Winsford only became a town – as such, in 1894, but it is the successor to a long and distinguished history. The two main parts are Over and Wharton, which are separated by the River Weaver. Both settlements were mentioned in the Doomsday Book in 1086. “Over” is a pre Roman name indicating a settlement on a hill.
The hilltop road following Delamere Street and Swanlow Lane contains some of the oldest buildings in the town, some dating back to the 17th century. It is dominated by the spire of St John’s Church, built as a memorial to the wife of the second Lord Delamere. It is the earliest known work of the architect John Douglas. Also by Douglas is the striking “Over Congs.” more correctly called Over United Reformed Church.
St Chad’s Church is the oldest place of worship in Winsford. Recent archaeological opinion suggested that it occupies a pre Christian place of pagan worship, though tradition says it was dropped out in the fields by the devil when he tried to steal it to prevent worshippers using it. A tiny fragment of a Saxon cross shows that Christian worship has taken place here for over a thousand years.
Hugh Starkey, Gentleman Usher to Henry VIII, extensively rebuilt it in 1543. His tomb has a fine brass portrait of him in armour. One of his former properties is Knight’s Grange- one of the earliest brick houses in Cheshire- which is now a pub at the centre of a large modern sports and golf complex.
In Norman times the area was densely forested and the last Norman Earl of Chester died while hunting at Darnhall south of the town. The Earldom of most of Winsford was given to Prince Edward, Son of Henry III. He in turn gave his lands around Winsford to the great Abbey of Vale Royal, which he founded in the Weaver Valley to the north of the town in 1277. It was intended to be the “fairest and finest” and had the largest Cistercian Abbey Church in England.
The development of Winsford started after 1721. In that year parliament gave permission for locks and other improvements on the River Weaver to allow sea-going vessels to reach Winsford Bridge. The Weaver flat boats were specially designed to carry Lancashire coal to the salt works and then to take the salt to Liverpool for export. By the middle of the 19thC. The Weaver valley was lined with salt works using open pans to extract salt from brine. It is impossible to tell where the underground brine streams ran but where the water seeped into the underground beds of salt it dissolved the rock and the ground fell into the underground caverns to form ‘flashes’
During the nineteenth century salt works formed a boomtown. Because of the risk of salt subsidence many of the buildings were of timber frame construction. Working conditions were poor and competition between the salt work owners created slumps and booms, which created periods of unemployment among workers Herman Faulk, a German salt works owner, imported Polish salt workers to break one strike. The Mayor of Over read a strike of all the salt workers and riverboat men in 1892 brought trade to a standstill and the Riot Act. In 1888 the Salt Union was formed, uniting all the salt firms in one company. Eventually it became part of ICI and salt processing was concentrated at Northwich and Runcorn. The wheel has turned full circle and Salt Union is now a separate company producing salt at Meadow Bank. Its vast underground caverns expand over many square miles of Cheshire countryside.
The Winsford Urban District Council came into being as a result of the 1894 local Government Act. It replaced the Ancient Borough of Over and the Winsford Board of Health. In 1974 Winsford UDC became part of Vale Royal Borough Council and Winsford Town council assumed the role of parish council and kept its mayor. The mayor has a chain (now in a display case in the Council offices) with the names of all mayors and also two maces; one dates from the 18th century and the Borough of Over. His hat and gown were supplied by Queen Victoria’s robe makers, and given by the Verdin family.
The names Verdin and Brunner occur regularly throughout the district, the former were salt works owners and the latter the co-founder of the chemical industry in mid-Cheshire. Each provided institutions to improve the conditions in the town in the 1890’s. The Brunner Guildhall was provided for trade union and other meetings away from pubs and away from places where employers might interfere. The Verdin Technical school developed into the now demolished Verdin High School. By the 1930’s the number of salt works had declined and trade on the river had greatly reduced.
Winsford Urban District was one of the first local authorities to invite new industry to counter unemployment. In 1937 it invited the North West Co-operative Wholesale Society to set up a factory using Cheshire pork and salt for bacon and sausage production, and Winsford is still a centre for bacon production.
Over the last 30 years Winsford has completely changed in character. A declining Victorian working town has become one of the most modern and pleasant industrial and residential areas in the Northwest. Much of the Victorian town has vanished. An impressive industrial estate was pioneered by the Urban District Council to bring new life into the town.
Today there are two more industrial estates, a new retail park, and the Cheshire HQs of the Police and Fire Service are based in the town. Modern Winsford continues to develop with new housing, industry and environmental improvements, Landscape work has taken place along the River Weaver as part of the Mersey Forest project, and this has transformed the river from an industrial backwater to a place of recreation and enjoyment, with excellent fishing and boating.
The booklet ‘It’s all Over – the story of a place on a Cheshire Hill’ , as told by the late Brian Curzon, is available from the Town Council offices at Wyvern House. The booklet is free but we invite a small donation to the Town Mayor’s Charity, which this year is the Winsford Corps of the Salvation Army