Ancestral Territory: What is a Wigan and Why isn’t Darwen in the Galápagos Islands?


For years I looked for my grandfather’s family and his roots. Sam was 40 when he died in January of ’42, shot in the back of his head, in the line of duty as the Acting British Chief Inspector of the International Settlement in Shanghai. My Russian grandmother and my mom always said he had just uncovered a large opium ring and the kingpins had it out for him. Others think he was just a casualty of the Japanese invasion and WWII was about to erupt later that year. All I knew was that before his professional success, he came from small working class towns in the north of England where the family worked as coal miners and in cotton mills. My imagination ran away with me as I envisioned soot on everything, lint flying everywhere, little kids with baggy, dirty, hole-ridden-hand-me-down clothing, buildings falling down, and dirty neighborhoods with starving dogs (Um, I didn’t really go that far imagining the dogs, but you catch my drift).

Well…times have changed. Yet I wasn’t visiting to judge one way or the other as my interest lay in knowing where my grandfather, and the genes of my mother, myself, my children and grandchildren, initially came from. Where he was born. What was our heritage and what was the other ventricle in “the heart of our history.” (Note: In my previous post in the Lake District, I failed to mention that we stopped off at a restaurant (which was not far from the sea, I didn’t see, and the North of Wales) to meet with two more long lost cousins, Alistar and his sister, Lindsey, whose middle name is ‘Gabrielle’ and my grandson’s name is ‘Gabriel’, which was just another one of those odd little coincidences as it was not a common name 60 years ago and she is not Italian. Anyway, just wanted to mention it was a pleasure meeting my grandfather’s brother’s children.)

Back to the family place of origin. Wigan and Darwen are in the North Country of England, not too far from Manchester, but far enough.

John, Denise, and I first arrived at St. Michael’s, the church in Wigan where my great grandfather and great grandmother were married in the early 1900s. Since it was built around 1875, it was relatively new when they married. It is listed as a Grade II* building.

In England and Wales, listed buildings are classified in three grades:
•Grade I buildings are of exceptional interest, sometimes considered to be internationally important. Just 2.5% of listed buildings are Grade I.
•Grade II* buildings are particularly important buildings of more than special interest. 5.5% of listed buildings are Grade II*. (This is St. Michael’s.)
•Grade II buildings are nationally important and of special interest. 92% of all listed buildings are in this class and it is the most likely grade of listing for a private residential building.







The doors were locked so we couldn’t get inside. I should have just knocked on the door of the rectory next door as I bet they would have found someone to let us in, especially due to the circumstances of the overly curious American granddaughter of one of their own. Wouldacouldashoulda.

Here is a sign I found to be a little sad as it shows that the parish needs some funding.


Just a few doors up from the church was the apartment where our family lived. Was the old door, whose ring I was holding, a storage room or an alley door leading to the backyard? John posed wearing his “Red Nose Charity Day” attire for the sake of posterity. His grandparents were the ones married in the church, whereas they were my great grandparents, and he is my first cousin once removed. Makes sense now that I’ve had a year to digest the fact that I actually have other cousins. (There are also cousins on my father’s side, but that’s another story.)



Wigan has a history dating back to the Brigantes, an ancient Celtic tribe that ruled most of northern England. The area was also captured by the Romans and there have been Roman finds such as coins as well as a Mithraic temple beneath the parish church, a fort, and what was identified as a Roman hotel with its own bath house.

In the early 10th century there was an influx of Scandinavians expelled from Ireland. Apparently some of Wigan’s street names have Scandinavian origins. It is a town in what is considered Greater Manchester and stands on the River Douglas. It is also considered the largest settlement in the Metropolitan Borough. It has a population of just over 81,000.

In 1698, Celia Fiennes, a traveler, called Wigan “a pretty market town built of stone and brick.” In1937, Wigan was featured in George Orwell’sThe Road to Wigan Pier” which dealt with the living conditions of England’s working poor. This did not paint the town as ‘pretty’ since during the Industrial Revolution, it was an important center for textile imports and more closely resembled the imaginary picture I had created. By 1818 there were eight cotton mills and in the same year, William Woods introduced the first power looms which made the mills infamous for the unbearable working conditions, low pay and child labor.

Not a pretty picture at all. It was also one of the first towns in Britain to have railway service making the transport of coal and textile goods to create the boom which lasted until the 1930s. (My grandfather left around 1920). After WWII there was another boom and then a slump which the Wigan textile industry never recovered from. The last working cotton mill closed in 1980. The engineering sector did not go into a recession, however.


From Wigan, most of my family moved up the road to Darwen.


The towns seemed to blend together in my mind but Darwen is considered in the Borough of Blackburn whereas Wigan is part of Manchester. Apparently it is known locally as “Darren” and people who live there are known as “Darreners.” The town stands on the River Darwen which is only visible on the outskirts of town but, in the town center, it runs underground. The Guinness Book of Records mentions Darwen had one of the largest flash floods in the UK. These flash floods have hit the area frequently, including just last year in 2012 shutting off the town for several days.

