Wigan enjoyed a double celebration of its history as blue plaques were unveiled in the town centre to a literary legend and a pioneering women’s suffrage politician.
In a major campaign victory for local historian Tom Walsh and our sister paper the Wigan Observer a memorial was installed at the town hall to Thorley Smith, the first person in Britain to stand as an MP on a votes for women platform.
In addition a new plaque to George Orwell was revealed in the Museum of Wigan Life, with the famous writer’s son Richard Blair doing the honours.
Both locations are significant to the individuals, with Orwell’s plaque in the upstairs room where he read and did research for The Road to Wigan Pier.
Thorley, meanwhile, is commemorated at the seat of the borough’s political life in recognition of his life of public service, which included serving as a councillor and being made an alderman.
The plaque was unveiled by Mr Walsh, who successfully lobbied for months for greater recognition of Thorley and his 1906 election campaign in which he came second, alongside his fellow historian and researcher Yvonne Eckersley.
Mr Walsh said: “Thorley Smith was a great man. When the local Labour Party wouldn’t back him he put principles before politics. It must have been difficult for him to stand but he very bravely did so.
“He wasn’t a flash in the pan, he encouraged mumerous women in Wigan to stand for the council.
“This will become a place of pilgrimage. People from all over the country will be astounded to know it was a man from Wigan who did this first.”
Ms Eckersley said: “Thorley Smith’s campaign was run by the remarkable women of the Wigan Weavers’ Association.
“These ill-paid, working-class women went out after a long day at work, including caring for homes and children, and stood on street corners, at the gas works and tram sheds, anywhere they could find an audience.”
The Orwell ceremony was also an opportunity to recognise more than 200 books from The Peter Davison Collection of Orwell’s Works, covering both the author’s writings and research into him, being donated to the museum on Library Street.
Staff also got out the visitors’ book which the great writer signed using his real name Eric Blair.
Mr Blair, the famous author’s son, said in his speech he was delighted to see how his father’s reputation had changed in Wigan.
He said: “Unfortunately some people in Wigan think he rather overcooked his descriptions to pull the place down but that wasn’t what he wanted to do. He wanted to illustrate what was going on.
“As my father and his books have gathered fame so I hope Wigan will be able to do the same and elevate itself above some of the other places associated with him.
“The Road to Wigan Pier is one of the very few books which has the name of the town in its title. I think Wigan can take comfort in that.”
The formal recognition of the two pivotal figures in borough history was arranged by Wigan Council.
Outgoing leader Lord Peter Smith said: “These plaques mark tthe start of a new branch of our cultural and arts policy to try to recognise people who made a real contribution to Wigan.
“George Orwell has been very influential. He came to Wigan, stayed here and came into the very library where the plaque is. Thorley was the first person to take on the fight for women’s suffrage, which is really important and continues today getting better rights for women.”