Runcorn : A Historical Sketch

Before the RomansRoman InvasionAnglo Saxons and Vikings
Normans and Middle AgesNorton Priory
Runcorn & Halton in the Middle Ages Before the Industrial
Industrial Revolution and Modern Runcorn
The 20th. centuryThe New TownThe 21st. century
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Cheshire was sparsely populated, thickly wooded and overgrown, the marshy Gowy valley and the valley of the River Weaver forming obstacles to migration and invasion. The richest evidence of prehistoric settlement has been found on the Central Ridge, running from Helsby to Malpas, where the high open ground was more easily settled. There have been some finds dating from about 1750-1550 B.C. on the lower ridge extending from Runcorn towards Knutsford, notably a Bronze Age stone axe-hammer found at Weston Point and a bronze palstave at Runcorn.

At the time of the Roman invasion the inhabitants of Cheshire were probably a mixture of the original Bronze Age people and the immigrant Iron Age Celts. They were known to the Romans as the Cornovii.

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In the first century A.D. the Romans, already established in the south east of the country, moved north against the Brigantes of Lancashire and Yorkshire and then west against the Welsh. The Twentieth Legion occupied Cheshire and Chester became a permanent fortress about 76 A.D. The main Roman route east from Chester ran via Northwich to Manchester with another probable road direct to Wilderspool. The main military and economic activity seems to have been confined to these routes. Various finds in the Runcorn area indicate some degree of contact with the Romans, but there is no conclusive evidence of settlement.

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Early in the fifth century the Romans withdrew from Britain, the Celts remaining the dominant culture until the Anglo Saxon invasion in the 7th century. Anglo Saxon progress is indicated by place names such as Frodsham, Halton and Runcorn itself.

During the reigns of Alfred (871-899) and his son Edward (899-924) the Vikings invaded Cheshire, Irish-Norse from the west and Danes from the east. (Many Wirral place names reflect this period : West Kirby, Ness etc.) Princess Aethelfleda, governing Mercia for her brother Edward, frustrated any link up between the two invading forces by creating a line of "Burghs" (forts) from Chester to Manchester. She rebuilt the walls of Chester and constructed a number of forts in north Cheshire, including one at Runcorn.

It is in the pages of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle that Runcorn first emerges from obscurity : "A.D. 913 ... This year by permission of God, went Aethelfleda, Lady of Mercia, with all the Mercians, to Tamworth and built the borough there in the early summer, and afterwards, before Lammas, that at Stafford. Then afterwards in the next year, that at Eddisbury in the early summer and later in the same year, in the early autumn, that at Warwick, then afterwards in the next year, after Christmas that at Chirbury and that at Wearyg (Warburton), and in the same year before Christmas, that at Runkhorn (A.D. 915)."

The Runcorn Borough (burh) was built to resist the Viking penetration via the Mersey, the rock on which it was built commanded a strategic position. The fortress was of the earthwork type and the local Thegns (those who held land in return for military service) were responsible for its manning and maintenance to keep watch down the river. Castle Rock retains in its name the only memorial of Aethelfleda's fort, the rail bridge having been built over the site.

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Chester fell to the Normans in 1069-70 after tenacious resistance. The Earldom of Chester was conferred on Hugh d'Avaranches, or Hugh Lupus, in 1071 who divided the county into baronies e.g. Halton. From 1071 until the Industrial Revolution Halton dominated the life of the area.

In 1086 Cheshire was still a fairly wild wooded region with and an average population of less than 2 per square mile. Runcorn seems to have been a mixture of waste and woodland with a few meadows and ploughlands in the outer fringes and a fishery near Weston. It seems that Runcorn was deliberately wasted by the Normans. Runcorn is not mentioned in the Domesday Book but was a dependent manor of Halton which was the fourth largest manor in Cheshire with 38 people recorded (giving a total population of about 200 allowing for their families).

