The History of Southport
The genteel Lancashire seaside resort of Southport may have had a somewhat less genteel beginning, given that names of some places now incorporated within the town – like Blowick and Birkdale – suggest a Viking past. When the Domesday Book was compiled in 1086 it recorded Churchtown, then a village but now part of the northern edge of Southport, but not as a settlement of any great significance.
Southport’s history really begins at the end of the 18th century, when a resident of Churchtown, landowner and entrepreneur William Sutton, decided to exploit the Georgian craze for sea-bathing by building a bathing-house in the area known then as South Hawes, still a mere hamlet. This was opened in 1792, and proved successful enough for Sutton (often known by the sobriquet of Mad Duke) to invest in a hotel nearby, which he named South Port. The town which sprang up around it took the hotel as its name.
By the 1830s Southport had gained a reputation as a pleasant resort; it continued to grow, managing to retain an air of elegant gentility as it did so. Sutton’s hotel stood at the crossroads of what became Duke Street and the celebrated Lord Street, built in the valley behind Southport’s dunes. Lord Street was built perfectly straight, broad and airy (270 feet wide) and nearly a mile long. To this day it is a favoured destination for shoppers from larger towns and cities in the region such as Liverpool and Preston , its Victorian cast-iron work still impressive and atmospheric.
Southport’s reputation – and that of Lord Street - was enhanced when Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte chose to live there during his exile from France between 1846 and 1848 when he returned home in triumph to win the presidency. Legend has it that his subsequent work with Baron Haussmann, creating wide Parisian boulevards where in the mid-19th century medieval streets still dominated, was inspired by Lord Street.
The railways came to Southport in 1848, when a line from Liverpool was completed, another to Manchester added five years later, bringing increased visitor trade. This though was still more mill-clerk and mill-manager than mill-worker, unlike neighbouring Blackpool . A pier was built in 1860 to entertain holidaymakers; but equal importance was given to the beauty of the town’s landscape, with wide green spaces and plentiful parks added in this epoch.
The sea which had brought Southport visitors and prosperity brought tragedy in 1886, when all bar two of the Southport lifeboat crew were killed in the terrible night of December 9 that also claimed all on board St Anne’s lifeboat as they and Lytham ’s craft attempted to rescue those on board the freighter Mexico. Sadly in 1925 this history counted for nothing when the RNLI closed Southport’s lifeboat station; but now an independent rescue vessel operates from the town, funded by local donations.
Golf , especially links golf (courses made on dunes and sandy heathland) swept late Victorian Britain as a middle-class craze. Southport has several such courses, the most famous being Royal Birkdale , which held its first Open Championship in 1954 and has hosted eight more since. Birkdale (‘Royal’ since 1951) was founded in 1889, moved site in 1894, and first entered the big league in 1946 when it was the venue for the Amateur Championship.
Southport’s status in local government terms has changed over the years: in 1866 it became a municipal borough, with a good degree of self-governance; in 1915 it was large enough to qualify as a county borough, thus became more independent of Lancashire ; but when more tinkering in 1971 threatened it with losing most of that independence as it was about to be rolled under Lancashire control, it instead opted to join with Merseyside, retaining control of services like education, though this union has occasionally been an uneasy one, Southport’s gentility contrasting at times with certain other parts of that wider district.