The beginning of March marks British Pie Week; a time of year where the glorious pastry-and-filling dish enjoys renewed recognition right around the country. But there’s one town in Greater Manchester where every week is Pie Week. Wigan is known as the land of the ‘pie-eaters’ – although there’s more history behind that nickname than you might think...
On a balmy summer evening back in 2002, I was caught up in a current of Wigan rugby supporters, all gently floating in a sea of Cherry and White t-shirts towards the JJB Stadium turnstiles.
St Helens were in town for rugby league’s flagship fixture, and the game was a near-sellout.
Wigan vs Saints invariably pulls in a massive crowd; with the two teams old enemies since time immemorial. The clubs are separated by just 9 miles and a grassy hill called the ‘Billinge Lump’; representing rival regions since the county borders were moved in 1974 (it’s now Greater Manchester v Merseyside, rather than a Lancashire derby).
The game was one of my first visits to the rugby as a young ‘un, and whilst my memories of the match itself are fuzzy, what has stuck with me ever since is the sight of Saints fans suddenly breaking out into a strange song.
I didn’t quite understand the lyrics, so I tugged on my grandad’s coat sleeve and asked him: “Why do they keep shouting ‘pie-eaters!’ at Wigan?”
The St Helenian answer to that question – and one that’s often told in nearby towns – goes something like this…
In 1926, more than one million coal miners were at loggerheads with pit owners over wages and working conditions. So, in a show of solidarity, many British workers went on strike. The protests lasted for several days, but Wigan workers were apparently among the first to return to their shifts – and in doing so were said to be ‘eating humble pie’.
They’ve been teased about it ever since. But according to Wiganers, that’s a little unfair.
Some point out that whilst Wigan workers were the first to stop striking, they were also the first to start. Others claim that townsfolk had the pie moniker long before the unrest of 1926.
But perhaps the true origins of the nickname don’t matter. Because labelling Wiganers as ‘pie-eaters’ works on an elemental level, anyway.
Idioms aside, Wigan is a place that is inescapably besotted with pies.
The town’s penchant for pastry is everywhere. I noticed it from the moment I first set foot in Wigan’s sport stadium as a kid – from the pie posters slapped across the walls of the concourse to the pastry offer announcements crackling across the PA system. An advert for ‘POOLE’S PIES!’ (a company which produced pies in Wigan for 171 years) even danced its way across the scoreboard during the game.
Poole’s has sadly folded since then. But there’s still a minimum of 20 listed pie shops operating in the Wigan region today (with dozens of local cafes and food stores serving up pies as part of their wider menus).
Since 1992, Wigan has also been the prideful host of the World Pie-Eating Championships – where contestants aim to wolf down as many of these crumbly concoctions as quickly as possible (historically held at Harry’s Bar on Wallgate).
Ahead of the 2016 edition of the competition, a pie was launched into space to commemorate the occasion.
See, in Wigan, it’s socially acceptable to tackle any type of pie, at any time of day, in almost any way.
Residents even put pies between two slices of bread for a snack; which is known as a ‘Wigan Slappy’ or ‘Wigan Kebab’ (a local delicacy with the latter name features three pies impaled on a stick).
It’s true that many Wiganers are happy to embrace their passion for pies with good humour, but some evidence suggests that pies here are no laughing matter.
Wigan journalist David Barnett – who has written multiple pieces on the topic – concludes that pies are in fact a “way of life” for denizens. During his time working at the Wigan Evening Post, a fire ripped through the town’s pie factory, and Barnett was sent to cover the story. Despite the disaster, shutting down pie production was seemingly out of the question. Instead, the company drafted in “emergency pie-makers” to work through the night and get pie deliveries out on time. The article made the front page.
Wigan’s appetite for pies has been rumbling for decades – and remains insatiable to this day.
One of the most recent examples of this fixation can be found in 2019 – when Wigan Athletic needed a new mascot for their football team. Club officials turned to local school children for inspiration – and over half of entries featured a pie in the design.
The overall winner was Crusty The Pie.
Wigan’s love affair with pies is well-entrenched and utterly unapologetic.
When one study dared to rank nine regions above Wigan on a list of the UK’s top pie-loving places, World Pie-Eating Championships organiser Tony Callaghan was aghast.
“I’m stunned. This can’t be right,” he told Wigan Today.
“The table is very misleading. Everyone knows that Wigan is the capital of the pie world and home to the World Pie-Eating Championships. It goes down in history as such.
“Even now the pie shops are open and they’ve been trading throughout the pandemic. Wiganers can’t get enough of them.”
Wigan has revelled in many other achievements outside the oven, of course.
It’s home to one of the most successful rugby league teams of all time in Wigan Warriors. It also has a plucky little football club that has repeatedly defied the odds to make sporting headlines (including a famous FA Cup triumph over Man City in 2013). The town’s name features in the title of classic Orwellian work The Road to Wigan Pier. And Wigan is also the birthplace of legendary singer-songwriter George Formby.
But every time British Pie Week rolls around, all eyes are always on the Greater Manchester town for its inextricable link with the golden brown grub.
Wiganers, meanwhile, will be scoffing down pie barms as if it were any ordinary time of year.
That’s what they do there. It’s a town with pie-sonality…