Wigan, Ancient and Loyal

History taken from the "Ancient and Loyal" booklet, 1930.

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THE history of Wigan is typical of the history of provincial England. Down to the 12th Century, when the great families began to keep written records, very little is known either of the town itself or the immediate district. Yet quite clearly, by the beginning of the 13th century, when Wigan became a borough by royal charter, it already possessed a striking history.

ONE generally looks to philology to give a clue as to which of the several races who colonized England was responsible for giving it "a local habitation and a name." Is the name Celtic, Latin, Norse, or English? In the case of Wigan we are singularly unfortunate; it is a name which defies the philologist - with the result that all sorts of guesses have been made. Professor Ekwall, the latest and most scholarly writer on Lancashire place-names, plumps for a Celtic origin. Actually he has found another Wigan in Wales! The celebrated antiquary Camden preferred Latin, stating that the town was anciently known as Pibiggin (changed during Saxon times to Wibiggin), meaning a sacred building. There is no known authority for this statement, but the Roman altar preserved in the Parish Church certainly gives it some colour. Others propound an impossible derivation from the Saxon wig, meaning a fight, the suggestion having reference to the legendary battles of Arthur. More plausibly, there is the widespread place-name element wick, vic, vig, meaning a hamlet. Yet another suggestion is the Anglo-Saxon weg, meaning a way or road, which, with the plural ending en or an, would signify the cross-roads - a not inappropriate designation seeing that the great Roman highway from Richborough and Chester to Carlisle passes through Wigan, whilst another Roman road branches from it eastward to Manchester and York. That Wigan was an Anglo-Saxon town is clear from the use of the word "gate," instead of street, for the four principal ancient thoroughfares.

BUT to the Romans Wigan was known as Coccium. In the Antonine Itinerary, or road book, six Roman stations occur in Lancashire, and one of them, Coccium, has been identified with Wigan. It not only fits so far as the distances given are concerned, but agrees with the incidental evidence. Pottery and coins have been found in the centre of the town. An important collection of Samian ware was unearthed whilst digging the foundations of the Mining and Technical College, and is preserved in the museum of St. Joseph's College, at Upholland. Small finds of coins have been made at various times near the Market Place, and on the Mesnes, whilst two large collections have been discovered near Boar's Head, about two miles from the Market Place along the ancient road leading to the north. The second of these finds (made in 1926), comprising about 130 silver coins, is preserved in the Public Library.

WHAT was happening in Wigan between the departure of the Romans and the arrival of the Normans we have no knowledge - barely a hint of the Saxon period has come down to us. A 12th century law suit over the advowson of the Wigan Parish Church enables us to infer that the Church existed in the time of Edward the Confessor, but it is not till 1189 that the name of a Rector of Wigan is revealed to us. From that time the list of Rectors is an almost unbroken succession.

BY this time Wigan must have been a flourishing community. According to a record in the College of Heralds, Wigan was granted a borough charter by King Henry I. in the first year of his reign - the year 1100. In 1246 a royal charter granted the town wide powers of self-government. In 1295, Wigan, along with three other Lancashire Boroughs, was ordered to send two burgesses to Parliament. The names of these pioneer representatives reveal their burgess status; the were William the dyer, and Henry the butcher. In 1640 the citizens of Wigan put up a labour candidate in the person of Edward Prescott, a journeyman tailor. As a result of the charter of 1246 the trades of Wigan were organised in gilds on the London model, and Masters and Wardens of the various Gilds - Tailors, Pewterers, Potters, Braziers, Founderers, Cordwainers (Shoemakers), etc. - were annually elected for many centuries.

WIGAN has had many exciting periods in its history. In the early 14th century it was the centre of the Banastre Rebellion, and King Edward II. came to Wigan in 1323 to inquire into the causes of the trouble. He stayed in Wigan a fortnight, lodging at Upholland Priory, and personally tried the offenders with the assistance of a local jury. The struggle for power between the Corporation and the Manor led to frequent squabbles, the election of Mayor being several times attended by riot and bloodshed. The Civil War found Wigan on the side of the King. Despoiled by friend and foe alike, at the end of the turmoil Wigan was in a pitiable condition, and had to appeal to London for aid. In 1696 the town was the centre of the "Lancashire Plot" to restore James II. to the throne, and both in 1715 and 1745 it participated in the Jacobite aspirations. The Industrial revolution and the Chartist agitation also brought trouble to Wigan, which was again sorely stricken by the cotton famine of 1861-1865. To-day, Wigan is one of the worst sufferers from the post-war trade depression, its three great industries, coal, cotton, and iron, being the most severely affected.Yet Wigan, the "Ancient and Loyal" pursues its way cheerfully, its people determined that the difficulties of the present shall be overcome as their forefathers overcame the difficulties of the past.