10 St. Helens
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.