Talk given to the Runcorn & District Historical Society on Friday April 1st 2005 by Mr. Bill Leathwood

Bill was one of the leading lights in the formation of the Runcorn & District Historical Society and was the Chairman for the first four years of its existance. Bill, a Deputy Lord-Lieutenant of Cheshire, and a former Cheshire County Council Chairman. This transcribed talk was the last which he gave in public to over 100 members of the Society . Bill died in January, 2011 aged 93 and Bert Starkey, who proposed the Vote of Thanks passed away in 2012.We thus lost two of the most influential people in the Society in the space of 12 months.



    Mr.Bill Leathwood

I shall seek to give you a look unto the life of Runcorn in 1929-1930, which is 75 years ago. This is of course between the two world wars and is based on memory. With all my many deficiencies, memory is not, I trust, one of them.

It may be a surprise to you to know that Runcorn today is very different from 1935. The village of Halton was in the Rural District Council then, as was the Grange - the present town hall - and you entered Halton when you passed the gas works on Halton Road. Weston was not in the Urban District; it was in the Runcorn Rural District Council and when you went past the top of Sandy Lane you were outside the Urban District - that applied both to Weston Point and to Weston.

So you can see that Runcorn was a smaller community in those days. It was a very compact town of about 17,000 people and it was one where there was little through traffic. Apart from the mainline railway from Liverpool to London there was very little through traffic and, what there was, was involved in queues at the Transporter Bridge.

Now Runcorn was created by the waterways, by the Duke of Bridgewater, and indeed many of the streets of Runcorn today indicate that connection with the Canal Duke. It was in the view of some people, with its various waterways of one sort or another, that it could have been called 'the Venice of the North', and in the years I've mentioned there was still substantial traffic on the Bridgewater Canal. And on the Manchester Ship Canal there were vessels from all over the world, skirting the town up to and from Manchester. This meant that we boys never had an insular look - we were able to see part of the world with these ships moving around us; and that was indeed a benefit to young fellows, to boys in those days. The canal attracted industry on the banks of the Bridgewater Canal, both north and south.

One of the significant features of Runcorn at that time was a derelict chemical works from Savage's Bridge to the Sprinch. Behind it were two huge tips of waste from chemical manufacture which were known as "the first mount" and "the second mount", and they were utterly filthy. We used to play on them and go home with our shoes clawped with yellow and our mother would give us a scuff over the head for ever playing in the place. There was a liquor pit there and I remember two boys being drowned in it. Nobody ever thought of fencing it off. This unsightly scene of dereliction was there until the Second World War.

Runcorn had four tanneries at this period of time. There were seven boat repairing yards; there was a foundry, Timmins; there was the Borax works; there was the gas works; Evans, Lescher & Webb had light factories at Crofton Lodge and one off Bridge Street in the centre of the town. In those days the work force of this town worked 5 1/2 days a week - longer hours than we do - 5 1/2 days a week and the only rest from it was on Saturday afternoon and on Sunday.

The Runcorn Urban District Council was one of the district councils in the county of Cheshire. In the set-up of the council were 6 electoral wards and there were only 18 councillors. In those days most of the councillors were rather prominent in the life of the town in one way or another; they wouldn't like to have been described as petty politicians! They exercised a control over the town. The council staff in those days didn't get out of double figures; very different to the scene today, but of course it's a different world in which we live. There was no mayor because urban districts had chairmen. The chairman in those days served for two years. One of these was Sir William Dudley. He was a native of this town who became chairman of the Cooperative Wholesale Society eventually but he never lost his contact with the town and served representing the Bridgewater Ward on the Runcorn Urban District Council.

Other civic responsibilities were carried out at the magistrates' court. There was one sitting in those days and sometimes there was no work for that. They sat on a Friday; there were 16 Justices of the Peace who were people of similar calibre to those who were on the council. They were chaired by Sir Frederick Norman.

An institution of great importance in those days was the Cottage Hospital. There was no National Health Service as we know it today and the Cottage Hospital was a local creation which depended to a large measure upon the generosity of townspeople. It was the focus for a lot of fund-raising activity: only a small place but it belonged to the people and they gave it unstinting support. There was also the Fever Hospital which stood at the top of Sandy Lane; that's been gone a long time.

So we come to education. There were four County schools and there were four Church schools and in those days boys and girls were educated separately in most schools. In Waterloo Road there was what we called the "Tech"; in those days that was called a secondary school - different terms from today. You entered by passing the 11 plus on a scholarship but you could also enter it if your Mum and Dad paid for you. The fees at that time were £3 a term - it was 2 or three week's wages at that time. There boys and girls were educated together. I suppose that my experience there has given me the view that I always prefer to have them educated separately! If you went to the Tech in those days in the town, there was an element of snobbery; that was probably the driving force of some parents for their children.

