A BRIEF HISTORY OF ST HELENS

St. Helens is situated on the Lancashire plain and the Borough stands mainly at 100-150 feet above sea level, but rises westwards towards Rainhill and Prescot with a maximum elevation of just over 275 feet. The soil is a mixture of clay, shales and marl on sandstone, still with extensive coal seams and other valuable mineral deposits. The area around St. Helens Chapel was a well-wooded township until 1750 when industrialisation began. The population of the four townships of Parr, Sutton, Eccleston and Windle, (prior to the formation of St. Helens Borough), was 7,573 in 1801, and this grew to 10,603 in 1821. St. Helens town was much smaller and the population was around 4,000 in 1821. The glass and copper industries on the coal-field turned what was only an inn, a crossroads, and a chapel, on Yates' map, into the modern St. Helens. Three of the townships were amalgamated in 1845 to constitute an Improvement Commission to be known as St. Helens, after the chapel of ease of that name.

Also in 1845, the Commissioners for Public Health were appointed and they forbade the occupation of cellars unless they were 7 feet high. Victorian Britons were not keen on public money being spent on social improvement, and many people were living in squalor. Diseases such as cholera and typhoid were frequent, killing both rich and poor. Lodging houses at this time were notorious centres of disease and crime.

St. Helens takes its name from the chapel dedicated to St. Helen, first mentioned in 1552. The chapel of ease was probably of medieval origin, and it stood at the junction of the Warrington to Ormskirk, and Preston to Ashton roads. Four different buildings have occupied the site, of which the third was dedicated to St. Mary. The present church was consecrated in 1926 and the name reverted back to St. Helen. The population of St. Helens town doubled between 1830 and 1845, and it certainly doubled again between 1845 and 1870, from some 12,000 to 25,000 actually living within the boundary of the Improvement Commission. Another 20,000 people were living outside the boundary but within the limits of the four townships.

A charter of incorporation as a borough was granted in 1868, and twenty years later St. Helens became a county borough. It received its grant of amorial bearings from the College of Arms by Letters Patent, dated 18th January, 1876. The heraldic composition of the old coat of arms is representative of the various notable families which have had a close association with the Borough in the past. The quarterings of the shield are made of the black cross of the Eccleston family over the two bars of azure of the Parrs. The red St. Andrew's cross, or Gerard saltire, (a cross in the shape of an x), in the two diagonally opposed quarters is that of the Gerards and the sable griffin of the Bold family occupies the other quarters. Above are the oak leaves and the closed helm, proper to all civic arms, surmounted by the golden lion, the crest of the Walmesleys, its body bearing two fleur-de-lis representing the Haydocks and the Gambles. The motto on the scroll reads :Ex Terra Lucem", roughly translated as, "Out of the earth, light". On the 2nd February, 1868, Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, granted St. Helens a municipal charter.

Three Councillors were chosen for each of the new wards. The three for Eccleston were: James Bayley, Robert McNichol (who became an alderman), and John Fisher. By 1885 St. Helens had achieved such a size that with the parliamentary redistribution of 1884 it was able to return H. Seton-Karr as its first Member of Parliament. In 1890 a meeting was called by Thomas Glover, (born in Prescot in 1852), who was the miner's agent, to form a Trade Union. This was successful, and Glover became the Union's first secretary. He was adopted as a candidate for the next parliamentary election by a vote of more than two to one, on the 29th August, 1903. He became the town's first Labour Member of Parliament in 1906.

In Victorian St. Helens there was plenty of business for the undertakers, but cradles were filled at an even faster rate. The birth-rate was 47.52 per 1,000 in 1871, but there was a high mortality rate which acted as a brake on natural population increase. The birth-rate and death-rate both began to fall in the last years of the 19th Century. The population in 1871 was 45,000 and in the census of 1901 was 84,310. St. Helens had enlarged at an astonishing rate after 1850, mostly due to the glass and chemical industries. The chemical industry was well established in the 19th Century and the acidic fumes from the factories making alkalis for the glass industry turned brasses green and blue, and killed trees and hedgerows. The siting of St. Helens had many factors that lead to its development as an industrial town. Not only had it got local minerals but it also had access to transportation. The turnpike from St. Helens to Prescot was authorised by an Act of Parliament in 1746 and enabled coals to be transported from St. Helens via Prescot to Liverpool. The Toll Bar was situated on Prescot Road and typical rates charged were horses carrying coals 1/2d, other horses 1d and sheep 1/4d (one farthing).

