Ancient and Loyal Wigan stands with its back to the Pennine foothills eight miles south-west of Bolton and twenty miles from the South Lancashire coast.
Officially we are part of Greater Manchester but few of us subscribe to that grey fiction. In fact, with a charter granted in 1246 by Henry III, we are one of the four oldest boroughs of the County Palatine of Lancaster. Palatine because since the reign of Henry IV the Sovereign has also been our Duke.
In ancient times we were part of the territory of the Brigantes, a Celtic tribe subjugated in the Roman conquest. We became the military station of Coccium and significant remains in the town include a temple to Mithras, the soldiers' god, whose altar is still visible in All Saints Parish Church.
Our parents told us the tale of Sir William Bradshaigh who returned from the crusades to find his wife married to another man so Lady Mabel had to do penance for her bigamy by walking barefoot from Haigh Hall to Mab's Cross. Romantic nonsense, of course, because Sir William was not a crusader but an outlaw who met a sticky end for banditry against his king and his neighbours.
In the Civil War plague followed pillage, many of us dying in hastily constructed pest houses because we were the last members of our families to go. Oliver Cromwell himself described us as 'very malignant' (i.e. Royalist). Cavaliers clashed with Parliamentarians at the Battle of Wigan Lane, where Sir Thomas Tyldesley was killed. His monument appears in this book and the incident is commemorated in place names such as Longshoot and the Bloody Mountains. In the aftermath, James Stanley, Earl of Derby, Lancashire’s great Royalist magnate, was executed in Roundhead Bolton’s market place and his decapitated body lay overnight in our Parish Church on its way to burial in Ormskirk.
In 1698 Celia Fiennes described us as ‘a pretty market town built of stone and brick’ but a century later we were infamous for the kind of dark satanic mills mentioned in Blake’s Jerusalem. The transformation was driven first by waterways such as the Leeds and Liverpool Canal and later by coal. The first pit was sunk in the mid-15th Century and by 1900 there were 1,000 shafts within five miles of Market Place. For much of the 19th and 20th Centuries cotton was our king, though the industry was hit hard, first by the blockade of the Confederate ports in the 1860s and finally by the burgeoning textile industry of post-independence India. With abundant iron deposits we were a centre of metal-working and engineering, and the great steel mills of Top Place made us a target for the Luftwaffe in both wars.
We are known throughout the English-speaking world for pies, mint balls, cup-winning rugby and soccer teams and ikons of stage and screen such as Sir Ian McKellen, whom my wife’s aunt Winnie bounced on her knee when he was a mewling and puking infant. We are even more famous for a mythical pier, born of a passing quip by comedian George Formby Senior about a loading gantry on a canal basin. There are still occasional visitors who walk down Wallgate expecting to see the sea.
The image was taken up by George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier, exposing the squalid conditions suffered by many Wigan folk in the 1930s but few of us relished being patronised by the public schoolboy journalist.
The Pier complex and the mighty steam engine of the Trencherfield Mill, where my great, great grandfather Richard Clough was the engineer, are now a tourist attraction and cultural venue. Richard’s granddaughter, my great aunt Margaret, was born in the reign of Queen Victoria a few doors away from Orwell’s lodgings in Darlington Street. At her funeral, a hundred years later, in the fiftieth year after the accession of Elizabeth II, the Rector marvelled at the fortitude which had enabled her to survive a childhood in Edwardian Wigan. But as you will see in this book there was always much of interest and even of sylvan beauty in our ‘dirty old town’ and its surrounding villages. In Wigan we have always been able to lift up our eyes unto the hills.
In & Around Wigan Through Time
Published by Amberley Books February 2014