St Helens is the largest settlement and administrative centre of the Metropolitan Borough of St Helens within Merseyside, England. At the time of the 2001 UK Census it had a population of just over 100,000, while the larger metropolitan borough had a population of nearly 177,000. The town was officially incorporated as a municipal borough in 1868 responsible for the administration of the four townships of Eccleston, Parr, Sutton and Windle. It received greater responsibility as a county borough in 1887, which was superseded in 1974 by the larger still metropolitan borough.
St Helens is situated north of the River Mersey in the southwest of the historic county of Lancashire, in North West England. The town historically lay within the ancient Lancashire division of West Derby known as a "hundred".
The local area developed rapidly during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries into a significant centre for coal mining and glassmaking. Both prior to and during this time it was also home to a cotton and linen industry (notably sail making) that lasted until the mid-19th century. Salt, lime and alkali pits were located in the vicinity, and there was also copper smelting and brewing.
Today, St Helens is very much a commercial, rather than an industrial town. The main industries have since left, become outdated, or have been outsourced. The town's one remaining large industrial employer is the float and patterned rolled glass producer, Pilkington, a world leader in the industry.
Previously the town had been home to Beechams (now part of GlaxoSmithKline), the Gamble family of the Alkali Works, Ravenhead glass (bought out by the Belgian nationalised Durobor), United Glass Bottles (U.G.B.), Triplex (owned by Pilkington, farmed out to India), the Daglish Foundry (closed and demolished 1939), and Greenall's (now located in nearby Warrington).
The southern regions of the ancient Lancashire county was at least partially settled by the Celtic Brigantes who were subsequently subjugated by the Romans during their 1st Century conquest, with nearby Wigan suggested as a location for the Roman settlement of Coccium. No archaeological evidence has yet been uncovered to tie either group specifically to the St Helens area, however Eccleston derives its name from either the Latin Ecclesia or Welsh Eglwys suggesting a common link to a church (though none are known in that township until the 19th century).
The first recorded settlements are Manors, Parishes and Titled Lands listed in the Domesday book in the 11th century. The titled lands would have encompassed the modern townships as part of their fiefdoms, though it may be inferred from listed tithes that the land was populated before then.
Formation of the town
St Helens did not exist as a town in its own right until as late as the middle of the 19th century. The town has a complex evolution spurred on by rapid population growth in the region during the period of the Industrial Revolution. Between 1629 and 1839 St Helens grew from a small collection of houses surrounding an old chapel, to a village, before finally becoming the significant urban centre of the four primary Manors and surrounding townships that make up the modern Town.
The origin of the name "St Helens" stretches back at least to a "chapel of ease" dedicated to St Elyn, the earliest documented reference to which is in 1552. The first time the Chapel is formally referred to appears to be 1558 when Thomas Parr of Parr bequeathed a sum of money "to a stock towards finding a priest at St. Helen's Chapel in Hardshaw, and to the maintenance of God's divine service there for ever, if the stock go forward and that the priest do service as is aforesaid". Early maps show that it originally existed on Chapel Lane, around the approximate site of the modern pedestrianised Church Street. Historically this would have fallen within the berewick of Hardshaw, within greater Township of Windle (making up the southern border) abutting onto the open farmland of Parr to the East, and Sutton and Eccleston to the South and West respectively.
The completion of the Domesday Book in 1086 reveals several Manors existed at that time although there are no specific references to "St Elyn", or mentions of the particular "vill" or villages. Windle is first recorded on some maps as "Windhull" (or variations thereof) in 1201, Bold in 1212 (as Bolde) and Parr (or Parre) in 1246, whilst Sutton and Ecclestone are expected to have composed part of the Widnes "fee" (a hereditary entitlement of ownership) under a Knight or Earl. It is known that The Hospitallers held lands in the area of Hardshaw as early as 1292, known as Crossgate (which may be referred to by the long built over Cross Street in the town centre located beneath the modern College campus) and many of the original Parishes, Townships and local areas are named after the families that owned the land between the 11th and 18th century.
