the’ manufacture of gas and the selling of the same;
  • The erection of markets, docks, hotels, laundries, baths, water gardens, acquariums;
  • The manufacture of bricks and tiles, and selling the same

Truly an ambitious programme!

The first preparatory step was to run a narrow-gauge track from the siding at Formby station for the conveyance of building materials, etc. This ran along Andrews Lane to a point which is now Crescent Avenue, then it turned westwards into a new road (Cambridge) which they laid out and only partially completed; the original ’kerb-stones may still be seen. They hoped to continue in a direct line through “Firwood” but this was denied them, and they had to swing round this estate before continuing with Alexandra Rd. and Albert Rd.. This brought them to the coast, and here they constructed the first item on their programme, a double-tiered promenade of brick and cement, joining up the westerly ends of the two roads. The “first sod” was cut in 1876.

Behind the promenade, and parallel with it, two other roads were partly made; one was named Lord St. Houses of the sea-side boarding-house type were erected on the promenade and in Alexandra Rd. and some of the older houses in the area owned by the company may also have been built by them.This practically represents the sum total of the company’s actual achievements. In July 1902 it was wound up.

When one considers this quite modest record in the light of the glittering possibilities set out in the articles of association a number of suggestions spring to mind. What made these men launch out as they did? What grounds had they for thinking they were on a good thing?. Why did they fail?

One explanation could be that it was nothing more than another business proposition on the part of men with a “hunch” that Formby could be developed in much the same way, and with as much success as Southport. Most of them belonged to Southport, and had seen how the newly-found popularity of sea-bathing and the coming of the railway had brought about an almost meteoric development there. It is more than likely they had played a part in this, and shared in the resultant prosperity. Certainly the notion. of development was in the air; it penetrated even into the baronial halls of Formby. In Mrs. Caroline Jacson’s book “Formby Reminiscences” she makes this reference to her three aunts, daughters of the Rev. Richard. Formby: “My aunts had a firm foundation footing in the practical. They hade a shrewd prevision of the course of progress. They saw the possible probabilities of the requirements of a large increasing industrial town, and in idea they pictured the villas and parades of a bathing place, or what is now called a Health Resort, at Formby Point or Ravenmeols. They looked forward .”I must confess they had an eye to profit”. 

Further evidence that such possibilities were in mind came from the Sentence of Consecration of St. Luke’s Church, Formby, on l4th December,1855:- “And whereas a part of the Township of Formby is situated on the sea-shore and at a considerable distance from the village of Formby and from the vicinity of the railroads and because of the excellent sea-shore for bathing, a great increase of population is expected to take place, especially if proper church accommodation be afforded”

And when in 1878 a Bill promoted by the Southport Water Co. was being examined -by a Parliamentary committee, Mr. Thomas Hawksley, an eminent engineer who was advising the company, referred to the construction of a promenade at Formby and hazarded a prophecy that Formby was a potential rival to Southport.

As the real facts of the Land and Building Company’s formation and somewhat ignominious failure may never be known it may be that their venture was simply an unfortunate speculation.- But when one contrasts the notable difference between declared aim and actual performance the conviction grows that something more is needed. Why should they deliberately select as the scene of their operations that point along the coast-line the farthest remote from the railway? Wouldn’t Ainsdale, for example, have been a much more convenient and less expensive proposition?

At Formby Point they had the longest haul for their building materials, the site was virtually unapproachable until new roads were made; the visitors for whom they looked would-have to foot-slog a mile and a half to get there; until the spot developed further boarding-house keepers would have been miles from shops and other amenities. 

Was there an alternative explanation? Was the inspiration behind these men not a hunch, nor a vague inkling;- or had they good grounds for a belief that the implementation of other peoples plans was reasonably assured?

One remembers that this was a period of great activity in the making of railways all over the country. Had they at that time any degree of fore-knowledge of the possible construction of a light railway, branching off the main Liverpool – Southport line at Hightown to the coast at Formby? This, indeed, would have more than justified their enterprise.

The old Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company is known to have had something of this nature under contemplation; about the same time that the Land and Building Co. was fizzling out a coastal railway began to emerge as a live proposition. Mr. Wetherall, who came to Freshfield as stationmaster in 1901, soon heard of it, and recalled frequent visits by the General Manager of the railway company as the route was prospected.

Shortly before World War I the line was pegged out for at least a portion of its length in fields belonging to Marsh Farm and Cabin Hill Farm. Application for the necessary authority was made in May 1915, but not until 1918 was this forthcoming. The Board of Trade then made an Order “authorising the Lancs, and Yorks. Rly construct Light Railways at and near Formby”.

The line was to begin at Hightown station, running westwards of the existing line, swinging gradually away to pass on the west side of the lighthouse, thence to the coast at Formby Point. From there it ran in a wide arc to rejoin the main length just south of Ainsdale. It was to cross the Alt by a girder bridge similar to that crossing the main lines. There was to be one station at, or near Alexandra Rd., and a bridge over Lifeboat Rd. 36 ft. wide and of a gradient no steeper than 1 in 30. The Railway Co. was to make and maintain six level crossings for all purposes at Cabin Hill, Cocklepath Rd. (i.e. an extension of Range Lane); between Cocklepath Rd. and Albert Rd. (behind Asparagus Cottage) Albert Rd; Alexandra Rd.; and a westward extension of Kirklake Rd. The entire cost was estimated at £77,000. In 1924 the London, Midland and Scottish Rly Co. applied for a revival of the 1918 authority, but no further action transpired; the rapid development of road transport presumably being the decisive factor.

The foregoing account of an imposing “might-have-been” in Formby’s history is felt to be worth recording, especially in view of the recent westward trend. One can imagine the chairman of the Land and Building Co addressing his now shadowy Board “Gentlemen, it would appear we were a little ahead of our time”!

Taken from F.C. Beardwood’s ‘Notes on the History of Formby’, privately published 1970; (Copyright F.C. Beardwood).