Where was ‘The Lost Farm’?
Updated: May 12
(The Lost Farm, near Southport. Drawn by G.Pickering and engraved by Edward Finden. Published by Longman & Co 1831. Authors archive)
Those of you that are acquainted with the local history & folklore of Southport and the wider district, may have heard of the legend of the ‘Lost Farm’. Immortalised by John Roby in his Traditions of Lancashire (1831 edition) with the story (available to read here https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Traditions_of_Lancashire.html?id=bn8uAAAAYAAJ&redir_esc=y surrounding the ‘titular’ Earl of Derwentwater and his supposed hiding amongst the Birkdale sandhills c1746.
For those of you that are not that familiar, (or may just need reminding) let us take a chronological look at some of the known written accounts surrounding this mysterious former farmhouse.
The first written mention of it comes via ‘Geoffrey Gimcrack’, aka John Stanley Gregson in his long rhyming, and somewhat promotional poem entitled, Southport alias North Meols. It was first published in the Liverpool Kaleidoscope in 1824 and then later in Peter Whittle’s 1831 guide, and makes references to the donkey excursions that were available to visitors. Due to the location of some of the buildings mentioned in the poem, historian Francis Bailey, deduced that some of the observations must have been made in the year 1821.
(Extract from the poem ‘Southport alias North Meols’ by Geoffrey Gimcrack)
Roby sets the scene of this desolate strip of the South-West Lancashire plain perfectly in his story, The Lost Farm, or The Haunted Casket:
(Extracts from ‘The Lost Farm; or Haunted Casket’ by John Roby in his Traditions of Lancashire)
William Alsop in his 1832 Concise History of Southport tells us of a ‘tradition of a farm house in the neighbourhood of Birkdale being totally buried’.
Later in 1845, we have the account of Miss Mary Benson to thank for giving us an approximate distance from Southport (she lodged in Nevill Street) to the Lost Farm:
“There is a place called the Lost Farm about four miles south of Southport, but we did not hear about of it till our return. The ruins of a farmhouse project above the sand- which is evidently encroaching and has swallowed up the estate, for no fresh house has been built…”
Frank Robinson in his guide of 1848 gave us the following entry shown here:
(Frank Robinson 1848 Guide to Southport)
The artist Edwin Robert Beattie, who moved to Southport from Liverpool at the age of seven in 1852, reflected on the following (shown below), which was a memoir piece he wrote for the Historical Society for Lancashire & Cheshire in 1914 entitled, The Southport of Sixty Years Ago:
(Written in 1914 by Edwin Robert Beattie as an appendix to, The Brothers Beattie and Their Drawings of Liverpool)
Dr. McNicoll in his 1859 first edition, Handbook for Southport, when discussing the shifting sandhills commented:
(Extract from Handbook for Southport by Dr. McNicoll, 1859)
In 1887, E.Bland, writing in his first edition, Annals of Southport, provides us with a decisive location when commenting for the year 1746 regarding the story published by Roby:
“The site of the Lost Farm may still be identified near the borders of Birkdale & Ainsdale, on the south-west side of the L&Y Railway”
It is also worth noting that in his later second edition, published in 1903, he had altered the location to simply, ‘The Lost Farm was on the border of Ainsdale’.
The antiquarian, Rev. W.T. Bulpit wrote in his 1908 book, Notes on Southport and District, that:
“About the middle of the 18th century there was a great movement of the sand, when Formby port and church were overwhelmed, and the sand which had accumulated near ‘The Lost Farm’ of Birkdale covered it in a single night”
However, William Ashton tells us in his 1920 book, The Evolution of a Coastline, that the encroachment of sand in Formby had occurred by 1739, six years prior to Roby’s story, therefore it is probable that the farm was engulfed later than this. Concerning the farms location Ashton stated that it:
“..stood on the borders of Ainsdale and Birkdale, near the L&Y Railway on its seaward side. Part of the building remained uncovered as late as 1824, but, like numbers of other homesteads, it became buried in sand. In 1840 nothing was to be seen of it”.
Fast forward now to 1985 and to Sylvia Harrop’s excellent book, Old Birkdale & Ainsdale, 1600-1850. Harrop mentions Roby’s Traditions, and gives the site as the Birkdale/Ainsdale border, which she also states was still partly uncovered during the mid 1820s. There is also a copy of the sketch by G.Pickering of the Lost Farm in which Harrop commented that the Birkdale Mill was visible on the skyline.
In 1987, Geoffrey Barnes in his booklet, Birkdale Historic Trail, produced by the Birkdale Civic Society, stated that:
“The site of ‘The Lost Farm’ is in Sandringham Road by the Birkdale/Ainsdale boundary”.
