The Wigan Pier Heritage Centre

Fifteen miles west of Manchester, seven miles south-east of Wigan, Leigh is the opposite of a tourist destination: a working-class town without any sights. Under a dreary, dark-grey, drizzling December sky, Leigh appeared to me less like a Lancastrian than a Lovecraftian town—only that there was no sea, no nature, nowhere to escape, just street after street of terraced houses. What once must have been a lively town centre felt like a cemetery. Of the Victorian and Edwardian music halls, cinemas and pubs only empty husks remained, standing around forlorn and decaying, only one of them housed lonely, desperate looking betting shop. Life has flown to the outskirts, where huge shopping centres and supermarkets vie for customers. The only lively, welcoming place in Leigh’s centre is its public library, a surprisingly well-designed Brutalist building. Here Leighites come for help with council services, for evening classes, to use the internet or simply to chat.

Among the Leighites I was sticking out like sore thumb—a sore German thumb at that—something I never feel in London. Later in the archive, an elderly woman came up to me to ask where I came from. Not satisfied with the answer “London”, I reluctantly and, for whatever reason, embarrassedly admitted my nationality. She said, she forgave me. In contrast to Manchester but like most of surrounding Lancashire, the people of Leigh overwhelmingly came out for Brexit. It’s hard to blame them. They are not exactly the winners of modernity. In a place like this, every change must seem like a change for the better. Only I think the people here, having had to shoulder the burden first of industrialisation and then of deindustrialisation, will find whatever change may come from Brexit will not be to their advantage.

What brought me to Leigh was the old town hall. It houses the archive of the Metropolitan Borough of Wigan, of which Leigh is a part of, including the papers of the Wigan Pier Heritage Centre, which will be one of the case studies in my book. Opening in 1986, the Wigan Pier Heritage Centre occupied a central space in—and might even be said to have triggered—the so-called “heritage debate” or “heritage panic” of the 1980s.1 Robert Hewison used it as point of departure in his book The Heritage Industry (see my blogpost from Januar 2016). In his eyes, Wigan Pier created “not so much an informative, as an emotional experience, a symbolic recovery of the way we were”.2 It did not educate about history, it sold nostalgic escapism. Hewison was not the only one to think so. In a review of Hewison’s book in the Guardian, the art historian Waldemar Januszczak took the same line: “The new Wigan Pier’s Cousin is not the museum but the fairground. By building a fantasy of the past we avoid the reality of the present.” Like Hewison, Januszcazak believed heritage’s interest in the past was driven by “a nostalgic longing for non-existent better days”.3)

Hewison and Januszczak certainly had a point and I will deal with their critique at length in my book. At the same time, it doesn’t feel entirely fair when two London-based middle-class academics with easy access to museums, galleries and plenty of other cultural offerings lambast the north for wanting a piece of the pie. Going through box after box of newspaper articles about the Wigan Pier Heritage Centre I was struck by how much pride Wiganers took in it. There were about a dozen articles on Hazel and Ian alone, a young couple from London, who had won a trip to Wigan and were welcomed enthusiastically as the town’s “first tourists”. Reading these articles, I couldn’t but share into the Wiganers optimism. Soon I was sharing their heartbreak, too. After a great start with half a million visitors in the first year, Wigan Pier had to deal with decreasing visitor numbers and rising costs before long. It managed to limp on till 2007, when it was closed. Today the building of the heritage centre stands deserted and unused next to the old canal, wedged between two busy roads.

This clip gives a good impression of the Wigan Pier Heritage Centre:

Peter Lewis, the first director of Wigan Pier Heritage Centre, or “piermaster” as he liked to call himself, understandably took offense with the attacks on his brainchild. His defence, though, also partly confirmed Hewison’s critique. For all his insistence on “quality of life of local people”, “employment” and “tourism”, he said rather little about history. Still, Lewis eloquently exposed Hewison’s polemical use of nostalgia and simultaneously defended the emotion:

