Unless you were to look for it, Number 5 Wilds Passage could easily be missed, as it lies tucked away near the Leeds-Liverpool Canal in Leigh. However this building is deemed to be of national historical importance and it holds a listed building status. This elegant, yet unassuming Georgian building closely reflects the history of the town it lies in.
18th Century Origins
Throughout the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth century, Leigh was a Parish covering six townships, with the area around the Parish Church of St. Mary the Virgin being known as Leigh. In 1875 three of the townships; Bedford, Pennington and Westleigh merged to form the Leigh Local District Board. In 1894 the Local Board became Leigh Urban District which included large parts of land belonging to the Atherton Estate. Leigh finally became a Municipal Borough in 1899.
It can be quite hard to image Leigh as it was over 200 years ago, when it was a simple market town surrounded by open countryside. However, John Aiken’s A Description of the County from Thirty to Forty miles around Manchester (1795) provides us with an interesting description of Leigh in the early 1790s:
“LEIGH – This is a small market town, the market-day Saturday. Its church is ancient; the living a vicarage, which has under it two chapels. The country around it is populous and manufacturing. The trade was formerly in fustian’s, such as pillows, barragons, thick sets and velvets; latterly they have made here fine yard-wide jeans, in imitation of India, with figured and flowered draw-boys. The spun cotton for warp and weft is mostly got from Manchester. Lime is got at Bedford near Leigh, of a kind like that of Sutton, hardening speedily under water, and therefore fit for lining reservoirs, and the like purposes. It is much used in the Duke of Bridgewater’s canal.
The rapid increase of population, or the improvement in mode of living (probably both) in this town and neighbourhood, may be judged from the following fact – in 1758 one beast was slaughtered at Christmas, and proved too much for the market, in 1792 thirty-five beasts (cows) were slaughtered at Christmas, and proved too little.
Leigh is famous for its cheese, of a mild and rich kind and peculiarly excellent for toasting. It is produced from the pasture and meadow land on the banks of several little streams which flow through the parish, and unite to form the brook which enters the Mersey at Glazebrook. Leigh, it is hoped, will shortly have the advantage of a navigation by the means of a branch extended from the Duke of Bridgewater’s canal at Worsley to Pennington.”
The Bridgewater Canal was extended to Leigh in 1795 the same year the book was published and this canal was later joined into the Leeds-Liverpool Canal in 1820. It was in the Parish of Pennington, just at the foot of Leigh Bridge, that Wilds Passage was built around the same time as the canal in the late-eighteenth century.
Historically the address of Wilds Passage appears under several different names; Chapel Place, Chapel Square or even “Off King Street”. The religious connotations were a result of the construction of the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, which was built in front of the houses in 1816. This led to the south side of the chapel being known as “Chapel Walk” and the north side as “Chapel Place”. The chapel was later rebuilt in the late-nineteenth century further up King Street and on the site of the original chapel, the Kings Street Methodist Primary school was built in 1895. The building still stands there today, although used for a different purpose.
Number 5 Wilds Passage was granted Grade II listed building status in March 1988 as it is a rare example of a surviving eighteenth-century house and workshop. The building is constructed of brick (probably handmade) in a Flemish pattern. It is three stories high with a panelled doorway at the centre and six windows on the facade. The ground floor and second floor windows are 16-pane sash and the second floor is 12-pane sash windows; some of the windows are partly obscured by ivy. Although the windows on the rear of the property has been altered over time, the large door on the second floor (used to move stock in and out) still exists. The top floor was a single space used for the weaving of cotton and silk. It is believed the only surviving domestic/workshop premises in the Wigan Borough.
The earliest resident I have been able to trace is James Guest (1797-1830). Guest was recorded at the property as a muslin weaver in the 1825 Trade Directory for Leigh. James Guest was descended from a famous Leigh family; his father was John Guest (1765-1816), a surgeon and his grandfather was Richard Guest (1730-1782), the famous ‘man midwife’ of Leigh, who also at one time ran the George and the Dragon public house on King Street and Doctor’s Nook was named in his honour.
