10 St. He­lens

Evergreen - - Contents - SUE GER­RARD

This year sees a mas­sive cel­e­bra­tion for St. He­lens in Lan­cashire as it is the 150th an­niver­sary of its town­ship. Sit­u­ated be­tween Liver­pool and Manch­ester, St. He­lens can boast a unique place in world- trans­port his­tory, is the birth­place of Os­car win­ning sound en­gi­neer Ge­orge Groves and was the home of Pilk­ing­ton’s Glass, Beecham’s Pills and is fa­mous for St. He­lens rugby league club (“The Saints”).

The town started life as four town­ships: Ec­cle­ston, Parr, Win­dle and Sut­ton; the Parr fam­ily who owned the Parr es­tate were dis­tant rel­a­tives of Cather­ine Parr, Henry VIII’s last wife.

The cen­tre of these town­ships was the small chapel of St. Elyn, from which the town takes its name. St. Elyn, or St. He­lena, was mother of the first Chris­tian Ro­man em­peror, Con­stan­tine. She is al­leged to have found the True Cross of Christ. Two stat­ues of her car­ry­ing the cross can be seen in the town to­day, one out­side the town hall and the other out­side Holy Cross Church.

The town’s old­est ruin is Windle­shaw Chantry, built in 1435 by Sir Thomas Ger­ard of nearby Bryn. The chantry fell into ruin af­ter

the Ref­or­ma­tion and in the early 17th cen­tury it be­came a Ro­man Catholic burial ground known as Windle­shaw Abbey.

The town’s old­est build­ing, which is still in use, is the Friends’ Meet­ing House, or Quaker House, which opened for wor­ship in 1679.

St. He­lens might have re­mained four sep­a­rate town­ships but for the dis­cov­ery of coal. How­ever, suc­cess­ful coal min­ing came at a high price as, over the years, there were pit dis­as­ters claim­ing many min­ers’ lives in­clud­ing chil­dren such as Richard High­cock, aged just nine when he was killed in the Sankey Col­liery pit disas­ter of Fe­bru­ary 1848. One of the worst dis­as­ters was at Wood Pit in June 1878 when 198 min­ers were killed.

Among the min­ers’ mon­u­ments is the Dream which made na­tional head­lines in 2009. The cre­ation of this 66- foot face of a girl is on the site of Sut­ton Manor Col­liery which closed in 1991. Cre­ated by artist Jaume Plensa it cost about £ 1.8 mil­lion and was funded by the Big Art Pro­ject, the Arts Coun­cil Eng­land, the Art Fund and Chan­nel Four tele­vi­sion. It weighs 500 tons and over­looks the M62 mo­tor­way.

De­spite min­ing dis­as­ters, the de­mand for coal grew, lead­ing to trans­port ma­nia as coal had to be trans­ported to Cheshire and Liver­pool. The Liver­pool to Prescot Turn­pike road was ex­tended in 1746 and fol­low­ing this route to­day you will find an area called Toll Bar where peo­ple paid their tolls.

How­ever, this was un­sat­is­fac­tory and led to the world’s first man­made nav­i­ga­ble wa­ter­way, the

Sankey Canal. Al­though there had been other nav­i­ga­ble water­ways, such as the River Weaver, this was dif­fer­ent be­cause it did not up­grade an ex­ist­ing river but used an in­de­pen­dent wa­ter chan­nel. It opened in 1757 and was also the lo­ca­tion of the coun­try’s first dou­ble canal lock.

St. He­lens was also at the heart of the rail­way rev­o­lu­tion as the fa­mous Rain­hill Tri­als took place just out­side the town in Oc­to­ber 1829. They were won by the Rocket, de­signed and built by Ge­orge Stephen­son helped by his son Robert and Henry Booth.

On 15th Septem­ber 1830 the Liver­pool to Manch­ester Rail­way line, which runs through St. He­lens, opened. This was the world’s first pas­sen­ger train ser­vice, as it re­lied only on steam un­like the Stock­ton to Dar­ling­ton line which re­lied on steam power and horse- drawn traf­fic. The open­ing saw the first rail­way fa­tal­ity: Wil­liam Huskisson, a Liver­pool MP. A mon­u­ment to him stands on the line’s south side in New­ton- le- Wil­lows, part of St. He­lens bor­ough.

