Seaforth House

In this article, we’ll explore the history of the now demolished Seaforth House, and the Gladstone family, which both played a crucial role in the history of Seaforth.

The Birth of Seaforth

John Gladstone, Seaforth

John Gladstone

John Gladstone was a successful Liverpool merchant — by today’s standards, a billionaire. He acquired real estate in Rodney Street, Liverpool. In fact, by 1810 it had become a sort of “Gladstone colony”, with his two married brothers leasing houses from him and his mother-in-law as a next-door neighbour!

Like many successful entrepreneurs of the time, Gladstone saw himself as a gentleman. A gentleman was seen as someone who lived in a fine house, surrounded by parkland, near which was a village full of compliant peasants, grateful for the patronage of the local squire.

Accordingly, around 1808, Gladstone embarked on extensive land purchase in Lord Sefton’s land in Litherland.

By 1810 he had laid out some £3,863. This land was let out to local farmers as pasture at £4 14s. 0d per cow per annum – a temporary arrangement until Gladstone could develop his estate. The planned estate was to combine the family house, a home farm and a village of cottages, together with a church and school.

By 1811 the building of the new house was underway on the Litherland estate.

By 1813 Gladstone owned houses numbered 1 to 10 in Rodney Street and the family was dividing its time between Rodney Street and Litherland. Mrs Gladstone’s two sisters were to occupy one of the estate cottages (at a modest rent!)

Left Image – John Gladstone, from a miniature painted about 1812. He was then about 48 years old.

To the new house, John gave the name “Seaforth”, in honour of Lord Seaforth, head of the Mackenzie clan, his wife’s family. John must have felt immense satisfaction when, in 1823, his house featured with Ince Blundell Hall and other local estates in J.P. Neale’s “Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.”

The new house was large and square, built on rising ground a quarter of a mile from the sea. William Ewart Gladstone, his son and later Prime Minister, recalled that there was but a single house between it and the city, five miles away.  Writing in 1913, some thirty years after its demolition, Helen Quant  notes that older Seaforth residents still had clear memories of the elegant structure:

“It is well-remembered by many –- a long, somewhat low building, having a veranda along the front, facing Elm road…The lodge stood at the entrance to that part of Elm road once known as Crooked lane.”

The only surviving picture we have of Seaforth House is that from Neale’s 1823 book —  It stood on a slight elevation facing the Crosby road and, being the only house for miles, had a splendid view — a point that particularly impressed Neale, who devotes only a single sentence to the house itself, dwelling instead on the impressive outlook. The grounds, which were surrounded by a plantation of trees, included an ornamental pond, flowers and fruit trees — apricot, peach and cherry, gooseberry, strawberry and grapes. Pineapples were the special pride of the gardener. Among the outbuildings, barns and lofts were two cows (which supplied the household with milk) as well as hens, ducks, pigs, ponies, horses and Newfoundland dog.

Seaforth House, 1823
Seaforth House by J.P. Neale, 1823

Ann Gladstone

Mrs Gladstone was deeply pious; on Sundays, John Gladstone led family prayers, attended by everyone in the household, down to the most menial servant. Even the writing of a family letter was seen as a breach of the Sabbath! Religion may have played a large part in the life of the family, but it did not stop them enjoying other pleasures…the children sketched, read and discussed novels and poetry. John was an eager participant in family card-playing (whist was a favourite game). He had an excellent wine-cellar, and wine drinking was part of family life. They were all lovers of music, both as players and performers; as one family member pointed out, without a little music, a dinner was only dinner!

Ann Gladstone was not overly fond of social life and entertaining, though – her shyness made it an ordeal! She tended to lean on Anne, her eldest child. Even dealing with the indoor servants at Seaforth was daunting to her. She once entered the kitchen to find a footman leaping from the table to entertain the maids and, instead of dealing with it, retired in confusion. When Agnes, daughter of a servant, was seduced by the coachman, it was Ann’s duty to tell the mother of Agnes’s “fall”. She recalled, in a letter written shortly after, how truly difficult this was for her:

“You can hardly conceive the pain it cost me to be forced to show the afflicted mother that her child was guilty. I named it as delicately as I could, at first she smiled and said: ‘Oh Ma’am, my Agnes is as pure as your Miss Helen Jane.’ The speech went to my heart.”

