IN the second part of his feature, local historian Stephen Wainwright looks back on the transformation of St Helens in the 1970s.

IN January 1970 while describing St Helens Corporation's latest proposals to redevelop the town centre, Brian Lace, the Deputy Town Clerk, said: "The plan will give St Helens a mini-Manhattan-type skyline with tall office blocks and brand new buildings.

"Once work gets underway it will mean the almost complete demolition of some town centre areas."

'Space Age and a shopper's paradise'

The much-needed improvements – that local newspapers dubbed "space-age" and a "shoppers paradise" – included new markets, shopping centres, pedestrianised areas and multi-storey car parks.

Demolition work had actually been taking place for some years and in 1968 William Barrow, the then President of the St Helens Chamber of Trade, expressed concern about the loss of independent shops.

When residential areas within streets such as Liverpool Road and Westfield Street were condemned as unfit, many small shops were also bulldozed.

St Helens Star: St Helens Archive ServiceSt Helens Archive Service (Image: St Helens Archive Service)

However, the alternative premises offered to these shopkeepers came with unaffordable rents.

In the case of Westfield Street sixteen shops had been demolished but only one owner had accepted the accommodation on offer.

'In the name of progress, small traders have disappeared'

Mr Barrow said: "It is with considerable regret that we note the slowly growing areas of bleak waste around the town centre where once stood streets of local family traders – well-known names with the service to their customers and the welfare of the town at heart.

"In the name of progress, many small traders have disappeared in the execution of the town centre redevelopment plan and, as yet, only the waste areas around the town greet visitors on their way into a shrunken shopping area.

"Rightly or wrongly, we seem to be developing into a town containing mostly multiple stores and national chain shops."

'Annie loved her little shop'

Annie Eden was one of those that lost her business.

Known to generations of children as "Auntie Annie", Mrs Eden had spent 42 years running her little draper's shop in College Street but in June 1970 was forced to quit. Annie said: "I love this little shop.

"It's given me a good living all these years. And it's sad to see such a splendid place as Gerards Bridge emptying.

"All my old customers and friends have either gone or they're going."

Thirty shops were demolished in Gerards Bridge and four pubs including the Lord Nelson and Griffin also bit the dust. Other historic pubs demolished in St Helens in the name of progress included the Prince of Wales in Ormskirk Street, the Royal Standard in Naylor Street, the Volunteer in Duke Street, Cuerdly Arms in Church Street and Running Horses in Liverpool Road.

The Exchange Vaults in Cooper Street – locally known as "Chessies" after landlord Jack Chesworth – was also scheduled for demolition but was reprieved.

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That might offer a ray of hope to those supporting The Swan's current campaign to survive the present redevelopment scheme. The Lorne Hotel in Parr Street endured the indignity of demolition after 147 years. Its last landlord was John Cunliffe who lamented its loss in 1973: "There is a homeliness about these old places, they are more intimate. It's a shame to see them go. The new pubs have nothing on these; they haven't the same personal contact."

John's wife, Elsie, described the tremendous community spirit and said one customer had told her: "I don't know what I'll do – I've been coming here since I was 18. It will be a part of my life gone."

Loss of community

Perhaps, the biggest price to pay for progress was, indeed, the loss of a sense of community.

That was particularly so within the close-knit Gerards Bridge district.

Writing in April 1970, journalist Valerie Belshaw said: "Gerards Bridge, in a nutshell, is a doomed eyesore.

"But most of the people who cling on among the debris, clearance rubble and broken shells of worn-out cottages speak of the place with a fierce pride. For many folk it will mean leaving behind everything they have ever known or loved. The majority have lived in the same old house all their lives. And most of them are too old to start afresh. They don't mind the damp walls, and the dark narrow rooms. They have grown to love them."

Stephen Wainwright's latest book 'The Hidden History Of St Helens Vol 2' is available from the St Helens Book Stop and the World of Glass and online from eBay and Amazon. Volume 1 of 'Hidden History' is also still available.