FIFTY years ago this week the official opening of St Mary's Arcade and Market took place.

As St Helens Council is now reportedly considering its demolition as part of its town centre regeneration plans, it's an ideal opportunity to reflect on how the venture was seen back in 1973.

Then St Mary's Arcade and the new Church Square Shopping Centre were being called "space-age" and a "housewives' heaven", with multi-storey car parks serving as key components of the planners' vision for the town centre.

When Alderman Joe Hughes unveiled a plaque to commemorate the complex's official opening, he said: "The shopping facilities are up-to-date, spacious and clean with plenty of space for car parking. This was the main exercise – shopping by car has become part and parcel of our lives."

Although the official opening of St Mary's Market was in late October 1973, its first tenants had moved in 12 months before in spite of the building not being finished. The first batch of retailers comprised stallholders from the old market hall, the open market and the covered market.

St Helens Star:  St Helens Reporter, October 27, 1972 St Helens Reporter, October 27, 1972 (Image: Stephen Wainwright)

By February 1973 the traders were airing complaints about high rents and poor trade.

Thomas and Joyce Bannister said they'd lost £350 in 16 weeks since relocating their greengrocer's stall. "And it looks like we're going to lose a lot more before the building is finished," added Mr Bannister.

"We came here on a reduced rent and were told it would be increased as trade built-up and more facilities were added. But trade has deteriorated and facilities haven't improved. We haven't got the central heating that was promised, the roof leaks in places and there are no public toilets. I'm running here at a loss. We had to sack three of the staff because we couldn't afford to pay them. On the old site, takings on a Saturday amounted to about £150. Now I'm lucky if we get £50."

And herbalist May Sinclair said it was so cold that some of the market traders filled hot water bottles to keep warm, adding: "And the dirt is terrible. I have to clean my stall every day."

But attitudes changed once the market was completed and on November 6th 1973 reporter Valerie Belshaw enthusiastically gave her verdict on the new complex in the St Helens Newspaper: "It cost £550,000, is a maze of pine, black steel and flag stones, and is – I swear – the best thing that’s happened to St Helens since the 1972 Rugby Challenge Cup Final. Shoppers from nearby towns are now deserting the crowded city streets of Liverpool and flocking to St Helens."

Monica Partington from Eccleston was employed on Molyneux's fashion stall in St Mary's Market and told Valerie: "It's a big improvement now we've got used to the idea. I used to love the atmosphere in the old market hall, and when we moved it was ever so strange. Now the old atmosphere is creeping back, and it’s becoming a warm, friendly place again."

Maggie Husband from Sutton worked on Sybil's Pot Stall and said: "It was a tremendous change, leaving the old market hall and coming to all this. Now we love it. Since the shops all opened up just outside it's become a friendlier place. It's getting to have atmosphere again."

And all the shoppers whose opinions were canvassed loved it too. Jean Dennett of Frodsham Drive in Blackbrook and her mother Leah Thomas of Blackpool said they were "thrilled to bits" with the market.

"I left St Helens about 30 years ago," Mrs Thomas explained, "and it's like coming back to a new town. This is the very first time I’ve been around the market and new shops, and I must say I love it. It's warm and very friendly. It should be a great success for St. Helens."

And her daughter added: "I come here every day. It's so convenient to find everything under one roof like this. Everyone I've spoken to agrees that it's just what we've been waiting for!"

Stephen Wainwright's new book 'The Hidden History Of St Helens Volume 3' is available from the St Helens Book Stop and the World of Glass. Also online with free delivery from eBay and Amazon. Price £12. Vols 1 and 2 are also still available