Now we come to downtown, between the two canals, where there was a whole range of retailers, in Church Street, in Regent Street and in Bridge Street. In High Street the banks were located in the main and there were two very fine edifices. St. Paul's Methodist chapel, which could seat 1,600 people and which a writer in those times in the Daily Dispatch said 'it might have just been plucked from Whitehall'. Opposite was the Congregational chapel of Bethesda, built of local sandstone and which had a graveyard round it until comparatively recently. These two chapels adorned the High Street of the town.

There was a market below the baths and it only ever opened on a Saturday. I can remember there was a chap there from the Potteries - he used to come and sell crockery every Saturday night - he was a great character. I can remember what he said; he was speaking about Mary-Anns (if you know what I mean - pos) and he always used to say "Wash me out and keep me clean and I'll not tell what I have seen". He was one of the characters in the town at that time.

Wednesday was half-day closing and it was observed by 90% of the retailers. Life in those days seemed to have rhythm and discipline which to some extent in retail trading is missing today. Saturday night was probably the busiest night when shops were open until 9 o'clock.

In the town the traffic was mainly horse-drawn. There were the coal carts, the milk drays, the Urban District bin carts, all drawn by horses, and delivery carts from the railway and from the Top Locks canal warehouse. This caused numerous stables to be found around the town, particularly in the Top Locks area. Motor traffic was increasing both commercially and privately and there was of course no stop to that development.

There were two what I would call neighbourhood shopping centres. One was in Egerton Street, which was in Dukesfield, and the other was around York Street up by the Lion Hotel. The Coop was the largest retailer by far. It was a local creation by working men in 1862 in the town - and remember I am only talking about Runcorn prior to 1935. In the town there were 5 large grocery shops and butchers; there was the large central premises. They were the biggest purveyors of milk and coal and they had that large bakery which we find in Mersey Road. The Cooperative Society extended itself to Widnes in the 1870s and became the Runcorn & Widnes Society. Some of us remember the 'divi'; it was the great hallmark of the cooperative movement. Nearly every family was a member and most of them could remember their book number - their share number. Divi was paid in the middle of February and the middle of August. At one time it was 2/6d in the pound, which was very substantial, and was a great boon to many families who used it to pay their rates.

I have mentioned Sir William Dudley already who rose from being chairman of Runcorn & Widnes Society to become the full-time president of the Cooperative Wholesale Society in Balloon Street. Manchester, and he was also a director of the Manchester Ship Canal.

We turn from the Coop to the pubs. There were about 60 but many had been closed, bringing them down towards that figure. They were mainly located round the dock area and they were very sparse indeed in Higher Runcorn. If you passed the Lion, all you got was the 'Tup', so there was much imbalance in their location in the town.

And so we get to that sensitive topic of religion. Religion was a major influence in the life of the town. I think it would be true to say that the Church of England and the Nonconformists had about equal numbers in this town and this was especially so because the Wesleyan Methodists were very strong indeed. There were three of their chapels, one Primitive Methodist and one United Methodist. In 1932 the three branches came together as one Methodist church with over 800,000 members nationally.

The Sunday Schools in those days were full on a Sunday afternoon. I don't know if any of you saw that TV programme 'The Way We Were' recently. It showed the Sunday Schools walking at Whitsun in Manchester. The Sunday Schools were a great factor in the life of this town. The Nonconformist chapels, the Methodists, the Congregationalists and the Presbyterians used to have what were called Sunday School Anniversaries. These started with St. John's Presbyterians in March and finished with Brunswick (which was really St. Paul's) at the end of June. They were great occasions because the children used to recite, there were festivals of singing, and there were people who used to hike themselves round Sunday by Sunday to the different Sunday School Anniversaries. At Camden Methodist Sunday School in Lowland Road there were 500 scholars. They used to have their Sunday School Anniversary in St. Paul's chapel in the High Street. On the Sunday night, because they used to get notable preachers, you would have to be there at 5.30 for a 6 o'clock start because there would be getting on for 1,500 people in that chapel in this town on the Sunday night.

These Sunday Schools were a big factor in family life as well as in the religious life of the town. When anything was organized in the town, like the Coronation of George VI in the mid-1930s, they turned to the Sunday Schools to organize processions and events on the cricket field in Moughland Lane. So you see they had a community purpose quite apart form their original religious purpose.