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In about 1115, William FitzNigel, - Constable of Chester and 2nd Baron of Halton - founded a house of Augustinian Canons in Runcorn which had been suggested by the Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield whose Diocese included Cheshire. This was the first Augustinian House in Cheshire and the only one to survive for any length of time. Runcorn was given a new significance by this combination of ecclesiastical and baronial initiative. In 1134 FitzNigel's son, William FitzWilliam the third baron, moved the Priory to Norton.


In 1391 the Priory was raised to the rank of Abbey, but discipline slackened in the early 15th century, four canons were indicted and in 1430 one was actually outlawed!. The Abbey remained at Norton until 1536 and the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII. Resistance by the Abbot and the local peasantry was put down and the Abbot and three canons were imprisoned. In 1545 the site was sold to Sir Richard Brooke, the church demolished and the domestic buildings converted into a house. This gave way to a Georgian house in which Brooke's descendants lived until it in turn was demolished in 1928. Excavation work began on the site in 1970 under the auspices of Runcorn Development Corporation. The site was opened to the public in 1975.


The Barons of Halton enlarged their estates by service to the Crown and by marriage becoming more involved with affairs of state in the process. The sixth Baron, John FitzRichard (succeeded 1172) founded the ferry at Runcorn in 1178 (given posthumous fame by Stanley Holloway's monologue) and also a Cistercian monastery at Stanlow. The fourteenth Baron was John of Gaunt; his son the fifteenth Baron, Henry Bolingbroke, succeeded to the throne as Henry IV. With his death in 1412 the line of barons ended and the Honour of Halton annexed to the Crown.

A document from the time of the thirteenth Baron, Henry, Duke of Lancaster (1345), throws some light on life in the area in the Middle Ages.

The Baron claimed the right to maintain a prison and to hold a court of pleas. He also held a weekly market and two fairs a year as a right. The market, ferry, and the fact that there were at least two windmills in the area suggest a measure of quiet agricultural prosperity but there seems to have been no industrial development. The medieval salt trade developed along the Weaver valley with Chester as the main port, although Runcorn is mentioned as a port in the Chester Recognizance Rolls (1481).

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After 1412 Halton Castle was kept by seneschals, constables, and bailiffs, who maintained the Castle's influence. In 1579 the Castle became a prison for recusants, Sir John Southworth being amongst those imprisoned. Sir John Savage was the seneschal at that time. He built Clifton Hall at Rock Savage in 1565. This later passed to the Cholmondeley family; it was eventually disused and fell into ruin. It was finally converted into a farmhouse and little of the original remains.

During the Civil Wars Halton was held for the Crown, besieged and taken. It was regained by the Royalists in 1644 only to be retaken in the same year. This time the Parliamentarian forces dismantled the castle.

From the 17th century onwards Halton's hold on Runcorn began to slacken. Although the Court Leet of Halton often held its sittings in Runcorn, the Manor of Runcorn was no longer copyhold to that of Halton after 1628. The Manor of Halton was leased from the Crown to George, Earl of Cholmondeley, in 1728. He rebuilt the courthouse, gaol, and courtyard. The last lease expired in 1880.


In 1656,King in his "Vale Royal" sums up Runcorn as "nothing but a fair parish Church, a parsonage and a few scattered tenements". As in Roman times the town lay off the beaten track. Even in the 18th century it was bypassed by the main network of turnpike roads which followed a similar course to the Roman roads. Runcorn was still a very minor port and there are records of a contract in 1499 to carry goods from Runcorn to Beaumaris.

In the late 17th and 18th centuries a number of prominent gentlemen lived in the area including Sir John Chesshyre of Hallwood, a barrister, who built the Chesshyre Library at Halton; and Dr. Nathan Alcock, the physician.

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The situation was transformed by a decision in the mid 18th century which was to have a marked effect on the future of Runcorn. In an effort to expand the sales of coal from his Lancashire collieries the Duke of Bridgewater extended his canal to Runcorn. This project, completed in 1776, united Manchester with the seaport of Liverpool and resulted in the rise of barge and shipbuilding and repairing in Runcorn. A dock was constructed by the river where flats could load and unload cargo for transport to manufacturing centres and new industries began to develop.

