Pub chain boss unveils £2m 'city bar' plan for Wigan's former general post office

A £2m masterplan has been unveiled to turn Wigan’s former GPO into a “city bar”, function rooms and offices.

Wednesday, 10th March 2021, 11:59 am

And there is the possibility for it also to become the new home of ... the town’s post office!

Bar chain tycoon Tony Callaghan recently bought the 136-year-old buildings which are far larger than many Wiganers realise and are full of historical features and surprises that he intends to bring back into public view and use.

Plans include a large central bar area with seating booths around the edges; he wants it family-friendly, serving meals at all opening times, and is keen to cater for older patrons with the introduction of a tradition of yesteryear: afternoon dinner dances!

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Tony Callaghan outside the former GPO on Wallgate which closed two years ago

He says he may lease out parts of premises to restaurateurs and other businesses and intends to bring his own company’s offices to the upper rooms. But Mr Callaghan says he is open to suggestions from prospective partners.

The Wallgate premises closed two years ago as part of a Post Office cost-cutting programme and the services it provides were moved across town to be incorporated into the Standishgate WHSmith store.

But, as the Wigan Observer exclusively revealed last month, that branch of the retailer is set to shut itself before the end of this year after bosses announced it was no longer viable to trade there.

That meant that the post office would once again be on the move - if it survived in the town at all.

The glazed roof which sits above what used to be the public area of the post office. The false ceiling (seen here from above) will be removed

For it was revealed that the current operator of the service had resigned and the Post Office was now looking for both a new franchisee and base.

Mr Callaghan, who owns many buildings in Wigan town centre, said it would be “perfectly fitting” for the post office to return to a part of its old home while recognising that Post Office Ltd may have other irons in the fire. He revealed that his invitation had been made to the Post Office and that he had also been in communication with both Wigan Council and Wigan MP Lisa Nandy, the latter of whom had led a campaign to keep the original general post office open.

The dreams of transforming the premises, however, depend first on InnTheBar boss Mr Callaghan’s getting planning and licensing permission which, even if successful, could slow the project up, not least because the Victorian premises in question are Grade II listed.

There is also an awful lot of work to be carried out on them, especially the parts that customers never saw.

One of the many empty rooms in the former sorting offices at the rear which haven't been used for half a century. The first job is to waterproof the premises

But Wigan-born Mr Callaghan, for whom this is his biggest project to date, says it will be worth waiting a couple of years “to get it right”.

Construction by the Crown Post Office began in 1884 and was one of 57 purpose-built premises created around the country.

It opened on October 19 1885. It comprises two parts: the counter services area, which many Wigan residents will remember, and another large building at the back which is thought to have been used as sorting offices and a telegraph office. The latter hasn’t been used for up to half a century since the replacement Royal Mail sorting offices were built on Hallgate.

Mr Callaghan said: “These are incredible buildings which have so many original features and huge potential. There are surprises at every turn.

Some of the old post office equipment was left behind. Here Mr Callaghan is seen with a parcel stamp. He hopes to include some of these relics as decorations in the bar

“After the GPO closed I could see nothing was happening to it. It had just been left there to fall into dilapidation which was a huge shame. So I got in touch with the Post Office to see if it was for sale.

“They said ‘yes’ and I said ‘well, you’ll never sell it if you don’t have a “for sale” sign outside’ which was silly really because they then put up a sign and meant that I had to get into a bidding war and ended up paying more for it than I originally might! But it is worth it.

“I have just put in the planning and licensing applications and am hoping for the best.

“If they come out all right then we can set to on the biggest project I’ve ever tackled. A football pitch is 7,140m sq and the floor space of this place is 9,100 so it’s substantial to say the least.

“The public will recognise only a part of it but even that it deceiving because it has a false ceiling. In some places, when that is removed, you’ll be able to see right up to the glass roof three floors above which is awesome. A lot of the old equipment, like stamping machines, has been left behind. There are the original toilets, a lift going up to the top floor - which I wouldn’t dare use for now - and an impressive spiral staircase.

“The back building needs a lot of work doing to it, having not been occupied for decades, the first of which is waterproofing. There are some rooms which we haven’t seen yet because they are locked and we may as well leave them that way until we are ready to start work.

Ornate stonework commemorates the building's construction in the Victorian era

“As far as putting these buildings to good use again, I want Wigan to have its first ‘city bar’ - something quite different from other pubs and bars in the area.

“I want it family-friendly, with meals served at all hours and I want a big bar in the middle that you can walk all the way round. That would be unique for Wigan.

“One thing I am keen on is catering for older people. It’s sad that there has been a habit for a long time for everyone over 25 to desert the town centre when the clock strikes 5pm. So I want something that addresses that so people stay into the earlyish evening and I would also like to reintroduce afternoon dinner dances that were all the rage at once time.

“We have got a lovely parquet floor that can be put to good use.

“These are early days and I am open to ideas if partners want to come on board. I’ve already had expressions of interest from operators to use some of the space in the second building. There are several rooms that could be for functions but one or more could easily be turned into French or Italian restaurants for instance.

“I have business interests in several parts of the region but the majority are in Wigan and I am particularly keen to invest here and see it thrive. I am a Wiganer born and bred after all.

“We know that retail is struggling and hospitality is seen as something that can be expanded to compensate for this.”

And then there is the post office idea...

“When I heard that WHSmith was shutting and that the post office was going to be homeless, I immediately thought that it would be particularly fitting if it came back to these Wallgate buildings and use part of them as its base. After all it does have the words ‘post office’ etched over the door!

“I’ve broached the subject with Lisa Nandy - who fought to keep the GPO open there in the first place - and also Wigan Council, and there have also been talks separately with the Post Office. Perhaps they have other interested parties, I don’t know, but at least they have an alternative offer on the table if this project can be pulled off.”

Mr Callaghan said he now has to be patient and hopeful while the planning and licensing applications are processed and said he fully expected the project to take at least two years - if not more - before it comes to fruition.

As far as other town centre projects are concerned, Mr Callaghan said he was still hopeful that one day the eyesore Grimes Arcade - which he owns with fellow businessman Neil Kay on King Street - will finally be brought back to its former glory. The project, he says, depends however on funding and the wider regeneration of King Street as a whole to make it worthwhile.

Meanwhile a long-running legal wrangle over a party wall with Network Rail means that he can finally think about doing something with the overgrown plot of land on Dorning Street/King Street West which used to be the famous Pemps night club.

The area has planning permission for part of it to be turned into a beer garden/smoking area and the rest a car park for the neighbouring Indiependence club.

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A spiral staircase in the sorting offices building
A view from the sorting offices building across towards Crawford Street