The History of Tam O’Shanter Urban Farm

The cottage

Old photograph of Tam O'Shanter Cottage

Tam O’Shanter Cottage

Tam O’Shanter Cottage, which was probably built about 300 years ago by a heath squatter, is situated at the edge of Bidston Hill near to the rear entrance to Flaybrick Cemetery. As far as we know it had no particular claim to fame until 1837 when Richard Lea the occupier at that time embellished the building with a carved stone slab depicting the Robert Burns poem “Tam O’Shanter” in which Tam pursued by witches sought to reach the bridge in the belief that the witches would not dare to cross running water. Tam indeed escaped but his mare poor Maggie lost her tail.

In a book “Auld Lang Syne”, by Harry B. Neilson, printed in 1935, mention is made that the date 1837 can be seen on a stone garden wall of Tam O’Shanter cottage. It is stated that Richard Lea cut the date on the wall and carved the Tam O’Shanter stone and also the weather vane with its animals heads, lion, dog etc. It is said he made them in his spare time to decorate his cottage. Part of the cottage is roofed with thick stone flags, which in past times was a common method of covering buildings in Bidston, where stone was plentiful.

The book lists other farms which were on the Bidston Hill heathland in the year 1840. At the time the size of the farm was 6 acres.

We know that in 1841 Richard Lea was a master stonemason. At that time, there was a great deal of building going on in Birkenhead. Hamilton Square, the Town Hall, Cammell Lairds, Bidston Observatory, Bidston Lighthouse and many churches were being built in the 19th century and there would have been plenty of work for Richard Lea in Birkenhead. So we might imagine Richard Lea shaping stone for these buildings, as well as working on the Tam O’Shanter farm, looking after hens, pigs, cows and growing crops.

Old painting of Tam O'Shanter Cottage

Old painting of Tam O’Shanter Cottage

Thus the cottage became known as Tam O’Shanter Cottage and became a favourite subject for artists and visitors alike.

In 1950 the then Minister of Town & Country Planning graded the building as one of special interest, which warranted every effort being made to preserve it.

Fire!

Sadly most of the building was destroyed by fire in 1954. The Council considered demolishing it, but it was saved by public protest. In ‘Wirral Peninsular’ by Norman Ellison printed in 1955, he states that Tam O’Shanter cottage was being re-thatched after a recent fire. The carved stone set in the gable of an outhouse was not damaged. In 1965 the corporation re-thatched the roof at a cost of £600, as it had been attacked by vermin, and the damp was also feared to be endangering it.

In December, 1970 the property was advertised for sale and considerable interest was shown.

It was again destroyed by fire in 1975, and was subsequently vandalised. The council then decided to demolish the building completely. The Birkenhead History Society stepped in to try and save the building, because it represented a period before the area became industrialised. In June 1975 they were given 30 days to submit their suggestions.

Restoration

In August 1975, the Birkenhead History Society won permission from Wirral Borough Council for the cottage to be rebuilt and restored to its former glory. Rather than return the cottage to residential use the Society felt that the townspeople would be better served by having a field study centre which could be used by local school children. A Charitable Trust was formed in conjunction with Wirral District Council and a grant was obtained from the Manpower Services Commission, under the Job Creation Programme. It was under a government sponsored work training scheme that the initial task of converting a greenfield site into the beginnings of the farm was tackled by many local people, too numerous to mention.

In December, 1976 a historic package containing a copy of “News”, “Times” and some coins, a history of Birkenhead and in particular the restoration project was laid behind stones at the Cottage by the Mayor of Wirral, Councillor John Evans and his wife the Mayoress.

The cottage was open for schools from May 1977.

The urban farm is born

In 1986 a voluntary organisation called the Wirral Urban Farm Association together with the Tam O’Shanter Cottage Trust began to develop the 4 acres around the cottage as a city farm.

The construction of farm buildings, paths and fencing was soon followed by a collection of farm animals.

The aim of the new trust was to make this varied collection of farm animals accessible to many people, especially children. By fundraising, grants, donations, support from the Metropolitan Borough of Wirral the farm is able to maintain itself without an admission charge while being open every day (9.30am – 4.30pm).

Wirral Learning Grid

Information for teachers and other group leaders planning a visit to Tam O’Shanter Urban farm

Tam O'Shanter Cottage in 2015

Tam O’Shanter Cottage in 2015