James Guest married Mary Sidderley (1799-1871) in June 1823 at St. Mary the Virgin in Leigh. It seems as though the couple only had one child, a daughter, Mary born on 22 March 1824. The family would have lived and worked in the house at Chapel Place. From the size of the property James’ cotton and muslin manufacturing business was evidently successful.
‘Cottage industries’ such as weaving from home were extremely popular in the eighteenth century. It was an industry which involved the whole family and it somewhat allowed the worker more autonomy over their working day. James’ brother Richard Guest, who was also involved in the cotton and brewing industries, wrote a book ” A Compendious History of the Cotton Manufacture” (1823) in which he claims that a local man from Leigh, Thomas Highs (1718-1803) actually invented the spinning jenny, but was unable to afford to pay for the patent. The spinning jenny revolutionised the cotton industry as it was a multi-spindled spinning frame and therefore increased productivity. The idea was patented by Richard Arkwright, who had worked with Thomas Highs at one time. The patent made Arkwright both rich and famous and Highs died almost impoverished and reliant on charity.
Within the first few decades of the nineteenth century the majority of cottage industries in Britain were swept away by the industrial revolution, which turned the small scale weaving into huge mass production processes conducted in mills. Leigh was no exception to this, the canal increased trade dramatically as did the Bolton-Leigh railway which opened in March 1831 (the first public railway in Lancashire). The first silk mill in Leigh was built in 1828 and it was subsequently followed by cotton mills in the 1830s.
The Collier Years
By 1835 the widowed Mary Guest and her daughter had left Chapel Place and James Collier was recorded there instead. Like his predecessor, James Collier (b.1793) was also a cotton manufacturer working from his home. The 1841 census also recorded his wife, Mary (b.1801) and eldest son, Thomas (b.1825) as “cotton manufacturers” so therefore we know it was a family run business. The Collier family also consisted of several other children: Betty (b.1827), Ellen (b.1829), Alice (b.1832), John (b.1838) and James (b.1840), the whole family was born in Pennington.
The 1841 census recorded the family address as an extension of King Street. However, the Rate Payers books from 1840-41 and 1841-42 recorded the proper address of Chapel Place. They also reveal that the Colliers do not own their property, the house and the neighbouring cottages are owned by “Richard Lawton’s Heirs.” The Colliers and likely the Guests before them rented the house. The house was valued at £14/8s. (the most expensive on the row as it was the largest) and Collier would have had to pay £0/6s./5d. in rates (about £26 in modern terms). The Rate books also reveal that houses on the opposite side of the Chapel, at Chapel Walk, were owned by a Thomas Purcell.
By the time of the 1851 census, the Collier family had left Chapel Place to live in Lowton. Thomas Richardson (b.1810) a silk agent was the new resident in the house. As a silk agent, his position would have been slightly better-off than those who lived in the property before him with regards to physical labour. He would have been conducting transactions on behalf of the merchants, rather than being involved in the spinning process himself.
He was a widower by 1851, his wife Elizabeth died in 1841 at age of 29. They had three children together: Mary (b.1835 – her baptism record notes that her father was a shopkeeper at this time), Edward (b.1837) and Thomas (b.1840). In 1851, Mary was working a dress maker and Edward was an apprentice joiner. Also living with the family was the children’s grandmother, Frances Richardson (1790-1875). Strangely, Frances’ marital condition was recorded as unmarried.
Further research has revealed that Thomas was Frances’ illegitimate son. Actually illegitimate children weren’t quite as rare as one would think. Of the 431 baptisms recorded at St. Mary the Virgin between January-December 1810 (the year Thomas was born) 52 were illegitimate births (so around 12% of all baptisms). They were recorded with the word “base” for bastard written alongside the entry. It is also interesting to note none of the records list a name for the father, only the mother. In fact of the 5261 baptisms recorded at St. Mary’s between 1800-1812, at least 597 were illegitimate births (about 11% of all baptisms). Although we have to take into account that St. Mary’s Chuch serviced around six townships, it still shows that illegitimate births were occurring much more than we would assume. Only later on in the nineteenth century, did the Victorian cult of morality created a stigma surrounding unmarried mothers, which lasted well into the twentieth century. Frances Richardson, a single mother, raised an educated and successful son, regardless of their position in society.
