The Founder Of New Brighton
James Atherton was born at Ditton near Widnes, in 1770. Born to William and Margaret Atherton, James was the eighth of ten children, six boys and four girls. His father William (1732-1807) was a yeoman farmer and from the time of his marriages to James' mother, at the adjoining village of Farnworth in 1755, William spent most of his life occupied in husbandry at Ditton. Margaret, too, came from farming stock and her father, Thomas Houghton, was a yeoman farmer at nearby Prescot.
Little is known of James Atherton's early life and education. However, with a large household and no great wealth in the family - his father left a moderate £800 in his will - it seems probable that James spent his adolescence on the farm at Ditton with his siblings. There was certainly little future prospect for him as a farmer, being the youngest of William's six sons. Thus, it seems probable that James had made the short journey to Liverpool by the time he reached his early-twenties.
The most positive reference to James Atherton's early life occurs in September 1792 when he married Betty Rowson at Grappenhall Parish Church, near Warrington. This indisputable record gives us the clearest indication yet that he had already been drawn to the thriving port pf Liverpool, as details from the marriage licence confirm his association with the town and also give his occupation, which is recorded as a 'grocer'. Gore's Directory for the year 1796 places this early venture in the heart of the old town at Pool Lane (later South Castle Street) and the same source verifies Atherton's occupation. The newlyweds appeared to settle quickly in Pool Lane and their first child, a daughter named Mary, was baptised at St Nicholas Church, Chapel Street, Liverpool, just over one year later in October 1793 . By 1798, James and Betty had produced two more daughters, Margaret, born in 1795, and Eliza, born in 1797. The business, too, seems to have been quite successful as the following year the young family moved a short distance away to more spacious premises in Dale Street where, in the same year, Betty gave birth to a fourth child; a son, christened James after his father.
In keeping with the common practice of most businesses in the eighteenth century, Atherton, who was by now describing himself a merchant, 'lived on the job', and he fixed a link with these Dale Street promises which, in purely professional terms, he was to maintain for the remainder of his life. In addition, it was also about this time that Atherton is believed to have become more closely involved in the overseas trade. According to R.F Mould in his book 'The Iron Church' - which promotes a short history of St George's Church, Everton - Atherton was an active shareholder in shipping companies, and was also said to have flirted with the slave trade by purchasing a principals share in a slave ship by the name of 'Irene'.
However, there appears to be very little evidence available to support the latter claim. James Atherton's name does not appear upon the 'Lists of the Company of Merchants trading to Africa' for the late eighteenth and/or early nineteenth century for instance, while, it is also worth remembering, that the propensity to associate almost every merchant in eighteenth century Liverpool with the vile trade in human cargo can sometimes be rather unfairly exaggerated. Another Atherton, John Atherton is listed, yet he appears to be unrelated to James. Still, exclusion from these records does not necessarily prove or disprove James Atherton's possible connection with slavery. As Cameron and Crooke's 'Liverpool - Capital of the Slave Trade' publication have rightly indicated, slave trading ventures were usually organised by a partnership of between two and a dozen more individuals. Similarly, 'sleeping partners', whose involvement was limited to the investment of some of the finance and a corresponding share of the profit, could easily disguise their interest. Suffice to say, therefore, that James Atherton's involvement remains uncertain. What is certain that the Parliamentary Bill for the Abolition of Slavery received Royal Assent in March, 1837, and whatever the extent of his former mercantile activities, by that date James Atherton was preoccupied with concentrating most of his efforts towards the development of land and property at the western-end of Everton village.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the population of Liverpool was continuing upon its upward spiral at a quite alarming rate and, thus, James and Betty Atherton's attention was directed towards the desirable prospect of Everton for the first time. A contemporary description of Everton Village from the year 1800 gives an indication of the scene to which the family aspired.
"A pretty village with a view which embraces town, village, plain, pasture and river. At sunset the windows of the houses of Everton Brow flash back the glowing radiance showing that nothing impedes the wide prospect westwards"
Hence, James Atherton departed the city in 1803 and removed his growing family to Everton Village. The move coinciding with the birth of the Atherton's second son, William. Four more children, Charles (b.1808); Caroline (b.1809); Henry Regent (b.1811); and George, (b.1815) followed within the next twelve years to complete the family. At the time of his move to Everton, Atherton was thirty-three years old. It would prove to be a crucial transitional period when the former farmers-boy, grocer and merchant entered into the razor-sharp competitiveness of land and property dealing.
