The Chorley Pals

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Last week we went over to Manchester to see the Royal Exchange’s production of “the Accrington Pals”. I enjoyed it very much. I could particularly relate to it as the story was about the lives of ordinary working class people from Lancashire, the same sort of people as the majority of my ancestors.

The Pals battalions were formed shortly after the beginning of the First World War, to encourage men to join up. The first was set up in Liverpool and quickly afterwards Pals battalions were being recruited across the country. The idea was that it would be easier to recruit volunteers who would serve alongside their friends and workmates rather than to be posted to anonymous units. Accrington was the smallest town to recruit a battalion, but, in fact, only one company, a quarter of the battalion, were from Accrington. Another company was composed of men from outlying smaller towns in the district, one from Burnley (Z Company) and the fourth, Y Company, from the town where I grew up, Chorley (the Chorley Pals). The Accrington Pals became incorporated into the East Lancashire Regiment as it’s 11th Battalion.

The Chorley Pals  Company was made up of 212 men and 3 Officers, recruited from the town and outlying villages.

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Chorley Pals Memorial' page

The Chorley Pals (Picture source:Community archives and heritage Group)

Initially the battalion was sent out to Egypt in December 1915, to counter an expected Turkish assault on the Suez Canal. Nothing much came of this so in  February 1916, they were sent to France to take part in the Battle of the Somme. They were involved in the attack on Serre, at the northern end of the line, alongside other Pals battalions from Barnsley and Sheffield,  and they were slaughtered. Of the 720 in the battalion, 235 were killed and about 350 wounded (of whom 17 later died of their injuries) in about half an hour as they crossed no mans land, walking towards the German front line. The artillery bombardment that preceded the waves of infantry had made minimal impression on the German troops who had retreated to deep, underground shelters. When the waves of British soldiers climbed out from the trenches and walked across No-man’s Land, up a slope, the Germans  were ready for them. They had been told to expect minimal resistance.

The Accrington Pals were sent out in three waves and were mown down by the German machine guns. The Accrington company went out first, followed by the Accrington District company and then the Chorley Pals with the Burnley company last over the top. 31 men from the Chorley Pals were killed on the day, while three died from their wounds within a month of the assault. Of these, 21 have no known grave and are commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. Another 59 were wounded, making a total of 93 casualties out of approximately 175 men. The Accrington companies that had gone out before them fared even worse. A lot of men died. Was it worth it?

As far as I know, none of my relatives served in the Chorley Pals. My great grandfather was a career soldier who was in the army when war broke out. He was sent out to France during the first months of the war. Somehow he managed to survive, coming back home in 1916 only to be sent out to join  the forgotten war in Greece, where he died, probably of cholera, a few months before the end of the war in 1918.

We visited the Somme Battlefield during an Autumn break in Northern France, staying just south of Arras a few years ago. I felt that it was important for me to visit that section of the line where the men from my home town had been killed. It has been preserved as part of the “Sheffield Memorial Park”.

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The first thing that struck me was how little distance separated the two opposing front lines. And the Germans had a much stronger position on top of a slope. So the British troops had to walk up hill towards the enemy, making it much easier for them to be picked off.

There were a number of small cemeteries, all immaculately kept, in amongst where the trenches would have been and in no-man’s land itself. The British used to bury men where they fell.

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In amongst the remnants of the British trenches we found a memorial to the Chorley Pals – a plaque which included the town’s coat of arms.

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And there was also a small plaque attached to a tree

It was an emotional occasion.

For many years the Chorley Pals were largely forgotten in their home town. But following an appeal launched by Steve Williams,  a local historian, and Lindsay Hoyle the MP for Chorley, a memorial in the form of a statue of a soldier, was erected in 2010 on the “Flat Iron” market square in the town.

