ALREADY this summer St Helens has been visited by several bad storms.

But none have compared with the ferocious thunderstorm that struck the town 120 years ago this week.

And the 1903 deluge was probably the first occasion when the electrical forces of nature and its man-made equivalent violently clashed.

Electricity in St Helens was still in its infancy at the start of the 20th century.

The town's first power station had only opened in Warrington Road in 1896 and during its inaugural year only 63 customers were connected.

However, St Helens Town Hall had installed electric light in 1892 and when struck by lightning on July 17 1903, the wiring fused in its Town Clerk's office with a loud bang.

Commotion was also caused in the adjacent police station when the lights fused there, as well as in the Town Hall's committee room where a meeting was in progress.

The St Helens Newspaper described the panic that it created: "The electric wires fused suddenly, and the electric globes in different parts of the room crashed down with loud reports. The sitting was hastily suspended; members jumped from their seats and made for the doors."

St Helens Star: Flooding in Warrington New Road in Peasley Cross in 1978 Flooding in Warrington New Road in Peasley Cross in 1978 (Image: Image: St Helens Archive Service)

The owner of Collins newsagents in Westfield Street had a somewhat startling experience. The shop was one of just a few retailers in St Helens with electric light and after a flash of lightning occurred, flames inside the shop were seen.

Collins rushed into his cellar and found that the electric cables had ignited his gas supply – but his swift action in turning off the gas prevented the fire from becoming serious.

The thunderstorm did not last long but the bolts of lightning caused considerable damage. The belfry of St. Thomas's Church Cemetery, off Knowsley Road, was hurled to the ground along with its bell. A fire was caused at Cannington Shaw's bottle works and an electric overhead wire in Robins Lane in Sutton was brought down.

Numerous houses in various parts of the town were struck by the lightning, with Pocket Nook badly affected. One new house in Pocket Nook Street lost its chimney pot and a large hole measuring two yards square was cut through its slates and bedroom ceiling and all its ground floor windows were smashed.

And the torrential rain that fell caused considerable flooding as streets were turned into rivers. In Liverpool Road the cellars of pubs were badly flooded, which led to barrels of beer floating on the water.

And a lake was formed under the railway bridge in Warrington New Road measuring eighty feet in length and five feet in depth. The low-lying nature of Peasley Cross Lane – part of which was previously known as Warrington New Road – coupled with mining subsidence has led to it regularly being badly affected by heavy rain.

Over the years there have many dramatic stories of flooding in Peasley Cross. On May 29th 1920 the lane was again flooded to a depth of five feet, with the road, as one newspaper put it, "turned into a swirling river for a distance of more than a quarter of a mile ….vivid lightning lit up the town and the thunder rolled again and again in a terrifying fashion, shaking the houses and frightening the people."

St Helens Star:  St Helens Newspaper, July 24, 1903 St Helens Newspaper, July 24, 1903 (Image: Stephen Wainwright)

In 1962 St Helens Council announced an expensive scheme that would "eliminate flooding in the low lying areas of Peasley Cross by the railway bridge." However, the Borough Engineer, Mortimer Ward, also cautioned that the flooding at that place was a "complex matter". And so it has proven to be and as recently as December 2021 some vehicles got stuck in floodwater under the bridge with their inhabitants having to be rescued.

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