Nostalgia was once a perfectly good word. Now it’s a stick used by those who consider themselves superior to beat the emotions or experiences of others. Of all the words we use, however, it is the one which properly understood, conveys most. It means to look back—to seek a return but with a sense of pain. It is not sentimental or cloying. If anything it is what we most want our visitors to experience. As individuals and communities we have a deep need and desire to understand ourselves in time. The way we are, the way we will be, is the direct result of the way we were. I am not ashamed that my colleagues and I try to convey the spirit of people now past. The thoughts, the attitudes and memories of them, our parents, grand and great grandparents, are ingrained in us far more deeply than we realise.4

I cannot end this post without mentioning George Orwell. Orwell lived in Wigan for a couple of months in 1936 to research the life of the working class and particularly the unemployed. This research became Orwell’s most personal book The Road to Wigan Pier. It is made up of two parts: the first a reportage about Wigan, the miners and the unemployed, the second an autobiographically informed, self-critical discussion of the British class system and socialism. Orwell might also help us to understand what is often discussed in terms of nostalgia. In The Road to Wigan Pier he writes:

Moreover, even in the worst of the industrial towns one sees a great deal that is not ugly in the narrow aesthetic sense. A belching chimney or a stinking slum is repulsive chiefly because it implies warped lives and ailing children. Look at it from a purely aesthetic standpoint and it may have a certain macabre appeal.5

Even at Orwell’s time it was possible, then, to block out the squalor and look at the industrial landscape from a purely aesthetic angle. Now that the hardships of industrial life are safely in the past—or rather equally far removed in countries on the other side of the globe—this has become even easier.6 This is born out not least by publications in the local history section of the public library like Nostalgic Wigan or Golden Years of Wigan. For today’s visitors to former sites of hardship—coal mines and collier’s cottages—part of the “macabre appeal” may lie inrealizing that they have escaped this world. The writer Douglas Coupland called this “historical slumming”: “The act of visiting locations such as diners, smokestack industrial sites, rural villages—locations where time appears to have been frozen many years back—so as to experience relief when one returns back to ‘the present’.”7 What brings us to such places is not nostalgia for the past than gratefulness for living in the present.

Understandably, the Wiganers have a complicated relationship with Orwell: he might have made their city famous but what he made it famous for was industrial squalor. This issue came to a head in 1984, when Orwell was celebrated up and down the country. Would Wigan join in? While some on the town council opted to ignore him, others wanted to use him for publicity. The latter faction won and Wigan got back at Orwell in a very 1980s, Thatcherite way. It exploited Orwell to advertise the heritage centre—the pub attached to which was called “TheOrwell”—and sell merchandise. There was even a Big Brother beer. To this day, Wigan’s attitude to Orwell remains divided. When I visited the Museum of Wigan Life, a local history museum located in the old public library, the lady at the entrance pointed out that Orwell had been here during his stay in Wigan. However, when I looked for his book in the museum’s shop it was nowhere to be seen. For me, the Orwell connection was the highpoint of my visit. When discussing the Wiganer’s attitude to him with the very helpful archivist in Leigh, he asked me if I would like to see his signature in the visitor book of Wigan Public Library. Hardly containing my excitement, I said I would. Two minutes later I had it in front of me. There it was, the sixth entry for 13 February 1936: E. A. Blair.

  1. See Robert Lumley, The Debate on Heritage Reviewed, Roger Mildes, Lauro Zavala (eds.), Towards the Museum of the Future. New European Perspectives (London 2002), 57-69; Peter Mandler, The Heritage Panic of the 1970s and 1980s in Great Britain, Peter Itzen, Christian Müller (eds.), The Invention of Industrial Pasts. Heritage, Political Culture and Economic Debates in Great Britain and Germany, 1850-2010 (Augsburg: Wißner, 2013), 58-69. []
  2. Robert Hewison, The Heritage Industry. Britain in a Climate of Change (London 1987), 21. []
  3. Waldemar Januszczak, Romancing the Grime, The Guardian (2 September 1987 []
  4. Peter Lewis, Wigan Pier Strikes Back, John Iddon (ed.), The Dodo Strikes Back (London: Strawberry Fair, 1988), 13. []
  5. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (London: Penguin, 2014), 100. []
  6. See Tim Strangleman, “Smokestack Nostalgia,” “Ruin Porn” or Working-Class Obituary: The Role and Meaning of Deindustrial Representation, International Labor and Working-Class History 84 (2013), 23–37. []
  7. Douglas Coupland, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (London: Abacus 1992), 13. []