Leigh, Lancashire

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Leigh Parish Church & The Boar's Head.jpg
Leigh Parish Church and the Boar's Head
Grid reference: SD655005
Location: 53°29’51"N, 2°30’54"W
Population: 43,006  (2001)
Post town: Leigh
Postcode: WN7
Dialling code: 01942
Local Government
Council: Wigan

Leigh is a town in southern Lancashire, on low-lying land to the north west of Chat Moss, four miles southeast of Wigan, and 12½ miles west of Manchester.

Leigh was originally the centre of a large ecclesiastical parish covering six vills or townships. The parish was named Leigh, though it consisted of the three townships of Pennington, Westleigh and Bedford, which were linked administratively in 1875 by the name of the parish, Leigh.[1]

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.


The name “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 is found spelled ‘’Legh’’ in 1276.[2] 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.[1]

Westleigh, the west clearing, has been named ‘’Westeley’’ in 1237, ‘’Westlegh’’ in 1238 and also ‘’Westlay in Legh’’ in 1292.[3]

Pennington has been spelt ‘’Pininton’’ and ‘’Pynynton’’ in 1246 and 1360, ‘’Penynton’’ in 1305, ‘’Pynyngton’’ in 1351 and 1442 and ‘’Penyngton’’ in 1443.[4]

Bedford, “the ford of Beda”, probably a ford through Pennington Brook gave its name to this part of Leigh. Spellings include ‘’Beneford’’ from 1200–21 and ‘’Bedeford’’ in 1200 and 1296.[5]


Early history

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.[6] A single Roman coin was found at Butts in Bedford.[7] After the Roman retreat from Britain]], and into the Anglo-Saxon period nothing was written about Leigh. However the Anglo-Saxons, the ancestral English, left their mark in the placenames hereabouts which are primarily from Old English, many ending with the Old English leah, such as Leigh, Tyldesley, Shakerley and Astley.[8]


In the 12th century the ancient parish of Leigh was made up of six townships, including Pennington,[9] Bedford,[10] Westleigh,[11] Atherton, Astley, and Tyldesley cum Shakerley.

Weekly markets were held by the parish church and a cattle fair held twice-yearly.[12]

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.[5]

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.[5][13]

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.[5] 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.[7]

The manor house of Westleigh was at Higher Hall and existed in Richard I's time (1189–1199).[3] 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.[3] 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.[3] Westleigh Old Hall was another Leigh hall that had a moat.[7]

The Pennington family owned Pennington Hall from about 1200 until they were replaced by the family of Bradshaw or Bradshaigh in 1312.[4] 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.[4] 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 was demolished in 1963. The grounds are now Pennington Park.

Civil War

Leigh was divided in its allegiance during the English Civil War, some of the population supporting the Royalists' cause while others supported the Parliamentarian “Roundheads”. 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.[7]

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.[7]

Industrial Revolution

Butts Mill, Leigh

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.[14]

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.[15]

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.[16]

These 18th-century improvements to the spinning process meant that weavers were in great demand.[15] 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.[15][17] Several cotton mills were built in Leigh after the mid-1830s, and some silk mills converted to cotton after 1870.[7]

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.[18]

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.[7] Leigh Mill, otherwise known as Leigh Spinners[19] is a Grade II* listed building. Mather Lane Mill close to the Bridgewater Canal is a Grade II listed building.[20] Over 6,000 people were employed in textiles in Leigh in 1911.[7]

Coal mining

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.[15] Parsonage Colliery, the last mine to be sunk in Leigh, was one of the deepest mines in the country, going down to over 3,000 feet.[21]

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 feet high that were easy to work on compared to the previous seams of coal of 3 feet 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.

