The History That Transformed St Helens
St Helens: An Industrial Town
If you lived in St Helens before 1746, life was largely parochial. Then the Liverpool to Prescot Turnpike road was extended and life in St Helens changed.
With the opening of the Sankey Canal in 1757, and its later extension to Ravenhead, goods flooded back and forth between St Helens and Liverpool. Local industries benefited from the flow of coal, copper ore, salt and limestone.
Suddenly the town’s coal became accessible as a regional resource. By the late 18th century, the local landscape was changing dramatically.
Thanks to the coal in the area, furnace based industries thrived. As the economy prospered, the workforce grew to meet demand. A sophisticated infrastructure soon grew up to support the town’s main industries.
The local clays of St Helens have been worked for hundreds of years. By the late 1800s, St Helens boasted several large scale potteries and brickworks. The principal ones were Doulton’s, Roughdales Fire Clay Company Limited and the Sutton Heath Pottery. Between them they produced everything from bricks and chimney pots to sanitary pipeware, tiles, flower pots and coarse earthenware mugs, sugar moulds and stoneware bottles.
Having begun his career as an Oxfordshire shepherd, Thomas Beecham’s growing skill at making herbal remedies led him to Wigan and then in 1859 to St Helens. Having settled in St Helens, Thomas, along with his son Joseph, made and sold herbal pills at the market.
Business boomed. The Beechams were great believers in the power of advertising. By 1884, they had advertised in over a thousand British papers. They also used billboards, handbills, gimmicks and stunts to sell “Beecham’s Pills”. Once the firm advertised nationally, sales rocketed.
Beecham’s expanded and opened a new factory in 1887. The new factory was steam powered and was lit by electricity generated on the premises. Beecham’s recipes were a closely guarded secret and Thomas Beecham became well known for prosecuting counterfeits.
Surrounded by industries employing legions of men is probably what inspired Thomas Greenall. Back in 1762, he built the Hall Street brewery. By 1800 it dominated the local brewing trade. In the shadow of Greenall’s, many smaller firms thrived. They produced mineral water and herbal beers, many of which were contained in locally made glass and stoneware bottles.
The British Cast Plate Glass Company opened in 1776. Local coal fired the furnaces and the molten glass produced was poured on to rectangular casting tables. Cooled, ground and polished, the glass produced at Ravenhead glazed the houses and stage coach windows of the wealthy. Silvered, they hung it on their walls as mirrors.
The huge casting hall at Ravenhead was Britain’s largest industrial building. Vast in size with arches giving the impression of nave and aisle, to many it became the “cathedral”
In 1826, Peter Greenall the brewer, and his brother-in-law William Pilkington, invested in a new project, The St Helens Crown Glass Company. They were soon joined by William’s brother Richard. After Peter’s early death, the form changed its name to Pilkington Brothers, which would soon become a major St Helens employer and an international name in the manufacture of flat glass.
By 1887, Windle Pilkington had built the world’s first continuous glassmaking furnace. The results were higher quality glass and cheaper windows because of faster, more efficient melting. It transformed the industry at a stroke and made the Pilkington family’s fortune.
Earth into Light
Long ago the town was a cluster of diverse communities: Irish, Welsh, Scottish and English. All pursued very different trades and lived in distinct areas of the town. As the population of the town grew, cramped terraced housing sprang up. No gardens, no fresh air and no privacy. Only the rich were home owners. Most families lived as tenants, taking in lodgers to help pay the rent.
The population of St Helens went from 4,000 to 84,000 in less than a century. Life in St Helens was precarious. As well as the unsanitary conditions, the atmosphere was so noxious that St Helens was branded “the vilest town in Lancashire”. The sky was so polluted with smoke and industrial gases that a black pall shrouded the town. Respiratory illnesses were common and a few chemical workers ever achieved old age. Children often died of disease, as overcrowding nourished typhoid and cholera. Healthcare was rudimentary.
It was the Church that supplied much of the community’s social life. Churches ran everything from walking days to concerts, fund raising bazaars and even local football teams. Fairs came to town twice a year, but more often than not, the townsfolk joined a club – athletics, sketching, bowling, photography, cycling, choirs and football.
In the late 19th century, the town was known to be “a hot bed of rugbyism”. Not surprising as it had two rugby teams. One was called the “Saints” – St Helens Rugby Football Club. Its rival was the “Recs” – St Helens Recreation Rugby Team.
In the beginning, both were Rugby Union Clubs. Then in 1895 the Saints split from the Union to join the Rugby League. Not until 1918 did the Recs follow suit. They relied exclusively on home grown talent, often from Pilkington, hence another nickname, “Pilk’s Recs”. Each Christmas and New Year’s Day the two teams would challenge each other to Derby matches, right up until 1939.
St Helens folk did their bit for King and Country, just like everywhere else in Britain throughout both World Wars. While some women made munitions, their men went off to fight. The 11th Battalion of the South Lancashire Regiment, the St Helens “Pals”, saw immediate service in the Great War (1914-1918) and suffered considerable losses at the battles of the Somme and Passchendale. St Helens men also played a front line role in World War II (1939-1945).
The Hot Glass Studio
Until recently, even art glass was made in factories. An American, Dominik Labino (1920-1987) changed all that. As an artist, he was frustrated by the resources needed to make glass. As a glass scientist, he did something about it. In 1962, he developed a new formula for glass which could be melted in a small furnace at a lower temperature. He also invented a furnace small enough to cater for a single glassblower.
In the same year, the artist Harvey Littleton (b.1922) led two glass workshops at the Toledo Museum of Art. Here it was demonstrated that glass could be melted in a small furnace, suitable for use in a studio with limited space. This stimulated an international renaissance and led to the birth of the Studio Glass Movement. Liberated from the factory, independent artists became free to experiment with molten glass as an artistic medium.
The World of Glass employs its own team of Studio Glass Artists. They provide a complete design and manufacturing service, give demonstrations of the art of glassblowing to the public, and can tailor make and deliver short educational courses on a variety of glassmaking techniques, eg glassblowing, sandcasting and kiln forming.