Widnes Town Hall
The first description of Widnes is of land 'half marsh and half moor' on the northern banks of the Mersey.
Apart from some Stone Age and Roman artefacts, there is little evidence of settlement in the Widnes area before the ninth century when the Vikings invaded. They sailed up the River Mersey, killed the Anglo Saxon population and formed a settlement named Vidnes (meaning wide nose or tree-covered promontory) on the river's headland. At this time, the Mersey marked the boundary between the Anglo Saxon kingdom of Mercia and the Viking Danelaw.
In the eleventh century the Earldom of Lancaster was granted to Roger de Poictou who gave the barony of Widnes to Yorfrid. His daughter married the the baron of Halton and, on the death of Yorfrid, the title was incorporated into the barony of Halton. The Widnes population was distributed between the hamlets of Farnworth, Ditton, Appleton, Upton, Woodend, Cronton and Cuerdley and a church was built at Farnworth in around 1180 to serve the growing population. From this time until the mid eighteenth century, the ferry across the Runcorn Gap remained an important crossing point for travellers and there were a number of cottage industries in the area, including wire making for watchmakers.
The process of industrialiation began in Widnes as a result of new transport links. The Sankey Canal was cut in the 1750s to provide a tranport route between the St Helens coalfields and the River Mersey. Extensions to this canal were then made to Fiddler's Ferry in the 1760s and Woodend in 1833. The St Helens Railway Company also constructed the St Helens to Runcorn Gap railway which opened in 1833. In order to link these two forms of transport, the first rail-canal-dock site was established on Spike Island. This meant that Cheshire salt could be transported to the glass makers of St Helens and coal from St Helens to Northwich.
The founder of the chemical industry in Widnes was John Hutchinson who built a factory (the Leblanc Soda works) adjacent to the Sankey Canal and the railway in 1847. Other entrepreneurs, such as William Gossage, Frederic Muspratt, Henry Deacon and John McLelland, were attracted to the area by the availability of coal, water and salt for the chemical industry. As a result, Widnes grew rapidly as houses had to be built for the influx of factory workers and the surrounding hamlets were gradually incorporated into the town. The main products of the industry were soap, soda ash, borax, salt cake and bleaching powder. In 1890 the companies manufacturing alkali through the Leblanc process amalgamated to form the United Alkali Company, but a decline set in. The nature of the industry meant that Widnes soon gained a reputation as one of the worst towns in the country for pollution and, following a Parliamentary inquiry, the Alkali Act of 1862 ushered in stricter regulations for chemical factories. However, even as late as 1905 it was still described as a 'poisonous hell-town'.
The building of the Widnes-Runcorn Transporter Bridge in 1905 revived the town's declining fortunes, along with the development of new chemical products, and this meant the survival of 45 large chemical factories in Widnes by the 1950s. Concerted efforts were made to improve housing in the twentieth century, while newer factories and land reclamation have tackled some of the environmental issues. The Runcorn bridge opened in 1961 to replace the old Transporter Bridge which was demolished. The new bridge was extended to carry four lanes of traffic and was renamed the Silver Jubilee Bridge when completed in 1977. Halton became a unitary borough in 1998 which drew together Runcorn (from the Cheshire side of the Mersey) and Widnes (from the Lancashire side). The population of Halton was 118,215 at the last census in 2001 and it is the most densely populated area in Cheshire with 14.9 people per hectare.