Leigh (pop. 43,000) is a town within the Metropolitan Borough of Wigan, in Greater Manchester, England. It is southeast of Wigan, and west of Manchester city centre. 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.
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 particularly after the town was connected to the canals and railways. Leigh 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 – although it is now a mainly residential town, with Edwardian and Victorian terraced housing packed around the town centre. Leigh's present-day economy is based largely on the retail sector.
Leigh is derived from the Old English leah which meant a place at the wood or woodland clearing, a glade and subsequently a pasture or meadow, it was spelt Legh in 1276. Other recorded 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, the west clearing, has been named Westeley in 1237, Westlegh in 1238 and also Westlay in Legh in 1292. 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.
The earliest signs of human activity in Leigh are evidenced by a Neolithic stone axe found in Pennington and a bronze spearhead from south of Gas Street. A single Roman coin was found at Butts in Bedford. After the Roman departure from Britain, and into the history of Anglo-Saxon England, nothing was written about Leigh. However evidence for the presence of Saxons in what was a sparsely populated and isolated part of the country is provided by local township place names that incorporate the Old English suffix leah, such as Leigh, Tyldesley, Shakerley and Astley.
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 16th century, but never actually lived there. The Shuttleworths, landowners from the 14th 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 400 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.
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. On 3 December 1919 George Shaw & Co Ltd offered the hall and grounds to the people of Leigh. The gift was accepted and opened to the public on 25 August 1920. The hall was converted to a museum and art gallery in 1928 but was demolished in 1963. The grounds are now Pennington Park.
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 25 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 outside Ye Olde Man & Scythe Inn in Bolton.
At the end of the 16th century, although agriculture and the dairy industry, particularly the production of Leigh cheese, sometimes known as Leigh Toaster, were important, spinning and weaving began to develop as a cottage industry. 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 to supplement 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, and 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 Leigth Feight took place on 14 August 1839. The chartists had called for a strike at a time when there was social unrest over high levels of unemployment and the high cost of living. A mob of at least 2,000 gathered in Leigh. About 400–500 workers from Chowbent threatened to burn down Hayes Mill. A detachment of troops from Haydock was called out and special constables sworn in by the local magistrate. The Riot Act was read by Squire Thomas Withington of Culcheth Hall and for a while the mob dispersed but reassembled later. Many were injured in the fighting that took place and arrests were made. Those arrested were severely punished, while others ensured that radicalism continued in Leigh, leading eventually to electoral reform and universal suffrage.
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.
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, the last mine to be sunk in Leigh, was one of the deepest mines in the country, going down to over . 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 extracted from the mine, while the neighbouring Bickershaw Colliery had a superior electric system. In 1974, the two were linked underground, and all coal was wound up at Bickershaw, which had better winding facilities, while Parsonage was used for supplies. The entire Lancashire Coalfield is now closed to deep mining, although several open-cast mines are still in operation elsewhere in the county.
Mining disasters in Leigh included the explosion of firedamp which caused the deaths of 38 miners at Bedford Colliery on 13 August 1886. There were several accidents at Bickershaw Colliery, but the most serious was in 1932, when 19 men were drowned in the sump at the bottom of the shaft after an overwind of the cage.
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's Albion range of farm machinery products. Rope-manufacture was another local industry: Mansley's Rope works on Twist Lane made rope by hand, using a rope walk. The factory burnt down in 1912. Anchor Cables had a large works close to the Bridgewater Canal. The company was bought by Callender's Cables, in 1903, later to become British Insulated Callender's Cables (BICC), and now part of Balfour Beatty. Another major 20th century employer was Sutcliffe Speakman, which made activated carbon and brick-making equipment.