Ferries, fields and forest
The Birkenhead monks settled down to a simple, hard-working life following the Rule of St. Benedict. Unlike other religious orders of the time, they did not retreat into a life of prayer and contemplation, but served the community, providing aid and hospitality to travellers. Although not rich, the Priory was able to raise income from a number of sources.
Soon after the Priory was built, the monks took over a ferry which carried passengers across the Mersey to Lancashire. Over time, the ferry became increasingly busy, especially after 1207 when King John (1199 – 1216) established Liverpool as a borough with the right to hold its own market.
The cost of housing and feeding so many travellers was high. In 1310, the prior complained that the nearest inns were in Chester and asked permission to build lodging houses at the ferry and also to sell food. These requests were granted in a Royal Charter of 1318. In 1330, King Edward III granted a second Royal Charter, giving the monks the right to charge tolls for passengers, horses and goods using the ferry.
The Priory depended mainly on the income gained from its estates. Most of the land was leased out for rent, but the monks worked directly from their home farm or grange in Claughton. Grange Road now marks the pathway between Priory and farm.
As Liverpool rose in importance, the Priory acquired a burgage plot, giving it the right to sell produce in the town’s market. This was the site of a granary where unsold corn was stored until the next market day.
Farming the Priory lands was hampered because most of Wirral had been converted into a hunting forest, giving all hunting rights to the earl of Chester. Wirral was subject to Forest Law. It was illegal to cause injury to deer, damage or remove trees, or ‘assart’ - meaning clear land to bring it back into cultivation. The prior, like their neighbours, often broke these laws. In 1357, one was charged with illegally keeping 20 pigs in the woods of Birkenhead and Tranmere. Forest Law was discontinued after 1376.