The recorded history of Birkenhead began with the establishment of Birkenhead Priory and the Mersey Ferry in the 12th century. During the 19th century Birkenhead expanded greatly, becoming a town as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution, with Birkenhead Park and Hamilton Square being examples of the era. Around the same time, Birkenhead gained the first street tramway in Britain. Later, the Mersey Railway connected Birkenhead and Liverpool, with the world's first tunnel beneath a tidal estuary. Birkenhead is perhaps best known for the shipbuilding of Cammell Laird, and for the town's seaport.
In the second half of the 20th century, the town suffered a significant period of decline, with containerisation causing a reduction in port activity. During the first half of the 21st century, the Wirral Waters development is planned to regenerate much of the dockland.
The name Birkenhead probably means "headland overgrown with birch", from the Old English bircen meaning birch tree, of which many once grew on the headland which jutted into the river at Woodside. The name is not derived from the Birket, a stream which enters the Mersey between Birkenhead and Seacombe. The Birket is a later name which was introduced by Ordnance Survey.
The earliest records state that the Mersey ferry began operating from Birkenhead in 1150, when Benedictine monks under the leadership of Hamon de Mascy built a priory there. The priory was visited in 1275 and 1277 by Edward I. In a royal charter of 13 April 1330, Edward III granted the priory further rights.
Distanced from the Industrial Revolution in Liverpool by the physical barrier of the River Mersey, Birkenhead retained its agricultural status until the advent of steam ferry services. In 1817 a steam ferry service started from Liverpool to Tranmere and in 1822 the paddle steamer, Royal Mail, began operation between Liverpool and Woodside.