A Rose in Wigan–Part 2

Between mines and mills and factories, there are more steam engines per person in Wigan than in London, Pittsburgh, Essen or anywhere else. It happens to fit nicely that the palm oil we import from Africa lubricates those engines. The world runs on coal, and Wigan leads it. As long as we have coal we will continue to do so.’

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve just finished reading Rose, a novel by the American thriller writer Martin Cruz Smith set in Wigan in the 1870’s. It tells the story of one Jonathan Blair, an American mining engineer who, on returning from Africa in disgrace is employed, reluctantly, to visit the town to investigate the disappearance of a curate who was engaged to his patron’s daughter.

The author had certainly done his research and weaves details about working class life in Wigan 19th-century into his story. He visited the town and met with local historian and some former pit brow women. Here’s a cutting from the local paper

Pit Brow lasses meeting Martin Cruz Smith

In an interview in 1996 he reveals that he was a fan of George Orwell and had read The Road to Wigan Pier. and I’m sure that it’s no coincidence that his hero is called Blair, the real name of Orwell was Eric Blair.

Wigan, a working class town built on coal and cotton, wasn’t a pretty place during Victorian times and I’m sure his description of Wallgate is accurate

The thought occurred to Blair that if Hell had a flourishing main street it would look like this.

I found it fascinating to read the names of places I knew in the book. His hero stayed in the Minorca Hotel on the corner of Wallgate and King Street. It’s still there, but has gone through several name changes over the years – it’s now called the Berkeley and at one time was known as Blair’s. Here’s how it looked in about 1900

Minorca Hotel.

The Minorca Hotel on Wallgate (from Wigan World website)

Various pubs are mentioned, there were a large number in Wigan, including the one nearest to where I live, the Balcares (now renamed the Crawford Arms) on Scholes – the name of both a thoroughfare and a district of the town just west of the town centre. In fact much of the novel is set in Scholes, which at the time was populated by miners and other workers packed in back to backs and houses built off dark, narrow courtyards.

Scholes, Wigan, 1890’s (from Wigan World website)

The slums were cleared in the 1960’s and I lived there for a few years in a Council flat. And now I’m only a few minutes walk away from the district. So it was rather odd to be reading about the same streets and Scholes bridge, which I still cross regularly, in a novel by an International renowned author.

His descriptions of working in the mines are excellent, and really bring the experience of going down a mine to life

The cage started slowly, down through the round, brick-lined upper mouth of the shaft, past round garlands of Yorkshire iron, good as steel, into a cross-hatched well of stone and timber and then simply down. Down into an unlit abyss. Down at twenty, thirty, forty miles per hour. Down faster than any men anywhere else on earth could travel. So fast that breath flew from the lungs and pressed against the ears. So fast that nothing could be seen at the open end of the cage except a blur that could whip away an inattentive hand or leg. Down seemingly for ever.

Mains Colliery, Bamfurlong 14th Dec 1892

Mains Colliery, Bamfurlong 14th Dec 1892 (from Wigan World website)

Blair crawled out into a narrow tunnel, the length of which was populated by shadowy figures wearing only trousers and clogs, some only clogs, covered by a film of dust and glitter, swinging short, double-pointed picks. The men had the pinched waists of whippets and the banded, muscular shoulders of horses, but shining in the upcast light of their lamps what they most resembled was machinery, automatons tirelessly hacking at the pillars of coal that supported the black roof above them. Coal split with a sound nearly like chimes. Where the coal seam dipped, men worked on knees wrapped in rags. Other men loaded tubs or pushed them, leaning into them with their backs. A fog of condensation and coal dust rose from them.

Miner hewing coal.

Miner hewing coal (from Wigan World website)

Given my line of work, I was particularly interested to read his descriptions of the dangers posed by firedamp and the way that miners could “read” the danger using their Davy Lamps

From the German Dampf. Meaning vapour. Explosive gas.’ ‘Oh,’ said Leveret. ‘Methane. It likes to hide in cracks and along the roof. The point of a safety lamp is that the gauze dissipates enough of the heat so that you won’t set the gas off. Still, the best way to find it is with a flame.’ Battie lifted the lamp by a rough column of rock and studied the light wavering behind the screen of the gauze. ‘See how it’s a little longer, a little bluer? That’s methane that’s burning.’

And there were other “damps” too

When firedamp explodes it turns to afterdamp. Carbon monoxide. The strongest man in the world could be running through here at top speed, but two breaths of that and he’ll drop to the floor. Unless you drag him out, he’ll die. In fact, I’ve seen rescue attempts where one, two, three men will drop trying to pull one man out.

The Davy Lamp (By Scan made by Kogo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

In designing his lamp, Humphry Davy was largely motivated by a desire to save lives (although the search for glory was a factor too, it has to be said) and he refused to take out a patent, even though strongly encouraged to do so. He wanted his lamp to be freely available. Sadly, although the lamp was intended to save lives it has been said that it actually caused the death of more men because the mine owners used the lamp as an excuse to send their workers into more dangerous workings.

The novel was well written, and not just the details about Wigan and life as a miner. It was a gripping story, if a little far fetched. The ending certainly was. But a good read nevertheless.

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A Rose in Wigan – Part 1

I’ve just finished reading Rose, a novel by the American thriller writer Martin Cruz Smith. Best known probably for his books set in Russia during the Cold War, one of which Gorky Park was turned into a film starring William Hurt that I watched quite a few years ago. This book, however, is set somewhere equally exotic – Wigan in the 1870’s.

