Regular readers will perhaps know that I live in St Helens in Lancashire. And OK, I know that a boundary change sometime in the ’70s decreed that St Helens was in fact a town in Merseyside, but I have never really bought into that, nor do I fully believe that my town belongs in the Liverpool City Region where it has been situated since such plans were drawn up in 2014. Anyway, I digress. Just 8 or 9 miles up the road from me in St Helens lies the town of Wigan, our fiercest rivals in the sport of rugby league. As a result, you’re more than likely to see in this neck of the woods a sticker such as the one I’m about to show you below displayed proudly on a variety of cars and vans.
You see the people of Wigan are renowned for their love of pies. Whether its safely ensconced in bread (known as a ‘Wigan kebab’) or upturned and doused liberally in the green juices of the Northern chipshop staple mushy peas (known, disgustingly, as ‘pea-wet and babbies yed’; the soft, pale bottom of the pie bearing a resemblance to the fontanel of a newborn baby – I know, I did say it was disgusting, right?) Wiganers are just mad about pies to the extent that, not only are the World Pie Eating Championships held in the town each year, the people of Wigan are also known throughout the North West as ‘pie eaters’.
But did you know that, in reality, that affectionate nickname has nothing to do with their love of the savoury filled pastry dish? Yes, there’s more to the origins of this name than meets the pie.
For the truth behind the nickname we have to go back to 1926 and the General Strike. On the 3rd May, faced with falling wages and increasingly dangerous work conditions in the coal industry, the General Council of the TUC decided that they had no option but to call for a unilateral, nationwide withdrawal of labour in all fields of work in an effort to force the government’s hand. For nine days, some 1.7 million workers went out on strike with key industries such as the railways, the docks, the steelworks and transport bringing Britain to a standstill in an act of solidarity with the 1.2 million locked out miners. However, when the government stated that it had “no power to compel employers to take back every man who had been on strike”, the TUC was forced to bring an end to the dispute without any agreement being found.
In Wigan however, the strike had already come to a premature end. The collieries there had taken matters into their own hands and effectively starved their miners back to work. Over on the Leigh coalfields, miners who continued until the bitter end were said to remark that their brothers in Wigan would have to “eat humble pie” to seek their forgiveness. The name ‘pie eater’ was thus born and although it’s a name now worn with pride by modern day Wiganers, it clearly wasn’t always the case. It is a nickname that derives from a very difficult decision having been made during one of the harshest chapters of working class life.