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History man is history!
Thursday 28th July, 2005

The man whose vision and determination helped found the country's first 'history shop' right here in Wigan is about to become history himself!

Wigan's heritage services manager, Alastair Gillies, is retiring at the end of this month after more than 28 years' dedicated service to the borough.

56 year old, Belfast-born Alastair came to the rescue when the Victorian former Wigan Reference Library closed its doors for the final time in 1990. Designed by the renowned Romantic architect Alfred Waterhouse, the Library Street building was destined for property developers until Alastair persuaded councillors to invest 100,000 in creating a unique showcase for the boroughs rich heritage.

Wigan Council's History Shop attracted national interest when it opened in May 1992 and its comprehensive local archives and regular exhibitions, like last year's 'Heart of Soul' about Wigan Casino, continue to attract thousands of visitors every year.

In 1996, the History Shop became the first local authority-owned museum in the north-west to win support from the Heritage Lottery Fund. A 211,000 grant helped develop the ground floor of the building, with new exhibition and art galleries and shop, coinciding with the 750th anniversary celebrations of Wigan's royal charter.

Alastair Gillies says:

"Fifteen years ago the future of the building was up in the air, but nowadays it's hard to imagine the place where George Orwell researched The Road to Wigan Pier being anything but the History Shop. It's a wonderful place, with exceptional staff, and I'll really miss it."

Alastair's retirement coincides with another important milestone this month - the 40th edition of Past Forward, the popular local history magazine edited by Alastair Gillies. When it first appeared in 1991, Past Forward was a humble, eight page booklet with limited distribution. Today it boasts a worldwide circulation of 10,000 and all 44 pages of each edition are also available on cassette and online.

Alastair recalls:

"Alan Roby and I cobbled a few pages together more in hope than anything else, so I find it absolutely amazing that here we are 14 years later with issue 40 on the presses.

"Within a few weeks of the publication of that first edition I'd received more than enough contributions for the next issue and since then I've been spoilt for choice for material for every single issue. One of the greatest sources of pride and satisfaction for me is that Past Forward has enabled so many readers - locally, nationally and even internationally - to put pen to paper and write an article which they would probably never otherwise dreamed of doing.

"Editing Past Forward has been a pleasure and a privilege, and has brought me into contact with many wonderful people, far too numerous to mention. It has also brought families and friends together from all over the world, even reuniting old war comrades who had not seen each other for over half a century.

"It's been a memorable adventure, but perhaps it's now ready for a change in direction. Nothing lasts forever - not even heritage officers!"

Alastair Gillies joined Wigan Council from local government in Berkshire in 1978. He lives in Rainford with his wife Jane, a primary school teacher in St Helens; he also has two grown up sons, Jonathan and Richard.

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