The Ecclestone family owned the Eccleston township. Their ancestral home dates to 1100, built by Hugh Ecclestone and are referred to throughout the period until the 18th century when they departed for nearby Southport
The manor of Parr remained in control of the Parr family and their descendants throughout the 13th to the early 15th Century when a distant relative of the original family line William Parr, 1st Marquess of Northampton (brother of Henry VIII's wife Catherine Parr) sold the manor to the Byroms of Lowton. A family that later supported the Royalists during the English Civil War and resulted in the death of Henry Byrom (son of the Lord of the Manor) dying at the Battle of Edgehill.
The extensive lands of Sutton Manor stretched across the open and flat land leading towards the Mersey. The Manors name itself is of unknown origin, but the land within the enlarged estate refer to several leading families including the Eltonhead, Ravenhead, and Sherdley. In 1212 William de Daresbury was the title holder of the Manors. The Sherdley family trace back to the Northales who had been settled in the area since at least 1276 when they are referred to as plaintiffs in a boundary dispute with the Lords of Rainhill.
Windle contained the smaller Hardshaw, described as a Berewick in the Domesday book. It was in Hardshaw that Chapel Lane (containing the aforementioned Chapel of St Elyn) was constructed. The Windle Family were Lords of the Manor and Township from the Norman period onward, before ceding control to the Gerards of Bryn.
In 1139, the Peerage "Earl of Derby" was created with Norman descendent Robert De Ferrers installed. Subsequently the region passed on to John of Gaunt, and eventually the Stanley family. Their ancestral home was eventually established in the nearby Knowsley area (to the west of the modern St. Helens borough), with the foundation of a hunting lodge in the 15th century and subsequently Knowsley Hall in the 18th century. The Earl of Derby's lands encompassed a region from Liverpool to Manchester, and to the north beyond Lancaster and were primarily turned to meeting the pastoral needs of the people.
Throughout this period of time the area was predominantly arable land and was noted for its large swathes of moss, heath and bog land while elsewhere in parts it was covered by the greater Mersey Forest (the larger "Community Forest" was not established until much later).
In 1552, the Chapel of St Elyn was noted as "consisting only of a 'challis and a lytle bell". The chapel was described as being at the crux of the four townships of Eccleston, Parr, Sutton and Windle, and lay on the intersecting roads that criss-crossed the area and that also served as a major thoroughfare for traffic between Lancashire towns such as Liverpool, Ormskirk, Lathom and the Cheshire region south of the River Mersey. The transport link is attested to by the existence of Chester Lane (the modern B5419 is much foreshortened) that originally wound through the west of the town heading South to the Mersey crossing point of Warrington and beyond to the ancient Chester Road (that now makes up part of the modern A56) that stretched between the historic town of its name and the Manchester townships. The Chapel also sat directly between the port town of Liverpool, and the landlocked Manchester townships that would become important in the development of the greater area of both St Helens and Wigan.
As a busy thoroughfare it is suggested by Historian and genealogist William Farrer that a village existed in the vicinity for centuries, later sharing the name of the Chapel. It is known from the Diaries of a local Puritan by the name of Adam Martindale, that by the time the King's Head Inn was constructed in 1629 on "the great road" (taken to refer to all or part of Chester Lane) between Warrington and Ormskirk, a number of houses, farms and manors counted amongst the properties in the local vicinity and general area. Martindale notes that by 1618 that the original Chapel had been demolished and rebuilt in the same vicinity. In 1678 a building was converted for use as a meeting place for the Society of Friends by George Shaw of Bickerstaffe. Local historians believe the building had been used for another purpose long before 1678. The Quaker Friends' Meeting House, as it is now known, is a Grade II listed building.
The strong link to Roman Catholicism in the area was maintained throughout this period by the eventual Lords of Sutton Manor, the De Holland family starting in 1321. Thomas Holland, a local Jesuit Priest, was arrested and tried for high treason in October 1642 as "taking orders by authority of the see of Rome and returning to England" the first step in the process of beatification of Holland was allowed by Pope Leo XIII in 1886. Conversely Roger Holland was burnt at the stake for "heresy" when he continued to his professed belief in the Reformed churches some 100 years earlier in 1558 during the Persecution of the Mary I. It is suggested that Ravenhead Hall was the site of a Catholic Chapel during the most severe of Catholic Persecutions during the 17th and 18th century. Whilst the Lathom family maintained Rainfords close connections, as did the Ecclestons.