In 1791 a junction was made between the Bridgewater Canal and the Trent & Mersey Canals. The Old Quay Canal was completed in 1803 linking Runcorn and Warrington. The Weston Canal linked the Weaver navigation and Weston Point in 1807. Runcorn's reputation as a port was greatly enhanced and a report of the directors of the St. Helens and Runcorn Gap Railway in 1832 refers to the "rapid increase of coasting traffic in Runcorn which has nearly doubled within the last three years". As a result of this confluence of canals, Runcorn became vital to the prosperity of Liverpool and Manchester with salt from Cheshire, coal from Lancashire and clay from the Potteries.

Between 1873 and 1884 the Bridgewater Navigation Co. was handling an average of 489,758 tons of goods per year, mainly china clay, blue clay, pig iron, slates, stone, coal, and salt. A by-product of this trade was the growth of local carrying firms. Trade was directed to Runcorn because of the high level of Liverpool Port dues, but Liverpool still collected dues on all goods handled at Runcorn without using these funds for the benefit of the port. This anomaly ended in 1861 when an Act of Parliament transferred the dues to the Upper Mersey Navigation Commission.

In direct consequence of the canal building the pace of industrial growth accelerated. The first industry to benefit was stone, first for use in canal construction and later in export trade. A number of quarries were worked and Runcorn sandstone was used in the construction of Peel Church in the Isle of Man, the Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool, and the New York Docks. Tourism also developed, Runcorn being a spa and bathing place between 1790 and 1840 and known as the Montpelier of the north. Belvedere Terrace was built in 1831 to accommodate tourists. The growth of industry and pollution destroyed this.

Throughout the 19th century Runcorn became increasingly industrialised. The townscape in 1840 was dominated by giant chimneys (the largest being about 100 metres high) of the two soap and alkali works (Hazlehursts and Johnson) which were of national importance. There were three very active shipyards, quarries, a steam mill, a brewery, an acid works, a slate works and a timber yard. By 1850 the tanning industry was developing.

The first railway in the area reached Preston Brook in 1838 and in 1868 the rail bridge between Runcorn and Widnes was opened. A footbridge along the side of the bridge allowed free movement between Runcorn and Widnes - the ferry was very inefficient and unpleasant. In 1885 the first brine pipeline had reached Weston Point from Northwich. A tidal dock was constructed at Weston Point in 1886.

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During the second half on the 19th century chemicals played a greater part in the economic life of Runcorn although still not the dominant one. By 1863 Johnsons had switched from soap manufacture to heavy chemicals and changed their name to Runcorn Soap & Alkali Co. Ltd. The three Runcorn firms producing Leblanc alkali were part of the great merger in 1890 when the United Alkali Co. Ltd. was formed. This was the first important merger in the heavy chemical industry, its object being to compete with the Solvay process introduced in Britain by the Brunner Mond Co. at Northwich in 1873. In 1895 the Aluminium Co. of Oldbury (associated with Solvay of Belgium) decided to use the inventions of Castner and Kellner in a new works at Weston Point which came on stream in 1897.

The 19th century was a period of dynamic growth which slowed around the 1900's and continued at a more sedate pace, as reflected by the population figures :- 1801 population 1,474 1861 population 10,063 1821 population 3,103 1881 population 15,133 1841 population 6,951 1901 population 16,941

By 1901 the range of industries had begun to narrow, the basic ones in that year being : tanning, chemicals, soap and stone (by 1950 the range of staple industries had shrunk to leather and chemicals). The construction of the Manchester Ship Canal led to a temporary boom in business and population (20,050 in 1891) but after its completion in 1894 Runcorn docks lessened in importance. Shipyards and other concerns closed or reduced their output, a contributory factor being increased specialisation and size in industry.

