Widnes is an industrial town in Lancashire, with an urban area population of 58,300 estimated in 2010. The town stands on the north bank of the River Mersey where the estuary narrows to form the Runcorn Gap. Directly to the south across the Mersey is the town of Runcorn in Cheshire. Nearby Lancashire towns on the Mersey bank are Warrington, upstream and 8 miles to the east, and Liverpool downstream to the west.
Before the Industrial Revolution Widnes consisted of a small number of separate settlements on land which was mainly marsh or moorland. In 1847 the first chemical factory was established and the town rapidly became a major centre of the chemical industry. The demand for labour was met by the immigration of large numbers of workers from Ireland, Poland, Lithuania and from surrounding counties. The town continues to be a major manufacturer of chemicals and there has been a degree of diversification of the town's industries.
Widnes station is on the southern route of the Liverpool to Manchester railway line. The main roads passing through the town are the A557 in a north–south direction and the A562 which runs east–west. The Sankey Canal (now disused) terminates in an area of the town known as Spike Island.
The most usual explanation for the origin of the name Widnes is that it comes from the Danish words vid, meaning wide, and noese, meaning nose and that it refers to the promontory projecting into the River Mersey. (In Old English likewise this would be wid næs.) However, the Widnes promontory is not particularly wide and another possible explanation is the first part derives from the Danish ved, meaning a wood and possibly referring to a tree-covered promontory. Earlier spellings of the name have been Vidnes, Wydnes and Wydness.
Widnes is on the north bank of the River Mersey. The whole town is low-lying with some slightly higher areas in Farnworth and Appleton. To the south of the town a spur projecting into the river forms the West Bank area of Widnes; together with a spur projecting northwards from Runcorn these form Runcorn Gap, a narrowing of the River Mersey. Runcorn Gap is crossed by Runcorn Railway Bridge, carrying the Liverpool branch of the West Coast Main Line, and the Silver Jubilee Bridge, carrying the A533 road which then curves in a westerly direction towards Liverpool becoming the A562.
The density of housing is generally high but there are some open green areas, including Victoria Park in Appleton and two golf courses which are geographically near the centre of the urban development. Most of the chemical and other factories are close to the north bank of the River Mersey. A second crossing of the Mersey is planned, to be known as the Mersey Gateway.
When borings were made in the 1870s in advance of the building of chemical works, a deep gorge measuring around 100 feet was found in the bedrock which was filled with glacial deposits. From this it was concluded that before the Ice Age the Mersey had flowed in a more northerly course, and when it was blocked by glacial deposits it had made a new channel through Runcorn Gap.
The town is within the Diocese of Liverpool. The longest established church is St Luke's in Farnworth. There is a larger than average Roman Catholic population in Widnes due to Irish and Polish immigration since the height of the Industrial Age.
- Church of England:
- St Luke’s, in Farnworth
- St Mary's, in West Bank
- St Paul's, in Victoria Square
- St John's, in Greenway Road
- St Ambrose, in Halton View Road
- St Michael's in Ditchfield Road is shared with Hough Green Methodist Church
- Baptist: Widnes Baptist Church
- Methodist: Trinity Methodist Church, in Peelhouse Lane
- Farnworth Methodist Church
- Halebank Methodist Church
- Evangelical: The Foundry
- Roman Catholic:
- St Bede's Church in Appleton
- Our Lady of Perpetual Succour in Mayfield Avenue
- St John Fisher in Moorfield Road
- St Michael's in St Michael's Road
- St Pius X in Sefton Avenue
- St Raphael's in Liverpool Road
There is little evidence of any early occupation of the area beyond a Stone Age flint arrowhead found on Pex Hill. Roman roads by-passed the area but some Roman coins were found where the Ditton railway station stands today.
In the 9th century, the Norse and Danes held the north, and in the tenth century they founded a petty kingdom immediately to the south on the Wirral in Cheshire, but no sure trace of them remains in Widnes, except the name of the town. At the beginning of the 20th century it was believed that some earthworks on Cuerdley Marsh had been constructed by the Norse or Danish warriors but an archaeological investigation in the 1930s found nothing to confirm this.
Following the Norman Conquest, William the Conqueror granted the Earldom of Lancaster to Roger de Poictou who in turn granted the barony of Widnes to Yorfrid. Yorfrid had no sons and his elder daughter married William FitzNigel, the second Baron of Halton. On Yorfrid's death the barony of Widnes passed to that of Halton. The current St Luke's is a Norman]] church, built in Farnworth. Its date of origin is uncertain but it is likely that this was around 1180.
Early modern period
In 1500 the South Chapel was added to the church and in 1507 a grammar school was established in Farnworth both were endowments from Bishop William Smyth. Until the middle of the 19th century the area consisted of the scattered hamlets of Farnworth, Appleton, Ditton, Upton and Woodend. Nearby were the villages of Cronton and Cuerdley.
In the 1750s the Sankey Canal was built. This linked the area of St Helens with the River Mersey at Sankey Bridges near Warrington and was in operation by 1757. It was extended to Fiddler's Ferry in 1762 and then in 1833 a further extension to Woodend was opened. In the same year the St Helens and Runcorn Gap Railway was opened. The railway connected St Helens with an area in Woodend which was to become known as Spike Island. The termini of the canal and railway were adjacent and here Widnes Dock, the world's first railway dock, was established. Despite these transport links and the emergence of the chemical industry at nearby Runcorn and elsewhere in the Mersey Valley, the Industrial Revolution did not arrive at Widnes until 14 years later, with the arrival at Spike Island of John Hutchinson.
