For an ordinary coal-loading jetty in an inland town, Wigan Pier has carved out quite a name for itself over the past century.

George Orwell wrote about it, George Formby sang about it and the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh made a special visit to its former site 30 years ago.

** It’s the 80th anniversary since George Orwell published ‘The Road To Wigan Pier’ and the Mirror’s Ros Wynne-Jones is involved in a project to recreate his journey, which deals with the living conditions of England’s working poor. **
General view of Wigan Pier, in Lancashire England. The original “pier” at Wigan was a coal loading staithe, probably a wooden jetty, where wagons from a nearby colliery were unloaded into waiting barges on the canal. The original wooden pier is believed to have been demolished in 1929.

The pier was actually a large wood and metal platform built on to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal at Wigan. Coal was carried on wagons from a nearby colliery to waiting barges.

Its enduring fame was derived from the humour of its name as it conjured up images of seaside towns and promenades – but nothing could be further from the truth!

Wigan Pier was situated in a grimy industrial area miles from the coast, hence the joke. The buildings remain and the name has stuck.

The ‘joke’ is said to have started in 1891 when an excursion train to Southport got stranded on the outskirts of Wigan after leaving Wallgate Station.

The train came to a halt close to the gantry carrying the mineral line from Lamb and Moore’s Newtown Colliery in Scot Lane across the river and canal to the Meadows Colliery in Frog Lane.

One of the passengers asked ‘Where the hell are we?’ and a friend answered ‘It’s Wigan’s Pier!’

George Formby’s father, himself a music hall performer, kept the joke going during his act by saying he noticed the tide was in at Wigan Pier. The area was prone to flooding.

When the gantry closed, all that was left was the platform or tippler for coal wagons at the edge of the canal. This then became the point people associated with Wigan Pier.

George Formby Junior prolonged the seaside myth by referring to the pier in his 1940 song On the Wigan Boat Express.

George Formby comedian actor playing his ukulele in 1953
©mirrorpix

Author George Orwell lived in Wigan, Barnsley and Sheffield for three months in 1936 to research his book The Road to Wigan Pier.

He followed a route from Birmingham to Manchester to Leeds which was recreated in 2017 to mark the 80th anniversary of the book’s publication.

The modern journey ended with Orwell’s adopted son Richard Blair visiting the Wigan Pier museum to view a first edition of his father’s influential work.

Richard Blair George Orwell’s adopted son 12 March 2017

The Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1937, pulled no punches in its description of living conditions in northern England. Economic depression and unemployment were put under the microscope with stark realism.

Orwell was desperate to view Wigan Pier for himself, but its exact location was uncertain.

His association with the town, however, remains. Some regard it as a marketing opportunity – others say it suggests that the area has not improved since the 1930s.

Negative views were far from everyone’s mind when the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh visited the Wigan Pier industrial area in March 1986 to open the Way We Were museum.

Queen Elizabeth II at The Way We Were Museum at Wigan Pier. 21st March 1986.

Crowds packed the buildings and bridges along the canal to catch a glimpse of the royal couple as they made their way in a glass-topped boat.

After coming ashore, the Duke of Edinburgh attended a class in the rebuilt Victorian schoolroom while the Queen met staff and well-wishers.

The Way We Were museum was part of the Wigan Pier Experience museum and exhibition centre. It featured scenes from the Boer War and a colliery disaster as well as a complete pub.

The attraction closed in 2007, but the former 18th century Wigan Terminus Warehouses are still in place. They were refurbished in the 1980s.

Queen Elizabeth II visits Wigan Pier. The Queen waves to the crowd on the Quayside, followed by the Lord Lieutenant of Greater Manchester, Sir William Downward. 21st March 1986.

One of the most prominent buildings is the former cotton mill known as Trencherfield Mill, standing across the road from Wigan Pier. It was converted into luxury apartments in 2009.

Gibson’s Warehouse, dating from 1777, is located on the canalside. It became a pub, The Orwell at Wigan Pier, in 1984.

As for the old wood and metal pier platform, it ended up in the Orchard Street yard of Wigan scrap merchants Calderbanks in 1929.

Our photo shows the same yard in 1951, shortly after five wartime fire engines from Lancaster were broken up there.

This Firm Scarpped Wigan Pier: Pix show some of the 400 tons of scrap metal in the Orchard St. Wigan, yard of Calderbank’s, “Spot Cash” Metal Merchants. Somewhere in the pile is the remains of five fire engines, from Lancaster broken up a fortnight ago, all stalwart’s of the “Blitz” period. Wigan’s model makers from across the county come here for odd items of tubing, plate, rod, etc. for their locomotives etc. August 1951 P005206

Somewhere, in the 400 tons of twisted metal, could still be a piece of Wigan’s history.

*Readers can revel in the past 150 years with a brilliant anniversary book from the M.E.N. and local publishers iNostalgia.

The Changing Face of Manchester: Second Edition is packed with past images of Manchester contrasted with modern photos of how the same scenes look now.

The book retails at £14.99, but M.E.N. readers can order it for the reduced price of £9.99 plus postage and packing.

Just go to inostalgia.co.uk to place your order or telephone the order hotline on 01928 503777.