Less well known is the Windle connection to witches. In 1602 two women were sent to Lancaster for trial, while a decade later Isobel Roby was submitted to Sir Thomas Gerard, accused of upsetting the ship upon which Princess Anne of Denmark was arriving . She was finally executed at Lancaster, along with the Pendle and Salmesburg witches, 20 August 1612
By 1746, St Helens, composed of the greater area of the 4 Townships (and their collieries) beyond Prescot, was referred to in a Statement in Parliament related to the extension of the Liverpool to Prescot Turnpike.
The rapid growth of St Helens at the epicentre of the townships is attested to by several authors. The Penny Cyclopaedia states in 1839 that "Saint Helen's, Lancashire, is in the township of Windle, in the chapelry of St Helen's, Prescott parish. The township contains , and had in 1831 a population of 5,825. The town has risen into importance of late years" In contrast by 1854 (20 years prior to the establishment of St Helens the borough) George Routledge states a reversal of the roles "St Helens, originally an inconsiderable village, is now a very thriving town" and later describes the town as a "... may be said to contain the four townships of Sutton, Parr, Windle and Eccleston". The composition of the town described by Routledge largely mirrors those observations made by Samuel Lewis in 1848 and later still in 1874 by John Marius Wilson and John Bartholemew in 1887.
Census figures from 1801 suggest the population of the District Area of St Helens to be 12,500 which by 1861 had reached between 37,631 and 55,523 (John Marius Wilson placing populace at the lower number, with total households at the specific figure of 6,539) in the wider area with St Helens itself comprising a population of 20,176 in 3,577 households. The Ordnance Survey of 1843 shows St Helens as the significant urban centre
The original Town Hall was constructed in 1839 and described by Wilson in 1874 as "in the Italian style, with a Corinthian portico; and contains a lock-up, a news room, and a large hall for courts, concerts, balls, and public meetings". It wasn't until 1852 that the Civil Parish of St Helens was instituted (noted in 1874 by Wilson as "more extensive than the town").
On 2 February 1868, Queen Victoria granted a Charter of Incorporation, defining St Helens officially as a Municipal Borough. The first election of Councillors took place on 9 May the same year, followed by the first Town Council meeting on 18 May. Twenty years later in 1887 St Helens became a County Borough granting them two representatives in Parliament.
in 1894, the Parish of St Helens was officially incorporated by the 1893 St Helens Corporation Act. This was achieved by the abolition of the Civil Parishes of Parr, Sutton and amalgamation of their townships. The Civil Parishes of Eccleston and Windle both ceded a portions of their areas over to St Helens.
St Helens, in the sense of the modern Borough, covers areas traditionally not associated with the town. The 1974 creation of the Ceremonial County of Merseyside appended the former urban districts of Haydock, Newton-le-Willows and Rainford, and parts of Billinge-and-Winstanley and Ashton-in-Makerfield urban districts, along with part of Whiston Rural District, all from the administrative county of Lancashire. The urban sprawl of St Helens was already extended up to the boundary lines of places such as Haydock and Rainhill, where inhabitants may consider themselves either part of either both St Helens the 'Town' or 'Borough', or just the Borough.
Until the mid-18th century the local industry was almost entirely based on small-scale home-based initiatives such as linen weaving. The landscape was dotted with similarly small-scale excavation and mining operations, primarily for clay and peat, but also notably for coal and it's the coal to which the town owes its initial growth and development and (subsequently) the symbiotic relationship shared with the coal dependent copper smelting and glass industries.
Sitting bare on the South Lancashire Coalfield the town was built both physically and metaphorically on coal; the original motto on the borough council's coat of arms was "Ex Terra Lucem" (roughly translated from Latin to "From the Ground, Light") and local collieries employed up to 5,000 men as late as the 1970s. During the boom years of the British coal industry (with 1913 the peak year of production with 1 million being employed in UK mining industry) the St. Helens division of the Lancashire and Cheshire Miners' Federation (the local miners' union) had the largest membership (10%) of that federation.