Coming of the chemical industry
John Hutchinson built his first factory in 1847 on land between the Sankey Canal and the railway making alkali by the Leblanc process. This was an ideal site for the factory because all the raw materials could be transported there by the waterways and railway, and the finished products could similarly be transported anywhere else in the country or overseas. Further chemical factories were soon built nearby by entrepreneurs including John McClelland, William Gossage, Frederic Muspratt, Holbrook Gaskell and Henry Deacon. The town grew rapidly as housing and social provision was made for the factory workers. Soon the villages of Farnworth, Appleton, Ditton and Upton were subsumed within the developing town of Widnes. Woodend became known as West Bank. The substances produced included soap, borax, soda ash, salt cake and bleaching powder. Other industries developed including iron and copper works. The town became heavily polluted with smoke and the by-products of the chemical processes. In 1888 the town was described as "the dirtiest, ugliest and most depressing town in England" and in 1905 as a "poisonous hell-town".
Their especial ugliness is, however, never more marked than when the spring is making beautiful every nook and corner of England, for the spring never comes hither. It never comes because, neither at Widnes nor St. Helens, is there any place in which it can manifest itself. The foul gases which, belched forth night and day from the many factories, rot the clothes, the teeth, and, in the end, the bodies or the workers, have killed every tree and every blade of grass for miles around.—Robert Sherard, The White Slaves of England, Being True Pictures of Certain Social Conditions in the Kingdom of England in the Year 1897, p. 47
The demand for workers meant that, in addition to people from other areas of the United Kingdom, large numbers of workers came from other countries. Initially these were Irish but from the late 1880s significant numbers arrived from abroad; from Poland and Lithuania fleeing from persecution and poverty in their homelands. In 1890 the chemical companies making alkali by the Leblanc process combined to form the United Alkali Company, later one of the constituent companies of Imperial Chemical Industries. This involved practically all of the chemical industries in Widnes, which was considered to be the principal centre of the new company. However, during the 1890s the chemical business in Widnes went into decline as more efficient methods of making alkali were developed elsewhere.
During the early decades of the 20th century there was a revival, particularly as the United Alkali Company began to manufacture new products. Improvements were being made to the structure of the town, in particular the opening of the Widnes–Runcorn Transporter Bridge 1905 which gave the first direct link over the Mersey for road traffic. In 1909 the town became the first in Britain to have a regular covered-top double-decker bus service.
By 1919 the health of the residents of the town was improving. In the 1920s and 1930s there was further diversification of the chemical industry and the products it manufactured. Slums were being replaced by more and better homes. After the Second World War more slums were cleared and there was ongoing growth and variation in the chemical industry. By the 1950s the town had 45 major chemical factories.
In 1961 the Silver Jubilee Bridge replaced the outdated Transporter Bridge and in recent years many of the old heavy chemical factories have closed to be replaced by more modern factories. Much of the land previously polluted by the old dirty chemical processes has been reclaimed, and there have been improvements in the cleanliness and environment of the town.
Sights of the town
As a town with a relatively short history, Widnes has few historical sites. However, reclamation of chemical factory sites and areas formerly polluted with chemical waste has given opportunities for developments. These include Victoria Promenade at West Bank, alongside the River Mersey, and Spike Island, now cleared of industry, which forms an open recreation area leading to footpaths along the former towpath of the Sankey Canal.
The Catalyst Science Discovery Centre stands adjacent to Spike Island, occupying John Hutchinson's former Tower Building.
Much of the architecture of the town is undistinguished but there are a number of listed buildings, many of them in the more outlying areas but some are scattered throughout the town. The listed churches are the Church of England churches of St Luke's, Farnworth (and its adjacent bridewell), and St Mary's, West Bank, the Roman Catholic churches of St Michael's, St Marie's and St Bede's, and the two chapels in the cemetery. The railway stations of Widnes North and Hough Green are listed, as are the former town hall and the former power house of the transporter bridge.
Widnes continues to be an industrial town and its major industry is still the manufacture of chemicals although there has been some diversification in recent years. In 2006 a new freight park, known as the 3MG Mersey Multimodal Gateway, was opened in the West Bank area of the town. This provides a link for freight arriving by road, air or sea to be transferred to the rail network. It is expected to create up to 5,000 new jobs. In 2010 the first phase of Stobart Park, a "multimodal logistics service for warehousing and distribution", and part of the Stobart Group, was opened. This consists of a 520,000 square feet (48,310 m²) refrigerated warehouse for Tesco.
In October 2011 it was confirmed that a detailed funding agreement for the Mersey Gateway project had been signed off by Government. The project is to build a new six lane toll bridge over the Mersey between the towns of Runcorn and Widnes that will relieve the congested and aging Silver Jubilee Bridge. It is foreseen that the new route will become a major strategic transport route linking the Liverpool city-region and the north west to the rest of the country and will also support sustained growth at Liverpool Ports and Liverpool John Lennon Airport and improve business productivity throughout the Mersey corridor. Due to the complexity of the project, and the potential for bidders to propose different technical, financial and legal solutions, Halton Council will use the procurement regulations' competitive dialogue procedure to procure the project. The procurement process is expected to take two years, with a final contract being awarded towards the end of 2013.
There has been considerable development of shopping areas in the town. The Greenoaks Centre, a mall which was opened in 1995 is adjacent to the long-established Widnes Market which has both a market hall and an open market. Also adjacent is a supermarket.
- Cricket: Widnes Cricket Club
- Football: Widnes FC
- Rugby League: Widnes Vikings. The name "Vikings" is an association with the supposed presence of Vikings in Cuerdley
- Rugby Union: Widnes Rugby Union Football Club (otherwise known as "the wids")
- Tennis: Widnes Tennis Academy
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