It tells the story of one Jonathan Blair, an American mining engineer who, on returning from Africa in disgrace is employed, reluctantly, to visit the town to investigate the disappearance of a curate who was engaged to his patron’s daughter.

Rose, of the title, is a “Pit Brow Lass” – a young woman employed in a local coal mine. The Wigan Pit Brow Lasses were somewhat notorious. They worked on the surface (women being forbidden to work underground by the Mines and Collieries Act 1842) at the coal screens on the pit bank (or brow) picking stones from the coal after it was hauled to the surface or loading wagons.

They wore distinctive attire– in particular, trousers covered with a skirt and apron, old flannel jackets and shawls or headscarves to protect their hair from the coal dust.  Although practical, their clothing was not considered to be feminine and this provided some with an excuse to object to women working in the mines. Underlying this, of course, were the real reasons, economic and social and there were attempts made to ban the women working. But they fought back with spirit and there were women still working at the pit brow in Wigan right into the mid 20th century. Not now, of course, there aren’t any pits left.

For whatever reasons (some probably not so savoury) there was a public fascination with the women and the way they dressed and portraits and postcards of them in working clothes were produced commercially. We saw this rather romanticised small statue of a Wigan Pit Brow Lass on display at the Hepworth in Wakefield (another mining area) a few years ago.

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A number of photographic studios in Wigan produced postcards showing posed images of local women. Here some examples from the Wigan World website.

Wigan Pit Brow Lass card.

4 Pit Brow Lasses

A Wigan Colliery Girl. 1909.

Colliery Girls, Wigan.

A walk to Worthington Lakes

Although we live close to the centre of talk, a short stroll down the hill and we’re by the side of the river and can walk for miles away from roads and traffic through woodland, along the canal and through the countryside. So, last Sunday, on a sunny afternoon, we decided to walk to Worthington Lakes. It’s about 9 miles there and back, but an easy walk.

Down to the Dougie

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following the path through woodland

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Through the Plantations

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Then along the canal

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Narrow boats at the Red Rock moorings

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Winter Hill visible now across the fields

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Canal side sheds

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Carrying on along the canal

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We cut across the Golf course, past Arley Hall

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and took the path across the greens (keeping an eye out for flying golf balls!)

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and into Arley Woods

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Lots of bluebells in bloom

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We crossed over the Dougie

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and then emerged alongside Worthington Lakes

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a chain of three small reservoirs built in the 1860’s to supply Wigan with drinking water.

We did a complete circuit of the lakes

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Stopping part way round for a brew at KIlhey Court Hotel

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Back through Arley Woods

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and on to the canal towpath, this time avoiding the golf course

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We retraced our route back along the canal

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and through the Plantations back home.

After the Deluge

Didn’t it rain, children
Talk ’bout rain, oh, my Lord
Didn’t it, didn’t it, didn’t it oh my Lord
Didn’t it rain?

(Song by Mahalia Jackson)

The north of England has been battered by heavy rain for several weeks now. Cumbria being particularly badly hit before Christmas with repeated floods. Then on Boxing Day it was the turn of Lancashire and Yorkshire.

Although we got off lightly compared to places like York, Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd on the other side of the Pennines and Ribchester, Whalley and Croston over here, the River Douglas and othe watercourses in Wigan burst their banks. The flood defences on the Dougie, a dam built upstream of the town centre, were overwhelmed – water can be seen running over the top of the dam in the following picture.

It happened so quickly. I’d popped out to Tesco’s and took the path down by the river and could see that the river was running high. When I came out again a few minutes later it had overflowed and was beginning to submerge the path. The shortest route home was blocked by flood water.

For the rest of the day the news was dominated about the effects of the deluge on the north of England, with local reports of houses and shops flooded and roads closed. But the next day the clouds had cleared and I woke to blue skies. Feeling in need of some exercise after indulging ourselves for a few days we decided to go out for a walk so laced up our boots and set out towards the Plantations.

The flood waters had receded and although the Dougie was full and flowing fast, we were able to walk along the path towards the dam. It was now holding back the water, forming a lake up the valley. “Look out for the Loch Whelley Monster” shouted out a passer by walking his dog

The bridge over the Yellow Brook and the main path up through the Lower Plantations were submerged

So we took the rather muddy path through the woods on the hill above the brook, crossing higher up the valley.

The rest of the route was generally fine, if a little muddier than usual.

We headed up through the Plantations, crossing the canal

and headed up past Haigh Hall

Stopping at the stables cafe to buy some drinks, we continued along past the car park and then down Sennicar Lane

back towards the canal and Leyland Mill. Then back home for coffee and stroopwafels which we’d bought on Manchester Christmas Market a couple of weeks ago – bringing back memories of our short holiday in Amsterdam in August.

With more rain to come over the next few days, memories of Christmas and New year are not going to be so pleasant for many people in th eNorth of England.

Good luck Latics

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I’m not a football fan. I used to be, but, for me, the sport has been ruined by the money poured in by Sky and the likes which has led to teams filled with prima donnas, mainly from overseas, on obscene wages.  So these days I much prefer watching Rugby League.

But tomorrow is the Challenge Cup Final and Wigan Athletic are playing Manchester City. They’re massive underdogs, but every dog has it’s day! As they’re from my home town, I hope they win. And I hope the supporters have a great day out at Wembley. I’ll be watching the match – although the start time of 5 o’clock once again illustrates how T.V. dictates how the game is run.

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So good luck Latics.  Miracles do happen…..sometimes