This local tradition has its origins in the early 19th century in the days when religion played a much larger part in people’s lives than today and Christian festivals were also a rare opportunity for a local holiday. In 1801 the first annual Sunday School procession was introduced in Manchester at Whitsuntide and by 1813 the idea of an outing for Sunday School children after the procession had become common in many North West mill towns.
By 1834 the idea of Warrington Walking Day was already established, possibly begun by Rector Horace Powys (pictured left). The procession took place in early to mid June on the last Friday of the Newton race meeting, as a counter-attraction to the dangers of drunkenness and gambling!
At first only the members of the Church of England took part, but by the middle of nineteenth century there were three separate processions. The Church of England started from the Old Market Place (until 1873 when it began from the Town Hall), and the Roman Catholics had a separate route around the town centre after the Church of England parade. The Nonconformist churches also followed a separate route around the town which often finished at Bank Quay station for an afternoon out by train. Not surprisingly the processions often met head on!
The 1897 saw a special Jubilee Walking Day to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne. No less than 14,000 children took part and the procession passed the Town Hall steps where each child aged 3-14 received a three penny piece from the Mayor. St James’s Sunday School from Latchford adopted a patriotic theme. Their procession included a model warship!
The Warrington Guardian reported that “a number of lads dressed as sailors drew a model of an ironclad whilst two lads in front carried a banner containing Nelson’s last signal to the fleet. As they passed the Town hall steps they were cheered by onlookers.”
By then it had become an annual festival and a day’s holiday for all Warrington’s young people, but it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that Walking Day as we now know it had evolved. This was when all participants from all churches walked together, although still not from the same starting point. The first time all three groups had walked together was for Walking Day in 1902, the Coronation year of Edward VII, but this unity was short lived.
Warrington Walking Day has taken place every year since it began, except in the early 1940s during the Second World War. After the War ended in 1945, about 10,000 children and adults joined the Walk to celebrate peace.
It was not until the 1990s that everyone walked exactly the same route, to come together after the explosion of the IRA bomb in Bridge Street in Warrington town centre in 1993, which tragically killed two young boys.
As well as the religious procession there was always a carnival atmosphere on Walking Day, perhaps a reminder of Warrington’s medieval Summer Fair, held on the 6th,7th and 8th July. In 1879 the Warrington Guardian reported that:-
“Long before the usual time the streets were swarming with gaily dressed children and crowds of people were hurrying from all parts of the town to the more central parts of Market Gate and Sankey Street… In Sankey Street several large flags were flying and there was a good general display of bunting, whilst all the windows were packed with sightseers. Numerous itinerant hawkers did a roaring trade, especially in gorgeous penny canes, with knobs and tassel complete, which nearly every youngster who could raise the copper seemed to think it was part of his duty to purchase. Besides these there were toffee vendors and orange sellers.”
When Walking Day became a whole day’s holiday, excursions regularly took place to the surrounding countryside in the afternoon after the Walk. In the early twentieth century the Saturday after Walking Day was also when trips took place, usually by train or bus to the seaside. At this time the fair in Victoria Park (or Alford Park) began, bringing noise, fun and many exciting rides to the town.
There are also many other smaller walking days around Warrington every summer, in areas such as Grappenhall, Orford, Padgate, Penketh, Stockton Heath, Stretton and Winwick, to name but a few, and as they take place on open roads, there are floats and dancers as well as the walkers and the bands.