Initially, Atherton purchased a large tract of land belonging to the St Domingo Estate. He then built his own house on the high ground near to the old Everton Beacon, and commenced with the lay-out of a new street close by. A contemporary of Atherton's, Robert Syers, had described in his book, 'A History of Everton', published in 1830, of the erection of ''several handsome mansions and delightful villas' in this street, which Atherton called 'Albion Crescent', a name he would later reproduce in one of New Brighton's first streets. These houses were snapped up by men of a similar ilk to Atherton. Leading merchants, who had compatible social aspirations and who were equally determined to desert the restrictive and unhealthy conditions predominating in the city centre.
The success of Albion Crescent enabled Atherton to lay-out further new streets on his land such as; Northumberland Terrace, York Terrace and Grecian Terrace. These particular street names still survive in Everton today, albeit with vastly different types of property to those of Atherton's day. The pinnacle of this development was St George's Church. Designed by the architect Thomas Rickman, and built by John Clegg on the years 1912-1814 on land donated by Atherton. R.F Mould, in his history of St George's, records that the sum of £11,500 was necessary to build the church. This was obtained by the issue of 115 shares of £100 each, with no shareholder allowed to purchase more then ten shares and James Atherton was one of only two people to purchase a maximum quota of ten shares.
Atherton's own house was situated directly opposite St George's in Northumberland Terrace and the family continued to reside in this house until their move to New Brighton in the early 1830s. Mould goes on to provide a very interesting account of the proximity of these two buildings which vividly portrays Atherton's significant influence in Everton at the time. As a condition of the land he donated, Atherton stipulated that...
"...no funerals at the church or persons attending them shall enter or retire through the western gale of the churchyard without express permission of James Atherton or his heirs"
and this proviso was duly incorporated into the 1813 St George's Church Act of Parliament.
By 1823, Atherton had officially retired from business at the age of fifty-three, He had acquired 'gentleman' status and, in the process, had become a very wealthy man. His achievements during the previous thirty years, from the modest start of the grocer's shop in Pool Lane, had been impressive by any standards and were marked by what J.A. Picton described Atherton in his 'Memorials of Liverpool, published in 1903, as an 'ardent, bold and daring character ...everything he undertook was carried out on a scale of magnificence being always occupied with a variety of schemes for improvement and progress'. On a similar note, Syers described Atherton as 'a man in ten thousand...it may truly be said of him that he was born to be busy'.
It is from such accounts of Atherton's character that one began to understand why his retirement was so short lived. In 1830, James Atherton, in association with his son-in-law William Rowson, began negotiations with John Penkett, Lord of the Manor of Liscard. to buy a large section of land at the north-eastern end of the Township.
Effectively, his successful development of Everton represented a blueprint of his subsequent plans for New Brighton, albeit on a smaller scale. When Atherton left Everton village it was being described in the following terms;
"Everton now abounds with handsomely walled pleasure grounds and well-enclosed fields, and is conveniently intersected with admirable roads, most of them well-paved, and many of the parapets are flagged for two-thirds of their breadth with admirable well laid strong flags".
The village's population had increased almost ten-fold since James Atherton's arrival. He was a highly respected member of the local community and a pillar of the church, he was wealthy enough to sit back and enjoy his retirement in comfort, yet at the age of sixty, he was prepared to take a major chance and speculate in a new and much larger project in the "wilds" of Cheshire. One considers what went through the mind when he made his decision.
Character references have shown that Atherton was an astute businessman with an eye for profit, and the land adjoining the Black Rock had enormous potential. But there may have been less tangible reasons behind his reasons. Firstly, Everton was beginning to experience the first signs of an encroachment from the city centre. The growth which had engulfed the old town a generation earlier had begun to reach the Townships away from the river. Ultimately, Everton's distinct individuality would be swallowed up by a tide of terraced housing advancing up the slopes to the village. Secondly, there is evidence of a more profound nature. The last decade of Atherton's tenancy at Everton was clouded by personal tragedy. James and Betty lost three sons, James Junior, Charles and Henry Regent. within just a few years of each other, at the ages of nineteen, twenty-one and twenty respectively. The death of a child is particularly hard to bear for parents, but their sons individual deaths, at such young ages, must have been devastating for them both. In such circumstances, Everton may have held too many painful memories for the family. Taken separately, these events may not have been enough to influence Atherton's decision, yet put together there seems a very strong possibility that they precipitated the move to New Brighton.
On 24th January 1832, William Rowson advanced a deposit of £200 to John Penkett on account of the purchase of the "New Brighton Estate". The sum represented £100 each for himself and James Atherton.
A fresh start and a new challenge lay ahead for the two men but before the main plans were laid James Atherton died in 1838. Before his death he chose to be buried back at St Georges church with his children James, Charles, and Henry who died before him. His wife, daughter Caroline and family plus others are also buried there.