Atherton (pop. 20,300) is a town within the Metropolitan Borough of Wigan, in Greater Manchester, England and historically a part of Lancashire. It is east of Wigan, north-northeast of Leigh, and northwest of Manchester. For about 300 years from the 17th century Atherton was referred to as Chowbent, which was frequently shortened to Bent, the town's old nickname.
Along with neighbouring Shakerley, Atherton has been associated with coal mining and nail manufacture since the 14th century, encouraged by its outcrops of coal. At the beginning of the 20th century the town was described as "the centre of a district of collieries, cotton mills and iron-works, which cover the surface of the country with their inartistic buildings and surroundings, and are linked together by the equally unlovely dwellings of the people". Atherton's last deep coal mine closed in 1966, and the last working cotton mills closed in 1999. Today the town is the third largest retail centre in the Borough of Wigan; almost 20% of those employed in the area work in the wholesale and retail trade, although there is still some significant manufacturing industry in the town.
Evidence has been discovered of a Roman road passing through the area, on the ancient route between Coccium (Wigan) and Mamucium (Manchester). Following the Anglo-Saxon invasion of England, Atherton, which is built on and around seven brooks, became part of the manor of Warrington until the Norman conquest, when it became a township or vill in the ancient parish of Leigh. Since 1974 the town has been part of the Metropolitan Borough of Wigan, a local government district of the Metropolitan County of Greater Manchester.
Atherton was recorded as Aderton in 1212 and 1242, and Atherton in 1259. Opinions differ as to the derivation of the name. One is the farmstead or village of a man named Aethelhere, an Old English personal name and the suffix tun, meaning an enclosure, farmstead or manor estate; another is adre, Saxon for little brook with the suffix tun. Either is possible as Atherton is bounded by brooks to the west and south, and crossed by several others. The western boundary is Hindsford Brook, originally named Goderic Brook after a Saxon saint.
The Chow – also recorded as Chew, Cholle and Chowl – family were tenants of the Athertons living at the valley by Chanters Brook. This part of the township became known as Chow's Bent but the meaning of Bent has been lost, perhaps a bend or slope. It was referred to in the 14th century as Chollebynt or Shollebent. Chowbent, or Bent, was the name given to the built-up part of Atherton from the mid-17th century for at least 300 years. As the population grew, the resulting town was called Atherton, although the names Chowbent or Bent are used by locals.
Evidence of a Roman road and Bronze Age settlement have been found in the area. The Roman road between Manchester and Wigan is shown on the 1849 6" OS map crossing Miller's Lane at 90 degrees about halfway down. The site of Gadbury Brickworks at the Gibfield Colliery site has been excavated, and evidence of Roman and possibly earlier settlements found.
The manor was held by the Atherton family from the de Botelers, whose chief manor was at Warrington. William and Nicholas Atherton fought at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. The manor house was situated towards the south of the ancient township. Christopher Saxton's map shows that there was a medieval deer park in the time of Elizabeth I. "Mad" Richard Atherton, the last direct male descendant of the Athertons is remembered for two events; his expulsion of the congregation from the first Atherton Chapel in 1721, and building Atherton Hall on a grand scale, to designs by architect William Wakefield. Work on the hall started in 1723 and was not finished until 1743. The carriage drive from the hall led over Lion's Bridge down an avenue to gates which faced the parish church in Leigh where the Atherton's had a chapel. Richard Vernon Atherton was the last of the Atherton male line. He married Elizabeth Farington and had a daughter Elizabeth.
The Atherton family's association with the township ended with Richard Atherton's death in 1726. His daughter, Elizabeth, married Robert Gwillym and their son, Robert Vernon Atherton, married Henrietta Maria Legh. They had five children, the sons died young, their eldest daughter Henrietta Maria Atherton married Thomas Powys, 2nd Baron Lilford whose father was ennobled by Pitt the Younger in 1797, taking the title of Baron Lilford. He left his estates to his son, Thomas Atherton Powys. The Atherton estate was inherited by Lord Lilford, who preferred to live at his family seat, Lilford Hall in Northamptonshire. Lord Lilford could not afford the upkeep of another house and Atherton Hall was put up for sale but, after failing to sell, it was demolished in 1824. Some of the outbuildings were left standing and are private property still known as Atherton Hall. This portion of Atherton was incorporated into Leigh in 1894 and the area became a public park.
