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 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 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 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 18th 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 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 gained its own railway station. This was followed thirty years later with it’s first tramlines which followed the established routes to both St. Helen’s and Warrington.
Considerable changes to the town occurred in 18th Century 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 1690s to 3645 in 1801. The town was practically rebuilt from the 1750s including the construction of a number of fine Georgian houses, 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 built in 1755, which bore the statue of Our Lady Bountiful 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 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 where either parts were made, or where watches were constructed from parts organised within an assembly tray.
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, 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 was founded in 1889. This company sought to put the skilled workers relating to all of the processes involved in the manufacturing of watches under one roof. Unfortunately long-term it was unable to compete against the American and Swiss manufacturers and finally closed in 1910. A few craftsmen remained in the town until the 1960s, but the only surviving remnants to be found today are the characteristic gallery windows dotted around the township
During 1891, a company was formed that changed the industrial landscape of Prescot for a hundred years. Joseph and Jacob Atherton established the British Insulated Wire Company who manufactured paper insulated cables in Britain under licence from the patent owner’s company in America. The following year they installed electric street lighting in Prescot and lighting inside Knowsley Hall, the ancestral home of the Earls of Derby.
The company expanded rapidly and mergers took place during the following 50 years. Firstly in 1902, the company merged with the Telegraph Manufacturing Company of Helsby and became British Insulated and Helsby Cables Limited and in 1925 the firm was renamed British Insulated Cables Limited. The final merger in 1945 was with a company called Callender’s of Erith and the business then became known as British Insulated Callender’s Cables (known by the more familiarly abbreviation, BICC) employing numerous workers not only from within Prescot but all the surrounding townships as well. The main BICC factory in Prescot closed in early 1990s with smaller premises sold-off to other companies.
Since medieval times the market and church 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, High Street and Eccleston Street all radiating from the centre of Prescot to its surrounding townships and beyond.
When Prescot was presented with an ornate war memorial by Councillor William John Lucas, chairman of the Prescot Urban District Council, it was a significant event (the first public memorial in the township) and was attended by large crowds. It was very unusual for a war memorial to be erected during a conflict and not after its conclusion but in Prescot’s case the unveiling took place on 9th September 1916 which turned out to be mid-way through the Great War. The memorial was originally located in Market Place but ultimately the later increase in motor vehicle traffic and a need for road alterations forced a re-location to the plateau adjacent to the parish church where it remains today.
A further Great War war memorial was unveiled in the district on 23rd July 1922 at Eccleston Lane Ends (on the corner of St Helens Road and Burrows Lane). The memorial, which commemorates the men from the West Derby Hundred of the County Palatine of Lancaster was commissioned by Frederick Richard Dixon-Nuttall whose army-officer son was one of those killed during that war.
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 became the Prescot Urban District Council after further re-organisation in 1895 and subsequently in 1974, Prescot became one of the local townships to come under the umbrella of the newly formed Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council.
Prescot Grammar School, which was founded in 1544 in the will of Gilbert Latham (the Archdeacon of Man), occupied a number of sites within the town including that of Church Street (1592-1760), High Street (1760-1924) and St. Helen’s Road (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.
Examples of the historical local craft industries of clock and watchmaking, toolmaking, the pottery industry and later 19th Century wire production were widely featured when Prescot Museum opened its doors in 1982 (located on the corner of Church Street in the former Westminster Bank building) just across the road from Prescot Branch Library which was opened by Lancashire County Council in 1961.
In recent times, changes to shopping habits brought about the construction of the Cables Retail Park and as the name suggests it was built on the factory site of the former cable manufacturer BICC . The new retail park brought major names to the area which today include Tesco Extra, Next, Argos, Carphone Warehouse and McDonald’s.
Around the same time, centralisation of council services within townships was introduced across the borough and in Prescot this took place at Prescot Shopping Centre, Aspinall Street, which had originally opened in 1989. The site was regenerated and in 2012, a new Prescot Library and Museum opened there together with a One-Stop-Shop to augment the existing shopping units and produce a multi-purpose facility in one building with easy access and parking. Another new build to appear around this time (opening in 2014) was the modern Prescot Town Hall, built on the former site of the Fusilier public house which opened in 1981 (on the site of the even earlier 18th Century public house, the King’s Arms).
Educational trends brought new ‘centres for learning’ to the Knowsley Borough, the final one of the seven centres was established in 2009 at Prescot, called Knowsley Park School, a co-educational secondary school that followed a merger between Prescot School and Knowsley Higher Side Comprehensive School. The school converted to Academy status in 2016 and was renamed The Prescot School.
Further improvements to Prescot town centre continue with the forthcoming Shakespeare North Playhouse, a 350 seat Jacobean theatre and education centre which is due to open in 2020.