The discovery of winnable coal seams is mentioned in 1556, referred to as "Beds of cinders or coke ... have been discovered three feet thick" during the digging of a clay pit and commonly is attributed to the Eltonhead family (Elton Head Road, modern B5204, shares the name of the family) whilst reference to the significant distribution of "potsherds" during excavation suggest that some light industry had been under way for some time prior (suggested to date back to the 13th Century) and the clay and pottery industries lasted in the area through to the early 20th Century. A dispute arose between the Landlord Bolds and the Tennant Eltonheads, eventually resulting in an agreement to compensate the Bold family.
The majority of the land prior to 1700 had been turned over to arable farming since at least the 12th century according to the historical family records of William De Daresbury. The township of Sutton was recorded as "by itself being assessed at four plough-lands". Plow or ploughlands are assessed at apiece. The pastoral nature of the land in the local area was common even in 1901 with William Farrer noting of Eccleston that the "country is of an undulating nature and principally dedicated to agriculture, fields of rich and fertile soil being predominant" and describing the produce as "chiefly potatoes, oats, and wheat on a clayey soil which alternates with peat". Even so, Farrer also notes that several old quarries and shafts still existed within the area while also making reference to a "brewery at Portico, and a pottery near Prescot, while glass, watchmakers' tools, and mineral waters are also manufactured".
Two hundred years earlier and Farrer may well have seen a different sight as St Helens was scarred and pitted by shallow mining operations, often quickly abandoned, left to flood and exceedingly prone to collapse. The primitive mining techniques, and limited ability to bail out gathering water left many pits with short lifespans. Complaints are recorded in Sutton Heath in particular to the plans to expand out the mining across the town, but the lure of a stable income ultimately won out against whatever reservations were held. 100 years later, Farrer might be equally surprised to find the town knocking back offers of mining excavation, when in 2009 the Council rejected a planning application for an open cast mine effectively underlining the finality of the decline of coal mining in the area.
In the 18th century however coal was an enabling force for the town that opened up opportunities for further commercial and industrial developments, which in turn drove demand for the expeditious movement of raw goods not simply out of the town (coal to Liverpool to fuel its shipping and steel works for instance, but also its salt works) but also in promoting an influx of raw products for processing. The symbiotic relationship of St Helens to its transport links is made evident through claims made to Parliament in 1746 for maintenance, and extension of the Turnpike road after localised flooding had damaged it.
It is clear that St Helens development owes as much to its location on the south Lancashire Coalfield as it does the fact that Liverpool, Chester and other centres of industry were not and yearned for the fossil fuel of choice.
It was essential therefore for the town to maintain, and invest further, in transport links and promote itself as a hub for the growth of Liverpool, ably providing raw materials chiefly due to its location and promising transport links. Liverpool, recognising the need for a ready supply of coal for their forges, responded with a petition for the extension of the Liverpool to Prescot Turnpike. This soon developed into a far more forward thinking development to be at the heart of the Industrial Revolution; canals.
Originally mooted was the concept to make the Sankey Brook navigable, but its eventual result was a full man made canal linking St. Helens to the River Mersey and the city of Liverpool. The Sankey Canal was opened in 1757, and extended in 1775, to transport coal from the pits in Ravenhead, Haydock and Parr to Liverpool, and for raw materials to be shipped to St Helens.
The transport revolution centred on the region encouraged an influx of industry to the sparsely populated area. With industry came job opportunities and population growth. Between 1700 St Helens grew from a sparsely populated array of manor houses and their tenants into a sprawling span of mining operations.
Owing primarily to the abundance of coal reserves, the quality of local sand, the near availability of Cheshire salt glass making is known to have been an ongoing industry in Sutton area since at least 1688 when the French John Leaf Snr is recorded paying the Eltonhead family £50 for a lease of 2½ acres of Sutton's Lower Hey. The glass industry got a significant lift with the Crown authorised "British Cast Plate Glass Company" established in Ravenhead in 1786 that latched onto the success of similar enterprises to set the region as the market leader for glass.
