Runcorn is an industrial town and cargo port within the borough of Halton in the ceremonial county of Cheshire, England. In 2011, Halton's population was recorded to be 127,500, with that of Runcorn alone being 61,000. The town is on the southern bank of the River Mersey where the estuary narrows to form Runcorn Gap. Directly to the north across the Mersey is the town of Widnes. Upstream and to the northeast is the town of Warrington and downstream to the west is the city of Liverpool.
Runcorn railway station is on a branch of the West Coast Main Line. It provides frequent services to London (Euston), Liverpool and Birmingham. The A533 road passes through the town from the south, crossing the Runcorn Gap over the Silver Jubilee Bridge, the lowest bridge crossing of the River Mersey. The Manchester Ship Canal runs alongside the Runcorn bank of the River Mersey; the Bridgewater Canal terminates in the canal basin in the town centre, as the staircase of locks leading down to the Ship Canal was filled in many decades ago.
Runcorn was a small, isolated village until the coming of the Industrial Revolution. It was a health resort in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Towards the end of the 18th century, a port began to develop on the south bank of the River Mersey. During the 19th century, industries developed the manufacture of soap and alkali, quarrying, shipbuilding, engineering and tanning. In the early 20th century, the prime industries were chemicals and tanning. The original village has grown to include what were outlying villages. Except for chemicals, all of the old industries have disappeared and there has been diversification, in particular because of the close links to the motorway system and the development of warehousing and distribution centres. A new town was built to the east of the existing town in the 1960–'70s and areas of private housing have been established, farther to the east; this has resulted in the population more than doubling from around 30,000 to its present level.
The earliest written reference to the town is in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, where it is spelled Rumcofan, literally “a wide cove or bay”. This word is derived from the Old English words rúm (“wide” or “broad”) and cofa (“cave” or “cove”). Other historical spellings of Runcorn include Rumcoven, Ronchestorn, Runckhorne, and Runcorne.
Little is known about the early history of the settlement but isolated findings of objects from the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages have been made and there is evidence of a Roman presence in the area. The earliest recorded event in its history is the building by Ethelfleda of a fortification at Runcorn to protect the northern frontier of her kingdom of Mercia against the Vikings in 915. The fort was built on Castle Rock overlooking the River Mersey at Runcorn Gap.
During the Civil War Halton Castle was held for the Royalists by John Savage, 2nd Earl Rivers, the Steward of Halton. It fell twice to Parliamentarian Roundheads. The first siege was led by Sir William Brereton in 1643; the second was during the following year. Following this, a "Council of War" was held in Warrington in 1646 at which it was decided that the castle should be slighted. In 1656, Runcorn was described as being "nothing but a fair parish church, a parsonage and a few scattered tenements". And so it remained for over a century, an isolated and poor hamlet. The only through traffic used the ferry which crossed from Runcorn to the north bank of the River Mersey. Towards the end of the 18th century and in the early years of the 19th century the town was a health resort.
In 1868 the Runcorn Railway Bridge was opened across the Mersey, giving Runcorn direct rail links with Liverpool and the rest of the country. In the 1880s a pipeline was opened between Northwich and Weston Point, supplying brine to the salt and chemical works. In 1894 the Manchester Ship Canal was opened throughout its length. This allowed ocean-going ships to travel inland as far as Salford, some of them calling at the port of Runcorn. The rise in population between 1881 and 1891 and the drop by 1901 is explained by the number of people involved in constructing the ship canal. In 1905 the Widnes-Runcorn Transporter Bridge opened, giving a direct link for vehicular traffic for the first time between the two towns.
During the first half of the 20th century the industry of the town continued to be dominated by chemicals and tanning. This growth was largely due to government fixed-priced cost contracts for tanned hides. In 1926 four chemical companies merged to form Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI). As the century progressed there was diversification of industry. In 1961 the Transporter Bridge was replaced by Runcorn Road Bridge (since named the Silver Jubilee Bridge) which allowed a more efficient means of road traffic across Runcorn Gap. The designation of Runcorn as a new town in 1964 brought major changes and more than doubled the population. Much of the architecture of the new town was innovative, especially the Southgate development designed by Sir James Stirling and built between 1970 and 1977. Stirling's housing development was beset with problems and it was demolished in the early 1990s. During the second half of the 20th century the tanneries closed (the last to close was the Highfield Tannery in the late 1960s) and the chemical industry declined. At the same time, light industry developed together with warehouses and distribution centres.