But of course the great day in Runcorn was Whit Monday. It was the annual walk in which there were about 2,000 people. It was in three sections; there was the Church of England, the Nonconformists and the Roman Catholic Church. They took it in turn every three years to lead the procession. The Parish church, being the oldest Anglican Church, headed their group. Brunswick being the oldest Nonconformist chapel headed their group and the Roman Catholic Church had their part to lead the procession in the third year. It was a great occasion to carry a banner, especially with the wind over Waterloo Bridge - it wanted a bit of doing but there the banners were carried! The primary children were often on horse-drawn carts and there were numerous bands to liven the occasion up.

I remember reading in the Manchester Guardian some years ago where the Roman Catholics and the other two groups were having a common walk somewhere and it was being treated as a novelty. I think I wrote a letter to the Guardian saying we've been doing this in Runcorn for donkeys' years. It was very unusual that the three would come together on an occasion with religious significance. We helped to blaze a trail in that direction.

On the Monday night after we'd had our tea at the various Sunday Schools, we'd go to the fairground and that was a great attraction. Runcorn, being very civilized in those days, always made Whit Tuesday a holiday as well as Whit Monday. Invariably people used to leave the town for a day out particularly if they went on one of the Wallasey ferries from Runcorn Pier Head to New Brighton for the day. I remember going in the 1950s on a ferry and I thought I was at the South Pole it was that cold! But that was Whit; it was a great occasion where the town came together with a great sense of community spirit.

We now come to what were called the Friendly Societies, which are probably not so well known. They were, despite their rituals, in essence sickness clubs. If a breadwinner in those old days, long before 1929, went down it meant poverty for the family. The Friendly Society movement encouraged thrift and every fortnight you'd pay a bob or two into your Friendly Society. If you became ill you got an allowance each week. The first one was the Duke's Club which was founded in the Duke of Bridgewater's set-up for their employees. Then there was the Manchester Unity Order of Oddfellows which had 3 lodges, the Grand United Order of Oddfellows, which had 2 lodges, and there were two Temperance Societies, the Raccabites and the Sons of Temperance. They all in a quiet sort of way did a lot of good for the working people of this town. Before the first World War I gather that on Whit Monday these various societies used to have a procession of their own - another evidence of a sense of community. Life has changed very much in that respect and since the 50s it has been very much in decline.

Now we come to the political. I remember the general election of 1929. I took numbers at the gates of Victoria Road School and it was a beautiful day! In those days Runcorn was part of the Northwich constituency and the Northwich constituency spread from Runcorn in the north right through the middle of Cheshire to Sandbach and so it included Middlewich and Winsford. That was the constituency that was represented for a long time before 1929 by the Brunner family. In the 1929 general election there were only 1,000 votes which separated the three main political parties. Runcorn had always been a strong Liberal town and its redoubtable leader was Sir Frederick Norman who was manager of the United Alkali Company's Wigg Works. But the rising impact of Labour had begun to make itself felt and this was especially so in local government where previously all the councillors, for what it was worth, described themselves as Independents.

There were three political clubs in the town. I would think they were probably more social clubs than they were political clubs. The Conservatives had the one in Balfour Road which still exists but they also had one at the bottom of Savage's bridge and that was called the Conservative Working Men's Club. I don't know what that bespeaks! There was also a Liberal Club in Regent Street with billiards and all the paraphernalia - except it didn't have a bar. I can tell you my father was secretary of that for donkey's years and it could be a problem keeping it afloat. But it was indicative of a substantial size of internal community within this town

So we go to entertainment. There were three cinemas. There was the Empress, the Scala, and the King's - that's down off Church Stree if anyone doesn't know, on Public hall Street - and they were very much a part of the life of the town. In those days when you crossed Savage's bridge and went up Greenway Road you passed Robinson's stonemasons on the left and then you passed Walker's garage and there was a row of hoardings before you ame to the Methodist chapel. These hoardings were always well looked at.It was on these hoardings that the big adverts for what was on at the cinemas.The cinemas changed their programmes in the middle of the week. There'd be Monday. Tuesday, Wednesday, then you'd have Thursday, Friday,Saturday. There was no Sunday cinema in this town in those days. People would pick which picture house, as they were called, they were going to go to.

The Scala was the first to introduce talkies, before that day they had a piano on which Mr. Jacobs used to thump out a tune as the film was shown. Thats where on a Saturday afternoon kids used to go to the matinee , the King's and the Scala. I dont think the Empress had matinees, they were a bit above it. The Scala, I used to go every Saturday afternoon and every Tuesday night, 3 pence a time. At the Scala there were three rows of seats at the back which were called the tubs - they were supposed to be palatial; they were 4 pence. Then you had the 3 pennies and then you had the 2 pennies. A great character in the town was the manager of the Scala, known as Daddy Strachan. He was a Scotsman and he wore a bowler hat. He used to go round on a Saturday afternoon with his stick and I will be delicate how I describe it:"If I can catch those boys who are turning the floor of this cinema into the River Mersey ". It indicates we were not all goodies in that day!.

