The Black Rock Mermaid
The north Wirral coast was once frequented by a mermaid: she could be seen off Black Rock, and also near Leasowe Castle, where the stretch of sands is called Mockbeggar Wharf.
A Liverpool sailor called John Robinson fell victim to her when, following a storm that killed the other members of the crew, she came on board the ship. By being the first to speak, and by taking her comb and girdle, he had the power to ask a wish of her. In return for his promise that he would see her again the following Friday, she gave him a compass that would allow him to return to shore: he agreed, and she kept her word. When the time came for him to meet her again she was the one who spoke first, thus gaining power over him: she bewitched him with her singing, took back the compass and put her ring on his finger, saying she would soon see him once again. This time, however, when he returned to his home, he fell ill and died five days later.
She could also sometimes be seen sitting on some boulders called the Mermaid Stones further down the coast near Leasowe Castle.
The gardens attached to the mansion run down to the sea-shore, where an oak chair stands, called Canute’s Chair. Upon it is inscribed this legend:—“Sea, come not hither, nor wet the sole of my foot.” Here also is a large stone known by the name of “the Mermaid’s Stone.”
Wonder of Wonders
A Strange and Wonderful Relation of a Mermaid, that was seen and spoke with, on the Black Rock nigh Liverpool, by John Robinson Mariner, who was tossed on the Ocean for Six days and Nights ; Together with the Conversation he had with her, and how he was preserved ; with the Manner of his Death five days after his return Home.
On the 29th of April last one Mr. James Dixon Captain and Commander of the Ship Dolphin in her passage from Amsterdam in Holland, was beat back by a tempestuous Wind and all the Men perished except a young Man named John Robinson, who was taken very ill on board the Ship, and was left to Almighty Providence, and to the Mercy of the Seas and Winds, and was also in great Fear and dreadful fright on the Main Ocean, for the said John Robinson dreamt that he was on the top of an high Mountain, whose top he thought reach’d up to the Heavens, and that there was a fine Castle, about the Circumference of a Mile, and furnished with all sorts of Diamonds, and precious Stones, and likewise on the top of the Mountain was a well, which Water was as sweet as Honey and as white as Milk, that whomsoever drank of that Water should never be dry again ; with all sorts of Musick very delightful to hear, so one would think, as one suppos’d seven Years in that Place, not so long as a Day.
After having view’d the Castle round he observed to his great Admiration, a beautiful young Lady, who was guarded by Seven Serpents, very frightful to behold.
Suppose the young Lady was very beautiful, yet he wish’d rather to be a Thousand Miles off than in the Sight of those Serpents ; and looking round about, he espy’d (to his great Comfort) a green Gate, and a street pav’d with blue Marble, which open’d at his coming to it, and so he got away from the Serpents ; But coming to the top of the Hill, he did not know how to get down, it being very high and steep, but he found a Ladder to his Comfort ; it being very slender, was afraid to venture, but at last was oblig’d to go down it, for one of the Serpents having taken Notice of him pursued him so very close that he was in great Danger, and thought he fell and broke his leg, and that the Serpent fell upon him, which awaked him in great Fright, and almost made him mad.
By this you may think what a great trouble he was in, awaked alone on the Main Ocean, when missing all the rest of the Ships Crew, and also the great Danger he was in.
But to his great Amazement, he espy’d a beautiful young Lady combing her head, and toss’d on the Billows, cloathed all in green (but by chance he got the first word with her) then she with a Smile came on board and asked how he did. The young Man being Something Smart and a Scholar, reply’d Madam I am the better to see you in good Health, in great hopes trusting you will be a comfort and assistance to me in this my low Condition ; and so caught hold of her Comb and Green Girdle that was about her Waist. To which she replied. Sir, you ought not to rob a young Woman of her Riches, and then expect a favour at her Hands ; but if you will give me my Comb and Girdle again, what lies in my power, I will do for you.
At which Time he had no Power to keep them from her, but immediately delivered them up again ; she then smiling, thank’d him, and told him. If he would meet her again next Friday she wou’d set him on shore. He had no power to deny her, so readily gave his Consent ; at which time she gave him a Compass and desired him to Steer South West ; he thank’d her and told her he wanted some News. She said she would tell him the next opportunity when he fulfilled his promises ; but that he would find his Father and Mother much grieved about him, and so jumping into the Sea she departed out of his sight.
At her departure the Tempest ceased and blew a fair Gale to South West, so he got safe on shore ; but when he came to his Father’s House he found every Thing as she had told him. For she told him also concerning his being left on Ship board, and how all the Seamen perished, which he found all true what she had told him, according to the promise made him.
He was still very much troubled in his Mind, concerning his promise, but yet while he was thus Musing, she appeared to him with a smiling Countenance and (by his Misfortune) she got the first word of him, so that he could not speak one Word, but was quite Dumb, yet he took Notice of the Words she spoke ; and she began to Sing. After which she departed out of the young Mans sight, taking from him the Compass.
She took a Ring from off her Finger, and put it on the young Man’s, and said, she expected to see him once again with more Freedom. But he never saw her more, upon which he came to himself again, went home, and was taken ill, and died in five Days after, to the wonderful Admiration of all People who saw the young Man.
Another legend is associated with the vicinity rather than the [Leasowe] Castle, for on the shore, close to some boulders, was a notice on the wall which Mr. Woods remembers. It told that at midnight at full tide on a moonlight night a mermaid could be seen attending to her toilet in the somewhat unabashed manner of more modem maidens. Her glad eye, however, was fatally fascinating to susceptible youths. She did not always sit here, however, for, as related in an 18th century chap-book, John Robinson, Mariner, found her seated on the Black Rock “nigh Liverpool”, took her aboard and conversed with her, and finally parted from her but retained her gift of a ring. Five days later he died at home after escaping many perils at sea.
