When Plank Lane was surrounded by a thriving farming community

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Local historian Alf Ridyard looks at farming on an industrial landscape...

The headline for this article is something most people from days gone by would find a strange statement, when you consider our first picture is dominated by the Bickershaw colliery headgear.

Also in the district was an iron foundry situated behind the Spring View, one of the seven pubs that served the area and a light engineering works, that made spare parts for the Tunnicliffe cotton mills on Firs Lane, just a goal kick away from Plank Lane, known locally as “Tinker Joes”.

Add to this two brickworks, one at the colliery and one that was situated over the canal bridge near to one of the two railway lines that dissected the area.

Amidst this industry were numerous farms, some no bigger than a small holding but all important to the welfare of the area, particularly in WW2.

We are not doing a concise history of these farms as that would be akin to writing a volume the size of War and Peace, plus I am not in possession of such details, just some tales of the hardships and the lighter side of life of some of the families involved.

Our first farm was Higher Allansons , which was over Common Lane swing bridge, this being the only access to it which was a dirt track, it was farmed by the Ramsdale family as tenant farmers, who rented the land from Ackers Whitely, the mining company who had bought all the land in 1878, to ensure the mining rights.

It would seem the farm produced mainly vegetable crops, potatoes, cabbages, carrots etc, in summer my informant says they produced spring onions and lettuces and cultivated water cress in the outflow of warm water from the pit boiler house.

My source knows the last part as correct as he , as a youth, relieved some at various times for his own family home on Plank Lane, as like most farms of the area they also had poultry for the egg supply, (A) for self-sufficiency and (B) to supplement income.

James and Eliza Ramsdale were the first tenants and between them had fifteen children, one of these Mary (Williams) was the last tenant in 1946 when it was condemned as unfit for human habitation - so much so that Mary’s children were born away from the farm as it was deemed inaccessible to any medical services.

The farm had no electricity, gas or running water, a water butt to collect rain water from the gutters was the sole source of water boiled for drinking and washing.

Light was supplied by lanterns and heating supplied by a coal fire with an oven attached. These were referred to as bungalow ranges.

All the local farms were heated in this way and the iron fireplace would have been made at Plank Lane foundry which had a good reputation for making them, also fire bottoms.

Strange to think that these Victorian fireplaces are making a comeback and sell for £8,000 in some cases nowadays.

Older readers will no doubt remember Ernie, one of James and Eliza’s sons who for many years owned the shop on the corner of Common Lane.

My wife and her cousins remember his wife Nellie as a fearsome matriarch of a woman and would avoid the shop as children.

Most of the farm’s land was swallowed up shortly after by the ever-growing Plank Lane colliery spoil tip, condescendingly named Ramsdales tip.

There was also a Lower Allansons Farm. Unfortunately in 1907 this was swallowed up by the also ever-expanding Pennington Flash, shortly followed by Urmstons in the meadow farm in 1910.

From time to time these farms like a phoenix from the ashes appear during long dry summers, 1977 being one I can remember.

Moving back over the canal we come to probably the most iconic farm and owner in the area, Strange Common Farm was the abode of James Herbert Hayes Dickens, to give him his full title, known to all and sundry as Jimmy Diggins, a giant of a man of some twenty plus stone in weight.

Jimmy had a milk herd, chickens and pigs, and many tales are legend in the area regarding Jimmy.

Probably the most well-known is that when he stood on the back of his milk cart the horse went up in the shafts at the front.

Another couple of memories, told by my father-in-law, was Jimmy driving his tractor with one of his cows tied behind down Plank Lane and up to Freddy Dootson’s Crankwood Road dairy farm to be served by Freddy’s Bull.

The scene was akin to the All Creatures Great and Small series.

And I am led to believe, the whole area could hear the bulls bellowing.

Another mating episode told again by my father-in-law was when he himself dragged a cow from Marshes Farm at the top of Talbot Road to Grundy’s farm at Byron Hall.

This again had the same scenario, an addition to this tale unrelated to farming, was, on return my father-in-law was sent to the chemist’s on Firs Lane by owd Marsh for a packet of “Potters Asthma Cigarettes” as owd Marsh suffered from a chronic chest but smoked 80 a day of these, claiming medicinal benefits.

I mention this as, would you believe, they were still made up to 1985 and I would hazard a guess few people have ever heard of them.

