Number 46 Market Street in Atherton is the very centre of the town and therefore it is no wonder that a public house has existed here since the 18th century. It has existed in many forms; through at least two different buildings, under different names and through the different statuses of public house and hotel. This is its story.
18th Century Origins
The first record of the Wheatsheaf (sometimes recorded as ‘Wheat Sheaf’) public house is in the 1792 Universal British Trade Directory. Atherton at this time is known as Chowbent and the landlord of the Wheatsheaf is Israel Unsworth. At this time the Wheatsheaf had a business deal with the Fletcher Mining Company and colliers belonging to this company were able to get free ale here after working hours. Israel Unsworth died in December 1801, his estate was worth around £300 (over £20,000 in todays currency) and he left three houses in Youth Lane and two house in Dan Lane to his step-daughter Ellen Pollitt and his step-granddaughter Ellen Cleworth. In 1803 Pollitt is recorded as landlady at the Wheatsheaf.
The Wheatsheaf is not the only public house in the town, there are about half a dozen other public houses and inn’s, which service the population of about 2500-3000 people. Surprisingly the Wheatsheaf is not the only 18th century survival into the 21st century, other public houses such as The Red Lion and The Punchbowl all still names of pubs which exist today, on the site of their 18th century predecessors.
Early 19th Century
By 1818 the Wheatsheaf is under the ownership of Elizabeth (Betty) Smith and she is recorded there until 1825. The trade directories from the 1820s reveal that the Wheatsheaf is located on “Leigh Road”. Leigh Road still exists, but the section where the public house stands is now known as Market Street, its name was changed in 1834. This is because over the course of the first few decades of the 19th century, the town expanded rapidly and shops began to line Leigh Road as it was the main road through the town.
By 1828 Thomas Gibson and his wife Ellen are landlord and landlady at the Wheatsheaf and they are still listed there in the 1841 census.
In 1848 Ephriam Maire is listed the landlord, however that same year he sells the Wheatsheaf at auction, including all the furniture and fittings inside (see photo above), which gives us a good idea of how the public house would have looked in the late 1840s.
The Mid- 19th Century
The 1851 census reveals Henry Glover (born 1807) is living there with his wife Jane and their children; James, Margaret, Ellen, Thomas and Mary Jane. The youngest Glover children are all in school, their elder siblings are working. James is a iron moulder and Margaret is a dress maker and milliner, a respectable form of employment for a lady of the 1850s. The Glover family continue to live at the Wheatsheaf until the mid 1860s.
From 1865 until 1878 John Eckersley is landlord of the Wheatsheaf. The 1871 census shows that John resides at the Wheatsheaf with his wife, Esther and a domestic servant, 18 year old Elizabeth Brown. The census also reveals that John Eckersley is a “licensed victualler” and therefore he has achieved a permit to sell alcohol and his business can be listed as a ‘public house’ rather just as a ‘beer seller’ (for example like his neighbour at the Bricklayer’s Arms). In the 1870s the Wheatsheaf was a popular meeting place for the Chowbent Friendly Loan Society.
Worrall’s Directory of 1876 shows that John Eckersley is also a “sanitary tube and drain tile dealer and manufacturer”. Also in the same year, Esther Eckersley was involved in a railway accident. She was thrown from her seat when travelling from Bolton to Atherton. Her injuries amounted to concussion, a heavily bruised face, several teeth knocked out and she was suffering from severe shock. John Eckersley took the London and North Western Railway Company to court because his wife ran the Wheatsheaf whilst he ran his other business. As his wife took 10 months to recover, he had to neglect his other business to run the public house. He was awarded £450 (over £37,000 in modern currency).
John passed away in December 1878 and after this the Wheatsheaf entered a new phase in its existence. In August 1879 it was leased from Lord Lilford (who owned the land) by the Bedford Brewing and Milling Company. At this point it was now known as The Wheatsheaf Hotel/Inn, which gave it a prestigious air.
The Wheat Sheaf Hotel
The new landlord of the Wheatsheaf was Frederick Bent (1844-1906), he lived there with his wife Mary and their children; Annie, George, Elizabeth and Frederick. The rate collectors books of 1880 reveal the Wheat Sheaf was worth £23’5’10.
