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Article date - 26 February 2020
The team made the discovery, dating between 1700-1750, while clearing foliage and undergrowth at the Blackbrook Wharf of Sankey Valley.
Pete Morris, the council’s Greenspace Inspector contacted local expert Dr Barrie Pennington of the Milestone Society to ask if he would investigate. Dr Pennington consulted an 1895 Ordnance Survey map and confirmed that it was a boundary stone marking the parishes of Blackbrook and Haydock.
Three other original boundary stones are positioned at the wharf placed there in recent years by St Helens Council to mark the original length of the wharf where coal was loaded onto barges. Though highly weathered the word ‘Blackbrook’ can just be made out on one of these stones.
From 1757, this part of the Sankey Canal was a hive of activity providing coal for Liverpool merchants and Cheshire salt mines.
The new find is unique in that it is in its original position untouched and forgotten for decades.
Boundary stones did not have to meet any legal requirement as to size and were generally made from local stone, which in the case of Blackbrook and Haydock was sandstone.
Dr Pennington said: “Though it is speculative to comment without further research it does appear that the ‘navvies’ – labourers who built this part of the canal – worked around the boundary stone, probably out of respect.
“Parishes have a long history of fierce independence with loyalty to either a local lord of the manor or church. Some boundary stones had parish crests or emblems at the centre made from cast iron. This new discovery appears to have a hole at the centre for such a crest which has long since rusted away.”
Text is still partially visible on the area’s other boundary stones, but the new find is heavily eroded.
Barrie added: “The fact that it has been in the undergrowth for so long has not helped. It is possible – but speculative – that the canal water was quite corrosive nearby at the time and could have contributed to the stone's weathered appearance.
“Indeed, Hey Lock in Newton-le-Willows had to be largely rebuilt in 1868 because of the corrosive nature of the canal water. The water was tested in 1813 and it contained 2.3 per cent arsenic, meaning it was poisonous even in small amounts. That was the Industrial Revolution.”
Pete Morris said: “In my line of work as greenspace inspector I'm always delighted to come across these historic finds that make a small contribution towards the borough's heritage.
“We’re fortunate to have such a great working relationship with Dr Pennington. He’s a font of knowledge on this fascinating part of our industrial past and is always willing to share his time and wisdom with us.”
The stone will be cleaned and left in its original position, and the council could consider installing information signs about the boundary stones for residents and visitors to view.
Dr Pennington has placed the new boundary stone on the Milestone Society and Ordnance Survey databases for posterity crediting St Helens Council with the find.
Further information on the subject provided by Dr Pennington:
The rough-cut nature of the Blackbrook stones places them between 1700-1750, certainly before the building of the Sankey Canal in 1755-57.
Haydock has by far the greater claim to historical provenance having had its own Lord of the Manor and coat of arms. Blackbrook however is simply named after a geographical feature - the Black Brook that runs through it. We can only imagine the local feuds that existed as Blackbrook sought to assert its independence from the bigger Haydock. Here's a small story taken from the Parish Clerk’s website that amply demonstrates the strong loyalty felt by parishioners:
“The boundaries of each parish were customarily marked by stones and every year, 'Beating the Bounds' took place. This is an ancient custom which is still observed by many English parishes; the roots go back to medieval times when parishes re-affirmed their boundaries by processing round them at Rogationtide, stopping to beat each boundary mark with sticks and to pray for protection and blessings.
“The ceremony was also important so as to prevent encroachment by neighbours and to instil a folk memory of the time as to the area of the parish. It is however no longer the tradition to bump the choirboys heads against the marks.”
The newly discovered Blackbrook boundary stone (with gloves), with the visible hole where an iron crest would've been.
1895 OS map showing the wharf (inlet under the word 'Sluice') and the boundary stone marked along the dotted border with an 'x'.
A previously discovered Blackbrook boundary stone, with the word 'Blackbrook' partially visible.