Practically nothing is known of the early history of the town. The Romans formed a camp at Wilderspool called Veratinum in the year AD 79. Excavations on the site of the encampment have revealed the foundations of a great rampart which is supposed to have been destroyed in 607 by Ethelfrith the Saxon King of Northumbria and also the remains of iron and glass makers’ furnaces and potter’s kilns of a very primitive type. In those days the main road to the north and a road from Chester met at Latchford and led to a ford by which the Mersey was crossed at a point opposite the Parish Church and Wash Lane. This ford and a ferry which was subsequently added, served for many centuries as the only means of crossing the Mersey between Liverpool and Manchester, and as the key to Lancashire it was of great importance.
After the departure of the Romans, Warrington fell into the hands of the Saxons who invaded this country in 449 and they named it Werington. Before the Norman Conquest it became the head of a hundred.
Warrington is mentioned in history for the first time in the Domesday Survey of 1086, where it states that Edward the Confessor held Waluntine with three berewicks and one hide of land. St Elphin, the patron saint of the Parish Church, held one carucate of land free of all tax except the gelt which was the amount usually given for the erection of a church. The whole manor with the hundred rendered to the king a farm rent of £15 less 2s, and the population of all the parishes including Warrington, Prescot and Leigh was only 340, .most of whom were dependent on agriculture.
William the Conqueror bestowed the land on one of his followers, Roger of Pictou on the understanding that he should support and defend it. Unable to do this, Roger transferred the manor and hundred on the same terms to Paganus de Villars. First Lord of Warrington, Paganus was the ancestor of the famous Boteler family who figured prominently in the life of the town for four hundred years. To Matthew, the son of Paganus, Henry II ascribed the gift of the Parish Church of St Elphin, then a humble structure of wood, dating probably from the seventh century. According to Beamont the local historian, it continued to be the only place of worship until the middle of the thirteenth century. About that period Sir William Boteler, the seventh Baron, brought to Warrington a body of hermit friars of the order of St Augustine, gave them a small endowment and built them a house on Friars Green. The house was dissolved in 1539 and was sold by the Crown. The buildings subsequently fell into ruin.
The Botelers made a better access to the town by erecting a wooden bridge to take the place of the ferry. In 1322 William le Boteler was enabled by charter to levy tolls towards paving the town and in the time of Henry VIII Leland mentions as a peculiarity of Warrington that it was a paved town and had a better market than Manchester.
The bridge over the Mersey having perished in 1364 – it is said to have been swept away by flood – a new and substantial structure was completed five years later. This had disappeared by 1465 and not until 1495 was its successor erected. This was a strong stone bridge of three arches built by the first Earl of Derby as a compliment to his royal relative Henry VII who was the first to pass over it with Queen Elizabeth of York on his way to London.
The population in 1450 was about 1300 and the houses extended from the Parish Church to a little way along Sankey Street and down Newgate Street (now known as Bridge Street) to the bridge. To the north of the market place was a row of houses known as Pratt Row and their long back gardens reached the Heath on which stood a windmill. Across the Heath to the north was the main road to Winwick and there was another road leading to Bewsey while on the south side of the town stretched the extensive meadows of Howley and Arpley.
Warrington in the 16th century had become known for its manufacture of sail cloths. There was now a population of 2250. The streets of the old town were narrow and crowded, houses were mainly built of wood and every householder was compelled to keep a ladder of at least sixteen staves in case of fire. In 1617 whilst on his journey from Scotland to the South, James I stayed a night with Mr Thomas Ireland at Bewsey and afterwards knighted him.
Some stirring times commenced with the Civil War and many a stern fight took place in and about the town. In September 1642 the Earl of Derby took an army of 4000 men through Warrington for his unsuccessful attack on Manchester and in the following November he garrisoned the town in order to secure the passage of the Mersey. Mud walls and outworks were thrown up and against this stronghold Sir William Brereton’s forces and a large detachment from Manchester laid siege at the beginning of April 1643. After three days fighting the Earl began to set the middle of the town on fire and threatened to burn the whole place down rather than it should be taken. To prevent this the Parliamentary forces withdrew.
Colonel Edward Norris, the Governor of Warrington, was left in command of the Royalists who numbered about 1600 and Sir William returned to the attack on May 22nd. The Royalists immediately fled to the Parish Church and steeple and boldly and resolutely defended themselves. The Manchesters, however, obliged the defenders to surrender after a siege of six days. On May 28th Sir George Booth, a Parliamentary Commander and Lord of the Manor, entered the town and was received by the people with great joy, the victors treating the inhabitants with great leniency.
In 1647 Colonel John Booth became Governor and he gave the town a bell which rang the nightly curfew. In May the following year he was charged with keeping company with delinquents and cavaliers and was seized by a party of Cromwell’s Horse which abruptly ended his Governorship. In 1648 Oliver Cromwell pursued the remnant of the Duke of Wellington’s army to Warrington where a large number of the enemy surrendered upon quarter for life. Cromwell remained in Warrington for three nights, sleeping in a low thatched house which stood upon the site of the General Wolfe. Here he wrote two historic letters describing the battle. In 1651 King Charles II passed through Warrington and advanced towards Worcester.