The chief industrial assets remaining were the canals and the brine pipeline at Weston. Disputes about the pipeline and an international recession in the chemicals market damaged the local chemical industry in the 1880s and 1890s. Transport remained the key to the fortunes of the town which was still in a rather inaccessible corner of the Mersey, without major road links.

The canals had been responsible for the original growth of Runcorn but now, though still prosperous, they had to compete with the expanding road and rail systems. Whilst the Bridgewater Trustees struggled against the new rail schemes canal profits fell from £73,252 in 1844 to £43,396 in 1848. Later the Trustees promoted a Bill (1860) to buy out the Upper Mersey Dues and in an attempt to recover trade, improved the docks. As a result foreign and colonial tonnage cleared at Runcorn increased from 16,601 in 1862 to 36,303 in 1868. The Bridgewater Canal remained a flourishing enterprise into the twentieth century but declined after World War I.

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A road link with Lancashire appeared when the Transporter Bridge was built. A Mersey crossing at this point had long been considered. In 1768 James Brindley envisaged an aqueduct bearing the Bridgewater Canal over the Mersey. Ralph Dodd, a London civil engineer proposed a tunnel, or alternatively a bridge, in 1880. In 1814 at the instigation of Liverpool Corporation Thomas Telford was appointed to report on the suitability of a suspension bridge at Runcorn. The report was published in 1817 but no action was taken.

The Transporter Bridge, built on the site proposed by Telford years before, was opened in 1905. It had a beneficial effect on the local economy. The only road crossing prior to this was at Warrington, a fact bemoaned by businessmen from the 1800s onwards. In its later years the Transporter became most inadequate and various road schemes were advocated as alternatives. In 1956 plans for the present steel arch span road bridge were finalised and work started. The bridge was opened in 1961 and the Transporter demolished, this together with the new approach roads heralded a new era for the Runcorn/Widnes district. By the 1970s the road bridge was inadequate for the traffic volume and a bridge widening plan was announced in 1971. Work began on bridge widening in 1975 from three to four lanes. The widened bridge was reopened in 1977 named the Silver Jubilee Bridge (in honour of the Queen's Jubilee)

Communications were further enhanced by the construction of the M56, skirting the town at Clifton and Preston Brook which was opened in 1975 providing links with the M6 and Manchester.

In 1900 the tanneries - Astmoor, Puritan, Highfield and Camden were the major employers. The capacity of Highfield grew from 50 hides per week in 1888 to 5,000 in 1914.In later years adverse market conditions led to a decline in the industry and one by one the tanneries closed (Highfield being the last to succumb in 1967).

After the difficulties of the 1890s the chemical industry expanded again. The Salt Union which was formed in 1888 built a vacuum plant at Weston Point - the evaporators by Mirlees Watson of Glasgow were 27 feet in diameter, the largest in the world. The Castner Kellner works were aided by market developments in the 1920s which led to greater use of chlorine in the form of chloro-ethylene solvents. In 1916 the company became associated with Brunner Mond & Co. both of which became part of I.C.I. in 1926. In 1939 the Salt Union became the Salt Division of I.C.I. and in 1938 Rocksavage chemical works was built. The Heath headquarters of Mond Division was opened in 1959 and by 1960 Runcorn's industrial life was dominated by I.C.I.

The road bridge linking Runcorn and Widnes brought prosperity back to Runcorn docks (owned by the Manchester Ship Canal Co.). In 1961 160,000 tons of cargo were handled increasing to 380,000 in 1966 and 550,000 in 1970. Over £ 1/2 million was spent in the 1960s and 70s to improve handling facilities. Regular services operate to Rotterdam, Finland, Ireland and the Channel Islands.

Weston Point Docks (British Waterways) has seen a tenfold increase in tonnage in the 1960's. The container terminal of the British & Irish Steam Packet Co. handled 75,419 tons in 1960 and in 1970 the figure reached 540,000 tons. During the 1970's and 1980's the Weston Point docks declined and closed down.

