It's the 50th birthday of your St Helens Star today. In a special feature, local historian and author Stephen Wainwright looks back on the newspaper's early editions.

The St Helens Archive Service in the Gamble Building has safeguarded the first editions of the Star for posterity and they can be read by appointment. My first surprise when studying the Star's debut publication from November 8 1973 was its cumbersome size.

As a broadsheet newspaper with near two-foot long pages, it must have proved a bit of a challenge to those delivering it to what was initially 35,000 homes.

St Helens Star: Page 3 of the Star's first editionPage 3 of the Star's first edition

'No news'

We are so used to our newspapers and magazines being in colour that it was also surprising to see the first Star in black and white. That said there was what was termed "spot colour" – which for the first edition meant splashes of red, often to highlight adverts.

But the biggest surprise of all was that the new newspaper contained no news. Now, there's a contradiction in terms! A newspaper without any news and that is not my personal opinion – that was the Star's own claim with its front-page headline of "No News Is Good News – For You!"

St Helens Star: Cover of the Star from November 22, 1978

This was explained to readers as a deliberate policy. However, my understanding is that the Star needed to launch to capture the pre-Christmas advertising market but did not yet have sufficient reporting staff in place. And so the decision was taken to focus entirely on features and reader contributions for the first few weeks of the paper's life.

The Star's opening paragraph explained their thinking: "Good news for you, inasmuch as you now have a further local paper; a paper which will interest you with specialised articles on Fashion, Motoring, Gardening, Letters, etc. Good news because it will contain weekly competitions, all with prizes. No News, at least no local news however, will be published initially as this is not the aim of the publication.

St Helens Star:

Items of controversial interest will appear – but only if these are submitted by YOU. The aim of the St. Helens Star is therefore to give you light local reading at no cost and a chance to win small but, we hope, welcome cash prizes."

'Community involvement'

And so right from the start the St Helens community were invited to be part of the new project – and incentives to get involved were on offer. Each letter published won the writer 50p (about £7 in today's money), with the letter of the week receiving £1. A Star Bargains Guide, Jobs Guide, Motors Guide and Property Guide were also promised.

The front cover of the first Star contained five adverts, of which three were from car retailers. These were GBE – the Vauxhall and Bedford dealers of Knowsley Road – and Middlehursts from Jackson Street, who were then agents for Renault. And the parts department of Hattons was selling Duckhams motor oil for £1 a gallon from their premises in Boundary Road.

Saints also had an advertisement promoting a forthcoming game against the touring Aussies, as well as two acts appearing at their social club. One was Jim Bowen who was eight years away from hosting the ITV game show Bullseye but was making his name on another popular television programme called The Comedians. And the Ivy League would, no doubt, have been performing their big hit "Tossing and Turning" when they took to the stage in Knowsley Road.


The Star also carried a large ad for Oxleys department store in Claughton Street on its cover page promoting men's suits in pure wool for £25, nylon carpets for £2.79 per sq. yard and men's "chunky knit sweaters" for £3.50.

The inside of the 8-page Star was dominated by adverts but there was an article on herbs, a horoscope called "Follow Your Lucky Stars", a "Kids Korner" and the paper's first sports report.

First Saints report

That was Saints 15 - 7 win over Rochdale Hornets in the second round of the BBC2 Floodlit Trophy. Although Frank Wilson, Billy Benyon and Roy Mathias were the try scorers, the brief unaccredited piece praised the performance of Saints' skipper Kel Coslett for playing "the game of his testimonial year".

We are so used these days to all sorts of papers and advertising material being pushed through our letterboxes that it's hard for some of us older ones to remember a time when this was rare.

But a free newspaper landing on doormats was unusual in 1973 and with most so-called "freesheets" not starting in the UK until the 1980s, the Star was very much a pioneer in that respect.

It didn’t take long for letters of appreciation to begin pouring into their Bickerstaffe Street office. When the Star's second edition was published on November 18, they claimed that the response from the St Helens public had been overwhelming, writing on its front page: "Probably the only people in St Helens who do not find the “Star“ a welcome addition are the Staff of St Helens Post Office, Sorting Office and the local Bickerstaffe Street postman in particular. Having had a fairly light load for most of the year, suddenly the Bickerstaffe Street mailbags exploded into Christmas size proportions this week. Our mail at 50 Bickerstaffe Street was so vast on Monday that we had difficulty opening the front door.

And all because of your response to our offers, competitions and fresh approach to weekly reading matter."

The first photograph that was published in the Star was a rather serious looking one of two of the paper's directors, studying its first edition, along with a director of the firm commissioned to print the paper.

The second edition also saw the introduction of a classified ads section called "Star Bargains", and for the first few weeks all insertions were free.

I counted 50 adverts with quite a few gas fires on sale from £10, with most stating that they had been "converted", meaning they worked on the new North Sea gas supply. The most unusual ad was from someone in Sutton Heath flogging a 12-bore shotgun ("good condition, offers") and there was also a 2-year-old Doberman from Rodney Street in St Helens up for sale for £12. The ad said "dog or bitch". Were they not sure?