The records infer Thomas Richardson died aged 41 in December 1851. Later in the census of 1871, Frances Richardson was recorded aged 81 and living in Westleigh. Her occupation was a “mangler” meaning she would have earned her wage for wringing wet clothes out using a mangle, as part of the laundry process. It would have been hard, physical work for a woman of her advanced age, but as the Old Aged Pension Act was still some 38 years away from fruition, the elderly in Victorian society were reliant on work, charity or savings. Her grandson, Edward Richardson, lived four doors down from her. When she died in 1875, she left her family assets of £450, which was quite a substantial sum and the modern equivalent is about £38,230.
In 1854, a lime merchant named John Wild came to Leigh from Derbyshire and he lived at the house on Chapel Place. Wild can be classes as a nineteenth century “celebrity” in Leigh, so much so Chapel Place became known as Wilds Passage after his residency there.
John Wild (1820-1888) was born in Disley, Cheshire. From the age of 8 he worked in his father’s lime business and later captained his boat as they travelled up and down the Leeds-Liverpool canal for work. He married a lady named Hannah (1823-1880) and together they had several children; Margaret (b.1845), Mary Ann (b.1848), Peter (b.1851), Ann (b.1853), John William (b.1855), George (b.1857), Ruth (b.1859). The younger children; John, George and Ruth were all born in Pennington.
Wild conducted his business as lime merchant along the canal, however the canal was also his source of fame. Wild was a strong swimmer, which was no surprise considering he spent his life working around water. During his time living in Leigh, he saved the lives of at least twenty children and more than a dozen lives of adults who ended up in the canal waters. In 1871 he saved the life of an 8 year old girl, the daughter of Mr. Ditchfield. The Leigh Chronicle noted he jumped into the water still wearing his Sunday best attire. For his bravery and achievements, he was nominated for an award from the Royal Humane Society (a charity which promotes life saving intervention). Wild declined to accept the award. It appears he was a humble and quiet individual. His obituary noted he was “domestic” in habit and although he supported an “extreme radical” view of politics, he was not involved in the political sphere.
In 1880 his wife Hannah passed away and he later suffered an apoplectic fit. In 1885 he suffered from a stroke which left him paralysed. When he died in 1888, at the age of 68, the newspapers reported the announcement in the language of the time:
” Another old and respected tradesman has been removed this week by death, in the person of Mr. John Wild, lime &c. merchant, who has been suffering for a considerable time past.”
Although Wild declined to accept the award for his heroism, even during his lifetime he was honoured as Chapel Place became known as Wilds Passage around 1880. This was probably a local nickname for the area and it stuck, eventually making its way into official records, hence why it is still known as Wilds Passage today.
The house was advertised to let in October 1888 by John William Wild. It was described as “A good family house, with stabling for two horses”. By 1890, the Gregory family occupied No. 5 Wilds Passage. Joseph Gregory (1832-1914) was born in Atherton and worked as a silk weaver at Welch Mill before rising to be a manager of Grove Lane Mill in Westhoughton. He later worked for the firm Jas. Kemp & Sons of London, his work with them took him down to Somerset but eventually back to Leigh. In Leigh he was a silk manufacturer and agent, opening a business for the firm in Wilds Passage. An advertisement placed in the local newspapers in 1890 suggests he was in the umbrella making business. He was looking to hire a silk power-loom tackler, with “a knowledge of umbrellas preferred”.
With his first wife Margaret (1833-1897), he had four sons and three daughters. In 1891, two of his daughters were living with him at Wilds Passage; Margaret was aged 18 and a drapers assistant and Minnie was 15 and a silk winder. In 1898 he remarried to Mary Baxter (1840-1907).
