The Grand Tour: a journey around the Borough (Part 5)

This month, our Grand Tour of Knowsley’s ancient townships takes us from Whiston into Prescot, a market town full of character which reflects its ancient origins. 

The town stands in a commanding position on a high hill overlooking the surrounding area. In 1760, the author Samuel Derrick, writing from Liverpool, said: ‘About eight miles off is a very pleasant market town called Prescot…

It stands finely upon an eminence having an extensive command.’ He went on to praise the construction of the houses in the town and to recommend the ‘…two inns in which attendance and accommodation are cheap and excellent’.

It is thought that the town originally grew up around a religious settlement and there we find the roots of the place name. Old English in origin, an early recorded form of the name was ‘Prestecota’ (1148) or priests’ cottage: the list of rectors and vicars dates back to 1179.  Today’s church, the Parish Church of St. Mary, is built in red sandstone and dates mainly from 1610, although it’s the fourth building to occupy the site since the 11th century.

Its historical and architectural significance has been recognised by Historic England: the church has been awarded Grade I status on the National Heritage List for England. Do you know how many buildings in Knowsley have attained this award?1

Prescot had some importance in the region: when Liverpool, as a small but strategically significant fishing port, received its charter from King John in 1207, it was said to be referred to as ‘Liverpool, near Prescot’ and the town was included in Gough’s road map of Great Britain in 1350.

We pick up the history of Prescot in 1333. At this time, an unofficial Sunday market was held in the town, attracting people from around the region congregated for the Sunday church services. Rector and lord of the manor, William d’Dacre was granted a charter to hold both a weekly market in the town and an annual fair. By the 1700s, the market was held on a Tuesday and the fairs took place in June and November. 

John of Gaunt acquired the Manor and Rectory in 1391, inherited eight years later by his son, Henry IV. Henry VI subsequently gifted the Manor and Rectory to his newly endowed King’s College of Our Lady and Saint Nicholas, Cambridge. The College still exists – do you know what it is known as?2

The College leased land copyhold to local gentry, some of whom sub-leased to under-tenants. The Stanley family – the Earls of Derby from 1485 - acted as Stewards. The College also appointed Prescot’s vicar to look after the Church and parish, which in medieval times covered an area of 58 square miles. 

Prescot’s Royal Charter was issued on 1st September 1447. It afforded the people of Prescot certain benefits: they had the right to adopt the College’s crest and were given exemption from jury service outside the town.

They were freed from paying certain tolls, including the Ingate and Outgate Dues that were paid on entering and leaving Liverpool on market days. Prescot also had some independence from the Sherriff’s Hundred Court, with its own Court Leet, which met twice a year to deal with land transfers, breaches of town regulations and petty offences. 

From 1755 onwards, the Court Leet met at the Town Hall in Market Place, also known as the Old Court House; however, its influence on local government diminished with the establishment of Prescot Local Board in 1867, although it continued in ceremonial form until 1936. Can you recall the decade in which The Old Court House was demolished?3

A remnant of the building can still be found in Prescot Museum: the Alphabet Stone is a sandstone block, believed to have been the lintel above the door of the lock-up in the Old Court House. Inscribed in the stone are the letters of the alphabet, thought to have been used as a test of literacy. 

Prescot’s heritage as a market town is only matched by its history as a centre for craft and industry. Coal mining and potteries were the first established industries in Prescot, subsidising the agricultural economy.

As far back as the 14th century, a number of potteries were established in the town. The potters practiced their craft using a mixture of the local white and red clays. The map of 1592 records seven kilns in Prescot and by the 1700s, Eccleston Street was the centre of the local pottery industry. 

Coal mining was first carried out commercially on the Prescot Hall estate. The lease holder paid King’s College for the right to mine there. The Liverpool  to Prescot road was turnpiked in 1726, enabling more efficient transportation of coal to Liverpool for sale.

However, the opening of the Sankey Canal in 1757 – with cheaper coal from the St Helens coal fields and beyond – signalled a reduction in production from the Prescot mines.

Prescot became famed for its clock, watch and toolmaking industry, believed to have been brought to Prescot by a Huguenot refugee named Woolrich in 1595. The earliest Prescotian watchmaker recorded was a Richard Berry, a clockmaker, who worked during the Elizabethan period.

Until the late Victorian period, the industry worked on the domestic system, with specialised craftsmen working in workshops attached to their houses. Manufacture of timepieces was commercialised when the Lancashire Watch Factory opened  in 1890.

The factory was created in the face of competition from Swiss and American makers: almost all of the local watch movement makers and three firms from outside the township came together to work and produce cheap watches for the mass market, all under one roof.

Investment of £20,762 was reportedly put into the company to provide for machinery, stock and tools, and it was hoped that the factory would turn out 500 timepieces a day. As reported by the Prescot Reporter on 25th May 1889, the foundation stone was laid by Lady Margaret Cecil at the Warrington Road site on Monday 20th May 1889 to great pomp, with local businesses and residents decorating the streets with banners, flags and bunting to celebrate this new development.

The report highlights a banner proclaiming ‘Success to our local industry’ which was suspended between the premises of Mr. E.V. Morton and Mr. Mather. Unfortunately, the factory found it difficult to compete and it closed in the early part of the 20th century – can you say what year?4

1890 saw the establishment of another industry in Prescot – that of cable making. The British Insulated Wire Company was founded by James and Jacob Atherton. The company showcased its products, undertaking the installation of electric street lighting in Prescot and providing electric lighting for Knowsley Hall.

In 1902, British Insulated & Helsby Cables Ltd took over operations, changing the company name to the British Insulated Cables Ltd. (BIC) in 1925. A merger with Callenders Cable and Construction Co in 1945 formed British Insulated Callenders Cables (BICC), the major employer and part of the fabric of the township, until the mid-1980s when the factory closed.

Today, Prescot is undergoing something of a transformation as the town celebrates its Elizabethan and Shakespearean connections, with growth in the areas of leisure and culture.    

In our next article, we’ll continue our whistle-stop journey around Knowsley. In the meantime, you can find out more about our heritage by visiting our website email or call 0151 443 4291/4365. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook and find Knowsley Archives on Flickr, WordPress and Soundcloud

Answers to the questions:

1. 1: St Mary’s is the only Grade I listed building in Knowsley

2. King’s College, Cambridge

3. 1960s

4. 1910

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