The Laird Family & Birkenhead.
In 1824, when William Laird first took an interest in Birkenhead, it was a town in its infancy. The advent of the steam ferry had brought its residents and it was set to develop as a dormitory town for Liverpool. The parish church of St. Mary had just opened and the ferries and hotels were beginning to thrive.
Laird bought land to begin industrial development, but he also brought south a Scottish architect of his acquaintance, Gillespie Graham, to design a magnificent square reminiscent of Edinburgh. Hamilton Square (named after Laird’s wife’s family) was built piecemeal over the next twenty years as the focus of a regular street layout.
William Laird and his son John, trained as a solicitor but soon taken into the boiler and ship building business, took a leading interest in Birkenhead’s development, serving as commissioners and trying to pilot the docks scheme, which took a long time and many political battles to complete.
While there were many names involved in Birkenhead’s early history, the Laird’s stand out as being the most significant contributors only narrowly followed by the Jacksons. Partners in so many committees and public enterprises, John Laird (Conservative) and William Jackson (Liberal) became bitter political rivals who regularly opposed each other in many elections over the years. In the first parliamentary election for the town in 1863, Laird opposed Thomas Brassey and won to become Birkenhead’s first MP. Two years later he defeated one of Jackson’s sons to retain the seat, as he did on two further occasions.
John Laird took a leading role in may aspects of the town, from the formation of the First Cheshire Rifle Volunteers, and the improvement of the ferry service, to the introduction of George Francis Train and his public transport ideas, Birkenhead becoming the first place in Europe to adopt a street tramway. Laird paid for the erection of the Borough Hospital almost entirely himself and later for the Laird School of Art, both overlooking the Park which he had enthusiastically supported, and he had a hand in the building of several churches. Under his management the shipbuilding concern had grown to be a major international company, and Birkenhead’s leading employer.
John Laird MP died in 1874 shortly before his sons would see the next phase of Birkenhead’s development, as a Borough, John Laird junior was the first Mayor, elected three times in all, closely followed by his brother William. Together with their brother, Henry, they oversaw a massive expansion in its capacity. They were followed by the next generation, J. MacGregor Laird, Roy M. Laird and J.W.P. Laird, who brought Lairds into the twentieth century and the merger with Charles Cammell & Co.
After 1908 there was not a Laird at the head of the company, and after the 1920’s the family had no further interest in the business. The family had mostly moved away and 63 Hamilton Square, the most impressive house in the centre of town, the old family house on Cathcart Street and ‘Cathcart’ on Grosvenor Road Claughton, had been sold. The family names now live on in the street names: Laird Street, Cathcart Street, Hamilton Square, and the powerful history that will continue to be told as long as Birkenhead remains.