The area was divided in its allegiance during the Civil War, in 1642 men of Chowbent were on their way to Leigh Church when word came that James Stanley, 7th Earl of Derby's Royalist troops were marching through Leigh probably on route for Manchester. The men of Chowbent armed themselves and drove the Earl's men back to Lowton Common, killing some, wounding others and taking prisoner about 200 men: "... we are all upon our guard, and the Naylors of Chowbent, instead of making Nayles, have busied themselves making Bills and Battle Axes." (Civil War tracts of Lancashire, Chetham Society Series, vol II).
In 1715, during the Jacobite Uprising the supporters of the Old Pretender were marching on Preston. General Charles Wills wrote to Minister Wood of Atherton Chapel asking him to raise a force to be at Cuerden Green the following day, 12 November. Minister Wood led a force of Chowbent men who were given the job of guarding the bridge over the River Ribble at Walton-le-Dale and a ford at Penwortham, which they defended successfully. The Highlanders were routed, and for his efforts Parson James Wood was given £100 annuity by Parliament and the title "The General" by his congregation.
Atherton, along with neighbouring Shakerley, was associated with coal mining and nail manufacture. Alexander Naylor was taxed on his goods in 1332, showing the industry was present for at least 600 years, encouraged by the proximity of outcrops of coal. Iron was brought from Derbyshire, Yorkshire and even Spain. A variety of nails were made, lath nails, slate nails, thatching nails and sparrowbills. The nail smithies manufactured ploughs and scythes; their products were taken by pack horse to be sold in Manchester, Denbigh, Clitheroe and Kendal. The nail industry developed into the manufacture of nuts and bolts. Thomas Blakemore was the first in 1843 and by 1853 there were eight makers of nuts and bolts including James Prestwich and Robert Parker. Some manufacturers of nuts and bolts made spindles and flyers for spinning machinery. Collier Brook Bolt Works on Bag Lane dating from 1856 survives and is a Grade II listed building.
Coal had been mined for several hundred years in numerous shallow shafts and adits, but took on greater importance when in 1776 Robert Vernon Atherton leased the coal rights to Thomas Guest from Leigh and John Fletcher from Bolton. In 1845 the era of deep mining arrived with the sinking of Fletcher's Lover's Lane pit at Howe Bridge. The Crombouke Day-Eye, a drift mine accessing the shallow Brassy and Crombouke mines, opened in 1870 and closed in 1907. (A coal seam was referred to as a "mine" in this part of Lancashire.) By the early 1870s Fletcher, Burrows and Company's Howe Bridge Colliery, the biggest of the three Howe Bridge pits, was sunk to the Black & White, or Seven Foot mine. It pit closed in 1959. Gibfield Colliery, situated alongside the Bolton and Leigh Railway, was working in 1829, coal was mined from the Trencherbone mine. Forty years later a shaft was sunk to Arley Mine. The pit closed in 1963. In September 1913 the first pit head baths in the country were opened at Gibfield. Chanters Colliery was in Hindsford, where shafts were sunk to the Trencherbone mine in 1854. In the late 1890s shafts were deepened to to reach the Arley mine. Atherton had its share of mining disasters, on 11 February 1850 five men died in a gas explosion caused by a lighted candle at Gibfield and 27 men died at Lovers Lane Colliery after a firedamp explosion caused by blown-out shot on 28 March 1872. On 6 March 1957 eight men died at Chanters Colliery after an explosion of gas. Chanters closed in 1966 bringing the era of deep coal mining in the town to an end. In 1908, the Lancashire and Cheshire Coal Owners Association opened Howe Bridge Mines Rescue Station.