The industrial and commercial life of the town has changed considerably during the last few decades, most of the manufacturing skill taken over by modern progress.
In the past Runcorn was recognised as the leading tannery manufacturers in the country. There were four large tanneries and several small ones in the area, which employed a large proportion of the workforce. The leather produced in them was recognised in many countries for its quality and durability. Many types of hide were processed including rhinoceros and hippopotamus, these being used to make elephant saddles for Prices and Rajahs in India and the east.
It is not generally known that the modern chemical industry was started in the area. A method for the production of caustic soda and chlorine, by the electrolysis of Cheshire brine was invented by H. Y. Castner, an American, in conjunction with Carl Kellner, a German scientist. They set up a works at Weston Point for the production of caustic soda and chlorine in a number of cells using a mercury cathode and graphite anode, which proved very successful. The chlorine gas was used to produce bleach from limestone. The number of by-products from this first beginning has become the modern chemical industry of this modern age. This small works of years ago is now the huge chemical complex of I.C.I. whose works cover a very large area and employ a considerable number of the local work force.
Another thriving industry many years ago was the stone quarries which produced the stone for the Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool, also many of the civic building and docks in the city. There were quarries in the town, one at Mill Brow, one on Runcorn Hill, and one at Weston. Most of the stone was brought down to the docks by a small gauge railway pulled along by mules on bogies. A dock was built by the owner of the quarry at Weston, at Weston Point which was named Wright's Dock; here the stone could be loaded on to the ships by hand crane.
Other products manufactured in the town years ago were alum, borax, bricks, and foundry products at E. Timmins Foundry; this firm were also well known for their well sinking.
With the completion of the Ship Canal the industrial growth increased considerably. Two soap works were built, Hazlehurst’s on the north bank of the Bridgewater Canal and Johnson's on the south bank, for convenient transport by canal to all parts of the area. Charles Wigg built a works on land between the Ship Canal and the river Mersey for the manufacture of salt cake and sulphuric acid and later manufactured fertilizer. It retained its name as Wigg Works. This works became the first piece in the giant I.C.I jigsaw.
Before the building of the Ship Canal the town was a thriving shipbuilding area, many large sailing vessels were launched from the yards which once occupied this stretch of the river. One of the busiest commercial enterprises were the Docks at Runcorn and Weston Point. Cargoes of salt, stone, soap, chemicals for export, and slates, china clay, china stone, flintstones, felspar for the Potteries. Most of the material was transported from the Docks by barge and narrow boat to the Potteries, with the manufactured goods brought back by these craft for shipment around the coast and overseas. The amount of shipping using the Docks in this age of prosperity was a boom to the town, and a busy hive of activity around the clock. Together with the crews of the barges and narrow boats the Docks were the largest employer of labour in the town.