While John was moved to tears, it didn’t stop him calling the constables and having the coachman taken to the House of Correction (Kirkdale Gaol). Agnes’s mother, too, was made of sterner stuff – she was all for sending her daughter to the Ormskirk Poorhouse, but was dissuaded by Mrs Gladstone.

Right Image – Anne Robertson Gladstone, from a miniature painted about 1812.

Life at Seaforth House

J.P. Neale, who gave us the only surviving picture we have of Seaforth House, visited in 1823 and seemed more impressed by the view than the house itself. It is worth quoting his entry in full.

“Seaforth House, Lancashire, is distant not more than four miles and a half from Liverpool in a Northerly direction. It stands in the Township of Litherland, within a quarter mile of the sea at Crosby Channel in the west, and near to the mouth of the river Mersey.

The House is not large, but is particularly commodious in the disposition of the apartments, with a pleasing exterior. The principal front, given in our view, is to the south, placed on a general elevation from the road to Crosby, which passes at a short distance in front, and environed by a tastefully formed plantation and lawns. Its chief attraction is the delightful prospect and sea view which it commands to the south and west, with the coast and mountains of Wales in the distance, the first terminating with the Great Orms head and the last with Snowdon.

Near the boundary wall of the grounds is the fine Gothic Tower of Seaforth Church, built and endowed by Mr. Gladstone, and on the distant heights the churches of Walton and Everton, the latter built in 1814, while at the extremity of the view rises the spires and domes of Liverpool, the first town after the metropolis of the Kingdom in point of size and commercial importance.

Here we have a full view of the broad estuary of the Mersey, with numerous vessels of all sizes gliding on its surface, which in their entrance and departure from the Port must all pass within one or two miles of Seaforth House, affording at all times an interesting diversified scene, particularly when a week or ten days of contrary winds has detained the shipping of Liverpool. On such occasions it frequently happens that one hundred and fifty or two hundred sail of ships, bound to foreign and coasting ports, go to sea at one tide. The entrance of this river is rendered more secure by landmarks of curious construction to direct the homeward bound ships to the port; two of these beacons within view at Seaforth present a picturesque appearance.

On the opposite side of the river lies the coast of Cheshire which terminates at Rock Point at a distance of about two miles from Seaforth House. Over the neck of land between the mouths of the Dee and Mersey are distantly seen the summits of the mountains of North Wales, situated in the counties of Flint, Denbigh and Carnarvon.

On Bidston Hill in Cheshire is a Light-House and numerous signal poles belonging to Liverpool Merchants to denote the arrival of their ships in the offing.

On the west of Seaforth is a beautiful prospect of the open sea called the Irish Channel where vessels may be seen at great distances going and returning on their voyages or lying at anchor under the Cheshire shore waiting for the fair wind.

To the north are the villages and seats of Great Crosby and Ince Blundell, and, on the east, is a fine tract of country, through which winds the Leeds and Liverpool canal.”

The beach at Litherland consisted, at that time, of sandhills, with extensive rabbit warrens (no longer farmed) and wide stretches of hard, smooth sand, described by William Gladstone as “the pure dry sands of the Mersey’s mouth, delicious for riding and one absolute solitude.” William’s later recollections reveal that the shore was still considered, at that time, a viable route into Liverpool:

“From my father’s windows at Seaforth…four miles of the most beautiful sand that I ever saw offered to the aspiration of the youthful rider the most delightful method of finding access to Liverpool.”

The shore road, warren and Great Crosby Marsh, depicted on a pottery plaque of 1715.
The original plaque was destroyed during the bombing of May 1941, but this reproduction survives.
By the time of young William Gladstone much of this remained – except that Great Crosby Marsh had been enclosed in 1816 , enabling John Gladstone to buy the land he needed in Litherland.

John Gladstone played the part of the country gentleman to the hilt. One of his joys was to stand at the portico of Seaforth House, attended by two liveried footmen, to welcome his guests. He liked to walk the gravel path through his grounds to the estate he had built. He enjoyed giving away the produce of his garden, and the annual processional march of the Village Benefit Club, with flags and music, from the church to Seaforth House. In January 1828 he was appealed to use his influence as a Lancashire magistrate in order to put pressure on the publicans of Litherland to stop them giving credit to labouring men. This practice was seemingly causing much drunkenness, bitter family quarrelling and loss of earnings through unfitness to work.

