Ghost Streets 6: Hockenhall Alley
Headless women, furious cobblers and big-lunged singers...they're all in the curious history of one of Liverpool's hidden alleyways...
There are no signs for Hockenhall alley anymore. But this shadowy Dickensian passageway clings tenaciously onto the city’s map. You’ve just got to know where to look.
Squeezed between Cheapside and Vernon Street, Hockenhall Alley (pic r, taken in 1900) is one of a number of tight little streets that burrow their way off Dale Street. And, today, it’s home to one of the city’s oldest surviving late 18th century houses: a shadowy one-up one-down dwelling straight outta Bleak House.
Originally known as Molyneux Weint (named after the Roman Catholic minister, and constable of Liverpool Castle, Richard Molyneux, in 1611) the alley was renamed after the Hockenhalls/Hockenhulls – a well-to-do Cheshire family related to one of Liverpool’s greatest early-day families, the Moores.
But the Hockenhalls have a history that’s a little more incident-packed than most.
Their 900 year old ancestral home, the imposing Hockenhull Hall, still stands near Tarvin in Cheshire, and was recently bought by a businessman for £4 million. Presumably, he doesn’t believe in ghosts; for Hockenhull Hall’s ghost is so legendary there’s even a famous Cheshire pub named after it: the cheerily titled Headless Woman Inn.
Apparently, Cromwell’s soldiers ransacked the hall looking for treasure, but its housekeeper refused to divulge its whereabouts. So, naturally, they beheaded her. And now we can all drink to her memory, and enjoy modern fusion cooking, on the A51, just outside Tarporley.
Fortunately, the branch of the family which moved into Tranmere in the late 17th century fared a little better, going on to own the premises of Liverpool’s most prestigious coachbuilding company, Newby and Varty’s, on the alley that now bears the family name.
For coach builders, it was the perfect place to do business: the equivalent of having a breakdown garage on the M62. For in the 18th century, Dale Street was the main artery in and out of the city, with coaches from London and Manchester beating a path to the docks.
An 1806 document listing the ‘freemen of the city’ who polled in the elections noted that the polling box in Hockenhall (‘more generally known as Molyneux’s Weint’) received votes from three ropers, a baker and a shipwright.
No.10 Hockenhall Alley (currently on the market, should you be interested in a historic pied a terre in town) is believed to have originally formed part of a short row of houses, huddled together, between the breweries and warehouses of Cheapside and Cunliffe Street (the street Hockenhall seamlessly blends into, half way up its length).
The houses aren’t featured on a 1729 map (the area is then the Moorfields meadows named after the Moores family), but the alley is built up with modest dwellings 35 years later – and Number 10, with its tiny yard backing onto Cheapside’s Rose and Crown, is all that remains.
In 1808, as the town began to spread, Liverpool Corporation decided that they needed to widen Dale Street. But, as recounted in the 1863 book Recollections of Old Liverpool, 1863, by ‘A Nonagenarian’ (the mystery author was born in 1769), town planning in this city has always been contentious. Seems the Liverpool Preservation Trust has a long and vituperative history.
“Great difficulties were constantly thrown in the way of alterations by many of the inhabitants, who had lived in their old houses, made fortunes under their roofs, and were hoping to live and die where they had been born and brought up. The most obtuse and determined man was a shoemaker who owned a small house and shop which stood near Hockenall-alley. Nothing could persuade him to go out of his house or listen to any proposition. Out he would not go, although his neighbours had disappeared and his house actually stood like an island in the midst of the traffic current.
“The road was carried on each side of his house, but there stood the cobbler’s stall alone in its glory until the authorities, roused by the indignation of the public, took forcible possession of the place and pulled the old obnoxious building about the owner’s ears. The cobbler stuck to his old house to the last, showing fight all through, with a determination and persistence worthy of a nobler cause.”
All is calmer by 1835, when, on July 8th, a marriage license was issued in Chester to John Hockenhull of the parish of Liverpool (named as a wheelwright) and Mary Anne Sutton of the parish of Rainow in the County of Chester, for marriage in the Church of St. Philip (Hardman Street) in Liverpool.
Later in the 19th century the towering warehouses either side of number 10 – shining with white glazed brick – stored goods hauled up from the docks: the little house hanging on, between the cranes and hoists of its neighbours. Latterly the house became a chemists’ until the 1950’s and a clock repairers (the ‘John Nelson Limited’ you can still see on the door plate), but has been empty and boarded up since then.
When granting Grade II status a couple of years ago, heritage chiefs described No10 as “a rare and important survival of an exceptionally modest working class dwelling that illustrates the inner city living conditions of some of the poorest members of late 18th and early 19th century society.”
Inside, the house still has original features including a narrow timber winding staircase, a plank and batten door and lath and plaster ceilings.
But what of present day tenants? Mostly, the alley is just a silent cut-through, with little in the way of front-facing buildings (the back of the Premier Inn is an ugly intrusion to its northern end). But in a nice touch of Quantum Leap symmetry, the alley which once manufactured the axles and carriages of coaches became, 250 years later, the Arriva Mersybus Social Club, now a subterranean supper club known as the Club Cellar Bar.
We’ve just checked the listings. Seems Connie Lush will be raising the roof on the 24th of August. In our book, that’s a surefire way to breathe new life back into this incident-packed corner of the city.