Life of Thomas Wall & family - founder of the Wigan Observer

While David Lloyd George was ploughing his political and newspaper furrows, there was a burgeoning newspaper in the Wigan area. And over the decades far-thinking businessman, Thomas Wall, was emerging as a newspaper entrepreneur. 

The son of builder Daniel Wall and his wife, Sarah, Thomas was born in 1815 the year of the Battle of Waterloo. He first lived in the historical village of Tettenhall Wood, near Wolverhampton.

After an apprenticeship on the Wolverhampton Chronicle, Thomas left home and gained a job on the town's first newspaper, the Wigan Gazette, in 1836.

By 1841 (the year he married his wife Elizabeth - daughter of Wigan licensed victualler Thomas Johnson at the Hole I'Th' Wall on Market Place, in front of what was later the Alexandra Music Hall.) This was probably his local because he had established his printing and stationery business nearby on Wigan Market Place in a building later demolished to make way for Library Street.

Four years later in 1845 Thomas had moved into Wallgate and was the first tenant of the premises known as Minorca Buildings employing four men. He remained the only tenant until the property was purchased by Magee Marshall from the Crown Brewery in Bolton at auction in 1894 for £150,000 (£14m today).

By 1848 he was the town's postmaster on Wallgate, taking over following the death of Robert Acton. The census of 1851 – just ten years after his marriage - details Thomas's growing family in Wallgate.

Thomas, Elizabeth, Thomas (9), Ann (7), Ellen (5), Elizabeth (4), John (2), Charles (8 months). There were also three servants at the address helping with the family, which, by 1861 had grown with the further addition of Henry (8), William (7), Mary (5), Grace (3) Alice (1). There were still three different servants: cook, housemaid and nurse maid, Margaret Prescott, Eliza Webster and Elizabeth Pennington.

By this time three elder children were employed in the family business: eldest Thomas (then 19) was a reporter while Ann and Alice were bookseller's assistants in the Wallgate business.

Just five years later, in January 1853, Thomas - aged 38 - established the Liberal-supporting Wigan Observer telling the readership: “We are not actuated in our labours solely by a view to a pecuniary profit though our paper is and must be self-supporting. We aspire to the exercise of some little beneficial influence, and trust that the Observer might find favour with a generous public.”

The 'Taxes on Knowledge' as they were referred to - duty on newsprint and advertising - restricted production of the Observer to a monthly periodical with a man and boy turning out 250 copies an hour, by hand. The crown folio size (15”x18”) had eight pages. It continued at that size for a further two years and, with the abolition of stamp duty, became a double demi size (22½ × 35 inches) and was now a once a week publication.

It continued to increase its scope and influence and by 1879 it had developed into a tri-weekly publication. Much later it reverted to twice weekly - Tuesday (mainly a sports edition) and Friday. In the 1970s supermarket advertising pressures moved publication day to Thursday (pay day for lots of readers). Now it’s back on one of its traditional days: Tuesday.

Elizabeth shared Thomas’s passion for the publication and was just as anxious as her husband for the progress of the paper and equally proud of its increasing power.

Thomas Wall, was an energetic and ambitious man. His vigorous personality quickly took him into the realms of local public service.

As if starting a newspaper wasn’t enough, three months later Thomas was elected to the Wigan Board of Guardians and remained for 11 years (many as chairman). A year after his Board of Guardians appointment, Thomas was elected a Liberal councillor on Wigan Borough Council for All Saints Ward. In 1864 he became an Alderman of Wigan Council. Two years later he became a Borough magistrate. He was also chairman of Wigan Liberal Association in 1888 and was a member of Wigan Burial Board for 22 years

Retired and living in Park Road, Southport with his wife and five spinster daughters, Thomas was elected to the Lancashire County magistrates' bench in 1893. Seven years later he was widowed in October 1900.

Three major acquisitions have marked the advances made by the Wigan Observer who had just one main rival in town - the Conservative-supporting Wigan Examiner.

They were the move into Rowbottom Square, the arrival of a second hand printing press - both acquisitions to become simultaneously largely redundant in January 1966 - and buying the King Street-based Examiner in 1961, cornering the local weekly newspaper market place.

Thomas based all his businesses in what was to become the Minorca's Latham Lounge serving morning coffee - and toast - to many from the 1960s editorial department.

But business was booming and time-consuming printing pressures forced Thomas to look elsewhere for expansion. He didn’t have to look far.

Observer folklore says that the newspaper's full production - editorial, advertising, printing - moved from the post office/stationers/newspaper office in 1911 when Thomas Wall bought Peter Grant’s Temperance Hotel in Rowbottom Square which boasted commercial and private rooms. 

But it is possible the printing operation transferred from the Minorca cellar to the temperance hotel cellar in 1884 when a five metre long, 12 tonne second hand printing press was acquired from the Liverpool Daily Post. It cost £1,000 (in today's money that would be around £50,000) and could print an 8 page broadsheet paper. It’s difficult to imagine the Victory Kidder press, serial number 37, being installed twice just a few yards apart.

In 1905, a year after Thomas's death, another printing unit was installed so that it could print 16 pages at 8,000 copies an hour.

His son Charles Wall was agent for the Cunard, Inman, White Star, National and Anchor Lines of American Steamers also working out of 27 Wallgate.

Incidentally another son, John, was a solicitor with his office just down the road in Clarence Chambers - later to become Poole's Pies. Much later he set up home at Freckleton on Wigan Lane. His home was to become offices for bus and coach bodywork company Northern Counties Motor & Engineering which was founded in 1919 by Henry Lewis. John appears to be the only member of the family to join the Freemasons being a member variously of Peace, Lindsay Lodge and Antiquity Lodges).