Near Leasowe Castle a mermaid was sometimes seen on moonlight nights at high water. She, or perhaps another, haunted the Black Rock, near Liverpool. In an eighteenth-century chapbook there is a story of a sailor, John Robinson, to whom she appeared. He persuaded her to come aboard his vessel and kept her there for some time. She must have stayed willingly, for she gave him a ring as a keepsake before she returned to her own marine kingdom. Even so, he did not escape the evil fate which seems to follow those who traffic with beings from another world. Five days afterwards he died in his own home – the one place where he might have thought himself safe after a life of peril and adventure at sea.
It is impossible to know now whether the story of the Black Rock mermaid gave rise to the Leasowe one, or vice versa. They may even be completely unrelated, and of independent origin, but this seems unlikely, for Leasowe Castle and Black Rock are only about five kilometres apart.
Matters are further complicated by the way there is some uncertainty regarding the location of the Black Rock of the legend, as Alfred Coward noted in the paragraph following the one quoted above. He goes on to say:
Coward goes on to describe a visit he made to the area, and of Mother Redcap’s: ‘Opposite it, somewhere beyond the Egremont Promenade, upon which it now looks, was the Black Rock, and perhaps here was one of the mermaid’s seats.’
Of these three possibilities, the first, shown on Speed’s 1610 map of Cheshire, can most easily be discounted. It shows ‘The Black Rock’ written along the Wirral coastline, covering a length of beach roughly corresponding to Mockbeggar Wharf (Mockbeggar Hall being the nickname given to Leasowe Castle after it fell into disrepair). However there is no rock or reef shown there on any other maps, and it would appear that Speed simply made a mistake. Since Coward doesn’t cite any of White’s ‘ample evidence’, we can’t be sure of the third possibility he mentions, but I’m quite confident that the Black Rock of the legend is what is now called Perch Rock.
The Place Names of Cheshire is in no doubt in its section on ‘Black Rock or Perch Rock’: ‘The reef which gives name to the lighthouse, the fort and the sea-channel, and perhaps even to Liscard, is called The Black Rock 1683 … formerly le skere 1274–81 … Swarteskere 1300–07 … ‘the black skerry’…’ (these earlier forms show the Norse influence in the area at the time). Black Rock began to be called Perch Rock after the construction of a ‘navigation mark’ on it in the seventeenth century (it lies at the northernmost tip of Wirral, at the point at which the Mersey enters Liverpool Bay) but it was still being called Black Rock in nineteenth century maps. It would make an obvious point for the unfortunate John Robinson to pick up the mermaid, and would certainly be a name well known to the writer of the chap-book.
The chap-book story has some oddities. The most obvious is that he took a course to the south west to get from Black Rock to Liverpool – but if he took such a course it would take him away from Liverpool, not towards it. The other is that when he returns, all the people he meets already know about the fate of the ship’s crew, even though all the crew members have all died, and he is the first to get back.
The likeliest answer lies in the fact that there is another, very similar, variant to the story, but which is set in Scotland. This is how it opens:
A strange and wonderful Relation concerning the Mermaid that was seen and spoke with on the Cliff of Cromarry, near Inverness in Scotland, by a young Gentleman, a Merchant, named Lauchland Mackintosh, who was tossed on the main Ocean for four Days and Nights, Together with an account of his wonderful Dream, and the strange Conversation he had with the Mermaid, and how he was preserved, but died in five Days after his Return to Inverness.
ON the Twenty-fifth of June last, one Mr. JAMES FORBES, Captain and Commander of the Ship call’d the Dolphin, in her passage for Amsterdam in Holland, was beat back by a tempestuous Wind ; but all the Men got safe on Shore, except a young Gentlemen, a Merchant, call’d Lauchland Mackintosh, who was taken very ill, and fast asleep on board of the Ship…
And towards the end…
The two are almost word-for-word the same apart from the names being changed, plus a few other inconsequential alterations. The Inverness version comes from a broadside kept in the National Library of Scotland, and is tentatively dated at about 1760. I’ve displayed the Inverness and Liverpool mermaid stories side by side to allow you to compare them.
The Inverness version makes more sense. If he sailed south west from the Cliffs of Cromarty (I assume this is what is meant by ‘the Cliff of Cromarry’) then he would end up at Inverness. Similarly, if the ship’s crew had put ashore, leaving Mackintosh behind because he was ill below decks, then people in Inverness would know in advance what had happened to them, which also fits the story.
There are other quirks too. Black Rock is almost part of the mainland, effectively being part of the Wirral coast (the two are connected at low tide), and only a few hundred metres from the opposite side of the Mersey estuary. Once the storm cleared, John Robinson would easily be able to see both coastlines. He would hardly need a compass, never mind one that he followed to the south west, which would quickly run him aground.
Clearly the story of John Robinson has been lifted directly from the Inverness version. Pirating chap-books and broadsides was common enough, though I’m not sure how common it was to alter them to suit different locations in this way. But it’s obviously no coincidence: the only question is whether the John Robinson version arbitrarily set off Black Rock, or was this location chosen because there was already a mermaid associated with the area – perhaps the Leasowe Castle one allegedly sighted off Mockbeggar Wharf. Sadly we can never know. All we can do is to admire the enterprising spirit of whoever made two stories out of one.