It’s claimed the area has been inhabited since the Bronze Age. Artifacts include a bronze dagger and human ashes. The Romans hung around awhile, too. (They were everywhere.) The oldest cottage is called Whitehall Cottage dating in the 17th and 18th century but with a chimney dated 1557.

To celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (I’ve seen several statues on this trip honoring her on this momentous anniversary one of which is in Liverpool.) the town built the Darwen Jubilee Tower with the opening ceremony in 1898. This tower was built on top of a 1,227 ft hill (which also allowed public access to the moors) and stood 85′ high. John used to walk up there and climb it as a kid. Bet my grandfather did, also.


View from the street of my cousins’ childhood home.

View of Jubilee Tower from the street of John's childhood home


A notable figure who visited Darwen is Gandhi who, in 1931, attempted to repair the relationship with the cotton mills as India was one of the large suppliers and the workers there were basically striking. The Darreners apparently greeted him warmly eventhough it was his people who were causing job loss and job insecurity.

Lucite was invented in Darwen and still manufactured here (which included acrylic glass, Sani-ware, Spitfire canopies, as well as colored polythene washing up bowls). Among other things.

Andrew Carnegie financed a public library in Darwen after the town council put out a solicitation for funding (he dropped by from the USA for the commemoration). Crown Paints originated here, originally Walapur paints, the first British paint manufacturer. There is now Crown wallpaper, and Charles Potter, who printed wallpaper in Darwen, was a cousin to Edmund Potter, grandfather of Beatrix Potter (see my earlier blog on the Lake District and Peter Rabbit). Small world.

And last, but certainly not least, The Beatles played here on Friday, January 25, 1963, at the Co-operative Hall (not long before I had seen them in San Francisco). They headlined it as “The Greatest Teenage Dance” and was commissioned by the Darwen Baptist Youth Club. How cool is that? The town now hosts a free two-day music festival held on the second bank holiday of May every year. The main stage is built outside this town hall (built in 1882).


India Mill has a history as it was considered the most important textile building and was built by Eccles Shorrock (whose name is close to our family name of “Sharrock”). We noticed his name was stamped on some of the machinery we saw in Manchester at the Museum of Industry. The company was ruined by the 1860s Lancashire Cotton Famine and was sold for £12 million at some point but is now home to several companies including an airplane parts manufacturer, which explains the round object I took a photo of as we were breezing by in the car (the ‘breezing by’ explains several blurs in my photos, including this young man on a smoke break).




There are several parks in the area, including Sunnyhurst Woods, from which I have some family photos labeled with that name and photographed there in the 20s and 30s. The closest thing to a park we visited on this day was the cemetery. Here in the Darwen Cemetery are two family members, my grandfather’s mother Elizabeth (also my late mom’s name), and his sister John and Doreen’s mother), Annie. I saw a note that there is an initiative to repair the headstones which vandals have pushed over. It was a nice cemetery and I am glad to have seen the headstone of two family members.




My great aunt and uncle both worked at Lorne St. Mill which is listed in a 1891 directory as having 1,551 looms. What is inside that building now, I really wonder..






With a new motorway built in 1997, more businesses are moving in, and some of the older, so-called ‘derelict’ buildings are being knocked down. If those old warehouses were located somewhere like San Francisco or Seattle, with the proper financing, they could become artist lofts to hundreds and revitalize an area which has potential and could use a boost. After all, Charlie Chaplin once performed in the theater (now gone) here and a tv show called “Hetty Wainthropp Investigates” is filmed from Darwen.

One little side story of mine is that as we were leaving the cemetery, I had to use a restroom and there was no public one available. We started driving down the road looking at what was available when one of us came up with the idea for me to jump out of the car and go into a pub, called “White Horse” or “White Swan” or maybe it was “Black Duck”, I don’t recall, and use their washroom. So, John pulls over fast, before anyone on this relatively busy road smashed into the rear of the car, I jump out, walk right into this pub with all these laughing drinking townsfolk standing together at one end of the bar (it was a Friday afternoon, too, so everyone was happy about that, I’m sure), except for one lone older gentleman who was at the other far end of the bar, closest to the door I strode through. He was kind of hunched over the bar, with a pint in his hand, and looked me square in the eye as I smoothly glided in like I’ve been doing it for years, immediately seeing where the washroom was located, did what I needed to do, and strode right back out a few seconds later. I looked over, and the same gentleman was staring right back at me again, but this time with a little smirk on his face and a twinkle in his eye. I smiled my All American Girl (old lady) smile and walked right back out to my waiting getaway car which had now been parked around the corner. Wonder if the old guy ever told anyone that little story of the stranger who sailed in and sailed out of his small ‘Darrener’ pub late one Friday afternoon. Maybe he was another cousin…