War of words over bravery of famous 12

The statue of Billy Boston in Believe Square
The statue of Billy Boston in Believe Square

A long-running fight to remember a dedicated dozen who battled Franco’s fascists in Spain has led to a war of words with Wigan Council.

Campaigners from Wigan Trades Council have been attempting to install a plaque in Wigan’s Believe Square to three men who lost their lives in the Spanish Civil War, and nine comrades.

But town hall chiefs say there are already too many memorials in the civic enclave and have offered to find an alternative location to honour former members of the International Brigade.

Trades council leaders have labelled the decision “unreasonable” and asked for a rethink and a protest is planned in Believe Square this Saturday from noon.

A spokesman said: “All across the north west towns either have or are in the process of setting up plaques to their local International Brigaders - Manchester, Salford, Liverpool, and this coming September Bolton.

“The proportion of Wiganers that went to Spain is higher than many other towns across the country and those other councils have recognised these men and women for the commitment they made.

“Believe Square has only one commemorative plaque and that is to Gerard Winstanley, and only one celebration statue and that is to local icon Billy Boston. The square has plenty of room for other plaques.”

Former trades council stalwart Ron Thompson had lobbied for the plaque before his death in 2014.

Deputy council leader Coun David Molyneux said: “We have been in discussion with Wigan Trades Council to commemorate the brave people from our borough who made the ultimate sacrifice in joining the International Brigade.

“There is certainly no problem with a plaque and we have not dismissed the proposal to have one in the borough.

“We need more information about the detail of the plaque to decide where it would best be located as Believe Square is not our only town centre option. We are still keen to work with the group and make positive progress with this.”

Those to be honoured would include ex-miner Michael Gallagher, of Ashton Street, Scholes, who had taken part in hunger marches in 1934 and 1936 to London from Wigan, was killed in the Battle of Brunete, in 1937.

Fellow collier Bernard Sweeney, who left his Wigan home at the age of 29, lost his life at the Battle of Belchite, the same year, and Paul Francis Dewhurst, whose family came from Lowton, also perished at Brunete.

His ancestors ran the Theatre Royal at Leigh for many years.

The trades council are keen to mark their bravery because they say the returning troops were treated as heroes by townsfolk - but ignored by the Establishment.
Nine others supported the cause, including nurse Lily Robinson, who grew up The Wiend, and had a history of radical activism. She was smuggled out to Spain and is believed to have worked as a nurse, echoing her later career at Billinge Hospital, on her return. Others who survived include Gallagher’s friend Edwin Blood, also from Scholes, Tommy Degnan, Pat Deignan, Arthur Evans and Thomas Connolly, all ex-colliers from Wigan, ex-Leigh resident Hector Coop, bus driver Benny Hoath. Harold Croston, who had served previously with the Army and Navy, and was involved in skirmishes during the Russian Revolution, was wounded but returned to work as a trawlerman.