The name Kirk-by means Church and Settlement. Its origin may have taken place prior to the Norse who are believed to have arrived via Ireland around 900 A.D.. It is further believed that a simple Chapel existed here about 870 A.D., this tradition being inscribed on a stone at the base of the Cross which was erected within the present Kirkby parish church grounds in 1875. Though there is no evidence to support this claim, a chapel is known to have existed on this site after the Norman Conquest.
An early surviving artefact of the period is a red sandstone Norman font which is now located inside the present parish Church of St. Chad. This indicates that the practice of baptism has taken place from at least that early period onwards to the present day.
In the Domesday Survey of 1086, Kirkby was mentioned as Cherchebi, one of the six manors held by Uctred; the others being Roby, Knowsley, Crosby, Maghull, and Aughton. In the 11th Century, the area now known as South Lancashire was identified as the land between the Ribble and the Mersey. This land was divided into six Hundreds or Wapentakes, Kirkby being part of the Derbei Wapentake, or West Derby Hundred. It is believed that this Hundred, originally contained around thirty settlements with a total population of around 2,000 people; Kirkby’s proportion therefore may have been as few as 70.
Over the centuries, the ownership of land around the Kirkby settlement passed through the hands of many families and it was not until the Molyneux family purchased the manor lands in their entirety in the 16th Century (partly in the 1560 s and partly in 1596), that a semblance of continuity existed.
The Molyneux family like many others in the area were staunch Catholics who retained their religious beliefs despite the pressures of the English Reformation. Their patronage of Kirkby was lost though in 1747 as a result of the head of the Molyneux family taking up holy orders in the Catholic Church.
Conversion to the Church of England came with the marriage of Charles William Molyneux in 1768 and a few years later in 1771, he was created Earl of Sefton. The Manor of Kirkby continued to be held by successive Earls of Sefton until 1947 when the land was sold to the Liverpool Corporation.
By 1766, the ancient Kirkby Chapel was in a decayed state and the then minister Reverend Thomas Wilkinson raised funds to replace the building which was duly constructed in plain red brick.
Various additions and enlargements took place to the Chapel over the next fifty years to encompass a much needed School Room and a Vestry. But over time this became too small for the needs of the community and it too was replaced with larger purpose built buildings.
A Church School was erected in 1806 on land given by Lord Sefton. This was further enlarged in 1851 and extended in 1907, continuing to be used for education in the township until 1967.
The present parish church of St. Chad was begun in 1869 and consecrated in 1871 by the Lord Bishop of Chester; located adjacent to the old Chapel. It was designed by Paley and Austin in red stone and has many Gothic and Norman features which give the appearance of an older structure. The old chapel was taken down in 1872, its stone used to build a wall around the new church. Both chapel and church were dedicated to St. Chad, who in the 7th Century was the Bishop of Lichfield.
For centuries a Mill had existed in Kirkby and the flooding of land by use of dams had caused many legal disputes dating back to the 14th Century. The Corn Mill was in use until the early 20th Century when it was destroyed by fire. During the summer-time, Mill Dam Lake was used for boating and recreation purposes.
Until the mid-19th Century communication to and from the rural townships of Kirkby and Simonswood was poor. A new form of transport arrived with the introduction of the Liverpool, Bolton and Bury Railway in 1848 which brought new travel opportunities to the people of the area. Kirkby’s population thereafter decreased until the Second World War. Further development took the form of the Waterworks also built in 1848 by St. Helens Corporation; a Pumphouse to which was added in the 1880s.
In general Kirkby’s rural lifestyle remained little changed until well into the 20th Century when sectors of land were required for other purposes.
A notable burial took place at St Chad’s churchyard in 1930 when Robert Atherton also known as Robin O’Bobs, Rupert Upperton and by some as the ‘Lancashire Burns’ passed away. He was born in Kirkby in 1861, spent his youth as a ploughboy, then took holy orders and for 15 years was Rector at Bolnhurst Parish Church in Bedfordshire. He also composed rhymes and verse which were published in booklets and when he left the church in 1904, he took up the role of wandering poet before returning to Kirkby where he settled at Pear Tree Farm.
The opening of the East Lancashire Road in 1934 made Kirkby more accessible and though plans for an industrial estate here were considered (after the success of the developments at Speke and Aintree), the coming of war postponed industrial changes for some years.
The threat of war lead to a Government decision to build a munitions factory in the area and work began on the site in late 1939. A vast tract of land was needed and due to the urgency involved, short notice was given to the occupiers of the twelve farms affected by the construction. The Royal Ordnance Factory completed in early 1941, became a major employer, with a workforce increasing to around 20,000 people by its peak in 1942, many travelling in from Liverpool, Birkenhead, St. Helens, Southport, Wigan and Warrington by bus and tram.
In post-war years, Liverpool City Council bought the site for industrial development. Industrialists gradually took up the challenge and Kirkby Industrial Estate was born. Expansion through 1950s and 1960s made it one of the largest in the country. In 1971, the estate employed over 26,000 people.
Following the Second World War, the site at Kirkby Fields that had been used as a hostel for important munitions workers at Royal Ordnance Factory became Kirkby Training College, a Liverpool Corporation facility operated to provide emergency training to teaching staff. This college was officially opened on 5th July 1948.
Once Kirkby Training College was no longer required, the site was acquired by the Malayan Government to be used as the Federation of Malaya Teachers’ Training College (the first ever training college in Britain operated by a foreign power). This college was in operation from 1952-1962 during which time over 1,300 qualified male and female teachers were trained, many of whom later became pillars of Malaysian society.
