Wigan, a Lancashire town located midway between Liverpool and Manchester was the home of Henry Harold Harrison Sr. and his forebears for much of the nineteenth century. Wigan is an ancient town dating back to at least Roman times. During the Middle Ages it was a market town. However the events that eventually brought Harrisons, Bartons, Balls and Mawdsleys to Wigan began during the eighteenth century.

Wigan at that time was distinguished by an abundance of coal; the town and surrounding areas literally sat on top of mounds of coal stretching from the surface down thousands of feet. However Wigan was inland, about 25 km from the sea, and had no navigable waterways. Eighteenth century roads were not easily passable. So there was no easy or economic way to move Wigan’s coal to surrounding markets. Therefore the coal was initially mined near the surface mainly for local use. A typical coal pit might employ four or five miners with picks and shovels producing perhaps five tons of coal per day. There were hundreds of such shafts in the Wigan area in 1750.

In the mid-eighteenth century that began to change. A major commercial project to make the River Douglas navigable was completed in 1742. This created a viable coal transportation link between Wigan and Liverpool. In 1779 the Leeds and Liverpool Canal opened as far as Wigan displacing the Douglas navigation system. Now large barges could move coal from Wigan to Liverpool economically in less than a day. And the Port of Liverpool became Wigan’s commercial door to the rest of the world.

During the same period technological innovations in spinning and weaving began to transform textile manufacturing. Wigan had long been a centre for cloth-making but until about 1800 this was a cottage industry with people spinning and weaving in their homes. In the late eighteenth century innovations known as the spinning jenny, water frame, Crompton’s mule, and others began to automate many previously manual tasks. The spinning of thread and weaving of cloth moved from homes to “manufactories,” the cost of fabric plummeted, demand soared, and an industrial expansion was underway.

Helping matters along, James Watt’s invention of the steam engine provided the mechanical power to drive the spindles and looms in the new textile mills. Steam-powered railways were constructed providing an alternative to canals as a means of transporting coal and textiles. The deployment of steam engines expanded the demand for coal. Steam engines also helped expand the supply of coal as steam powered lifts, fans and pumps allowed coal miners to go deeper to veins previously beyond reach.

This economic “virtuous circle” of the Industrial Revolution caused Wigan’s economy to “take off.” Bales of raw cotton from the southern United States flowed through the Port of Liverpool and thence to Wigan along the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. Wigan’s coal moved the other way, as did Wigan thread and cloth. The town acquired the nickname “Spindle Town” reflecting the thousands of cotton spindles at work in dozens of spinning mills. Textile manufacturing and coal mining expanded rapidly. People streamed into Wigan to find work in the mines, mills and related industries. The population of Wigan parish grew from about 25,000 people in 1800 to over 100,000 people in 1870. Of these about 10,000 (mainly men) were employed by the coal mines and 10,000 (mainly women) were employed by the textile mills.

The massive influx of people carried with it Henry Harold Harrison’s forebears. Edward Barton left his family farm near Broughton in the 1850s to work in Wigan’s foundries. His wife’s parents, Henry Mawdsley and Ellen Barton left their family homes in Skelmersdale around the same time to take up shopkeeping in Wigan. Joseph Harrison gave up shoemaking in Haigh to become a coal miner in Poolstock circa 1862. His wife, Ellen Ball, left her grandfather’s farm to raise seven daughters, all of whom found work as weavers in Poolstock’s cotton mills.

Although Wigan’s economic boom was massive the benefit to ordinary working people was confined to somewhat steady employment. Life for these people was otherwise quite hard. They worked twelve to fourteen hours per day six days a week. Their wages might best be described as subsistence level. Working conditions were dangerous and workplace accidents common. Large families lived many to a room in small houses with none of today’s modern conveniences. The industrial sprawl of Wigan was almost certainly ugly and the town suffered from severe pollution. Henry Harold Harrison, growing up in this harsh environment, became a lifelong socialist opposed to the accumulation of vast wealth by small numbers of capitalists supported by widespread poverty among working people.

Along with the industrial expansion Wigan experienced during the nineteenth century came the expansion of municipal infrastructure to support a growing urban population. Whole residential neighbourhoods were developed to accommodate the influx of families. Roads, schools, shops, railroads, tramways, water works, gas works, local government, policing all needed to keep pace with the population growth.

The American Civil War (1861–1865) brought more severe hardship to the working people of Wigan. The flow of cotton from the American south was virtually stopped. Many of Wigan’s textile mills shut down and the workers were laid off. The demand for coal plummeted causing many of the coal mines to cut back production or shut down completely. A severe economic depression ensued, which became known as the Cotton Famine. Lacking any social programs to fall back on, thousands of families were poverty-stricken. Only charitable donations and programs saved many from starvation. (It seems quite likely that the relocation of Joseph Harrison and Ellen Ball from Haigh to Wigan was triggered by the Cotton Famine.)

However when the Civil War ended Wigan’s economy recovered quickly and growth resumed. By the turn of the century coal mining and textile manufacturing had become mature industries. Their expansion probably crested between the first and second world wars, then went into slow decline. The last of them were closed in the 1970s.

Several books have chronicled this story of Wigan with much more detail and colour than is possible here. Those interested in a less brief history of Wigan may want to look for:

  • Fletcher, Mike, The Making of Wigan (Wharncliffe Books, 2005)
  • Gillies, A.D., Wigan Through Wickham’s Window (Phillimore, 1988)
  • Davies, Alan, The Pit Brow Women of the Wigan Coalfield (Tempus, 2006)
  • Wigan a Century Ago (Landy Publishing, 1990)