 

Further Information

Chorley Pals memorial website

Accrington Pals website

Percy Allsup’s diary

The battle for Serre

Sheffield Memorial Park

Geneva Old Town

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During my recent trip to Geneva I managed to find a few hours to explore the old town – la Vieille Ville. It’s a relatively small area occupying a hill on the left bank of he Rhone at the end of Lac Leman. Due to it being the depths of Winter, it was relatively quiet. It was cold, but the sun was shining and it was quite pleasant strolling around the steep cobbled streets.

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Today Geneva is a modern metropolis that has spread out considerably from the fortified town of 1841 illustrated in this old map.

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Image source:Wikipedia

The streets were lines with well restored old buildings, the majority four or five storeys high.

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The ground floor of many of them were occupied by interesting shops; this one selling antiquarian scientific instruments – clocks, telescopes, globes, manometers

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There were a significant number of expensive boutiques, antique shops and art galleries, some of the latter selling pictures by some selling works by well known artists. There’s clearly a lot of money in Geneva.

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The Protestant Cathedral of St Pierre stands on the top of the hill in la Place St. Pierre. It’s the highest point in the city and a good panoramic view can be enjoyed on a clear day from the top of it’s two towers.

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This statue was in the street near the Cathedral. I thought it’s style was similar to the work of Rodin. I didn’t make a note of the name of the person it represented.

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This statue of a rather emaciated young woman, by the Swiss sculptor Heinz Schwartz is in la Place Bourg de Four. I rather like it.

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Clémentine (1974) by Heinz Schwartz.

She must have felt chilly on the day I was there!

Just across from the cathedral is the Town Hall. It was here that the Geneva Convention on the humanitarian rules of war was signed and also where the League of Nations assembled for the first time in 1920.

 

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Inside the courtyard you can see the unusual sloping ramp. It is said to have been built to allow cannons to pulled up to the ramparts and, allegedly, to enable councillors to arrive at meetings on horseback or in their sedan chair.

Near to the Town hall there are a number of cannons on display inside a former granary. The walls of the building are decorated with  mosaic frescoes by Alexandre Cingria depicting important periods in Geneva’s history.

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After walking around for a while I called in to a pleasant small café on la Rue Saint-Léger, just off la Place Bourg de Four for a coffee to warm me up.

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It was very characterful

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and the walls were decorated with pictures and caricatures

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I guess that the area can be explored in half a day or less, depending on how long you spend mooching around the shops, boutiques and galleries and what attractions you visit. Barbara of Mildaysboudoir visited during the summer last year and wrote about it on her blog here. It looks like there’s more to see during the warmer months with stalls and other things going on.

The Accrington Pals at the Royal Exchange

THE ACCRINGTON PALS

Last Thursday evening we drove over to Manchester to watch the latest production at the Royal Exchange, Peter Whelan’s “The Accrington Pals” directed by James Dacre. It’s set in Accrington during the First World War and all the characters are ordinary working people, mill workers and the like – the same sort of people as my ancestors, some of whom came from Darwen in East Lancashire. The production has been very popular. We’d normally go along at the weekend but couldn’t get two seats together for any of the Saturday night performances. And the theatre was almost full on Thursday.

The Pals were units of volunteers drawn from a particular community or, sometimes, profession. The idea was that this would generate a spirit of camaraderie as they fought together and that it would be easier to recruit men to serve alongside their friends, neighbours and workmates. But they also died together and many communities were devastated when that happened to a large proportion of the volunteers in the slaughter that took place in the trenches of northern France and Belgium.

Accrington is well known as the smallest town to recruit a Pals Battalion. In fact only one company, a quarter of the battalion, were from Accrington. Another company was composed of men from outlying smaller towns in the district, one from Burnley and the fourth from the town where I grew up, Chorley (the Chorley Pals). The Battalion was involved in the first wave over the top during the Battle of the Somme and they were slaughtered.  584 men out of 720 were either killed, wounded or missing.