Despite the disturbed times, the prosperity of Warrington was not interfered with, for in 1673 it was described as a very fine and large town which had a considerable market on Wednesdays for linen, cloth, corn, cattle, provisions and fish, being much resorted to by Welshmen and noted for its lampreys. In 1730 Warrington looked a large, populous old built town but rich and full of good country tradesmen. A weekly market for linen, a sort of tablecloth called huck-a-back. It was reported that in the river were caught sturgeons, green-backs, mullets, seals, sand-eels, lobsters, oysters, shrimps, prawns and the best and largest cockles in England with other shell fish and mussels in such abundance that they used to manure the land with them. Judge Curwen wrote of Warrington in 1777: “Streets narrow, dirty and ill-paved; like many other towns with a gutter running through the middle, rendering it inconvenient passing the streets”
Warrington had the honour of running the first stage coach in England. The Warrington Coach is spoken of by Matthew Henry in 1704. In 1757 it was announced that the Flying Stage Coach would set out every Monday and Thursday morning from the Bull Inn in Wood Street London and the Red Lion in Warrington during the summer season and arrive at these inns every Wednesday and Saturday evening. Two guineas was the fare and each passenger was allowed 14lbs of baggage. On an average between sixty and seventy stage coaches passed through the town daily so that the streets would be kept in a continual state of animation. In the first half of the eighteenth century horse races were held here, Newton being afterwards chosen as a more suitable place.
In the Rebellion of 1745, the middle arch of Warrington Bridge was destroyed by the Liverpool Blues to prevent the Young Pretender crossing the Mersey. It was rebuilt with a watch house and dungeon in the middle at the expense of Parliament and served till 1812 when a temporary wooden bridge resting on stone piers was substituted. This gave place in 1837 to the Victoria granite bridge.
Printing was early adopted in Warrington. Eyre’s Press started in 1731 and received great support from the Academy. The Warrington Advertiser was first published in 1757 but did not last long. The Warrington Guardian was founded in 1853 by Dr Mackie, its original price being 5d a copy. It was first printed in the old Academy and afterwards in the Old Music Hall. The offices in Sankey Street were opened in 1880. The other newspapers were The Examiner founded in 1869 and the Observer founded in 1885. A circulating library began in Warrington in 1760.
The year 1775 witnessed the cutting of the Sankey Canal, the first of its kind in the country, the idea being to bring coal nearer to the consumer. Shortly afterwards the Duke of Bridgewater obtained an Act for making his celebrated canal.
John Wesley on his journeys about the country several times halted to preach at Warrington and, although there is no local record of his experiences, it seems certain that he spoke in the Corn Market which was a wide space surrounded by numerous inns. He preached his first sermon from the steps of a lamp in front of the Barley Mow which was the favourite meeting place of the local gossips.
In 1769 Warrington had a considerable manufacture of sail cloth and one half of the sail cloth used in the Royal Navy during the American War of Independence was made in Warrington. There was a large house for smelting copper, another for making flint glass and a third for bottle glass, a sugar house, a brewery of beer for exportation and a manufacture of huck-a-backs. In 1787 cotton manufacturing was commenced at Latchford and ultimately supplanted linen as one of the staple trades. The first steam engine ever erected to work a cotton manufactury was set up in Warrington by Messrs. Pell.
With the dawn of the nineteenth century began an era of great progress and prosperity, and the quiet old-world appearance of the town rapidly changed to that of a busy manufacturing place. A lady traveller describes Warrington in 1808 as a “large, dirty, bustling, narrow-streeted town with a number of canals on all sides” The population was then estimated at about 13,000. Sail cloth making had declined and the principal manufactures were cotton yarn, velveteens, calicoes and muslins. There was also considerable glass, pin, file and tool making and Warrington had long been celebrated for “fine ale from malt. Wire drawing soon commenced along with tanning and the manufacture of iron and soap.
In 1821 the town was first lighted by gas by a private company. The water was drawn from public pumps and wells. In 1830 the Liverpool and Manchester line of the London and North Western Railway – the first passenger line in England – was opened. The Warrington station was in Dallam Lane. The Grand Junction Line from Crewe to Warrington and the North was opened in 1837 and the Warrington and Chester line began working in 1850.
In the month of March 1830, the inhabitants of the town received a Manifesto addressed to them on the subject of abstinence from intoxicants. This marked the beginning of the temperance movement. Its author was George Harrison Birkett of Dublin, a Quaker merchant who devoted himself to the advocacy of total abstinence. The first meeting was held in Stockton Heath in the old chapel of the Independent Methodists and the first Total Abstinence Society was formed there on April 4th 1830. The movement influenced Manchester during the following month and rapidly spread through England.
In 1832 when Warrington had a population of about 20,000, the town was granted the privilege under the Reform Act of returning a representative to Parliament and the first member was Mr E G Hornby son of the then rector of Winwick. Warrington was incorporated in 1847, Mr William Beamont being elected the first mayor. The town was practically at a standstill for about thirty years, for between 1830 and 1861 the population only increased by some four thousand. Then a rapid development set in and in 1871 there were no fewer than 29,897 inhabitants. Ten years later they numbered 41,452 and in 1901 the census gave 64,242. On October 1st 1900 Warrington was raised to the dignity of a county borough.
Source: Warrington Guardian Directory and History of Warrington and Environs (1908)