Coal was not an easy commodity to transport by road and it was often carried by colliers' coastal vessels that sailed between the coal-ports and London. Coal could be carried in larger loads this way and it was much cheaper, this lead to local businessmen investing money in canal construction. The Sankey Navigation, (open 4 years before the Bridgewater Canal), was the first artificial waterway to be constructed in England in modern times. It was completed around 1757, it cost £200,000 and it connected the South Lancashire coalfield with the navigable River Mersey at Warrington. The two men who were chiefly responsible were Henry Berry from Parr, and John Ashton whose father Nicholas possessed land in Ashton-in-Makerfield, Parr and Eccleston.

Nicholas Ashton, a salt proprietor of Woolton Hall, started a colliery on land near Sutton Lodge which he had leased from Mr. Eccleston Jr. circa 1800. The house, Sutton Lodge, was rented from the Eccleston family by Michael Hughes who said the smoke from the engine at the colliery was threatening to make Sutton Lodge uninhabitable. Michael Hughes was the manager of the new Ravenhead Copper Works, a smelting concern of Parry's Mine Company, one of the 'new rich' of the industrial revolution. In 1810 he paid £32 for a full-length portrait of himself probably to hang in Sutton Hall which he had built in 1805/1806. The mansion was demolished in 1949 and stood in Sherdley Park. He also built cottages for the workers he brought from Wales to the copper works, the cottages became known as Welsh Row and were situated between Watson Street and the canal. Members of Michael Hughes' family are buried in St. Nicholas' Church graveyard, Sutton. On their grave is a monument which was donated by the local residents. He is buried in Prescot Parish Churchyard.

Other well-known St. Helens industrial names were Pilkington Brothers, the Patent Alkali Company, Cannington Shaw & Company, (which joined together in 1913 with Nuttall & Company, Alfred Alexander & Company and Robert Cavendish & Son, to form The United Glass Bottle Manufacturers - U.G.B. The new company became the largest manufacturer of bottles and jars in the country), Dalglish's Foundry and Beecham's Pharmaceutical Company. Sir Thomas Beecham, the founder's grandson was the world famous conductor and a member of the Beecham family. The Greenall Whitley brewing firm in Hall Street was founded by Thomas Greenall whose grandson Peter came to St. Helens from Warrington to manage his family's affairs. In 1842 Peter Greenall laid a system of pipes to cover the four main streets of Moorflat for a rent upwards of 10 shillings and sixpence a year. His brewery had its own water piped from ponds fed by Eccleston Brook. Peter Greenall contested one of the parliamentary seats for Wigan in 1837 without success, but won a seat in 1841. He was a convert to the urban improvement work of Edwin Chadwick and decided it was time to establish an Improvement Commission for St. Helens.

One of the Streets said to be so filthy, unpaved and undrained was Greenbank, which had open cesspoolswhich filled the streets with a horrible stench, and where many fever cases were reported. The over crowding was horrendous, the rapid expansion of what had been little more than a hamlet, was made even worse by the influx of thousands of Irish families fleeing from the Potato Famine in the 1840's. Peter Greenall got the St. Helens Waterworks Bill through the Commons in 1843. Also the first gas supply was by the St. Helens Gas Company which was started with his backing in 1832. He also held three shares in the St. Helens Crown Glass Company which became known as Greenall and Pilkington, until he sold them to his brothers-in-law, William and Richard Pilkington.

From then on it was known as Pilkington Brothers. Peter Greenall died in 1845, he had one child, Elizabeth. The 19th Century also saw the arrival of the railways, and in 1829 Stephenson's Rocket won the Rainhill Locomotive Trials, for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. The new Borough has within its modern boundaries, Newton-Le-Willows, which is of greater antiquity by the virtue of a Roman Road passing through its confines, and its designation as a market town as early as 1258. All the new districts incorporated in the new Borough in 1974 are represented in the new coat of arms and these are: Haydock, Eccleston, Rainford, Ashton-in-Makerfierld, Bold, Whiston & Rainhill, Windle, Billinge & Winstanley, Parr, Newton-Le-Willows and St. Helens.

(Early History of St Helens - By Councillor Patricia Anne Robinson, B.Ed C Hons, Cert. Ed) ©Copyright - Patricia Anne Robinson ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~