In the 1911 census Joseph aged 79 was recorded as a mill manager and living with his maid, 45 year old Mary Radcliffe. The census also recorded that the property was known as “Ivy Dene: 5 Wilds Passage” and it had nine rooms. The inclusion of a name for his home seems as though Gregory is trying to give his property a more refined air and to distinguish as the property of a mill manager. He was probably trying to emulate his neighbours on the other side of Leigh Bridge on St. Helens Road. Many of these large late-nineteenth century houses were also given names. However, on the less affluent side of the Bridge, Gregory’s neighbours at Wilds Passage were very much working class families; a blacksmith, coal miner, water and gas fitter and a house painter.
Joseph Gregory died on 20th April 1914, he had sadly outlived both his wives and three of his sons. His obituary from 1914 stated “The weavers in this district delighted to work for him, so proud they were of his honesty and straightforwardness.” Joseph was also involved in the Mutual Improvement Society, which was the forerunner to the Leigh Co-Operative Society. His recreational activities including playing chess and dominoes, often at Leigh’s Liberal Club.
Number 5 Wilds Passage was then occupied by Arthur A Robertshaw (1869-1953) who conducted his plumbing, sanitary engineering and contracting business from there. Robertshaw was originally born in Southport, however after his marriage to Sarah (1869-1948) in December 1890 they moved to Tyldesley. Their eldest children, Annie (b.1891) and George (1892-1954) were born there. In the late 1890s they moved to Leigh where their two younger daughters; Doris (b.1899) and Laura (b.1902) were born. In 1909 Robertshaw set up his business on King Street before moving to Wilds Passage in 1914.
Robertshaw’s business was extremely successful, he owned the largest plumbing business in the district and he even had a branch in Northolt, London where he employed a staff of 50 before the Second World War. His clients included Boots, Woolworths and His Majesty’s Office of Works. During her time at Wilds Passage, Sarah Robertshaw worshipped at Christ Church, Pennington and was an active member of Leigh Women’s Unionist Movement.
In 1935 Arthur and Sarah moved back to Southport. Perhaps in a recognition of their former home, they named their new address on Cedar Street ‘Ivy Dene.’ In 1940 they celebrated their golden wedding anniversary. Sarah died in 1948 and Arthur died in 1953 but the business was taken over by his son George and it was still functioning well into the 1970s.
Wilds Passage Today
In 1988 the building was given a Grade II listed building status, thereby preserving the fabric from any alterations (or even demolition) which would change the historic value of the property. At some point in the late twentieth century the building must have been subdivided as there is now a 5, 5A and 5B recorded for this property. At least it survives as a lovely piece of architecture which reflects the social and industrial history of Leigh across four centuries.
Researched and Written by Thomas McGrath
- John Aiken, A Description of the County from Thirty to Forty miles around Manchester, (London: John Stockdale, 4 June 1795) pp.295-298
- Richard Guest, A Compendious History of the Cotton Manufacture, (Printed by J. Platt, 1823)
- Edward Baines, History, Directory and Gazetteer of the County Palatine of Lancaster (Vol II), (London: William Wales & Co., 1825) p.53
- Thomas Boydell, A Diary of Old Leigh, (Cheshire: P&D Riley, 1996) (First published as Notes on old Leigh, 1916)
- John Lunn, Leigh: The Historical Past of a Lancashire Borough, (Leigh: Borough Council, 1958)
- Cyril Ward, Evelyn Finch, Norma Ackers, Pubs of Leigh Round 3, (Leigh: Leigh Local History Society, 1985)
- Leigh Chronicle, 25 March 1871, p.8
- Leigh Chronicle, 24 August 1888, p.5, p.8
- Leigh Chronicle, 26 October 1888, .p4
- Leigh Chronicle, 21 February 1890, p.4
- Leigh Chronicle, 24 April 1914, p.4
- Leigh Chronicle, 20 December 1940, p.5
- Leigh Chronicle, 27 November 1953, p.8
- Rate Payers Books 1840-41, 1853 = Wigan Archives and Leigh Local Studies
- Census Records – http://www.ancestry.co.uk
- Baptism Record Details – http://www.lan-opc.org.uk/
- Old Maps – http://digimap.edina.ac.uk/roam/historic