About 7 years ago we visited the Somme during an Autumn break in North East France. We visited the part of the front at Serre where the Accrington  Pals (including the Chorley Company) were stationed. It was very moving to see the little graveyards create in No-mans land where the men were mowed down by the German machine gunners. There were remnants of the trench system and also a monument to  the Accrington Pals, made of Accrington red brick for which the town is famous (and a small monument to the Chorley Pals).

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The play itself was mainly set in the town, and featured a small group of men who had joined the Battalion and their women in their lives. The first act covered the period before the Pals left the town, their departure for training in Carnarvon in Wales and the lead up to them being transferred to France to take part in the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

The second act was mainly set in the town and concentrated on the lives and reactions of the women “left behind”. There were a few short scenes featuring the Pals in the trenches and going over the top during the Battle of the Som
me. The play showed how lives and ideas were changed by the experience of war. It showed the strength of the women, (to be truthful Lancashire has always been a matriarchal society) how they became involved in “men’s jobs” and how they rebelled in a small way when , after the Somme, nobody would tell them what had happened to their husbands sons etc. They stormed the Town Hall to demand information and, finally got it (the initial rumour was that only 7 men had survived). The play also showed how the need to work together in the battalion caused some of the men to start to become politicised and question the status quo of Edwardian England. One of the Pals, the sensitive artist, Tom, talked about how there wasn’t a need for the money economy and how work should be shared with everyone doing their share of both interesting and tedious work.

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(Image source: Royal Exchange Theatre)

The production was very good too as it always is at the Royal Exchange. There were no big names, but the acting was of high quality. And all though none of the cast were from Accrington they all did a good job of talking with an East Lancashire accent. The set design was very good – reproducing a typical cobbled street from the period. And the actors had to endure being soaked by the regular “rain” showered down on them (it was meant to be Lancashire, after all) and I’m amazed that none of them slipped on the wet cobbles, particularly as some of them were wearing the clogs that were worn by Mill town workers during the early decades of the 20th Century.

Emma Lowndes was outstanding as May. She reminded me in terms of her looks, the way she talked and her presence of Jane Horrocks, who comes from Rawtenstall in the Rossendale Valley, East Lancashire, not too far from Accrington. Sarah Ridgeway as Eva was also good.  Rebecca Callard, as Sarah, and Laura Elsworthy, made a good double act introducing a little light hearted comedy into what is a serious story, and had some of the funniest lines. Of the men, I thought Gerard Kearns was particularly good and Simon Armstrong was a convincing Sergeant Major.

So another good night at the Royal Exchange, well worth braving the cold January night.

St Paul’s Cathedral

"Reader, if you seek his memorial, look around you." (English translation of the Latin epitaph on Christopher Wren’s tomb in St Paul’s Cathedral.

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Viewed across the river from the South Bank of the Thames near the Tate Modern, there is no denying that Christopher Wren’s masterpiece, St Paul’s Cathedral, is an imposing sight. Your eye is drawn towards the magnificent dome, standing proud above the nearby buildings.

Until last week I’d only ever seen the outside of the cathedral, being put off by the rather exorbitant entrance fee.  This can be avoided by attending one of the regular church services, but for me, as a confirmed atheist, that would be too high a price to pay! In any case those attending the service aren’t exactly at liberty to wander around. But having taken a short distance learning course on architectural history a couple of years ago, I really felt I ought to go and have a proper look at this iconic building and we decided to visit during our recent trip to London – the decision helped by finding out that there was a  “two for the price of one” entry offer available for visitors travelling down to the capital by rail.

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It’s a massive building, So big that it’s difficult to get a decent view of the whole structure. And it’s very different from any other Cathedral I’ve seen in Britain. They’re almost all built in Medieval Gothic / Romanesque style or Victorian Neo-Gothic. But St Paul’s is unashamedly different – Baroque, albeit with a restrained English twist. Mind you Christopher Wren had to compromise with the Anglican church establishment who didn’t want the building to mistaken for a Catholic church. If Wren had got his way it would have been more ornate and different in a number of respects, as can be seen in his “Great Model” .

