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Risley to Bustling Birchwood
A Journey Through Time
© Brian Tuohey, 2011 and 2010
I originally drafted the article
below in 2010 on request and developed it further in 2011.
It should not
be reproduced without permission. If you would like to use it, please get
I have also used this article as the basis for a number of talks that I have
given to local groups.
Modern day Birchwood is very much a post-war district, created from the remains of the former Risley munitions factory that served the nation’s needs during World War II.
Before Birchwood or the factory came into existence, Risley, as the area was known, was a small village and collection of tenant farms around the main road linking Warrington and Leigh.
Mainly farmland, the district also comprised woodland and mossland areas. Risley Moss and the adjacent mosses at Woolston, Rixton, Glazebrook, Pestfurlong and Holcroft were all part of the network of mosslands around Chat Moss that once occupied much of the low flat land between Liverpool and Manchester.
It might seem strange nowadays, but for many centuries Risley was part of Culcheth.
The origins of Risley as a distinct area within Culcheth appear to originate from an event in 1246 when the landowner Gilbert de Culcheth was killed.
His estate passed to his four daughters. The southernmost part of the Culcheth estate known as Risley passed to Ellen whose husband John elected to be called Risley, establishing the Risley family.
The other areas were Pestfurlong, Holcroft and Culcheth itself. The family lived in the area until the estate was sold in the 18th century, after which it changed hands on a number of occasions.
With Risley being such a small area, it had no established churches, but in the 1660s, Thomas Risley returned to the area having left his Fellowship position at Oxford University as a result of the passing of the Act of Uniformity in 1661.
He established a small non-conformist congregation that eventually led to the building of a chapel in 1707 on Cross Lane, Risley Presbyterian Church.
In the mid 1800s, a school was also established. The chapel survived until the construction of the M62 motorway and was demolished in 1971.
At the western end of the village another church was established. Risley Independent Methodist Church stood on Warrington Road next to Landcut Lane until 1910.
A new church building was constructed on Fearnhead Lane and a house bearing a datestone of 1915 now occupies the original site.
The main centre of the village was the area around the old school just to the south of The Noggin Inn.
A number of businesses serving the local community including a smithy had become established in this part of the district and several lanes radiated out to local farms and neighbouring areas.
Most of the local farmers were tenants of the various landowners who owned the Risley estate.
In 1853 Risley was bought by Richard Watson Marshall Dewhurst. He improved and modernised his investment, making a number of improvements to amenities.
He also constructed a “well built Gamekeeper’s Lodge with good accommodation for gentlemen”.
It was around this time that the woodland close to Risley Moss was planted with rhododendrons to provide cover for the game hunters.
On Dewhurst’s death in 1872, the estate was sold at auction to the Ainscough family who were horse breeders.
It was during their ownership that the tenancy of Risley Moss was taken over by the British Moss Litter Company, who began extracting peat from the mossland.
The peat was used for horse litter, a common practice at the time, and was transported to Manchester and Liverpool by train.
Peat extraction from Risley Moss continued until about 1930, when the company
moved their cutting operations to other local mosses. They brought the peat to their works alongside the main railway at Risley Moss by extending the rail system for their horse drawn carts.
This continued for about another 15 years. The progression of the tracks
over the years as they went deeper into Risley Moss and the later extension to
Holcroft Moss is evident from different editions of maps from the period.
It has also been reported that peat was extracted from Pestfurlong Moss,
although I have not seen any maps that confirm this.
Risley was to change forever as a consequence of the outbreak of World War II.
As war became inevitable, plans were drawn up by the Ministry of Supply for the rapid construction of a series of munitions factories known as Royal Ordnance Factories that were to produce the munitions essential for the war effort.
A large area of land to the south and east of Warrington Road was compulsorily purchased, farmers were evicted and construction began in earnest.
The main entrance to the Risley factory was at Oakwood Gate, just to the west of the current dog-bone roundabout at George Duckworth Island.