On 13 August 1886 the Bedford Colliery Disaster struck, one of a number of mining disasters in Leigh. An explosion of firedamp that day caused the deaths of 38 miners at Bedford Colliery.[22] 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.[23][24]

List of coal mines operating in Leigh


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.[27] 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.[28] 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.[29] Another major 20th century employer was Sutcliffe Speakman, which made activated carbon and brick-making equipment.[30]

The lie of the land

Leigh is low lying; land to the south and east, close to Chat Moss, is 50 feet above mean sea level.[1] The highest land, to the north and west, rises gently to 125 feet. Astley and Bedford Mosses are fragments of the raised bog that once covered a large area north of the River Mersey and along with Holcroft and Risley Mosses are part of Manchester Mosses, a designated Special Area of Conservation.[31] The area is in the River Mersey Basin; drained into the Mersey by several streams, including the Westleigh and Pennington Brooks that join others flowing through Bedford to form the Glaze Brook.[1]

The southeast of the town has alluvial and peaty soils,[5] but the rest is loam overlaying sandstone, or coal measures in the north.[3][5] There is magnesian limestone in Bedford and neighbouring Astley.[1] Mining subsidence and flooding have caused the formation of "flashes" to the south and west of the town, the largest of which is south of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal in Pennington. Pennington Flash Country Park is a 490.0-acre country park and nature reserve with a 170.0-acre flash or lake.

Leigh is crossed by the Bolton to St Helens Road high road,[1] an old packhorse route that became a Turnpike Trust in 1762.[15] The A579 road bypasses the town centre using the line of the Bolton and Leigh Railway. The Bridgewater Canal and the Leigh Branch of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal cross the town west to east, the canals meeting at Leigh Bridge just south of the town centre.[4][32]

In the 1930s the A580 "East Lancashire Road" was built crossing to the south of the town.


Leigh Library

Leigh has a traditional town centre with daily outdoor and indoor markets.[33] Part of the town centre is pedestrianised and there are local independent and multiple retailers. The Spinning Gate Centre in the centre of town has about thirty retail units.[34]

A retail park developed on the old Parsonage Colliery site is within walking distance of the town centre.[35]

Opened in 2008 Leigh Sports Village has an 11,000-capacity stadium (anchored by Leigh Centurions and shared with the reserves of Blackburn Rovers), an athletics arena for Leigh Harriers, facilities for Leigh East Rugby League Club, a college campus, hotel, leisure retail and business facilities for the community.[36] In 2011 a Morrisons store opened at the sports village.[37]

Another regeneration project on the site of the former Bickershaw Colliery complex which closed in 1992 will redevelop the site and canal side with a country park and housing.[38] In 2011 "The Loom" a £50 million town centre retail development opened on the north side of the Bridgewater Canal with a seven-screen cinema, Tesco Extra store and several restaurants.[39]


The original parish church is St Mary the Virgin, which has stood since the 12th century and probably much earlier.[7] It was once known as the Church of St Peter at Westleigh in Leigh, and straddles the boundary between the old townships of Westleigh and Pennington, the nave and churchyard being in Westleigh and the chancel in Pennington. The church’s early history is tied up with the Westleigh and Urmston families. The dedication changed to St Mary the Virgin in the 14th century.[1]

The church tower, said to have been built in 1516, is all that remains of the mediæval structure, which was replaced by the present church after becoming unsafe. Paley and Austin of Lancaster designed the present church, the foundation stone was laid in 1871 and the church consecrated in 1873. The church is built in red sandstone it is a Grade II listed building.[40]

There are now parish churches in each of the old townships:

  • In Bedford, the first St Thomas's Church was consecrated in 1840 and replaced by the present church in 1909. The church is built of Accrington red brick with Runcorn red sandstone facings, it was designed by J.S. Crowther.
  • Pennington Christ Church, designed by architect E.H. Shellard, was built in Yorkshire stone and was consecrated in 1854. The site to the south of the canal was a rapidly growing area at this time. It is Grade II listed.[41]
  • Westleigh St Paul, founded in 1847 is on Westleigh Lane. It is a Grade II* listed building by Paley and Austin, built in brick with red sandstone dressings, was founded 1881 is on Firs Lane.[42]

A Roman Catholic chapel was built in Bedford on the corner of Mather Lane and Chapel Street in 1778 and was replaced in 1855 by the present church dedicated to St Joseph. Others were opened later.