The foundation of the companies owed as much to Industrial leaders (and their money) from outside the town, as much to its natural resources. The synchronous development of the steam engine was however the significant development, with James Watts stationary steam engine design leading the way. Now able to pump water from deeper than ever before, mines could be driven to find even more dense seams. At the same time, the growth in using such machinery (for mills, forges, ships both domestic and foreign) increased the demand exponentially for coal - and the town responded in due course.
Land exchanged hands in St Helens rapidly, as established families moved out of the growing towns filled with the working classes, to more gentrified areas in less industrially developed regions. In their place came men of money, self made wealthy Industrialists such as John Mackay (who first leased land in St Helens in the 1760s from King George III before buying the land constituting Ravenhead Farm from the Archbishop of York), Michael Hughes, the Gambles, and later Thomas Beecham, Thomas Greenall and the Pilkingtons willing and able to take advantage of the situation. A few remained such as the Gerards of Windle Hall. They took it upon themselves to avail their land to professionals, and were successful enough to expand out their control to Bryn and Garswood.
One of the first major industries to grow out of the transport innovations in the region was Copper Smelting. The Parys Mining company, led by Michael Hughes, arranged to lease land from John Mackay on land close to the newly constructed Sankey Canal at Ravenhead (where Ravenhead Colliery had since been established). This allowed copper ore carried from Amlwch in Anglesey, North Wales to arrive in the St Helens region via the Mersey directly at the point where coal was being excavated to fire the forges of industry. Some 10,000 tons of copper ore yielding over 1,300 tons of copper passed along this route. At the same time the Gerards were renting out land in Blackbrook to the Patten & Co company from nearby Warrington. The company smelted using the Gerards own coal, then moved the coal downstream from a private wharf on the navigable brook.
The boom was not to last however, and by 1783 the coal industry leaders such as Mackay, Sarah Clayton and Thomas Case were all dead, penniless or both as a global constriction on coal shipments. An over reliance on shipping to the USA during the period of the War of Independence 1775–1783 brought ruin to many and was to lead to the permanent loss of several smaller industries. It took partnership and coordination with other industries for the Mining industry to recover, and with the embargo lifted with the US the towns troubles were soon overcome if not forgotten, and nor would this be the last troubling incident.
The demand for chemicals such as alkali brought meant it wasn't long before the Gamble family started their lime and alkali pits, fulfilling the final need of the glass industry and saving on import costs. The growing demand for chemical processing also contributed heavily to the growth of Widnes.
The Liverpool and Manchester Railway was finished in 1830 passing through the southern edge of the town at Rainhill and St Helens Junction, and furthering its economic development as a centre of industry.
The decline of the mining industry
The last coal mine located close to the town centre (Ravenhead Colliery) and those that were located in the outlying districts of St Helens, including Clock Face (Clock Face Colliery), Sutton, (Bold Colliery), Sutton Heath (Lea Green Colliery), Haydock (Lyme Pit, Wood Pit, Old Boston), were closed during a period that lasted from the nationalisation of the deep coal mining industry in 1947 until the early 1990s. By 1992 all the mines had been shut, with Sutton Manor Colliery, the last to go in St Helens proper, finally closing its gates on 24 May 1991. The collapse of the coal mining industry in St. Helens was the consequence of the implementation of government energy policy, which policy was opposed by the National Union of Mineworkers during the year-long Miners' Strike of 1984–85. After the collapse of the miners' strike in March 1985, St. Helens was but one of dozens of towns in the UK that was immediately set to lose a long standing employer owing to the government maintaining that the deep mining of coal was no longer an economically viable proposition in most British coalfields. In the case of both Sutton Manor and Bold Collieries, it was estimated that when they were closed they each still had up to 40 years of winnable coal reserves. The last colliery in the modern metropolitan borough and in the St Helens area of the South Lancashire Coalfield, was Parkside, in Newton-le-Willows, which was closed in 1992.