There has been lots going on in and around the THI but I thought I should do a blog entry about the biggest project we have on the go at the moment – the repaving of Atherton Street in traditional stone as one of our three public realm projects. The other two are Leyland Street (completed in 2013) and Market Place (due to be on site in 2017/18.
Atherton Street, February 2016
Why Atherton Street?
It may seem like an odd choice of a street to target for a heritage paving scheme seeing as it is on paper little more than a side street that links High Street to Eccleston Street. But a short walk around Prescot looking up at the buildings and their upper floors will tell you that Atherton Street is just about the most complete piece of Georgian era townscape that survives in the town centre – apart from perhaps Vicarage Place. The west side of Atherton Street in particular is a long terrace where most of the buildings date from between the 1770s and 1790s. There is a mix of Victorian and twentieth century buildings on the opposite side, but chief among these in terms of height, scale and architectural detailing is the Methodist Church which is dated 1908 and is in a Neo-Baroque style.
The Heritage Lottery Fund agreed with the Council that enhancing the public realm that unites these two sides of the street would really improve the character and appearance of the conservation area and so it has become one of the THI’s public realm projects.
As well as the historical and architectural value of the buildings along Atherton Street, its history is another reason to restore it. I touched in an earlier blog post many moons ago on the history of Atherton Street. In short Atherton Street is a planned street that was seemingly laid out and lined with houses to suit one household.
Keeping Up Appearances
It is difficult to imagine now, but where the tree stands at the top of Aspinall Street was for a long time roughly where the front door to Atherton Hall was. Atherton Hall was probably one of the highest status houses in Prescot. The Hall and its side yards spread from the modern day 46 Eccleston Street (Girls on Top Salon) all the way over to the edge of what is now the Cyprus Street car park. The south facing garden behind the Hall went all the way down to Kemble Street (or Hillock Street as it was called then). Quite a pile and quite a garden!
The 1848 Ordnance Survey. Towards the right is Atherton Hall and its enormous tree-lined garden that went all the way from Eccleston Street to Kemble Street. You could fit about three St Mary’s Churches and Graveyards in there!
Who were the Athertons? It seems they were a land-owning family and this would have likely been their main source of income, perhaps with rights over mining or quarrying. While not in the same league in terms of wealth, title or influence as the Stanleys at Knowsley Hall, the Athertons would certainly have been of far greater wealth and social standing than most Prescotians. Although their home was called Atherton Hall, it was not a ‘hall’ in the sense that the family were lords of the manor or held a title, but rather to indicate a large house and the family’s social status as members of the minor gentry.
Unfortunately we cannot find a clear indication of what Atherton Hall looked like. It was demolished circa 1870, in the early days of photography, and no known (at least, known to me) drawing or etching survives. It is certainly there on the 1848 OS Map of Prescot, complete with garden.
Atherton Street in the 1848 Ordnance Survey. If you trace a line down the middle of Atherton Street, it leads down to the garden path that led to the front door of Atherton Hall. Note also how wide and straight Atherton Street is compared to the surrounding streets.
It is probable that William Atherton Esq. (1742-1803) was responsible for the creation of Atherton Street. The earliest reference we can find to the street’s existence is a plan dated 1774 and William Atherton presumably lived at Atherton Hall at this point in time. Atherton Street was more than likely laid out so that Atherton Hall terminated the view south down Atherton Street from High Street. This was presumably done as a formal ‘set piece’ of urban design to provide an impressive approach to the front door to Atherton Hall.
It also meant that the Athertons and their guests could get to the front door of Atherton Hall without having to through what was presumably the muck and chaos of Eccleston Street, which at the time would have been lined with a jumble of tightly packed timber framed, stone and brick buildings. With no proper paving, drainage or sanitation, lots of obstructions and people in the narrow space, I cannot imagine it would have impressed anyone in the Atherton’s social circle.
Atherton Street was presumably paved from the outset and gave a nice straight wide approach to Atherton Hall from High Street. Although the west side of Atherton Street is unified by a stone cornice running the full length of the terrace, go around the back and you can see that the houses are different heights at the back and there are vertical joints through the brickwork on some of the party walls. These show that the houses in the terrace were built in pairs or as single houses rather than as a single build.
When Atherton Street came into existence in the 1770s, it was when Prescot’s watchmaking industry was starting to take off and employ more and more people in workshops in back rooms, outriggers and outbuildings. Even today at the back of nos. 13, 15 and 17 the broad windows of former watchmakers’ workshops can still be seen. It looks like some of the houses on Atherton Street were purpose built for the watch making industry.
The back of 17 Atherton Street. That broad window just below the roof indicates the room where the watchmaker’s workshop was located.