Other denominations catered for include Wesleyan, Independent, Primitive, Welsh and United Methodists. There are also Baptist Unitarian and Jehovah's Witness places of worship in the town.[43]

Sights of the town

Major landmarks in Leigh are the red sandstone parish church and across the civic square, Leigh Town Hall and its associated shops on Market Street. The Grade II listed Obelisk that replaced the original market cross is also situated here.[44] Many town centre buildings including the Boar's Head public house[45] are in red Ruabon or Accrington bricks, often with gables and terracotta dressings.[7] There are several large multi-storey cotton mills built along the Bridgewater Canal that are a reminder of Leigh's textile industry but most are now underused and deteriorating despite listed building status.[46] Leigh's War Memorial by local architect James Caldwell Prestwich|J.C. Prestwich is at the junction of Church Street and Silk Street and is a Grade II listed structure.[47] St Joseph's Church and St Thomas's Church on opposite sides of Chapel Street are both imposing churches using different materials and styles.


The town has no station any more, though plans are occasionally floated to open a station here. The nearest railway station now is at [[Atherton, 3 miles miles to the north.

The East Lancashire Road passes by the town.

The Bridgewater Canal was extended from Worsley to the middle of Leigh in 1795.[48][49] In 1819 the fifth Leeds and Liverpool Canal Act was passed for the construction of the Leigh Branch and by 1820 the Leigh branch canal was cut from the Leeds and Liverpool Canal at Poolstock, Wigan to meet the Bridgewater at Leigh Bridge, giving access from Leigh to all parts of Lancashire, Yorkshire and the Midlands.[50]


Leigh Sports Village stadium under construction in May 2008
  • Athletics: Leigh Harriers AC, founded in 1909
  • Cricket: Westleigh Cricket Club
  • Football: Leigh Athletic
  • Rugby:
    • Leigh Centurions
    • Leigh RUFC
("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Leigh, Lancashire)


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 The parish of Leigh: Introduction, church and charities , from A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 3 (Victoria County History)
  2. Mills (1998), p. 218.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Westleigh: A History of the County of Lancaster (Victoria County History), 421–426
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Pennington: A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 3 (Victoria County History), pp426–431
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 Bedford: A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 3 (Victoria County History), pages 431–435
  6. 25 things you never knew about Leigh, Wian Council, http://www.wigan.gov.uk/NR/rdonlyres/B5353A0A-A7AB-43DF-B8AD-E7FADF192409/0/final25thingsyouneverknewaboutleigh.pdf, retrieved 31 January 2011 
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 7.6 7.7 7.8 7.9 LeighTownTrailPart1, Wigan.gov.uk, http://www.wigan.gov.uk/NR/rdonlyres/C3102275-1EB3-4DD8-BAB1-F1A8584BBA09/0/LeighTownTrailPart1_552kb.pdf, retrieved 14 August 2009 
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  • Ackers, Norma (1978), An Outline History of Leigh, Leigh Local History Society Publication No6 
  • Ashmore, Owen (1982), The Industrial Archaeology Of North-West England, Manchester University Press, ISBN 0-7190-0820-4 
  • Bond, Richard (1981), Walks around Leigh, Leigh Local History Society Publication No9 
  • Bond, Ackers & Ward (1979), Leigh Homesteads, Leigh Local History Society Publication No7 
  • Holcroft, Fred (1998), Silk Manufacturing in Leigh, Leigh Local History Society Publication No21 
  • Leigh Corporation (1949), Borough of Leigh Jubilee 1899–1949, Leigh Corporation 
  • Lunn, John (1958), History of Leigh, Leigh Borough Council 
  • Mills, A.D. (1998), Dictionary of English Place-Names, Oxford, ISBN 0-19-280074-4 
  • Pollard, Richard; Pevsner, Nikolaus; Sharples, Joseph (2006), The Buildings of England: Liverpool and the southwest, New Haven: Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-10910-5 
  • Sweeney, D.J. (1996), A Lancashire Triangle Part One, Triangle Publishing, ISBN 0-9529333-0-6 
  • Sweeney, D.J. (1997), A Lancashire Triangle Part Two, Triangle Publishing, ISBN 0-9529333-2-2