The Upper Mersey Navigation Commission, once crucial to the port's success, was wound up in 1973, the upper river being no longer navigable.

I.C.I. remained the largest single employer with about 6,500 people at Weston and the Heath in the 1970's. In 1973 the new Hydrogen Fluoride plant at Rocksavage increased production capacity by two thirds. In the 1980's the number employed in the chemical industry began to decline rapidly, and in the 1990's I.C.I. sold its factories in Runcorn to INEOS. The main laboratory and Offices, "The Heath" was sold off and is now a Business Park.

Runcorn Urban District Council always encouraged diversification. In the 1940s and 50s the Council was hampered by a shortage of land but later succeeded in developing the Picow industrial estate, ten firms being on site by 1969. In addition four firms were based at the former Highfield Tannery.

The seal on Runcorn's future industrial growth was set in 1964 by its designation as a New Town. By the early 1970s two major industrial estates at Astmoor and Whitehouse were completed. A major employer is YKK the zip manufacturers at Whitehouse.

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The main physical impact of the New Town has been in terms of housing. From the date of designation in 1964 to October, 1979 the New Town attracted about 33,500 newcomers and by October 1979 10,068 houses for rent had been built with another 442 either under construction or under contract. 1,954 houses for sale had been built with another 224 under construction and 526 under contract. The first house on the Halton Brook estate was opened in January, 1967. The first Tenants' Centre followed in October, 1967. Castlefields was completed in 1972. These were followed by Southgate, Palacefields, Brookvale, Murdishaw and Windmill Hill. Private developments were mainly centred on Beechwood and Marina Village. However, many of these estates, especially some of the more "modern" designed ones, have and are being demolished to be replaced to more traditional housing.

In 1971 the Busway, Runcorn's rapid transit system, was opened; all but a small section being completed by 1978. This is reserved for single decker buses and aims to provide a fast public transport network throughout Runcorn.

The Shopping City (later renamed "Halton Lea")was opened in the centre of the New Town in 1972 by H.M. Queen Elizabeth II. It covers an area of 13 acres and has parking for over 2,400 cars. The district police station, new law courts, and a major section of the Department of Employment was housed on the same site, but was later moved to Sheffield. A New Town Library has been built and a new General Hospital is nearby but this has not provided the local care many people envisaged.

An Urban Renewal Draft Plan was produced in 1969,the planned aim being to integrate the "Old" and "New" towns and to provide a more attractive environment. The plan had to conform with the pattern of approach roads for the Runcorn-Widnes bridge. The proposed road system, reduction in retail trade and demolitions caused great controversy. Revised plans were brought out in 1971 and a final plan in 1973. The renewal programme has suffered through financial restrictions but a development in Ellesmere Street was started in 1979. Even in 2004 the "redevelopment" of the Old Town centre was still not complete.

In 1961 Runcorn's population was 26,035; in 1967 - 27,480. Following the expansion of the Urban District boundaries in 1967 to coincide with the designated New Town area the population stood at 30,134. The 1971 census gave the population as 35,999; by April 1975 it stood at 50,311 and in June 1980 was 65,750. As a result of the Local Government Act 1972 Runcorn Urban District and Widnes Municipal Borough and the Parishes of Moore, Preston Brook, Daresbury and Hale were merged to create the new Borough of Halton, and in 1997 this became a Unitary Authority and was cut free from Cheshire.

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In 2014 work started on the construction of a new 6-lane bridge across the Mersey, about a mile upstream of the Silver Jubilee Bridge. This was opened for traffic in November 2017, and officially opened by HM Queen Elizabeth II the following year. It is a toll bridge. The S.J.Bridge underwent major refurbishment. It re-opened in Feb. 2021 as a two-lane carriageway.

Most of the materials used in this sketch are available from the Local History Collection at Runcorn Library. HN.5 - 10.03