I have mixed feelings about the exterior of the building. I think the dome is impressive (even if he did cheat in it’s construction – it’s really two domes, one inside the other, with an intermediate cone supporting the outer structure) but I am less taken with the main structure. To me it looks like it’s two buildings – one on top of the other. This is particularly evident at the front entrance. Here we have a portico with a triangular pediment (which looks good on it’s own) stuck on top of another one. It just looks wrong and messy to me.

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And on the rest of the structure there’s a similar approach. It just doesn’t gel for me. But then, what do I know?

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Anyway, having had a good mooch around the outside we climbed up the steps at the front of the building and paid our £15 to get in (it normally costs that per person). We discovered that due to essential maintenance work the Stone and Golden Galleries on the outside of the dome were closed to visitors from 7 January – 28 March 2013. I’m not sure we’d have had the nerve to climb all the way up to the Golden Gallery on the very top of the dome, but might have braved the Stone Gallery for the view over London. We did manage to climb the 259 steps up to the Whispering Gallery, though.

I was quite disappointed to find that photography wasn’t allowed, particularly given the high entrance fee. I know the building is expensive to maintain, and this is the justification for the fee, but when you’ve paid that much I think they ought to let you take photos. I can’t see a good reason for not allowing them (they are allowed in York Minster, for example). There are pictures on the Cathedral’s website.

The inside is impressive, but it is quite different from other Anglican cathedrals. The Nave, is relatively plain, with not paintings, but with some fine decorative stonework on the columns, which have very ornate capitals, the cornices and ceiling.

The inside of the dome is covered in frescos illustrating the life of St Paul painted by Sir James Thornhill, a major painter of the time. You get a closer view by climbing up to the Whispering Gallery.

The Quire, the area where the clergy and choir sit during services, is usually the fanciest part of a cathedral, and this is certainly the case in St Paul’s. The ceiling, in particular is covered with highly detailed mosaics. Quite Catholic.

The high altar stands at the end of the Quire at the East end of the building and is covered by an incredibly ornate baldacchino. I’ve never seen anything like it in an Anglican Cathedral before. It’s very Catholic in style, based, I believe on the one above altar in St Peter’s the Vatican. It was only installed in 1958, but was based on drawings by Wren himself.

So, my overall impression was that I was impressed by the skill of the architect and the craftsmen who designed and constructed the great building. And there were a number of aspects that I like. But although, as I admitted to above, I’m an atheist, I was brought up as a Protestant and feel uneasy with excessive Catholic style ornamentation, and there was too much of that in St Paul’s for me. I guess I’d have made a good Puritan!

After we’d looked around the Cathedral floor and been up the dome to the Whispering Gallery, we went down into the crypt. First stop was the cafe for a cup of tea and then we spent some time wandering around looking at the monuments and gravestones, particularly looking out for those relating to people we admire. I thought the memorial to William Blake was quite ironic, given his views on the Church of England .

I’m glad I took the opportunity to visit. But don’t think I’d be prepared to pay to explore the inside again. I’ll stick to taking in the view from across the river, which to my mind displays the best aspect of the building (you can only see the dome and the top part of the main structure).

 

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Tudor Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery

During our recent trip to London, we visited the National Portrait Gallery which has late night opening on a Thursday. I’d never really fancied looking around the gallery in the past as I thought it was full of stuffy portraits of establishment figures. But when we were in London last September we called in on impulse for an hour on the Thursday evening as we were passing and saw that it was open. We found that enjoyed it, so wanted to go back for a proper look. It certainly had plenty of “stuffy” portraits of establishment figures, but I really enjoyed looking at the Tudor period paintings, pictures of some ‘heroes’ from the Georgian period (Shelley, John Dalton, William Blake, William Godwin, Mary Wolstonecraft etc) and also the more modern portraits from the 1930’s and after WW 2.