A portable TV set that Mrs McKenna from Ramford Street was selling for £4 looked an absolute bargain. But the words "BBC 1 and ITV" meant the receiver could only pick up the old black and white VHF TV signals and so no BBC2. A 19-inch Philips TV set that was three years old and in good condition that Mrs Critchey from Brynn Street was selling for £15 may well have proved a better bet.

There were also several prams on offer from as little as £8 and a woman from Moss Bank was selling for £10 a "bride's white gown, wreath and veil, bridesmaid's dress, purple, never been worn", which sounds like there could have been a sad story attached.

Less than half of the ads contained telephone numbers, as many people were still not connected to the phone network and there was a lengthy waiting list to become a subscriber.

In week 3 on November 22, the Star described a "minor mountain of encouraging mail"

that had been waiting for them upon entering their office on the previous Monday – and they published a photograph to prove it.

St Helens Star: The Star's first Saints reportThe Star's first Saints report (Image: St Helens Star)

And they also had a testimonial from the manager of Eric Slinn's wallpaper and paint shop on its front page. Since placing an advert in the new paper, Slinn's Ormskirk Street store claimed to have had customers queuing up, with its manager, a Mr Bannister, declaring: "We, at Slinn's, have never had so much response from an advertisement."

"Having Your Say…" was the name of the Star's letters column which made its debut in week 3. The first letter to be published came from Joan Bullough of Marshalls Cross Road who had been in contact with Bamber Gascoigne.

Mrs Bullough wanted to know if the long-running host of TV’s University Challenge was any relation to the Bamber Gascoigne who'd owned some land behind St Helens Parish Church before selling it in 1816 for use as a cemetery. The TV host had written back that his namesake had, indeed, been his ancestor.

There were several poems published about Saints' players, such as this one written by Catherine Murden: "Kel Coslett, king of the team, ‘Come on faster, Kel,’ all the fans scream.

Frank Wilson runs and runs till he gets some cake and buns.

Mickey Murphy, the big hard prop.

If he's tackled he'd never flop.

Saints are the best team going, That's why I’ve written this poem."

Saints' match reports were now a fixture in the Star – but there was still no hard news.

'Whalley is back'

And the novelty of a free paper pushed through the letterbox containing features and a nod to sport might soon wear off without any topical material to engage the reader. But in week 4 the Star had an ace up its sleeve. "Whalley Is Back!" screamed the headline on its front page.

Alan Whalley had built up quite a following in the St Helens Reporter for his Whalley's World column that blended recollections of the past with Alan's often witty and extremely well-written observations of life.

Whalley's World had ended suddenly without explanation in July 1973. But he was back writing for the new Star which wrote: "Whalley's World was undoubtedly one of the most popular regular newspaper features ever to be published in St. Helens, and when it was discontinued some months ago it left a wide gap in your local reading. The Star decided to fill that gap, and here, large as life, writing for you again is Alan Whalley."

Alan's main item in his debut on page 3 featured Parr's "Ukelele Kid". That was 8-yearold George Formby "fanatic", William Atherton, who was set to make his third TV appearance at Christmas.

The Star now claimed a circulation of 40,000 and on week 7 finally published its first real news story. The front-page report was illustrated by a dramatic picture of angry Suttoners marching on St Helens Town Hall. The hundred or so residents were making their feelings known prior to attending a public inquiry into Leathers Chemicals.

Arrival of hard news

From its factory in Lancots Lane in Sutton, the Californian-owned firm produced sulphuric acid – and also generated countless complaints.

This is how the Star on December 20th described the campaigners' feelings: "For three years Sutton residents have lived in fear of fall-out and leakages from the plant. And their long battle to close the American owned company reached boiling point on Tuesday. More than a hundred angry householders answered an appeal to march in protest from the factory to the inquiry. Mums and dads, with children perched on their shoulders, walked four miles through the town carrying placards: “Stop this Killer”, “Protect our Kids”, "We want to live”, “Sutton demands clean air”."

St Helens Star:

St Helens Star: A hundred Sutton protestors marching on St	Helens Town Hall

A number of leaks from the plant had led to St Helens Council issuing enforcement notices against Leathers, accusing them of breaching planning conditions by emitting fumes. The company had appealed and so a public inquiry was being held in the Town Hall. In the event Leathers won their appeal and it wasn't until 2002 – after becoming first Hays Chemicals and briefly Albion Chemicals – that the firm closed.

The December 20th edition also contained many Christmas adverts and two pictures of Christmas parties. One had been given for the kids of Northgate employees with the photo's caption being: "This party with a difference was for the Northgate Group employees' children. The children, aged between 9 and 11, were entertained on Friday evening December 7, to a Disco and Buffet. At the end of the evening all the children were given presents."

Originally called J. & P. Jacobs, the clothing factory on the Parr Industrial Estate employed around 800 sewing machinists. And the second party picture bore this caption: "Happy faces at the Multiple Sclerosis Society Christmas Party at their centre in College Street. The party was organised by Mrs M. Lawrenson and the committee. Party games and entertainment were arranged by Miss Margery Owen."

There was no newspaper published during Christmas week with Star staff, no doubt, enjoying a well-earned break. They had the satisfaction of knowing that the foundations of the new paper had been well and truly sunk – although, not of course, able to appreciate that their paper would still be going strong fifty years later.

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