In 1890 the Wheatsheaf was a popular place, it was advertised as having: “Six beds for travellers and refreshment (other than drink) for up to twelve persons, whilst stabling four horses.” The Wheatsheaf also appears in countless local newspaper reports as the venue where local inquests were held.
The Bent family stayed at the Wheatsheaf for 22 years and has successful tenure, although not without some incidents. In December 1885 three men callously walked in into the Wheatsheaf and went directly upstairs. When Frederick Bent challenged the men, they ran off and escaped with £43 (over £4000 in modern currency).
The Wheatsheaf Rebuilt
In 1903 permission was given by the local council to re-build the Wheatsheaf. What followed was a huge Edwardian building which architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner described as: “one of those big, brassy late 19th century pubs”.
The building is certainly impressive and even today it continues to dominate the skyline of Atherton due to its height. It is also adorned with wonderful architectural features both inside and out. Thankfully the pub has remained quite traditional in terms of its decor over the 20th century and therefore many period features survive which would have otherwise been lost, such as the Art Nouveau inspired wallpapers.
The first couple to run the brand new public house was James and Mary E. Ashton. James Ashton (1861-1905) was formerly a veterinary surgeon in Bolton and sadly he died only two years after taking over the Wheatsheaf. Therefore it was left to his widow Mary to run the establishment. In 1910 the Wheatsheaf was endorsed to a different brewery, George Shaw & Co. in Leigh.
The 1911 census reveals Mary is in charge of the eleven roomed Wheatsheaf Hotel and living with her are her daughters; 20 year old Mildred and 8 year old Phyllis. The Ashton’s employ a domestic servant, Sarah Evans. The census also shows that two men; James L. Rich and Gordon W. Knight are both staying at the Wheatsheaf Hotel on the night the census was taken in April 1911.
By 1913 the Ashton family had left the Wheatsheaf and George Henry White ran the pub, in 1919 his maid, Harriet Middleton married at Atherton Parish Church. The pub was still successful right throughout the 20th century. Some of the those who have take ownership of the Wheatsheaf over the century have been:
1930 Henry Smith
1930-1936 George Naylor
1936-1945 Lucy Scarle
1945 – 1952 Edward Green
1952 Arthur Ratcliffe
and of course many others since.
The 21st Century
The Wheatsheaf was re-branded as “Old Isaac’s” in the new millennium and more recently is has achieved notoriety in the British national press as one of the country’s few ‘pound pubs’ (where half pints of certain ales cost only £1). The press painted quite a negative picture of the former grand pub and of Atherton as a town, as any quick Google search will show.
The changing of the format of the pub, such as the removal of some beers and food from the menu has perhaps changed the clientele of the pub. Infamously not long after it re-opened a man was attacked in the beer garden. However there have been no such incidents since and until recently the pub retained the same landlord.
As of February 2017 the Pound Pub has closed down and the building been purchased by a new firm. They are currently renovating the building, with plans to re-open in March 2017. The original fireplaces have been stripped of layers of paint and reinstated. Significantly they are restoring the name of the pub to the Wheatsheaf and the population of Atherton eagerly await the next chaper in this buildings colourful life.
Even though the present building is only just over 110 years old, it is a wonderfully architecturally important building to Atherton. Moreover it reflect a long history of the Wheatsheaf Hotel and the former buildings and lives which have occupied that very same spot for over 220 years.
- Phillip M.G. Chapman, A Potty, oops sorry, pottied history of the pubs of Atherton, (self published, 16 July 2016)
- John Lunn, Atherton: A manorial, social and industrial history, (Atherton: Atherton Urban Council, 1971)
- Nikolaus Pevsner and Richard Pollard, Lancashire: Liverpool and the South-West, (London: Yale University Press, 2006)
- Wigan Archives and Leigh Local Studies – List of Licensed Victuallers , August 1880
- http://www.edina.digimap.ac.uk – Maps
- http://www.lan-opc.org.uk/ – Directories
- http://www.ancestry.co.uk – census and biographical information
- Bolton Chronicle, 17 June 1848, p.1
- Leigh Chronicle, 9 November 1867, p.2
- Manchester Times, 26 February 1876, p.3
- Huddersfield Chronicle, 19 December 1885, p.3
- Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 12 February 1903, p.8
- Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 27 December 1905, p.8