I found the Tudor Gallery on the top floor particularly fascinating. The style of painting is quite different from those from later periods. The colours used for many of the paintings were much more vibrant than the dark, sombre tones used for most of the portraits painted through the Stuart period up to the 20th Century. There was extensive use of blue. Until the development of artificial pigments after the industrial revolution, good strong blue pigments, such as lapis lazuli derived from a ground up semi-precious stone, were very expensive. Although, we did notice that blue featured particularly on the portraits of members of the Royal family.

The detail in some of the paintings, such as on the dress in this portrait of a mature Elizabeth 1, was exceptional

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Queen Elizabeth 1 by an unknown Netherlandish artist
circa 1575 (Picture source National Portrait Gallery )

In some cases the paintings were rather “flat”, as in the following portrait of Elizabeth’s at her coronation, which was actually painted quite a few years after the event

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Elizabeth I in coronation robes by an unknown English artist, circa 1600  (Picture source: Wikipedia)

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Queen Mary I by Master John, 1544 (Picture source: Wikipedia)

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Catherine Parr, attributed to Master John, circa 1545 (Picture source: National Portrait Gallery)

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King Edward VI by Unknown English artist
oil on panel, circa 1547 (Picture source ; National Portrait Gallery)

There were some more sombre portraits, such as these of Elizabeth 1’s spymaster, Francis Walsingham.

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Sir Francis Walsingham, attributed to John De Critz the Elder, circa 1585 (Picture source:Wikipedia)

and Thomas Cromwell.

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Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, after Hans Holbein the Younger, early 17th century (1533-1534). (Picture source: Wikipedia)

I was particularly interested to see the Cromwell portrait having read Hilary Mantel’s novel based on his life, “Wolf Hall”, which mentions Holbein’s painting. In the novel Mantel has Cromwell looking at the portrait and commenting "I look like a murderer". He certainly has a very grim, almost devious, expression.

I thought that the paintings on display were in remarkable condition given their age. The National Portrait Gallery are clearly very good at their job in preserving delicate works of art.

Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery also have a good collection of Tudor era paintings, including these two

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According to Tarnya Cooper, Chief Curator & 16th Century Curator at the National Portrait Gallery, in an interview on the blog, “On the Tudor Trail

Very few portraits were produced in England before 1500 but portraiture became increasingly popular during the sixteenth century. The first commissions were mainly portraits of royalty, and often the exchange of portraits played a key role in marriage negotiations between courts.

That portraits can be misleading is shown by Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne of Cleves (his third wife). He, so the story goes,  made his decision to marry her having seen a flattering portrait painted by Hans Holbein the Younger, only to be disappointed (to put it mildly) when he saw her “in the flesh”. Thomas Cromwell’s role in arranging the marriage contributed to his downfall. However, I think that there is a lot more to it than that in a period when a monarch’s marriage was principally driven by political alliances and the desire to produce a male heir.

She goes on to say

Portraiture was then adopted by courtiers as a means of displaying status and power through the display of their costly dress, jewellery, coats of arms and symbols of office. From the 1540s portraiture spread beyond the court and came to be commissioned by merchants and citizens.

The Protestant Reformation in Northern Europe meant that there was a reduction in demand for religious paintings, so there were a large number of artists available who were probably only too glad to receive commissions to produce the portraits. It also presented an opportunity for artists from overseas such as  Hans Holbein the Younger, who came to England. Given some of the impressive works they produced, this shows how immigrants can make a very positive contribution to British culture.

Orwell in Wigan

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(Picture source: Wikipedia)

Today, 21st January, was the day that George Orwell died in 1950 after a three-year battle against tuberculosis. Penguin Books, who publish his writings, have designated the day “Orwell Day” in his honour (as a way of publicising his books, hopefully to sell a few more!)

