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History of Leigh

History of Leigh
  • council: Wigan Council
  • population: 43, 000
  • phone code: 01942
  • postcode area: WN7
  • county: Greater Manchester

Leigh is a town within the Metropolitan Borough of Wigan, in Greater Manchester, England. It is 6 miles (10 km) south east of Wigan, and 12 miles (19 km) west of Manchester. Leigh is situated on low lying land to the north west of Chat Moss.

Historically a part of Lancashire, Leigh was originally the centre of a large ecclesiastical parish covering six vills or townships. When the three townships of Pennington, Westleigh and Bedford merged in 1875 forming the leigh Local Board District, Leigh became the official name for the town although it had been applied to the area of Pennington and Westleigh around the parish church for many centuries. The town became an Urban District in 1894 when part of Atherton was added.

In 1899 Leigh became a municipal borough. The first Town Hall was built in King Street and replaced by the present building in 1907. Leigh has a population of 43,006 according to the 2001 census.

Originally an agricultural area noted for dairy farming, domestic spinning and weaving led to a considerable silk and, in the 20th century, cotton industry. Leigh also exploited the underlying coal measures particulary after the town was connected to the canal and railways. Leigh also had an important engineering base. The legacy of Leigh's industrial past can be seen in the remaining red brick mills, some of which are listed buildings. Today Leigh ia largely a residential town with Edwardian and Victorian terraced housing around the town centre.


Leigh is from Old English leah which meant a place at the wood or woodland clearing, a glade and later a pasture or meadow, it was spelt Legh in 1276. Other spellings include Leech, 1264; Leeche, 1268; Leghthe, 1305; Leght, 1417; Lech, 1451; Legh, 16th century. As its name denotes it was a district rich in meadow and pasture land, and the produce of its dairies, the Leigh cheese, was formerly noted for its excellence. Westleigh has been named Westeley in 1237, Westlegh in 1238 and also Westlay in Legh in 1292.

Leigh Town Centre Street Pennington has been spelt Pininton and Pynynton in 1246 and 1360, Penynton in 1305, Pynyngton in 1351 and 1442 and Penyngton in 1443, the ending ton or tun denotes an enclosure, farmstead or manor in Old English.

Bedford, the ford of Beda, probably through Pennington Brook gave its name to this part of Leigh. Spellings include Beneford from 1200–21 and Bedeford in 1200 and 1296.

In the 12th century the ancient parish of Leigh was made up of six townships, including Pennington, Bedford, Westleigh, Atherton, Astley, and Tyldesley cum Shakerley. Weekly markets were held by the parish church and a cattle fair held twice-yearly.

Bedford manor was mentioned in documents in 1202 when it was held by Sir Henry de Kighley whose family held it until the sixteenth century, but never actually lived there.The Shuttleworths, landowners from the fourteenth century, were another prominent Bedford family. Richard Shuttleworth married a daughter of the Urmstons from Westleigh and brought part of the Westleigh inheritance to Bedford. This family lived at Shuttleworth House, or Sandypool Farm as it is also known, which is south of the Bridgewater Canal near to the old manor house, Bedford Hall which survives today as a Grade II listed building. Another prominent Bedford family, the Sales of Hope Carr Hall, had a great deal of influence in Bedford for over four hundred years, and owned more land than the Shuttleworths. The family were recusants and secretly kept the "old faith" when Roman Catholicism was subject to civil or criminal penalties. Hope Carr Hall was moated as was nearby Brick House.

Leigh - Harold
The manor house of Westleigh was at Higher Hall and existed in Richard I's time (1189–1199). In 1292 Sigreda, the heiress of the manor, married Richard de Urmston, and the manor passed to the Urmston family and remained there until the last of the male Urmstons died in 1659.It was later abandoned because of mining subsidence and Westleigh Old Hall became the manor by repute. The Ranicars and the Marsh families lived here. Westleigh Old Hall was another Leigh hall that had a moat.

The Pennington family owned Pennington Hall from about 1200 until they were replaced by the family of Bradshaw or Bradshaigh in 1312. The Bradshaws held the manor until 1703 when John, the last of the male line died. Pennington Hall was rebuilt in 1748 by the then owner Samuel Hilton and in 1807 sold to the Gaskell family of Thornes, Wakefield, who let it to a succession of tenants. Around 1840 James Pownall, one of the founder members of the silk manufacturing firm of Bickam and Pownall was tenant. Later occupants were Charles Jackson, cotton manufacturer, Jabez Johnson, and F.W. Bouth founder of Bouth’s Mill in 1862, The last resident was brewer, George Shaw who in 1920 offered the Hall and grounds to the Leigh Corporation. The hall was converted to a museum and art gallery in 1928 but demolished in the 1963. The grounds are now Pennington Park.

