In the mid eighteenth century an event began which was to alter completely the small Cheshire town of Runcorn. This was to construct a canal linking the coal mines of south east Lancashire with Manchester and through to Runcorn and the Mersey estuary. This project was carried out by the Duke of Bridgewater, hence the ‘Bridgewater Canal’ The completion of the canal enabled the town to become an important port for the import of the raw materials for the Potteries and the cotton towns of Lancashire. Most of the manufactured goods could be exported from the port.
New industries began to spring up for the manufacture of leather, soap, chemicals, and a thriving ship building industry. The importance of the town grew considerably during the industrial revolution and continued to grow over the years to its present importance as a port and manufacturing area.
Since the development of the New Town the industrial life and character has changed considerably. To the present generation I shall try and describe to them what the old Town was like during their grandparents early life, and how proud they were of the part the town has played in the past and its present contribution to the future.
The main business part of the Town was from Delph Bridge to Waterloo Bridge, with the Ship Canal and the river to the north and the Bridgewater Canal to the south. In this area were the Town Hall, Banks, Police Station, Market, and main shopping area. Most of the tradesmen were local people who served the community faithfully for generations and were noted for their fair dealings to the customers they served for many years. There were soap works in this area – Johnsons on the south bank of the Canal and Hazlehursts on the north bank, making it convenient to transport their products by canal to all parts of the North West.From Delph Bridge to Astmoor was once the main industrial part of the town. In this area were the large tanneries, Borax works, Gas Works, Alum Works, Brick Works, fertilizer and chemical works all situated on the banks of the canal for convenient transport to all parts of the country.
Halton Road was the main road to Warrington and a small shopping centre for local people, situated between Robert Street and Taylors Row. The stretch of canal in this area was always crowded with narrow boats berthed waiting to be unloaded at the various works, their horses stabled in the large stables owned by the Horsefield family. It was a common sight on this stretch of the canal to see the local men and boys dredging the canal for coal spilled during unloading. They used a bucket with holes in the bottom, flat sides and a long rope.
Westwards from Waterloo Bridge to the Docks was known as Dukesfield, this land being on the estate of the Duke of Bridgewater, which gave it its name. Most of the families living in this area were employed on the canals and docks. The Custom House, shipping offices, ships’ chandlers, and sail makers were in this area to service the numerous vessels using the docks. The docks were a busy hive of activity working round the clock to cope with the large amount of cargoes coming in and going out of the ports of Runcorn and Weston Point.Other products manufactured in the town years ago were alum, borax, bricks, and foundry products at Timmins Foundry. This firm were also well known for the expertise in well sinking. With the completion of the Ship Canal the industrial growth increased considerably. Two soap works were built - Johnsons on the south bank of the Canal and Hazlehursts on the north bank, making it convenient to transport their products by canal to all parts of the North West.
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 agricultural fertilizer. It retained its name as Wigg Works which became the first piece in the giant I.C.I. jigsaw.
Before the building of the Ship Canal the town was a thriving ship building 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, 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 manufactured goods brought back by these craft for shipment around the coast and overseas. The amount of shipping in the docks in this age of prosperity was a boon to the town, and a busy hive of activity round the clock. Together with the crews of the barges and narrow boats the docks were the largest employer of labour in the town.
South of the Bridgewater Canal towards Higher Runcorn was another residential area, except for the Sprinch boatyard, where most of the barges and narrow boats were repaired, and the foundry of E. Timmins, whose cast iron covers are still in use in many towns in the North West.
The lower part of this area consisted mainly of working class houses. Greenway Road was the main road from the Transporter Bridge out to Weston and Weston Point, and also the main road to Chester and North Wales. The upper part was known as Higher Runcorn, where most of the business people lived in the large houses in Stanley Villas, Moughland Lane and Weston Road. The view from the hill off Weston Road was greatly admired by many of the local population, the river from Hale lighthouse up to Warrington with the old Transporter Bridge and Railway Bridge dominating the skyline. To the south could be seen the hills of Frodsham and Helsby, the Cheshire plains, and the Ship Canal winding towards Eastham.
From the Old Quay swing bridge to the dock area was once a thriving ship building industry and it is interesting to note that over one thousand vessels were built in the shipyards that once surrounded this part of the river and Ship Canal. Many famous sailing ships were launched from these Yards together with many tugs, river barges and other vessels.
Beside its links with the industrial past the old Town has many historical links. The two centre piers of the Railway Bridge are built on the foundations of a castle which Queen Ethefleda built centuries ago. The castle on Halton hill is a well known local landmark and dates back to the early thirteenth century and was the residence of the local Barons. It was destroyed during the Civil War between the Royalists and Cromwell.
The Priory was discovered during the demolition of the Georgian Manor House which was the residence of Sir Richard Brooke until it was demolished in 1928. The site is now a well known national museum.
Most of the stone used in the construction of the Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool, most of the civic buildings and the docks, came from the local quarries at Mill Brow, Runcorn Hill and Weston Village.
We must not forget the famous ferry which for centuries carried passengers and freight across the river between Lancashire and Cheshire immortalised by Stanley Holloway in his monologue of two pence per person per trip.
May the present generation take the same pride in preserving the past as their grandparents did and help to preserve some of it for posterity.