FIFTY years ago this week, Cowley Hill Maternity Hospital – where many thousands of St Helens children were born – closed its doors for good.

But its closure after 42 years did not take place without a fight.

The opening of a new, modern 140-bed maternity block at Whiston Hospital was given as the reason why the home in Cowley Hill Road needed to shut

But with long-term plans to reorganise St Helens Hospital, concern was expressed that the town could end up without any maternity unit.

At a meeting held in September 1970, St Helens Council's Health Committee voted to lodge a strong protest with the regional health board over the closure.

'They'd need to catch three buses'

Councillor Arthur Luther remarked that those living on the opposite side of St Helens would need to catch three buses to get to Whiston.

At a further meeting held in October, Alderman Margaret Shard said: "The closure of Cowley Hill Hospital is going to be a great loss to this town. I think it is a scandal that we should allow it to slip through our fingers like this."

St Helens Star:  Notice in the St Helens Reporter of January 30, 1931 Notice in the St Helens Reporter of January 30, 1931 (Image: St Helens Reporter)

Then in his parish magazine in November 1970, the Rev. Gordon Williams, the vicar of St Mark's of North Road, wrote: "If you do not raise a bleat soon, it may be too late." The town's MP, Leslie Spriggs, also raised the matter in Parliament but the closure could not be stopped.

St Helens Maternity Home

The hospital had opened on April 30th 1931 at the rear of the building known as The Hollies – which served as its administrative centre. It was initially known as the St Helens Maternity Home and Child Welfare Hospital and had 15 beds on its ground floor allocated for new mothers.

On the first floor 22 beds were provided for the "building up" of "ailing and debilitated" youngsters under the age of five. That was intended to address the high level of infant mortality in St Helens, which was improving but still stood at 80 deaths for every 1,000 live births. And five of those 1,000 mothers would lose their lives through giving birth.

By the 1970s there were 55 beds in place purely for new mums but only 25 were, on average, being occupied. That said 957 babies were born at Cowley Hill in 1972 but the times were also changing.

In May 1968 Mary Wilson – the wife of then Prime Minister Harold Wilson – had opened a new maternity block at Billinge Hospital called the Roy Hartley Maternity Unit. Three years later it pioneered within the St Helens district six-hour stays for new mothers. That contrasted markedly with the average 14-day maternity stay in 1931.

Whiston's baby unit

And it was announced in 1973 that Whiston Hospital would have its own 6-hour baby unit.

Its new maternity wing had opened in July of that year with its first customer being Mary Denning from Rainhill and what one local paper referred to as her "8lb 7oz bundle of joy".

Elsie Eames of Mardale Avenue in Clinkham Wood was next to give birth at Whiston and both mums were presented with cheques for £15 and silver christening cups.

When the new fast-track unit was implemented at Whiston, mothers were discharged an average of six hours after giving birth and then provided with home support from midwives. However, women expecting their first child – or who'd had previously experienced complications – could still expect a 4 or 5-day stay.

After its closure the Cowley Hill building become the administrative headquarters for the new St Helens and Knowsley Health Authority and was demolished a few years ago.

However, a lasting legacy is the name "Cowley Hill Maternity Hospital" that can be found on the birth certificates of thousands of St Helens people still alive today.

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 (free delivery). Volume 1 of 'Hidden History' is also still available. Hidden History Vol 3 will be available in September.