Of the four sons, William was the youngest and tended to feel left out. The elder boys were keen on shooting, eagerly trespassing on the neighbouring estate of Mr. Blundell, where the shooting was good (but forbidden). On one occasion, the elder boys “appropriated” money young William had been saving in order to buy themselves penknives. They condescended to buy one for William, but thoughtfully rendered it safe by snapping the points off the blades! In later life William Gladstone recalled fishing for “snigs” (small eels) in the waters of the Rimrose Brook. (Crosby still has a “Sniggery Wood” behind St Michael’s School). At the age of 12, before he went to Eton, William regularly taught the local children in a Sunday school his father had built near the Rimrose Bridge:

“I remember that I used to teach pretty regularly on Sundays in the Sunday-school built by my father near the Primrose bridge (sic). It was, I think, a duty done not under constraint, but I can recollect nothing which associates it with a serious religious life in myself…”

After John Gladstone’s election to parliament in 1818 he usually spent January to August (the parliamentary session) in London. The family spent periods elsewhere, especially at various spas, but Seaforth was the family home. It must be said, however, that neither John nor Anne Gladstone felt any emotional attachment to Seaforth. Anne Robertson Gladstone cherished the quietness of Seaforth, away from the hectic social whirl, but she was frightened of its isolation and terrified of its storms. Seaforth House was much exposed to the great gales that sweep the coast and estuary periodically (as local residents still know only too well). At such times, the family would sit up through the night in the drawing room. On one occasion a chimney crashed through the roof at the rear of the house, terrifying the servants. On the morning after, the Gladstone children would prowl the grounds exclaiming at the bits of house scattered on the lawns, before running to the beach to view the wreckage of ships. John Gladstone poured money into the house and was forever adding and altering and gutting it – so much so that his eldest daughter, Anne, once called it “Guttling Hall”.

Anne (the daughter) was far more attached to Seaforth House than either of her parents. Mrs Gladstone, occupied with her own children and handicapped by shyness and illness, formed few real connections with the Liverpool or Seaforth gentry. But for Anne, Seaforth was “the House of Happiness” or sometimes “the House in the Woods”. She even saw a good side to the periodic high winds, drawing the family together in the drawing room. Sadly, Anne died at Seaforth in 1828.

Mrs Gladstone loved her children greatly and suffered as her sons left Seaforth one-by-one for public school – although she seems to have found school holidays trying, with all the children about the house, and was relieved when school recommenced. In a letter of May 1817, she notes thankfully that the children are “again fairly with Mr Rawson”. Mary Gladstone was a worrier, as greatly concerned with the health of her family as they were about hers. Checkland, the standard biographer of John Gladstone, tactfully calls her “an eager student of medical books and an ardent connoisseur of doctors”.

She worried constantly about her family getting too damp and had a horror that her sons would drown while bathing –- the family bathing machine at Seaforth was sold because of her fears! When the driver of one of Brotherton’s coaches, bringing Tom home from Eton, fell asleep and overturned the vehicle, Mrs Gladstone retired to bed with “coaches running in her head,” as she later wrote to Tom. John Gladstone stormed down to Brotherton’s coach office to lecture him on his duty to the public!

Mary Gladstone was deeply pious, and that set the tone for the family. On Sundays, John Gladstone led family prayers, attended by everyone in the household, down to the most menial servant. Even the writing of a family letter was seen as a breach of the Sabbath! Religion may have played a large part in the life of the family, but it did not stop them enjoying other pleasures (unlike John Gladstone’s rather austere father). The children sketched, read and discussed novels and poetry. John was an eager participant in family card-playing (whist was a favourite game). He had an excellent wine-cellar, and wine drinking was part of family life. They were all lovers of music, both as players and performers; as one family member pointed out, without a little music, a dinner was only dinner!