Further tales of Strange Common Farm was the churning of their own butter, one of the chores my father-in-law as a teenager did for them along with feeding the pigs.

Jimmy’s eccentricity also comes to the fore by the fact he was the owner of a Daimler car that never left his barn but was extremely useful for storing his egg boxes.

Jimmy was also a creature of habit, he and his drinking buddy Henry Myers a purveyor of fruit and veg around the area from his horse and cart would catch the same bus very night at 7pm for a few swift drinks at the Ram’s Head, before returning to finish the night in the Plank Lane Working Men’s Club, in the room known as the horse box. It is amazing how these people made a living selling their produce for what must have been very little profit and a lot of hard work.

Jimmy Diggins did have a large milk round that covered Firs Lane and the centre of Leigh , the terraced houses either side of Leigh Road being his main area.

He also had a contract to supply the pit canteen with milk which he had to buy in from Braithwaites Farm at Lowton St Lukes, as his own capacity was taken up by his growing milk rounds, another chore for my father-in-law to bring this churn of milk.

He was provided with a bicycle with a metal carrying frame attached at the front which was to carry the five-gallon churn, great on the outward journey when flashing down the swing bridge brew, quite a feat when having to push it back up with a full churn of milk.

Jimmy would make sure this was delivered as he also had all the scraps from the pit canteen to make the swill for his pigs, never one to miss an opportunity was JD.

Another small one-field poultry and duck farm was Hollows Hall farmed by Billy Speakman, later Shoveltons adjoining Diggins land, situated in between Johnson Street and Our Lady of the Rosary church and school.

Further up Plank Lane, hidden behind the terraces across the way from the Spring View pub was Old Fold Farm, 100 yards down a dirt track from Heath Lane.

Just a cursory mention of farms within shouting distance of the pit and it’s rail system were Pear Tree House Farm, Old Bear Hey Farm sandwiched between Crankwood Road, the canal and the railway, Japps Mossley Farm, over the Swing Bridge, again alongside the railway, which had the same deprivations as Higher Allansons farm.

Further up the pit railway we would have had Westleigh Heath Pig Farm at Shuttle Hillock just behind the Willow Tree pub known to all and sundry as the “Last Shift” – a name given to the pub by pitmen coming home from the afternoon shift at the colliery, just being in time to get a quick couple of pints before closing time.

The farm was owned by Bert Hulme the father of well-known Leigh bookmaker Bert Hulme Jnr. Bert Snr, also like Jimmy Diggins, had an arrangement to collect waste food.

This being Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from Leigh market, off he would trundle with his horse and cart an hour or so before the market closure and refresh himself in the Queen’s public house, facing what was then Leigh’s open air market.

Scraps were collected and back up Firs Lane he would go with yet another compulsory stop at the Spinners pub for a few more glasses of “flat rib” (mild beer).

During the summer months one does not need an exaggerated imagination of how the cart , left outside the pub, smelled, plus Bert himself offended customers’ nostrils whilst he played a few games of dominoes before making his onward journey to the pig yard to start the boiling process of the rancid waste.

The horses from all these farms needed, from time to time reshoeing. Diggins always used Chris Jordan the farrier at Kenyon Lane, Lowton - incidentally, the workplace of world champion lightweight boxer Peter Kane - which of course meant taking the horse to the forge some two miles.

It was the same for Bert Hulme whose farrier was Alldreds situated in Leigh town centre on King Street. These chores once again were undertaken by my father-in-law who in 1940 would have been 12 years of age riding these horses bareback to the said places.

One farm just outside our parameters of Plank Lane was Davenports Farm alongside the Bolton Kenyon railway. When this ceased to farm oats and wheat, it became a maggot breeding farm well known as Pengy’s maggot farm although out of our district I can assure people that when the wind in summer was in the right direction Plank Lane benefitted from the odour.

In the 1940s we had more than 12 farms scattered around Plank Lane Colliery. In the Wigan, Bolton area, which included Leigh, during the war and for some years after there were 1,450 farms, the land for farming usage increased from 28% to 48% during this period.

These farms could be found on maps dating back to the 1880s and many from earlier dates in the 1500s.

All but one, Old Bear Hey Farm, to my knowledge no longer exist.

Not only have the farms disappeared but sadly so has all the industries and the terraced houses, they surrounded.