Early history

Very few prehistoric finds have been made in Leigh. Exceptions are a Neolithic stone axe found in Pennington and a bronze spearhead south of Gas Street. A single Roman coin was found at Butts in Bedford

Leigh was divided in its allegiance during the English Civil War, some of the population supporting the Royalists' cause while others supported the Parliamentarians. A battle was fought in the town on 2 December 1642, when a group of Chowbenters, men from neighbouring Atherton, beat back and then routed Cavalier troops under the command of James Stanley, the 7th Earl of Derby. Sir Thomas Tyldesley of Myerscough and Morleys Hall Astley was killed on the 25th August 1651 at the Battle of Wigan Lane and is buried in the Tyldesley Chapel in Leigh Parish Church. The Earl of Derby passed through Leigh again in 1651, when he spent his last night in the King's Arms, before going on to his execution in Bolton.

Before the Industrial Revolution, Leigh was famed for its dairy industry and production of Lancashire cheese, which was sometimes known as Leigh Toaster.

Industrial Revolution Butts Mill

At the end of the 16th century a domestic spinning and weaving industry began to develop. Work was brought from Manchester by agents who brought work weekly often to an inn, and where they collected the finished cloth. At first this work was done as a supplement to the income of local farmers and their families. The cloth woven in Leigh was fustian, a sort of rough corduroy and by the end of the 17th century middlemen, fustian masters, were dealing directly with weavers and selling the finished cloth in Manchester. It is a tradition in the town that a local man, Thomas Highs, was the inventor of a spinning jenny and the water frame in the 1760s, the latter invention being pirated by Richard Arkwright, who subsequently made a fortune from the patent royalties. These 18th century improvements to the spinning process meant that weavers were in great demand. but as power looms were introduced in factories in Manchester there was less work for the handloom weavers and there was serious unemployment in the town. In 1827 silk weaving began in Leigh, either as the result of a dispute or a labour shortage in the Middleton silk industry. William Walker was a middleman who opened the first silk mill in Leigh in 1828, others quickly followed including James Pownall and Henry Hilton whose mill survived until 1926. Several cotton mills were built in Leigh after the mid 1830s and some silk mills converted to cotton after 1870. The large multi-storey spinning mills came later and five survive today. There were mill complexes at Kirkhall Lane and Firs Lane in Westleigh, Pennington and Bedford. Leigh Mill, otherwise known as Leigh Spinners is a Grade II* listed building. Mather Lane Mill close to the Bridgewater Canal is a Grade II listed building. Over 6,000 people were employed in textiles in Leigh in 1911.
Parsonage Colliery in 1980

There had been drift mines in Westleigh since the 12th century but during the second half of the 19th century it became possible to mine the deeper seams and coal began to be an important industry and coal mining became the largest user of labour after the textile industry in Leigh. Parsonage Colliery was one of the deepest mines in the country, going down to over 3,000 ft (900 m). The extent of the mining in Parsonage Colliery increased in the 1960s with the driving of a tunnel (the Horizon Tunnel), which accessed previously inaccessible seams around 6 ft (2 m) high that were easy to work on compared to the previous seams of coal of 3 ft (1 m) or less. The seams were wet, and a series of pumps was used to remove the water into underground canals before it was finally pumped into the canal at Leigh. The winding engine at Parsonage was a steam engine, fuelled by methane extraction, while the neighbouring Bickershaw mine had a superior electric system. In 1974, the two were linked underground, and all coal was wound up at Bickershaw, which had superior winding facilities, while Parsonage was used for supplies. The entire Lancashire coalfield, including all of Leigh's collieries, is now closed to deep mining, although several open-cast mining activities are still in operation elsewhere in the county.

Other notable industry included the tractor factory of David Brown Limited, which was located in Leigh following the acquisition in 1955 of Harrison, McGregor and Guest Ltd.'s Albion range of farm machinery products.

Rope-manufacture was another local industry. Mansley's Rope works was on Twist Lane made rope by hand using a rope run. The factory burnt down in 1912 British Insulated Callender's Cables (BICC), formerly Anchor Cables and now part of Balfour Beatty had a large works close to the Bridgewater Canal. Another major 20th century employer was Sutcliffe Speakman who made activated carbon and brick making equipment.

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