Left Image The younger William Gladstone, from a portrait painted in the 1830’s

Mary was not overly fond of social life and entertaining –a sense of insecurity made it an ordeal. She tended to lean on Anne, her eldest child. Even dealing with the indoor servants at Seaforth was daunting to her. She once entered the kitchen to find a footman leaping from the table to entertain the maids and, instead of dealing with it, retired in confusion. When Agnes, daughter of a servant, was seduced by the coachman, it was Mary’s duty to tell the mother of Agnes’s “fall”. She recalled, in a letter written shortly after, how truly difficult this was for her:

“You can hardly conceive the pain it cost me to be forced to show the afflicted mother that her child was guilty. I named it as delicately as I could, at first she smiled and said: ‘Oh Ma’am, my Agnes is as pure as your Miss Helen Jane.’ The speech went to my heart.”

While John was moved to tears, it did not stop him calling the constables and having the coachman taken to the House of Correction (Kirkdale Gaol). Agnes’s mother, too, was made of sterner stuff – she was all for sending her daughter to the Ormskirk Poorhouse, but was dissuaded by Mrs Gladstone (at least for a few days).

Seaforth expands and Gladstone moves out

By 1824, according to Baines’ Directory for that year, two corn merchants and two cotton brokers had built summer residences in the vicinity for themselves and their families. At the northern end of the Litherland shore, where it met Great Crosby Township (on the line of Great George’s Road) the fashionable bathing resort of Waterloo was gradually emerging. The area was losing its exclusivity and, by 1830, the Gladstones moved to an estate in Scotland, from where John directed the development of the Litherland estate.

The area was now coming to be known as “Seaforth”, and was rapidly acquiring a reputation as a residential location for Liverpool merchants. Large “villas” began to rise as Liverpool merchants moved out to the new, fashionable — and increasingly accessible – township. Many of these villas were in Green Lane. Both Seaforth and Waterloo were to develop rapidly to become (in 1894) thriving communities divorced from the parent township of Litherland. The local merchants were soon riding to hounds, Field Lane being, apparently, the meeting place.

Seaforth House 1850
Seaforth House, 1850

This row of houses was described by Jane Carlyle in a letter of 1845:

“…these handsome villas in front of Seaforth House two and two, together they are as large handsome houses as heart could desire, with stable and coach house and all sorts of ‘curiosities and niceties’ and the rent of these is only sixty five pounds…”  

One of these villas – Riversleigh – still stands, now a nursing home.

By 1860 Seaforth House was becoming difficult to let. Many of the fields the Gladstone boys had played over were now covered by houses. On the death of his father, William had accepted Seaforth as part of his patrimony –- as decision he was coming to regret! When the Revered E. W. Wilberforce (who took over from Rawson in 1872) wrote to William Gladstone about restoring St. Thomas’s, Gladstone’s reply was rather testy. The best thing to do would be to knock it down, he wrote, or try to burn it -– but if so, he had no intention of promising to supply a new church as his father had done!

By 1873 Seaforth was costing more than it brought in, due to the spread of Liverpool along the Mersey. At about this time William’s brother, Robertson, proposed a scheme to modernise the house; William Bower Forwood, Robertson Gladstone’s colleague on Liverpool’s Watch Committee, was invited to see the alterations:

“…he invited me to go out with him to see the alterations he was making, which I found comprised the construction of a large circular saloon in the centre of the house. This was a very fine apartment, but it ruined the rest of the house, making all the other rooms small and ill-shaped. The house never found a tenant…”

The alterations appear to have been the final nail in the coffin! Several years later, in 1893, William Gladstone was in Liverpool to receive the freedom of the city and had the opportunity to reminisce with Forwood about Seaforth. Eventually he asked if Forwood knew Seaforth House.

When Forwood replied that he certainly remembered it, Gladstone remarked wryly:

What a mess my brother Robertson made of it!

By the time the house fell derelict and was sold, along with the remainder of the Seaforth estate, William had lost some £120,000 on Seaforth. Seaforth House was finally demolished between 1881 and 1883. Soon all that remained was the garden, and all too soon that, too, was gone, the site eventually being covered by Cecil Road and Gordon Road.

Photos of Seaforth House

Location of Seaforth House


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  • 21/04/2020 – Initial Post – Allan Johnston & Sefton Digital Team

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