Before the Industrial Revolution Widnes was made up of small settlements on marsh and moorland. In 1847, the first chemical factory was established and the town rapidly became a major centre of the chemical industry. The demand for labour was met by large-scale immigration from Ireland, Poland, Lithuania and Wales. The town continues to be a major manufacturer of chemicals .
Widnes and Hough Green railway stations are on the Liverpool to Manchester line. The main roads through the town are the A557 in a north–south direction and the A562 east–west. The disused Sankey Canal terminates in an area known as Spike Island.
The most usual explanation for the origin of the name Widnes is that it comes from the Danish words vid, meaning wide, and noese, meaning nose and that it refers to the promontory projecting into the River Mersey. However, the Widnes promontory is not particularly wide and another possible explanation is the first part derives from the Danish ved, meaning a wood and possibly referring to a tree-covered promontory. Earlier spellings of the name have been Vidnes, Wydnes and Wydness.
There is little evidence of any early human occupation of the area although a flint arrowhead was discovered at Pex Hill, suggesting there was some human presence in the Stone Age. Pex Hill is a disused quarry, located to the north of the town. Roman roads by-passed the area but some Roman coins were found where the Ditton railway station stands today. In the 9th century Vikings had invaded the country and Widnes was at the extreme south of the Danelaw. The River Mersey derives its name from the Anglo-Saxon maeres ea, which means boundary river, the boundary being that between the Danelaw and the Saxon kingdom of Mercia. At the beginning of the 20th century it was believed that some earthworks on Cuerdley Marsh had been constructed by the Vikings but an archaeological investigation in the 1930s found nothing to confirm this.
Following the Norman conquest, William the Conqueror granted the Earldom of Lancaster to Roger de Poictou who in turn granted the barony of Widnes to Yorfrid. Yorfrid had no sons and his elder daughter married William FitzNigel, the second Baron of Halton. On Yorfrid's death the barony of Widnes passed to that of Halton. The current St. Luke's, a Norman church, was built in Farnworth. Its date of origin is uncertain but it is likely to be around 1180. In 1500 the South Chapel was added to the church and in 1507 a grammar school was established in Farnworth; both were endowments from Bishop William Smyth. Until the middle of the 19th century the area consisted of the scattered hamlets of Farnworth, Appleton, Ditton, Upton and Woodend. Nearby were the villages of Cronton and Cuerdley.