Thomas's wider philanthropical involvement in the Wigan community saw him helping to establish Wigan Cricket Club. He was a director, Vice President and played in the first match at Brick Kiln Lane. 

His son, Henry, who had moved up in his profession to be a mining engineer, was company secretary.

The company was formed in July 1885. With a capital value of £2,000 divided into 400 shares at £5 each. Among the initial shareholders were Solicitor Maskell William Peace from Ashfield House at Standish; brewery owner Thomas Fairhurst of Kilhey Court, Worthington; ex-travel agent Charles Wall, now Editor of Wigan Observer living at 35, Upper Dicconson Street, Wigan; Poolstock brewery owner Charles Oldfield living Southport, A.H. Crossley, Tailor & Draper, of Swinley Road,

Wigan, and Thomas Wall who, by then was living in Park Road, Southport at a house named Tettenhall - after his home village near Wolverhampton.

The company bought the land in Prescott Street, where the cricket club had played since 1875, from the Earl of Derby in February 1888 for the sum of £800.

The land was sold ten years later to the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway for £3,600 and the company gave Wigan Cricket Club £750, with additional private donations of £200 to layout and level the current Bull Hey ground.

In an interesting sporting aside, Thomas's eldest son, Thomas, born in Wigan in 1841, was a consummate cricketer gaining national recognition.

He was from the start keen on cricket as were his brothers Henry and William(both playing for Lancashire in 1877). There were two other brothers, John and Charles, who regularly played for Wigan Cricket Club.

Thomas Jnr was was a middle order right-hand batsman and a slow right-hand round-arm bowler, who occasionally kept wicket. He was described in a newspaper as being a 'dashing player' and in 1867 he scored the highest number of runs for Wigan Cricket Club (196) at an average of 13.1, with a top score of 51. But his skills weren’t so evident when he played in representative matches. He played for Wigan against the United All England Eleven at Wigan scoring just one in each innings and taking a catch.

In 1868, in addition to his games for Wigan, he also turned out a couple of times for Bolton. In July that year he again played for Wigan against the All England Eleven at Wigan, and failed to score in both innings. Later in July he accompanied the Lancashire County Cricket Club on their visit to London and he played against Surrey at The Oval scoring just 3 and 8. A few days later at Lord's, against the M.C.C. he was out for another duck but scored 37 in the second innings - the highest individual score of the match. He was described as performing remarkably well against some excellent bowling and fielding.

In 1869 he scored 237 for the Wigan club and was selected to play for the Gentlemen of Lancashire for their match against the Gentlemen of Warwickshire at Warwick, where he scored 0 and 17 and took three catches.

He and two of his brothers were members of the Choir at Wigan Parish Church, where the choirmaster was a fellow cricketer for Wigan, Walter Parratt, later to be Sir Walter Parratt. Parratt was at Wigan for six years, leaving to take up a similar position at Magdalen College, Oxford, before being appointed organist at St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, and Master of the Queen's Music.

Thomas Jnr died at the early age of 34 of Bronchitis and Phthisis (tuberculosis) and was described on his death certificate as a newspaper reporter.

Besides his business successes, we can also thank Thomas Snr for the foundation of Wigan's infirmary. Designed in the Gothic style by Salford architect Thomas Worthing, it was opened by the Prince and Princess of Wales on June 4, 1873. Patients were admitted 12 months later. Thomas was one of the three promoters of the facility and later became a Vice President and trustee of the charity.

So three long lasting and still remaining Wigan institutions owe a great debt to Thomas - the infirmary, town’s cricket club and the Observer.

Besides the newspaper, Thomas also printed two specialist periodicals and several local guides. Coal mining was the foundation of the life and industry in the local area for many years. The Lancashire Coalfield was one of the most prolific in England and Wigan was at the centre of it and in the 1840's there were thought to be over 1000 pit shafts within a five mile radius of Wigan town centre, and mining historian Ian Winstanley's research estimated that eight hundred million tons of coal were mined from within 10 square miles of Wigan town centre.

Finally there were the Wall's pocket edition railway guide and the 'must have' Wigan Almanac which Thomas Wall launched ten years before the birth of the Observer. Again it was pocket sized and contained all the local information of the district from the local councils to a diary of the year's principal events, deaths and a chronology of major stories.

On a National, political level, Thomas was a prominent supporter of the Anti Corn Law League and an original member. This political movement, aimed at the abolition of the unpopular Corn Laws which protected landowners’ interests by levying taxes on imported wheat, thus raising the price of bread at a time when factory-owners were trying to cut wages. The League was a middle-class nationwide organisation that held many well-attended rallies on the premise that a crusade was needed to convince parliament to repeal the corn laws.

In regular contact with the organisation's leader Richard Cobham, Thomas cherished his collection of personal letters from Cobham.

Thomas died at his Southport home close to Hesketh Park in 1904, four years after Elizabeth and he was survived by nine children - three sons and six daughters (five of them spinsters still living at home). The property has since been demolished and replaced by apartments.

His body was brought by train to Wigan for a funeral service in the parish church and burial in Wigan Cemetery.

He was described in one obituary as a 'veteran knight of the pen and printing press' playing a prominent part in the growth and development of the modern press.

After Thomas death, the family moved just a few hundred yards to Weston House, on Adelaide Street, later renamed Avondale Road. 

Henry, a successful mining engineer living at 11 King Street, later moved to Weston House on where his daughters Alice Elizabeth Wall and Winifred Holden Wall were born in July 1892 and September 1895. But by 1914 he had move again to Lyndale (now a nursing home) on Rawlinson Road, Southport where he died aged 62.

Malcolm Ryding 2022

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