Prescot Origins and History

Prescot is believed to be Anglo-Saxon in origin, with the name 'Prescota-cot' meaning a 'priest cottage'. It was the centre of an extensive parish, within the West Derby Hundred (WFN100) which included fourteen other townships including St Helen's.

In 1333 the Lord of the Manor, William D'Acre, was granted the right to hold a weekly market and the town's importance is reflected in its inclusion on the Bodleian Map of Britain drawn by Gough in 1350. The manor was sold in 1391 to John of Gaunt and on his death passed to his son, who subsequently became Henry IV. In 1447 Henry VI included both the Manor and Rectory of Prescot as gifts to establish a college at Cambridge University [subsequently King's College]. The Royal Charter gave the people of Prescot exemption from paying certain tolls, it also gave them a degree of self-government and the town adopted the college crest (WFN117) as its own. Due to the distance from Cambridge the daily running of the town was left to the Steward, his appointed deputy and the Court Leet (the local town council).

The list of rectors for St. Mary's church (WFN58) goes back to 1179, with much of the present church dating to 1610. One of those making a large donation enabling the church to be rebuilt was John Ogle of Whiston, and when he died in 1614 his effigy was placed in the new church. The church also contains a number of items from earlier buildings including a fifteenth century vestry, intricate woodcarvings and panelling and an Anglo-Saxon font. The tower and spire, which were added in the late 1720s, are thought to be the work of a pupil of Sir Christopher Wren. There is also an eighteenth century marble font, in which the distinguished actor John Philip Kemble was baptised in 1757.

The establishment of a number of potteries in the fourteenth century, the earliest recorded in the region, was to provide an important stimulus to the town. A survey conducted in 1592, by King's College Cambridge, details the existence of seven kilns in the town. These kilns would have dominated the landscape, and were centered around the Eccleston Street area. The town developed a reputation for producing fine pottery, using a mixture of the local white and red clays, numerous examples (WFN40) of which can be found in the town's Museum. Another impetus was the accessibility of rich seams of coal close to the surface, which was mined from the early sixteenth century, with much of the coal produced being destined for Liverpool. A Newcomen Engine was installed in 1746, between the Hall Lane (now High Street) and Warrington Road area, to pump-out water from the mine. It continued to prosper until the construction of the Sankey Canal in 1767 broke the town's monopoly of supply to the city.

Whilst copyholders were entitled to dig the coal on their land, the main mine was at Prescot Hall which lay at the bottom of Hall Lane. In the mid sixteenth century this was let by the Layton family who built a new Hall in 1562 which was described a few years later as having; 'a dining hall, kitchen and several bedrooms together with two barn stables'. The house was over time, extended and rebuilt and was eventually demolished in the 1930s.

The town roads were greatly enhanced by the Turnpike Trust of 1726 between Liverpool and St. Helen's. Prescot was a major point along the route which split into two on Church Street; one to St. Helen's (via the High Street and St. Helen's Road), the other to Warrington (via Market Place and Kemble Street). Although the Liverpool-Manchester railway, the world's first passenger service, was opened in 1830 and stopped at nearby Huyton it was not until 1871 with the construction of a branch-line between Huyton and St. Helen's that Prescot got its own railway station (MUS1994:6:29). This was followed thirty years later with it's first tramlines (LS/X/65) which followed the established routes to both St. Helen's and Warrington.

The eighteenth century was to bring considerable changes to the town, with the continued growth of a number of craft industries especially watchmaking, toolmaking and the potteries resulting in increased prosperity and a rapid rise in population from an estimated 700 in the 1690's to 3645 in 1801. The town was practically rebuilt from the 1750's including the construction of a number of fine Georgian houses (PT92/17), some of which have survived to the present day. A further indication of it's growth was the revival of the Court Leet, which was based in the new Town Hall (PT252) built in 1755, which bore the statue of Our Lady Bountiful (MUSTEMP2) on its roof as a testimony to the town's new found wealth. The door lintel from the town gaol, built adjacent to the Town Hall, was used as a test of literacy for those wishing to hold office. This Alphabet Stone, an 18th Century sandstone block contains all the letters of the alphabet (minus the J, which was not in use at the time)

The Court Leet was adapted to include taxes for street improvements and for caring for the poor of the town, and it's records were stored in the town chest (MUSTEMP1) which can be seen today in Prescot Museum. The Court Leet enabled some people to play a vital role in shaping the town. One such individual was John Wyke, a watchmaker by trade, he held a number of positions including constable and overseer of the poor. Although he moved his business to Liverpool in 1761, when he died in 1787 he left his money and his library for the education of the poor in Prescot and was buried in Prescot churchyard.

Watches were first produced in the sixteenth century in Germany and were quickly imitated. Watchmaking was introduced into Prescot by a Huguenot refugee from France called Woolrich. The skills were easily picked-up by the town's blacksmiths, with the work being carried-out in houses. In 1795 John Aiken said of Prescot that 'the town produces the best in the world.' The town had hundreds of small workshops (PT148) where either parts were made, or where watches were constructed from parts organised within an assembly tray (WFN38).

The rebuilding of the town continued throughout the nineteenth century. The growth in population continued during the nineteenth century with the census for 1851 revealing that nearly a quarter of the population was born in Ireland, a legacy of the famine which had driven many to emigrate. In the 1860s the Round House (PT92), which had been built in 1812, was replaced by the Market Hall. Unfortunately the crafts which had flourished during the previous century were very much dependant upon skilled craftsmen, and was not able to compete with those employing the latest mass production techniques. The potteries declined rapidly due to the cheaper porcelain produced in Staffordshire.

Faced with a similar situation the Lancashire Watch Company (PT146) was founded in 1889. This sought to put the skilled workers (PT138) relating to all of the processes (PT144) involved in the manufacturing of watches under one roof. Unfortunately it was unable to compete against the American and Swiss manufacturers and finally closed in 1910. A few craftsmen (PT11) remained in the town until the 1960s, although the only testimony to be found today is the characteristic gallery windows at the rear of Chapel and Ackers Streets.

The BICC (PT93/12) has, since its foundation as the British Insulated Wire Company in 1891, been a major employer in the town. It was founded by James and Jacob Atherton who acquired the British rights to an American patent for paper-insulated cables. In 1892 it was responsible for installing electric lighting in Prescot and also for the Earl of Derby at Knowsley Hall. Prescot's proximity to Knowsley Hall meant that it often saw royal processions, including that of Edward VII (PT312) in 1909.

Since medieval times the market and the church would have formed the focal point of the town, and evidence of this can still be found by studying it's road patterns. The routes have remained basically unchanged for centuries however, they have, through necessity, been widened considerably in order to carry an ever-increasing volume of traffic. Derby Street (LS/X/11), High Street (MUS1994:6:22) and Eccleston Street (PT334) all radiating from the centre of Prescot to its surrounding townships and beyond.

The Court Leet, which had established the principals of local self-government, was replaced in 1867 with the creation of the Prescot Local Government Board. This subsequently became the Prescot Urban District Council after further re-organisation in 1895.

The Town Hall isn't the only building to have suffered mixed fortunes. Prescot Grammar School, which was founded in 1544 in the will of Gilbert Latham (the Archdeacon of Man), has occupied a number of sites within the town including that of Church Street (1592-1760), High Street (PT49) (1760-1924) and St. Helen's Road (PT54) (1924-1992). The School was granted its own Coat of Arms in 1933 and in 1955, Prescot Girl's Grammar School on Knowlsey Park Lane was opened with the two schools being amalgamated in 1975.

(figures in brackets are reference numbers of photos in the main site)

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