Annie bags her chance with PM

Annie Fairhurst presents Prime Minister Harold Wilson with a handbag for his wife Mary. She was hoping the gift would persuade him to rule against plans for housing near to her home
Annie Fairhurst presents Prime Minister Harold Wilson with a handbag for his wife Mary. She was hoping the gift would persuade him to rule against plans for housing near to her home

Former press photographer Bill Batchelor looks back through our archives to recall a lovely story about an old lady fighting to save her home, the intervention of Prime Minister Harold Wilson - and a rather nice handbag ...

I’ve never forgotten the story relating to Wigan Town Hall and a rather eccentric old lady when I covered a visit by the Prime Minister Harold Wilson on October 21, 1966. I remembered that at the time the old lady, who lived in a small cottage, was often in the news because her home was under threat of demolition.

But the fine detail escaped me until last week when I spent time researching newspaper cuttings in the Museum of Wigan Life.

The lady, Annie Fairhurst, lived in Walthew Green, Roby Mill near Up Holland and she had won her battle to save the cottage after writing a letter to Mr Wilson asking for his help earlier in the year.

The letter seems to have done the trick and she wanted to thank the Prime Minister in person for his help. Annie had saved the £2 cost for a handbag that she intended to give to Harold for his wife Mary during his visit to the town.

The Post and Chronicle editorial team had heard about her intention days before the visit and we arranged for Annie to be near the Town Hall when Harold Wilson was there.

Crowds had gathered outside the building and in those days it was not so difficult for people to get quite close to someone like the Prime Minister.

I was in position on the pavement near the main entrance and despite the large crowd I managed to get Annie holding the handbag standing next to me.

Mr Wilson was already inside the building but as he left, with his trademark pipe gripped between his teeth, he turned for a final wave to the waiting crowd and at this point I asked if he would accept the handbag from Mrs Fairhurst. She told him it was for Mrs Wilson and said his intervention had saved her cottage. As is often the case on these occasions, it was over in a few seconds but the old lady was happy and so was I.

And was Mrs Wilson happy with the handbag? That’s another story!

A tragic post script to that day in 1966, and one that I have only recently associated with my story, is that whilst the Prime Minister was visiting Wigan a terrible event was taking place in another coal mining area.

The name of Aberfan would be splashed across the world after 116 children and 28 adults died when a coal shale tip slid down the side of a hill covering the village school and burying nearly all of its pupils and teachers in the shale slurry.

Mr Wilson was informed of the disaster during his visit to Wigan and returned to London to oversee the events following the disaster.