There was also live theatre certainly at the latter stages of the 20s by the Denville-Stock Company and they played in the Empress. The stage was made at the Empress suitable for live shows. I always remember that the principal man in that Denville-Stock Company was named Derek. He lodged in a pub in Egerton Street and the women used to go to see Derek because he would make them swoon! I've have been to the Empress and seen operettas with an orchestra. It was a place where at that particular time used to be a cinema part of the year and it would be a live show the other part of the year.

Now we come to the baths. They closed the baths in winter and the baths was used for concerts. Highfield started their celebrity concerts there. There was the Runcorn Orchestral Society. They used to play their concerts at the baths. It was also used for exhibitions. The Coop used to put exhibitions on in the baths. As I said it was a musical town. The choir of St. Paul's chapel, and the Halton Road chapel, and the Runcorn parish church - they all had choirs with over 30 voices - Holy Trinity as well; and so it was a town in which music flourished.

Now we come to recreation. There was Runcorn FC and that attracted a lot of faithful adherents on a Saturday afternoon. They played in the Cheshire League in those days. It was one of the major factors in the rhythm of the life of the town. Also at this time there came the Manchester Ship Canal rugby league club. Before the First World War Runcorn was indeed a very - I won't say famous - but it was a very devoted rugby league town. It changed after the First World War but it came back in the form of the MSC rugby league team who had a ground down Percival Lane and for a small town it attracted quite a substantial number of supporters. There were also two permanent cricket clubs - and don't get mixed up with Castner's - they weren't in the Urban District in those days. There was the Brunswick club which was in Clifton Road and subsequently went to Moughland Lane and there was the St. Michael's club which was along Norman Road. There were several bowling greens, one of which we have today - the Runcorn Subscription Bowling Club at the top of Greenway Road. This was established by a group of people who wanted a bowling green away from licensed premises and they came together and formed the Runcorn Subscription Bowling Club which happily, like the Highfield choir, is still functioning today. There were tennis courts which were both private and public - at least the Urban District did have some public tennis courts. There was the Golf Club and there were swimming galas in the summer.

You've got to remember in the late 20s radio was fairly in its infancy and television had never been heard of. And so it was that each weekly night and Saturday the train from Liverpool going south would stop at Runcorn and discharge bundles of Liverpool Echos. There'd be a group of about 20 lads waiting for that train about 6 o'clock at night and getting their bundles and dashing and running towards Halton or downtown or Higher Runcorn with their Liverpool Echos which brought to the people the news of the day. One can smile at it today but that was how they learned about the world and so it was that the Liverpool Echo was prominent in this town.

And so to sum up. Without being sentimental I say it was a good town in which to be brought up. There was a sense of belonging and commendable community spirit. Probably the only non-English element which was of any substance was the Welsh. The Welsh brought their own very pleasing characteristics into the life of Runcorn. And so it was that so many people were involved in so many worthwhile pursuits, cultural and otherwise. I make no apology for saying that much of this sprang from the religious influences which permeated the town which were strong in every class in the community, from those who were well-heeled to the larger number of ordinary working people. There was very little crime in the town. The chief patron of the magistrates was a man named Nobby Cook. Nobby Cook was famous because he was rarely sober. But there was very little crime in the town and disorder was unknown. Even in the depression of '29-30 and the early 30s unemployment was the lowest in the county of Cheshire. I would say that there was not a lot of any real poverty and as I said the unemployment was the lowest in the county of Cheshire - a county which long may continue for this town of Runcorn to be a part.


Given by H F Starkey, Vice-President

I do believe that Bill is the best known of all Runcornians. It is obvious that in his dealings with local folk over many years he has made friends in every strata of society. At a previous meeting he proclaimed his love for Runcorn and the folk who lived in the town. This affection is reciprocated for I truly believe that everyone who knows him likes him.

Bill has had a life of many interests. These include:

Tonight's talk was well structured and was presented with humour, self-effacing modesty and with an astonishing recall from an encyclopaedic memory. This is an accurate historical account because Bill was there at the time! Tonight our speaker has shown his deep interest in the activities of the many acquaintances he has met in various pursuits over the years.

At our last meeting I stated that our society was a success because it had a talented and energetic committee - a committee which was chaired by Bill. Meetings were skilfully managed to accomplish much in a cheerful atmosphere. Bill is no longer our chairman. He will be a hard act to follow.

It has been a night to remember; an outstanding occasion when history came alive. This might have been your swan-song, Bill, as far as public lectures are concerned, but we all know that you will retain your interest in local history and that you will always be ready to help us if called upon,

So on behalf of the membership I say 'Bravo' and I congratulate you on a truly memorable address.

Thank you.

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