These de­vel­op­ments in trans­port meant that in­dus­try flooded into St. He­lens, in­clud­ing Peter Greenall’s brew­ery, Josiah Gam­ble’s soda man­u­fac­tur­ing, Pilk­ing­ton’s Glass and the world- fa­mous Beecham’s Pills. This busi­ness was founded by Sir Thomas Beecham ( born 1820), a former shep­herd from Ox­ford­shire who in 1858 moved to St. He­lens and sold pills on St. He­lens mar­kets.

He moved to 32 West­field Street where he es­tab­lished his busi­ness and was joined by his son, Sir Joseph Beecham ( 1848- 1916). “Worth a guinea a box” was one of their best- known slo­gans. The busi­ness out­grew its premises and work be­gan on the iconic build­ing which still dom­i­nates the town to­day with its baroque clock tower. It was the world’s first fac­tory con­structed to man­u­fac­ture medicines and when opened in 1877 was one of the first to use elec­tric­ity. It closed in 1998 and is now part of St. He­lens Col­lege.

Sir Thomas Beecham, worl­drenowned con­duc­tor, was the son of Sir Joseph Beecham and was born in West­field Street, St. He­lens.

An­other fa­mous son of St. He­lens was Richard Sed­don, eighth Pre­mier of New Zealand, who was born in Ec­cle­ston, St. He­lens, on 22nd June

1845. He is their long­est serv­ing Prime Min­is­ter and re­garded by most as one of their great­est fig­ures, chang­ing the face of New Zealand for ever. He was a so­cial re­former some­times known as “King Dick” for his au­to­cratic style prac­tised dur­ing his 13- year pre­mier­ship.

There are mon­u­ments to him through­out Welling­ton, New Zealand’s cap­i­tal, such as his statue out­side the Bee­hive par­lia­ment build­ing. There is also a tow­er­ing grave­side mon­u­ment in Bolton Me­mo­rial Park and he has a strong con­nec­tion with Welling­ton Zoo.

How­ever, Richard Sed­don got off to a rather less aus­pi­cious start in life de­spite his par­ents Thomas Sed­don and Jane Lind­say be­ing teach­ers. He was de­scribed as un­ruly and when he was 12 was re­moved from school. Sed­don was in­ter­ested in en­gi­neer­ing and af­ter a brief spell work­ing at Barrow Nook Hall Farm, he started work at Dal­glish’s Foundry in St. He­lens.

He em­i­grated to Aus­tralia when he

was 16, and in 1866 moved to New Zealand and en­tered lo­cal pol­i­tics, cham­pi­oning min­ers’ rights.

He be­came Pre­mier in 1893 and be­came in­stru­men­tal in introducing women’s suf­frage, al­co­holic li­cens­ing districts and his Old Age Pen­sions Act of 1898 formed the ba­sis of the wel­fare state. In July 1902 he vis­ited St. He­lens and re­ceived the Free­dom of the Bor­ough.

In 1906, aged 60, Richard Sed­don died of a mas­sive heart at­tack on the ship Oswestry Grange; he is buried in Welling­ton, New Zealand. In Lon­don there is a me­mo­rial to him in St. Paul’s Cathe­dral, while St. He­lens has a Sed­don Street, Sed­don Close, and Sed­don Suite at St. He­lens Hospi­tal.

Other fa­mous peo­ple from St. He­lens in­clude Hol­ly­wood ac­tor Her­bert Mundin, born here in 1898, who starred with such greats as Clark Gable; the al­ready men­tioned Ge­orge Groves ( 1901- 1976) who won three Os­cars for “Best Sound” and who worked on the first talkie The Jazz Singer; John Ry­lands ( 1801- 1888) who founded The Ry­lands Li­brary, Manch­ester; and co­me­dian Johnny Ve­gas.

So, congratulations St. He­lens on your mile­stone year: here’s to the next 150!


Beecham’s Clock Tower and former fac­tory.


The Friends’ Meet­ing House.

Two mon­u­ments to coal min­ers in very dif­fer­ent styles.


The Sankey ( or Nine Arches) Viaduct which was built in 1830 and re­garded as the first of its kind in the world.

The Sankey Canal, link­ing St. He­lens with the River Mersey.


The Cen­tral Li­brary, for­merly the Gam­ble In­sti­tute.


Left: The Church of St. Mary, Lowe House, whose clock tower houses a car­il­lon of 47 bells.

Above: Richard Sed­don’s cot­tage in Ec­cle­ston.


Right and be­low: Stat­ues of Richard Sed­don in Welling­ton, New Zealand.

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