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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.