A second entrance was constructed at the back of the site on School Lane, now the farm lane that leads to
Glazebrook. In addition there were two railway stations, one on the main Liverpool-Manchester line about where Woodhouse Close stands today, and another at the north end of the site that came in on a spur from the old Culcheth branch
line from Newchurch Halt.
There were three main types of Royal Ordnance Factories: explosives factories where the bulk explosives were manufactured, engineering factories where the casings and shells were made, and filling factories, the most dangerous of all, where everything was brought together to produce the finished munitions.
They were stored in specially constructed magazines or bunkers before being transported away from the factories by rail.
Risley was one of 16 ROF filling factories and was designated Filling Factory number 6.
Many of the buildings on the site were small, well spaced and surrounded by blast mounds.
Once the war was over, Risley and most of the other munitions factories closed down.
Part of the site was taken over for nuclear research and Risley became one of the major centres of the newly formed UKAEA.
Risley became the headquarters of their Engineering, Production and Reactor Groups.
It was during this period that buildings such as Chadwick House and Thompson House were constructed.
BNFL separated from UKAEA some time later and its corporate headquarters were located in Risley for a number of years.
Today many legacy businesses from UKAEA and BNFL are still based in Birchwood, although the business parks are now much more broadly based.
Another part of the site became a storage depot for The Admiralty, but much of the former factory remained unused.
The Birth of Birchwood
The remains of the former factory had become one of the largest derelict sites in Europe.
Efforts to sell it included marketing it for industry using the existing buildings and facilities, and redevelopment as a Manchester overspill satellite town.
Instead, the site was incorporated into a plan to expand Warrington. In 1968, Warrington New Town Development Corporation took responsibility for the site.
Risley was one of five areas managed by the Development Corporation. It was at this time that the name ‘Birchwood’ first appeared as a planning name, but it stuck and became the new identity of the area.
Within a few years, demolition of the old factory site was in progress. Some of the rubble was used for the construction of nearby embankments for the M62, as well as for providing the base for landscaping in the new district.
Warrington Road was gradually replaced as the main thoroughfare in Birchwood with the construction of Birchwood Way and Birchwood Park Avenue.
A new section of Birchwood Way provided a link with the M62 at junction
11. Locking Stumps was the first of the three main residential areas to be established, on farmland outside of the old factory boundary.
Development of the Science Park also began about this time, expanding the area’s expertise in nuclear research.
Oakwood and Gorse Covert were built on other cleared areas of the factory and modern Birchwood gradually came into existence.
Birchwood Railway Station and the Shopping Centre opened, followed a few years later by the High School after a local campaign.
Since then, there have been other changes, as Birchwood has continued to develop to meet the needs of modern business and residential life.
Risley Moss opened as a nature reserve in 1980.
The names of the three main residential districts can be found on old maps.
Locking Stumps was a property, perhaps a farm, on the north side of Locking Stumps Lane, close to the bridge over the M6.
Gorse Covert was an area within some of the old woodland of Risley Moss, close to the pond at the back of the Visitor Centre.
Oakwood was the name of a farm that stood close to Admirals Road near Curlew Grove.
Old maps show that there was an orchard attached to the farm. The start of the farm lane on Warrington Road was later used as the main entrance to the factory, the Oakwood Gate.
Visible Remains of the Past
Within some of the business parks, notably Birchwood Park and Trident, much of the road layout originated from the factory road network and several old factory buildings and other features remain.
Elsewhere in Birchwood, the most obvious remains are the Walled Garden and the munitions storage bunkers.
The Walled Garden was created from one of the reservoirs that served the fire hydrant ring main.
Around the Forest Park playing field, 4 of the original 20 munitions bunkers were retained and were used for a variety of purposes for several years including one that housed a local history display, although they were sealed off in the late 1980s.
Several former factory houses on the edge of the site bordering Warrington Road are still in use, one being occupied by Risley Police Station.
The remains of a former defence post is nearby.
There are more subtle remains too. Many of the paths within Oakwood and Gorse Covert are based on old factory roads and there are also railway sleepers, short sections of track, fire hydrants and other signs around the area.
There are even a few surviving features from the farmland days before the factory, including woodland, ponds and water courses.