Four years later, Walter Jesson covered the subject in his 1991 book, Megasaga. Alternatively, Jesson stated that the correct location of the farm was, ‘exactly under Greenbank High School’. Unfortunately he does not state in the book how he arrived at this fact however, he does mention an investigation and subsequent article, published in the Southport Visiter surrounding ‘The Lost Farm’. Jesson recalls a conversation with Lady Mary, the wife of Colonel Roger Hesketh, who confirmed that as a child she had searched for the treasure, mentioned in Roby’s story at Lumley Castle, a residence of the Derwentwater’s descendants.
So, where exactly was The Lost Farm? Well, if we look at the maps, Birkdale and Ainsdale don’t appear until Yate’s 1786 map, and taking into account sand engulfment, it would most likely mean that the farm would not be present anyway. It’s is also worth noting that this map (shown later) also has more buildings present than both Greenwood’s 1818 and Hennet’s 1828/29. It is strange that the Birkdale Mill is not shown on Yate’s map, as we know it was in place from 1750, where the present Mosley Street/Grove Street junction is in Birkdale today.
Taking into account Miss Mary Benson’s diary entry from 1845, which gives a location as, ‘about four miles south’ of Southport, that would definitely take us in the vicinity of the original Birkdale/Ainsdale border, if not over the border into Ainsdale itself, which ties in with with Bland’s statement from both 1887 & 1903 and Ashton’s similarly precise location.
Beattie however, who was also around in the mid-C19th, also places the farm close to the railway, but states it was ‘between Birkdale & Ainsdale’. The accompanying sketch, which is dated 1831, shows a Mill, which Harrop tells us is Birkdale. To the left on the skyline, there appear to be buildings which is a developing Southport (one looks like Christ Church before it had a spire). If you look very closely to the right of the Mill, a very faint appearance of what looks like a spire can be seen, which is St. Cuthbert’s in Churchtown, which also gets a mention in Roby’s story.
I’m going to offer my opinion as to what I believe the closest buildings are in the drawing published in 1831 by G.Pickering:
The building in the foreground is probably the most mysterious as nothing is shown in its position on Hennet’s 1828/29 map or any maps prior. It’s possible that the building in the foreground could be a newly built (c1831), ‘Hawes House’, which is present on the 1845 OS map and is still standing today and accessed via a private road at the end of Sandringham Road (Ainsdale). I have never seen the secluded building in person however, judging by satellite images, it is likely to be much altered.
The larger farm buildings to the left are situated where Hillside Golf Course today, with one remnant still standing. A photograph, mounted within the club gives the following description:
“Very little of the early history is known but a wattle and daub interior and original thatch roof suggest the cottage was in existence in the 1650 timeframe and was a farmhouse with associated buildings. Here is the earliest known photograph”.
Of course what I believe to be Hawes House could have been another building that became engulfed by the shifting sandhills prior to Hennet’s survey, presuming the sketch was drawn in the mid 1820s or before. However, considering the accounts placing the Lost Farm close to the railway, and if we take the location of the Birkdale/Ainsdale border as correct, then the distance from the protruding old farmhouse to Hawes House works well.
The building to the right, which seems almost underneath a sandhill I believe could be Underhill Farm, which stood to the north-east of Birkdale cemetery, on the grounds of Birkdale High School today. Harrop described the locality of this farm:
“The name Underhill has become attached to several farms because of their situation, but to none more aptly than this”.
The buildings beyond this, protruding from the dune-lands are where Windy Harbour Road is today and approximately level with the Hillside Farm buildings to the left of the drawing.
(Section of Yates 1786 map of Lancashire. Reproduced with kind permission from National Library of Scotland https://maps.nls.uk/counties/lancashire.html )
(Section of Hennet’s 1828/29 Map, Blue line is approx Railway. Reproduced with kind permission from National Library of Scotland https://maps.nls.uk/counties/lancashire.html )
I believe ‘The Lost Farm’ was in the vicinity of the old original Birkdale & Ainsdale border, possibly in line with Hawes House and a similar distance from the railway track. It could be possible therefore, that Jesson had mixed up Greenbank and Ainsdale High Schools, as the mysterious site could well be partly underneath the latter however, to add to the mystery, I would like to draw your attention to the vicinity of Knowle Avenue, Ainsdale, and the aptly named field area of ‘Black Hole’ shown below on the 1845 OS map.
(1845 OS map reproduced with permission from Lanashire County Council http://mario.lancashire.gov.uk/agsmario/default.aspx)
(Section of 1845 OS map Reproduced with kind permission from National Library of Scotland https://maps.nls.uk/view/102344009 )
David Walshe (Secret Sand Land) Copyright 2022.
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