A Brief History of St Helens

St Helens Church Square

Although the first reference to the Chapel of St. Helens was found in a document of 1552, it is possible that the original structure dated back to the fourteenth century and was responsible for attracting a small settlement of farms and houses within its reach. There is no evidence today of this early village but in 1956 construction work near the junction of Bridge Street and Church Street unearthed two old wells and grain pounders, thought to have belonged to an old farm situated on this site several hundred years previously.

windleshaw chantryThe present Church of St. Helen is a relatively modern structure, built between 1916 and 1926. It is presumed to be situated somewhere near the site of the early church.
Other religious buildings exist in the form of Windleshaw Chantry, known locally as the “abbey”, being a tiny chantry chapel founded about 1453 by Sir Thomas Gerard to provide a place to celebrate mass for the souls of the Gerard family.

Nearer the centre of the town is the supposedly seventeenth century listed building of the Society of Friends Meeting House, described as being the oldest meeting house still in use in the historic county of Lancashire. Modern research however may suggest that this building is of even greater antiquity.
St. Helens remained a small village until the Industrial Revolution radically alterfriends meeting houseed its nature. Coal was first documented as being mined in Sutton in the sixteenth century though there is a possibility that pits had been dug in the area many years previously.
During the seventeenth century the plentiful supplies of coal were transported by pack-horse to provide fuel for the refining processes of the Cheshire rock salt industry and also other trades in Liverpool.

The success of the local coal industry was ensured by the extension of the Liverpool to Prescot turnpike road to St. Helens in 1746 and the opening of Britain’s first true canal, the Sankey Navigation in 1762. From that date the town became an ideal location for heavy industry, having excellent supplies of fuel in the form of coal and a good transport system in terms of road and canal.

Thus St. Helens became associated with the famous names of Pilkington Bros., the Patent Alkali Co; Daglish’s Foundry; Cannington Shaw & Co & many others.
The nineteenth century also saw the arrival of “railway mania” and 1829 saw the “Rocket” win the famous Rainhill Trials in the south of the modern borough.

This century also witnessed a vast growth in industry and population but unfortunately brought associated housing and social problems. Although attempts were made to resolve some of these issues a solution proved elusive as the town lacked any cohesive administrative unit.

Matters were improved in 1845 by the establishment of the St. Helens Improvement Commission which was an early form of local government established to combat some of the social ills of bad housing, drainage, provision of water and many other issues affecting the daily life of local people.

In 1868 the town became a municipal borough which improved, strengthened and extended the role of local government. In 1885 the town had achieved such a size that with the parliamentary redistribution of seats in 1884 it was able to return H. Seton-Karr as its first Member of Parliament.
The twentieth century brought many changes especially with the loss of most of the town’s heavy industry and the closure of all the coal mines. Local government boundaries were also radically changed in 1974 when the old borough was enlarged and became St. Helens Metropolitan Borough .

It now included many of the old surrounding Lancashire urban districts some of which were of greater antiquity than St. Helens. Newton-le-Willows contains the remains of a Roman road and was designated a market town as early as 1258. Haydock, the site of the present Haydock Park race-course was first mentioned in a document of 1169; similarly Rainford, formerly associated with the manufacture of clay tobacco pipes, was first recorded in 1190. Billinge, to the north of the modern borough, may derive its name from the Old English term “bill” meaning sword or edge, possibly referring to the prominent Billinge Hill.

To the south ,Rainhill formerly an agricultural community though also known for its red sandstone quarries and file cutting and watch toolmaking industry, can trace its history back to at least 1256. Today all these communities comprise the modern borough of St. Helens which has a population of about 178,500 people.

This article copyright St Helens Council
More information is available on the history of the borough in St Helens Local History and Archives Library

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