Outside of the factory, notable older buildings include Parker’s Farm and Heathfield House and there are also other older properties elsewhere along Warrington Road.
School Lane, now the farm track that leads to Glazebrook, once continued all the way into the centre of Risley village to the school on Warrington Road.
Risley Moss is a surviving feature of the old south Lancashire mosses. After becoming degraded through peat cutting and the munitions factory, it is now actively managed and is both a Local Nature Reserve and SSSI.
There are beautiful woodland walks, and viewing areas over the sensitive mossland that is being carefully restored.
The success of the work is evident from the signs of recovery with an increasing diversity of plant and animal species being recorded.
The area is very popular with birdwatchers.
Birchwood . . . Warrington? . . . Cheshire?
For the whole of Birchwood’s existence, it has been in the expanded Borough of Warrington in Cheshire, but it hasn’t always been that way.
Originally, Risley was the southernmost hamlet in the township of Culcheth, part of the parish of Winwick.
Gradually newer systems of local government were established. In the 1800s, Culcheth and Risley were part of Leigh and became part of the newly formed Leigh Rural District in 1894.
There was another change in 1933 with significant boundary changes across Lancashire and Cheshire.
The civil parish of Culcheth was divided into two, the section that included Risley becoming part of Croft in Warrington Rural District whilst Culcheth itself became part of Golborne Urban District.
This change separated Risley from Culcheth for the first time in centuries.
Just 31 years later in 1974, Culcheth, Croft and Risley all became part of the expanded Warrington Borough and moved from Lancashire to Cheshire.
More recently, in the 1990s Birchwood separated from Croft and became a civil parish in its own right.
At the same time, the boundaries were realigned to follow modern features in a further departure from the past.
In 2000, Birchwood was upgraded to Town Council status, giving it a greater influence in the local area.
Even though the shape of modern Birchwood was largely defined by the mid 1980s, changes have continued since then.
The housing of Gorse Covert was not completed until the 1990s and the business parks continue to expand and develop to meet the growth in demand from Birchwood continued to increase in importance and economic activity.
MEPC’s Birchwood Park is the largest, occupying much of the former UKAEA property, but there are others around too, including those at Trident, Birchwood Boulevard, Birchwood One and the Genesis Centre.
Rutherford House, once the BNFL head office is now a multifunctional office building.
Public art has become a feature of the area too. The most striking is Encounter, the sculpture by the M62 at junction 11, which first appeared in 2002.
Its iconic form now symbolises Birchwood and representations of it are widely used by local businesses and organisations.
On the edge of Birchwood Park is the Connections sculpture, next to the new hotel that opened in 2009.
On a more modest scale, Bo Peep and her sheep in the Forest Park are early examples.
Risley Moss has had a series of wooden sculptures since it was opened in 1980.
Some of the original pieces have been replaced over the years. In 2009 and 2010, three new carvings were completed.
Even more changes took place in 2010 with the expansion of the high school to offer post-16 courses for the first time, the first new pub in several decades, a new care home, and the new community facilities at The Encounter Centre from one of the local churches.
All of these are signs of a healthy and vibrant community that has become established and successful since it was first conceived more than 40 years ago.
Whilst modern Birchwood has only a short history of its own, the area has a rich heritage and all the signs of a bright future.
© Brian Tuohey, 2011 and 2010. Not to be
reproduced without permission.
- Risley Moss, A Conservation Study, published by Warrington New Town Conservation Group, ca 1972-3
- Warrington and the Mid Mersey Valley, G A Carter, 1971
- Risley Chapel, Lancashire, Christopher Sell, published in Transactions of the Ancient Monuments Society, New Series Volume 30, 1986
- Various Ordnance Survey Maps, principally:
- 1:2,500: Lancashire CIX.6, 7, 10 and 11, 1891-97
- 1:10,560: Lancashire CIX NW, NE, SW and SE, various editions 1908-1951
- 1:25,000: Sheets 33/69 (1946) and SJ69 (1953)
- Selected Wikipedia articles