The earliest census available at prescot.org – the 1841 Census – appears to bear this out. Of the 25 dwellings, the heads of household of six were watchmakers and a further three were described as ‘mechanics’ which could be interpreted as being involved in watchmaking or a metalcraft involving similar skills. The next most numerous type of head of household on Atherton Street in 1841 was people who were ‘independent’; in other words living on their own means rather than working – retired people or people supported by lodgers or boarders. One such ‘independent’ person, Ann Webster (aged 60 in 1841), was head of a household of ten people, six of whom were watchmakers or watchmakers’ apprentices aged between 15 and 55. I hope they all paid board!
The other jobs of the heads of household were a mixed bag – a gardener, shoe maker, ropemaker, painter, postmaster, tailor, potter, currier, and victualler. The ‘victualler’ was the landlord of the Green Dragon pub, which was licensed from 1780 to 1876 and appears to have been at the corner of Atherton Street and Eccleston Street. I wonder how the Athertons felt about a pub opening just across the road from their house on the street they created? Did they have a say in this?!
The preponderance of watchmakers continues throughout the nineteenth century with 15 out of 28 households in Atherton Street in 1851 headed by people involved in watchmaking and this only petered out towards the turn of the twentieth century. By 1901 only two heads of household were watchmakers and a third was an ‘overseer’ at the Lancashire Watch Factory. The rest of the houses were headed by a wide range of professions: a couple of book keepers, a couple of grocers, a colliery metal worker, a postman, a joiner, a file maker, and perhaps most interestingly a ‘Professor of Music’, Hannah Quick, who shared the house with a servant.
Are You Being Served?
As for Atherton Hall is appears to have passed from the Atherton family into the Willis family (any connection with Halsnead Park in Whiston?) and upon the death of Richard Willis in 1858, it seems that Atherton Hall ceased to be used as a main family home. The censuses in 1861 and 1871 list servants as the occupants, with the butler, William Jeacockes, recorded as the head of the household.
It seems that in 1871 or shortly after Atherton Hall was knocked down to make way for a route linking Prescot to its brand new train station (Aspinall Street) and the long frontage occupied by the Hall was divided into plots, sold on and developed primarily as shops. Atherton Street therefore lost its focal point and probably became more of a through route, given that it now linked High Street with the railway station, via Aspinall Street and Station Road.
The 1891 Ordnance Survey shows how the demolition of Atherton Hall opened up land for development and a direct route to the town’s new railway station (some way off the map). the tram terminus is indicated by the track drawn at the junction of High Street, Warrington Road and St Helen’s Road. The chapel on Atherton Street is the Unitarian Chapel that preceded the existing Methodist Church building that was built in 1909.
With all the new shops springing up on Eccleston Street from the 1870s onwards on the site of Atherton Hall, and a new tramline opening on High Street in the 1890s with its terminus just around the corner from Atherton Street at the junction of High Street, Warrington Road and St Helen’s Road, it is fair to assume that the increase in footfall around Atherton Street coupled with the decline of watchmaking (seemingly the original purpose of a number of the dwellings) led to a lot of the houses that were not already shops at ground floor being converted to shops.
Indeed in his account in ‘Prescot: When I was a Boy’ Arthur Roberts indicates that “several shops have now been opened… where once only a solicitor’s office and Miss Quick’s music academy once stood. The rest were private houses.” The retail use of the majority of the buildings appears to have ceased in the 1980s and 1990s.
19 Atherton Street in 1980. the pebble dash render is till there today, but the shopfront is long gone, as is the shopfront on the property to the right. The shopfront on the left at no.17 has been conserved.
Atherton Street continues to evolve with more of the old houses being converted to flats. The THI refurbished the flat over 40 High Street- and we hope to help bring 13-15 Atherton Street back to use after a number of years of vacancy. The public realm works will give the character of the street a lift and restore the character it once had.
Atherton Street, April 2016
The THI Works
The Atherton Street works have been on site since 4 April and are scheduled to complete by 28 June 2016. The firm carrying out the work is the Landscape Group to designs by Mouchel. As well as reinstating stone kerbs, paving flags and setts, the works will create an additional on-street parking space.
The contractors are trying their best to minimise disturbance and will keep one-way access, pedestrian access and access to the Methodist Church and taxi rank open as much as is possible. While works have started on the east side of the street, once this side has been re-paved the contractor will switch to the west side.
So far the most interesting thing to have been unearthed is a small area of Yorkstone setts and channels in front of the Methodist Church, which have been carefully removed. This small area (less than 10% of the total area to be dug up) has been the only bit of remaining old stone so far.
The small sliver of Yorkstone that has been unearthed so far on Atherton Street.
I’ll update if we find anything more.