A History of Wigan

By Tim Lambert

Early Wigan

Wigan began as a village but in the 13th century, it grew into a town. In 1246 the king granted Wigan a charter (a document giving the people certain rights). From then on Wigan had weekly markets. (In the Middle Ages there were few shops so if you wished to buy or sell anything you had to go to a market). Wigan slowly grew and by the end of the Middle Ages, it probably had a population of 2,500-3,000. To us, it would seem tiny but towns were very small in those days.

From the Middle Ages onward coal was mined around Wigan. In the town itself, the main industry was making wool. First, the wool was woven. Then it was fulled. Before the wool was dyed it was cleaned and thickened by being pounded in a mixture of water and clay. This was called fulling. Wooden hammers worked by watermills pounded the wool.

There was also a pewter industry in Wigan. By the early 17th century the population of Wigan was around 4,000. By then there was a grammar school in Wigan.

In 1642 there was a civil war between the king and parliament. The people of Wigan almost all supported the king.

Nevertheless in April 1643 parliamentary forces occupied Wigan. However, a year later the Royalists captured Wigan. They did not hold it for long. After the battle of Marston Moor in July 1644, the Royalists lost all of the north of England.

In 1651 Charles II led the Scots in an attempt to seize power. Many Englishmen joined him. However, a Royalist force was defeated by Parliamentarians in a battle on Wigan Lane.

During the 18th century, Wigan continued to be an important market town and its population grew rapidly. Clockmakers made clocks in Wigan and whitesmiths made pewter goods. Then in 1779, the Leeds and Liverpool Canal was completed as far as Wigan.

By the early 18th century the population of Wigan was around 6,000 and it grew rapidly.

In 1764 a waterworks was created in Wigan and in 1798 a dispensary opened where the poor could obtain free medicines.

Like many other towns in the north of England, Wigan was transformed by the Industrial Revolution from the end of the 18th century onward.

Wigan in the 19th century

By the beginning of the 19th century, the population of Wigan was 11,000. It boomed during the 19th century and by the middle of the century, it was almost 32,000.

From the end of the 18th century coal mining around Wigan vastly increased. Meanwhile, in 1790, an ironworks opened in Wigan. Also from the late 18th century, the cotton weaving industry in Wigan boomed. Meanwhile, the clock-making industry continued to flourish.

During the 19th century amenities in Wigan improved. From 1823 Wigan had gaslight. From 1848 Wigan was connected to Manchester and Liverpool by railway. In 1856 a cemetery opened and in 1873 Wigan Infirmary opened.

A new Town Hall was built in 1867 and a Market Hall was built in 1877. Mesnes Park opened in 1878. The same year a public library opened in Wigan.

From 1901 electric trams ran in the streets of Wigan (electricity was first generated in Wigan in 1900). They in turn were gradually replaced by trolleybuses from 1925 onward.

Wigan in the 20th century

By 1901 the population of Wigan was 60,000 and it continued to grow rapidly. However, the early 20th century was a troubled time. The 1920s and 1930s were years of mass unemployment in Wigan.

In 1937 Wigan became famous when George Orwell (real name Eric Blair) wrote n (the pier was a landing stage on the canal where boats could unload the cargo). The book painted a grim picture of poverty and unemployment in the town.

However, during the inter-war years, there was some slum clearance in Wigan and some council houses were built. Many more were erected after 1945.

In the late 20th century the traditional industries in Wigan declined rapidly. The last important colliery closed in 1992. Today the service industries are the most important ones in Wigan. Among these is tourism. In the 1980s the Wigan Pier area was redeveloped. The council took over the Trencherfield Mill Engine and The Way We Were Museum opened in 1986.

In 1974 Wigan and Leigh became part of Greater Manchester and the Galleries Shopping Centre opened in 1991.

Wigan in the 21st century

In the 21st century, Wigan continues to flourish. Grand Arcade Shopping Centre opened in Wigan in 2007. In 2023 the population of Wigan was 107,000.