Wigan news review of the year Part I

The year 2021 started with a lot less optimism than its predecessor because 12 months earlier, the word "Covid" was known to very few.

Alan Cunliffe was one of the first Brits to encounter Covid while on holiday in Tenerife
Alan Cunliffe was one of the first Brits to encounter Covid while on holiday in Tenerife

But the last 12 months have been filled with a lot more hope, even if there have been disappointments and setbacks along the way, even now at the turn of the next year.

And alongside that we have had sad moments and happy moments completely unrelated to this confounded pandemic.

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Here are some of the stories that made the headlines:

David Curry is discharged from hospital after a long battle with coronavirus

January

Former Whelley builder Alan Cunliffe, who was one of the first Wiganers to encounter Covid after his Tenerife holiday hotel was locked down in February 2020, leaving him trapped inside for days, was also in the first cohort of local people to receive the newly approved vaccine. “It was all over in a jiffy,” he said. "Very efficient, no ill effects,” Tens of thousands of fellow residents have followed in his footsteps since.

It was reported that diners in Wigan had saved more than £1.7m on meals during the Eat Out to Help Out scheme the previous summer. The scheme, which was designed to give struggling hospitality businesses a financial boost during the pandemic, saw foodies across the country dine out for a fraction of the usual cost, with the Government picking up 50 per cent of the bill.

A mentally ill woman who stabbed to death a Wigan tourist enjoying a holiday in America was confined to a psychiatric unit indefinitely. Faye Doomchin plunged a knife into Denise Webster’s chest in order to “rid the house of evil, ” having earlier welcomed her as a guest but then fell into a “zombie-like state”. The 61-year-old, from Garswood, was in the US to celebrate five years’ remission from cancer.

Bob Hilton: Uncle Joe's Mint Balls' "biggest fan"

February

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Dad of three David Curry was described as a miracle man after getting to go home following 110 days in an intensive care unit with Covid-19.

The once fit and active 52-year-old from Kitt Green, was clapped out of Wigan Infirmary amid emotional scenes.

There had been much debate about the true toll of the Covid pandemic and whether some people had actually succumbed to other illnesses. Perhaps the most revealing figure was the one which came from the King’s Fund which said that in 2020 there were 607 more deaths in Wigan than had been the average over the previous five years. No-one could offer any other explanation for the sudden 19 per cent rise other than the new virus.

Serial sex offender Dennis Smalley
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We met Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls’ biggest fan. Bob Hilton, 90 and from Leigh, was eating at least three or four of the world famous Wigan-made sweets each day and partly put his liking for them down to the fact he nearly choked to death on one as a child!

March

There were many tragic deaths in which Covid was at least part responsible, but few were mourning Dennis Smalley when it was revealed that one of Wigan’s vilest sex offenders had succumbed to the disease. The 70-year-old was serving a long jail sentence for numerous rapes and sexual assaults when he fell ill. One of his victims said she felt that he had got off lightly by dying too sooner after incarceration.

Wigan pub and bar magnate revealed that he had bought Wigan’s former general post office buildings on Wallgate and had ambitious plans to turn it into an entertainment and hospitality venue, one idea being to bring back afternoon tea dances for the older clientele.

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Tony Callaghan outside the former Wigan GPO that he has bought and plans to redevelop

And Wigan fell silent and flags were hoisted at half mast as the borough marked the first anniversary of the Government’s imposition of lockdown against the coronavirus in March 2020.

April

Wigan took part in a period of national mourning following the death of His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh just a few months short of his 100th birthday. Warm tributes were paid to the Prince who had visited the borough on several occasions.

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The grieving mother of a Wigan teenager who died in a fishing lodge said she feared she was never going to see justice. Rosanna Price was speaking after three boys, aged 17, 18 and 19, who had been arrested on Samson Price’s murder, were released without charge by police.

Haigh Hall campaigners expressed delight that Wigan Council won a High Court trial allowing it to end a lease with a hotel operator. The local authority took back control of the historic building after a judge ruled its decision to terminate the lease and evict the firm running the venue was valid. Judge David Hodge QC agreed with the council’s claims that work to transform the hall into a hotel was not completed by an agreed date, despite Scullindale Global Ltd disputing this, saying it was running a four-star hotel.

May

HRH The Duke of Edinburgh
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It had been planned for Wigan Pier’s famous canalside buildings to be relaunched as new events venues in the autumn this year, but come May, developers had admitted that the multi-million-pound project had stalled, not least due to a shortage of contractors who could finish the job. A 2022 completion was predicted.

There was much revelry - albeit sometimes rather chilly if the weather wasn’t favourable when the moment came for pubs and restaurants to re-open in the spring - so long as guests stayed outdoors. But May saw customers allowed inside again for meals.

Wigan-born songwriter Barry Mason, whose works became known to millions of pop lovers was remembered by a number of big names in music after his death at the age of 85. Mason, whose best-loved songs included Sir Tom Jones’s smash-hit Delilah, won five Ivor Novello Awards and penned an extraordinary 11,000 songs.

June

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Kraft Heinz announced £140m plans to reintroduce production of its sauces - including its famous ketchup - into Britain and that it would all take place at its Kitt Green plant. Since then workers have voted against contract changes conditional on the deal and now the company is considering taking the sauce operation to another of its sites.

A woman has won £28,000 in compensation from bosses of the world-acclaimed Wrightington Hospital after hip replacement surgery went so wrong that she needed a second operation in less than a week.

And police were condemnatory of new pictures showing a large numbers of young people dicing with death by diving and swimming in the water-filled quarry at Appley Bridge which has claimed two Wigan boys’ lives over the years.

A review of the second half of the year will be published on New Year's Eve.

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Haigh Hall
The regeneration of Wigan Pier stalled due to the pandemic
The late Barry Mason