Report from our Talks Programme
By Peter Keen
Chris Coffey Returns
The last members' evening of 2006 saw a welcome and eagerly anticipated return visit by Chris Coffey who brought along some more samples from his excellent archive film collection. Having previously concentrated upon the St. Helens area, this time he took us further afield, looking at locations in the wider region.
His first clips showed shots of the Leeds Liverpool Canal at Wigan, including views of the famous "pier", in fact a coal tippler on the canal bank. Although George Formby Senior had publicised the pier at every opportunity in the music halls, George Orwell apparently went home after a visit a disappointed man, having failed to find it. The pier area was show in its various forms from work place to tourist attraction. (Left, derelict before restoration). Chris also made mention of the Wigan History Shop, a mixture of museum and historical archive, again displaying film of its progress through time.
The next target was Widnes. Originally a small community relying upon fishing, weaving and farming for a living it became increasingly important as a crossing over the Mersey via the primitive early ferries before the bridges of later years. Snig Pie House gave way to the Mersey Hotel and the chemical industries of St. Helens migrated downstream to relocate on the banks of the Sankey Canal, completely changing the character of Widnes. Hutchinson, Gossage and Pilkington were big names with large work forces and even larger pollution issues mixed in with haphazard poor-quality housing thrown up for the workers. The Widnes of the 1800s was not a pleasant environment as shown by some of Chris's clips. The Mersey formed an effective barrier between Lancashire and Cheshire and it was not until the railway viaduct was built in the late 1800s, followed by the transporter road bridge some time later, that a reasonable cross-river traffic developed. We were shown some very rare colour footage of the transporter bridge in action. The Jubilee Bridge of the mid 1960s was to be the answer to increasing road congestion and for a short time the three bridges existed side by side (right) until the transporter was dismantled.
There then followed a short film of a cab ride across the Sankey Viaduct, from Collins Green and Newton to Earlestown. Chris mentioned the longest cab ride film available, from London, Euston to Liverpool in real time. An enthusiast's special.
Next stop for our members was Burtonwood Air Base. An RAF field taken over by the Americans in WW2 it was a hive of activity until 1945, when things quietened down for a while. The films shown featured scenes in the base's dance hall and Hospital, along with some of the great stars such as Bob Hope and Glen Miller who had visited to entertain the service men and women. Amazing footage showed how the Americans began destroying aircraft and equipment after VE day. Aircraft were sliced into sections with wire hawsers, engines removed and smashed, and all this whilst the war in the Pacific was still in progress. The Berlin air lift in 1948 required a base for the maintenance of the aircraft involved and Burtonwood served in this role. The so-called Cold War involved air-borne NATO forces, so the base's life was further prolonged until its eventual final closure in 1993.
There next came another cab ride, this time along the stretch of the Liverpool Manchester Railway which hosted the Rainhill Trials. Chris was of the opinion that, apart from tree growth the scene would have been little different from that in Stephenson's day. It showed the Whiston Incline, the Rainhill Levels and the Sutton Incline along with the Rainhill skew bridge and the site of the access for the Bourne Tramway which tapped into local coal supplies. Very few photographs survive of trains on the Runcorn Gap Railway crossing the intersection bridge over the L.& M.Ry. but Chris came up with one and a steam train at that.
The next topic viewed was Fidlers Ferry Inn. On a site which has been occupied since the 11th Century, the inn has seen the passage of countless ferry passengers. Oliver Cromwell is reputed to have stayed there before his attack on Halton Castle during the Civil War (1648) whilst the inn was recorded as having a liquor licence in 1772. Prone to flooding, the heights of the floodwaters over the years are clearly marked on the side of the bar.
There followed a quick visit to the St. Helens Transport Museum to mark its opening after 12 years of patience and hard work by its volunteers. A number of vehicles were shown and Chris urged the membership to go along and see the displays.
Warrington came next, showing its gradual development outwards from the Mersey at Bank Quay. The town was involved in the glass, soap, chemical and copper industries as well as the more well known beer brewing, most located on riverside sites. The coming of the Sankey Canal allowed the development of Sankey Bridges. In 1771 the canal carried 90,000 tons of coal, 50% of which was destined for Warrington. A plan to build a canal eastwards to link up with the Mersey at Bank Quay was proposed but was never implemented. Being the lowest bridging point over the Mersey, Warrington occupied an excellent position on the main north to south west coast route between London and Scotland. It once saw around 60 coaches a day leaving, arriving or passing through to a wide range of destinations. The town has retained much of its medieval street pattern and a few of its older buildings, one of the most notable being the Barley Mow, a timber and plaster building in the market square. Others include the Old Lion Coaching Inn, the Parish Church, the Grammar School and the Home of the Patten Family, now the Town Hall. Only as recently as 1847 did the town become a Corporate Borough.
Bewsey Old Hall was the venue for our next clip. Members were given a run down on the personal feuds which developed in the 1400s between its owners and Lord Derby. The latter brought a small force of men to the Hall where they killed Sir John and his black servant. His wife Isabella was so traumatised by witnessing the murders that she became speechless for five years. She remarried in 1450 but when she asked her new husband to punish the assassins of her first husband he refused and dissolved the marriage after only 6 hours. She died shortly afterwards at the age of 30. Rangers and others who work within the Hall will readily admit to unease when entering certain parts of the building so perhaps she is still around, seeking justice.
Chris rounded off his presentation by talking about the opportunity for SCARS to contribute towards the lead-in to 2008 Liverpol Capital of Culture project by joining the Transport Museum, the Rainhill Trust and the other St. Helens based Heritage Groups to produce an event to publicise the groups and the town.
As is always the case with Chris, the questions went on long after the official presentation had finished which has been found to be a good indicator of how much the audience had enjoyed it.
The Society is grateful to Chris for his time and efforts. It was good to know that "There was plenty more where that came from" and we look forwards to further visits.
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