Wigan Pier is an area around the Leeds and Liverpool Canal in Wigan, Greater Manchester, England, southwest of the town centre. Although the name conjures up an image of a seaside pleasure pier, Wigan is in fact an inland and traditionally industrial town. The original “pier” was a wharf where coal from a nearby colliery was transferred from wagons into canal barges via an iron tippler;[a] the original wooden pier is believed to have been demolished in 1929.
The pier was the butt of music hall jokes by George Formby Senior in the early 20th century, and his son, the more famous George Formby, referred to it in his comic song “On the Wigan Boat Express”, but it also received more serious attention in George Orwell’s 1937 novel The Road to Wigan Pier.
The Road to Wigan Pier
Orwell’s novel dealt in large part with the living conditions of England’s working poor. In response to a critic, Orwell insisted “He [Orwell] liked Wigan very much – the people, not the scenery. Indeed, he has only one fault to find with it, and that is in respect of the celebrated Wigan Pier, which he had set his heart on seeing. Alas! Wigan Pier had been demolished, and even the spot where it used to stand is no longer certain.” Some have embraced the Orwellian link, as it has provided the area with a modest tourist base over the years. “It seems funny to celebrate Orwell for highlighting all our bad points, but Wigan wouldn’t be anywhere near as famous without him,” said the Wigan Pier Experience’s manager, Carole Tyldesley. “In the end George Orwell has proved to be a strong marketing tool.” Others regard this connection as disappointing, considering it an insinuation that Wigan is no better now than it was at the time of Orwell’s writing. Writing in The Independent, Paul Vallely wrote that “What he [Orwell] wrote still colours people’s views of Wigan … But if Wigan is going to grow it’s got to leave Orwell behind and sell all that.”
The difference between Orwell’s time and today is represented in the canal scene from The Road to Wigan Pier: “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. It was horribly cold. The ‘flashes’ were covered with ice the colour of raw umber, the bargemen were muffled to the eyes in sacks, the lock gates wore beards of ice. It seemed a world from which vegetation had been banished; nothing existed except smoke, shale, ice, mud, ashes, and foul water.”
Today the canal is only used for recreational boating and fishing. Plans to regenerate the Wigan Pier area with “canal-side walkways, houses, a food hall and events venue” were announced in May 2019.
- A tippler was a device that tipped the wagons so as to discharge their contents.