Hand-in-hand with the progress of the Industrial Estate came huge housing developments which were in turn to relieve the problems in Liverpool of overcrowding and insanitary dwellings. Consequently Kirkby, with new developments in the areas of Southdene, Westvale and Northwood, lost its old image of a rural farming community and gained the status of ‘New Town’. The modest post-war population of around 3,000 people, increased considerably as a result and a whole new infrastructure was implemented to support the influx of such large numbers for, by 1961, the population of Kirkby exceeded 50,000.
By the late 1950s, it was realised that to avoid overcrowding within the newly constructed areas, further housing was needed and the result was the construction of the Tower Hill Estate, the first phase of which was completed in 1967.
Greater control over the area’s future came with the creation of Kirkby Urban District Council in 1958 and the following year it produced a five-year plan. New buildings and recreational areas appeared rapidly: Kirkby Market opened in 1960, followed in 1961 by Westvale Community Centre, Webster’s Park, a College of Further Education and a Police Headquarters. In 1964, Kirkby Library opened it’s doors as did Kirkby Athletics and Sports Stadium, which was opened by J. Harold Wilson M.P., the then Prime Minister. Harold Wilson was again on hand to open the Civic Buildings on 19th April 1969.
Improvements to the transport network were made when the first phase (junctions 4-7) of M57 motorway was completed in 1972, access to and from Kirkby township being made along Valley Road to Junction 6.
Local government re-organisation in 1974 brought Kirkby into the newly created Metropolitan Borough of Knowsley. Further changes to the infrastructure of the township were now due to take place.
Leisure facilities improved in the area when J & A Kirkby Entertainments Centre (including a Bingo and Social Club) opened on 21st November 1975 followed soon after by their two-screen cinema which as a first film showed ‘Paint Your Wagon’ featuring Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood in early January 1976. Films continued to be shown there until the cinema closed on 1st August 1982.
Crowds gathered to welcome Queen Elizabeth II when she visited Kirkby on 25th October 1978 during her tour of Merseyside.
As time passed, Kirkby needed regeneration and so during the mid-1990s, the town centre received a make-over which included modifications to Kirkby Library and two new installations in Newton Gardens: a colourful hexagonal stemmed clock was positioned near the post office and a bandstand was erected opposite the library to be used for community events.
During 1998, a major employer in the form of QVC opened a call centre and warehouse in South Boundary Road and in the same year Liverpool Football Club opened The Academy, a 56 acre training ground and youth academy off Simonswood Lane.
Education in Kirkby for senior-school pupils changed when Brookfield High School was merged with Ruffwood School to form Kirkby Sports College, Centre for Learning based on the Brookfield School site. This school was officially opened 2nd October 2009. However, in September 2013 Kirkby Sports College converted to academy status and thus became known as Kirkby High School.
During this period, various plans were discussed to enhance Kirkby township called the Kirkby Project, however the two main proposals did not actually materialise. The first proposal in 2006 was for a new football stadium to be built in Kirkby for Everton Football Club to replace Goodison Park but following a public inquiry, central government decided in 2009 not to proceed with the venture. Secondly, the retail park complex that was to be built around the Cherryfield Drive area was to include a new Tesco supermarket but in January 2015, Tesco pulled out of the venture. Shortly after this, St Modwen bought the Kirkby town centre land from Tesco and a new set of proposals were eventually developed.
Despite the supermarket setback, improvements and modernisation around the town centre did take place. Following redevelopment of the former Kirkby Suite building in Norwich Way, it re-opened on 3rd March 2014 as The Kirkby Centre providing multiple key services under one roof including: Kirkby Library; ARK (Archive Resource for Knowsley); Gallery; One Stop Shop; Adult Disability Day Service and Knowsley Works team. Also in 2014 on 26th April, the refurbished (now covered) Kirkby Market re-opened.
Two of the three proposed new public artworks were installed in 2015 at Newtown Gardens. The ‘Tree of Life’, a 6 metre cast replica of Knowsley Borough’s oldest tree (allegedly 400 years old) and the three metre high ‘Edward’s Elephant’ (inspired by the work of Edward Lear who drew the animals in the menagerie at Knowsley Hall in 1832), which is mounted on a metal 11 metre long representation of a Viking longboat (representing Kirkby’s Norse heritage).
Further modernisation took place in 2016 when Kirkby’s new enlarged bus station was completed (officially opened 14th October) and additionally, the final piece of the three public artworks was installed in the area in front of the Kirkby Centre (now called Civic Square) in the form of three colourful winged thrones each with distinctive features.
An unusual event took place in Kirkby on 31st August 2017 when 38 former students of the Malayan Teachers’ Training College at Kirkby Fields (most of whom had made the journey from Malaysia) attended the unveiling of a commemorative plaque (detailing the history of the site) which had been erected on the grassed area of Granborne Chase marking the spot where the former college stood. The date of this reunion was hugely significant as exactly 60 years earlier Malaya had become an independent state. The historic announcement to the world that independence was to take place was made in the main hall at the Kirkby Fields college when the visiting Chief-Minister of Malaya announced the news on 7th February 1956. More information regarding the reunion can be found here: The Malayan Connection
Following negotiations by St Modwen with a handful of major retail companies, it was announced in September 2017 that Morrisons had been confirmed as the company who will build a new 45,000 square foot supermarket on the former Gala Bingo site, north of the town centre and together with other new large retail units, the overall development is due to open during 2019. A new cinema is also part of the new development which will be built on the site of the old Kirkby Library building which was demolished in late March 2018.