ONE hundred and fifty years ago this week the foundation stone for St Helens Town Hall was laid.

The ceremony in what became Corporation Street was considered a red-letter day in the history of the town with the St Helens Newspaper calling it: "An event of rare public interest to the inhabitants of St Helens, and fraught with grave significance as regards the past and future of the town.

"No other official act …has ever been of such deep importance to the community at large as the fixing of a corner-stone of a monument which, so long as it rears its head aloft, will mark the period at which this town sprang into a place amongst the oldest municipalities of the land."

Second municipal building

It was St Helens' second municipal building, with the first built in 1839 in New Market Place, where Church Square Shopping Centre now stands.

The Liverpool Mail described the original hall as being "in the modern Italian style" with a handsome entrance and stone staircase and it also included police rooms and a courtroom/ function room.

St Helens Star:  Ald. John Marsh – the owner of Parr Alkali Works and Mayor of St Helens who laid the foundation stone Ald. John Marsh – the owner of Parr Alkali Works and Mayor of St Helens who laid the foundation stone (Image: Stephen Wainwright)

However, the utilitarian building would last just more than 30 years.

Two fires took place in the early 1870s and the decision was taken to construct a new Town Hall in what was then Cotham Street.

Campaign to cancel plans over the cost

But when in 1872 seven builders submitted bids of between £35,000 and £40,000 to construct the grand new municipal centre, some ratepayers expressed shock at what they saw as needless expense. A campaign began to either cancel the plans or cut its cost, fearing a big rise in rates.

That led to the St Helens Newspaper writing: "The new Town Hall is not to be built without opposition.

"One party is entirely against the erection of the Town Hall, on the ground that they can do without it. Perhaps the town might return the compliment and tell them it can do without them.

"We are as strongly opposed to all unnecessary expenditure as any body of men can be, but we cannot join in the senseless opposition of men who, because they are content to live in a miserable huckrey muckrey way, think that their neighbours are not to have a decent house."

Costs were cut instead and the project went ahead with its foundation stone laid on November 6th 1873.

St Helens Star: The St Helens Newspaper, October 25th 1873The St Helens Newspaper, October 25th 1873 (Image: St Helens Newspaper)

A committee of men had been formed to organise the event and they'd decided that ladies should be "brought into the celebration".

That was not to help in its organisation or take part in the ceremony itself – those were the preserves of the men! But the ladies could watch from a viewing platform and take part in a banquet and an evening ball.

On the day a procession formed outside the old Town Hall buildings comprising the mayor, councillors, clergy and other important folk, such as the High Sheriff of Cheshire.

Special guest was Charles Turner MP, as well as the mayors of Wigan, Southport, and Bootle.

The all-male procession wended its way to the site of the new Town Hall and the Liverpool Mercury described how a "large concourse of spectators" had watched the Mayor of St Helens, James Marsh, lay the foundation stone with a silver trowel.

The Liverpool Weekly Courier estimated the number that had turned up on a wet Thursday morning in the "smoky and thriving" town of St Helens at up to 3,000, adding: "The weather was about as bad as it could be even at St Helens, for a drizzling rain fell during the greater part of the ceremony."

The mayor delivered a speech in which he described how the rapid growth of St Helens meant a large building was required before formally laying the stone to cheers from the crowd. It would take three more years before the grand edifice was finished.

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.