Orwell is best known for his books “Animal farm” and “1984”, both of which I read at school and which are both critiques of totalitarianism, particularly Soviet Russia. And, as a consequence, Orwell is widely thought of as an anti-communist. But that is something of a distortion of his life and views. He was a socialist, and I don’t think that ever changed. But he unlike most left wing intellectuals during the 1940’s and 1950’s he wasn’t taken in by Soviet propaganda and, was able to see how they had betrayed the socialist cause. His position was informed by his experience in Spain serving with the POUM militia and during the Barcelona “May Days”, when the Spanish Communists fought and supressed the POUM and anarchist revolutionaries who had a strong presence in the city. His experiences are chronicled in his book “Homage to Catalonia”, a favourite of mine since I first read it in my late teens.

Orwell lived in Hampstead for a while and I wrote about this after we’d stayed there recently and came across a couple of plaques celebrating his time there. (We stayed in Hampstead again during our most recent trip to London just over a week ago, and had our breakfast in the cafe which used to be the bookshop where he once worked). But Orwell also has a connection with Wigan.  He visited the town in the 1930’s during his tour of the depressed northern industrial towns that resulted in his book “The Road to Wigan Pier”, published by the Left Book Club in 1937.

The Road to Wigan Pier

At the time Wigan was the centre of the Lancashire coal field and the main industries, coal mining, cotton spinning and weaving and steel and iron manufacturing, were all severely depressed. Living conditions for working people were generally very poor and with extremely high unemployment it was difficult for many Wiganers to put food on the table.

Take the figures for Wigan, which is typical enough of the industrial and mining districts. The number of insured workers is round about 36,000 (26,000 men and 10,000 women). Of these, the number unemployed at the beginning of 1936 was about 10,000. But this was in winter when the mines are working full time; in summer it would probably be 12,000. Multiply by three, as above, and you get 30,000 or 36,000. The total population of Wigan is a little under 87,000; so that at any moment more than one person in three out of the whole population — not merely the registered workers — is either drawing or living on the dole. Those ten or twelve thousand unemployed contain a steady core of from four to five thousand miners who have been continuously unemployed for the past seven years.

And writing about the environment in and around the town

I remember a winter afternoon in the dreadful environs of Wigan. All round was the lunar landscape of slag-heaps, and to the north, through the passes, as it were, between the mountains of slag, you could see the factory chimneys sending out their plumes of smoke. The canal path was a mixture of cinders and frozen mud, criss-crossed by the imprints of innumerable clogs, and all round, as far as the slag-heaps in the distance, stretched the ‘flashes’ – pools of stagnant water that had seeped into the hollows caused by the subsidence of ancient pits.

Orwell had an agenda and he sought ought the worst conditions, deliberately staying in a guest house that wasn’t typical of the homes of ordinary Wiganers and painted a grim picture of the town that many local people felt, and indeed still feel, was unfair. But there is no denying that it was “grim up north” during the 1930’s as these pictures of Wigan taken during the period show.

(Famous picture of an unemployed worker in Wigan in the 1930’s)

“Wigan pier”  was a music hall joke, invented by George Formby Senior (the father of the more famous Georg Formby junior) who came from the town. Wigan is 20 miles from the sea, but it has a canal and the “pier” was one of the small jetties used to load coal onto barges. Local people embraced the legend and today an area on the canal, just outside the town centre is known as Wigan Pier.

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Orwell is remembered in Wigan by a plaque located at the site of the lodging house where he stayed,

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which is now a patch of waste land.

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There’s also a pub named after him on he banks of the canal in the area still known today as “Wigan Pier”.

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Things have changed since the 1930’s. The traditional industries are long gone. And although there is no denying that living conditions have improved dramatically, unemployment is high and the town, like much of the north of England, have been badly hit by economic recession and government cutbacks. I wonder what Orwell would make of Wigan now?

 

Here’s an article by David Sharrock from the Observer last year – The road to Wigan Pier, 75 years on

A recent book by Stephen Armstrong – The Road to Pier Revisited – does what it says on the tin. Here’s a video where the author discusses his book at the RSA