Untitled © Tim Smith

Roads to Wigan Pier

An archive exhibition revisited to mark Impressions' 40th anniversary, exploring life and work in the North of England in 1984.

In November 1972 Impressions Gallery opened in a room above a shop in York with the first ever exhibition by the then unknown Martin Parr. As one of the first specialist photography galleries in Europe it has gone on to play a vital role in championing photography and has had a huge impact on the development of the photographic culture in Britain.

To mark this occasion Anne McNeill, Director of Impressions, has selected from the gallery’s archive an exhibition first shown in October 1984. Taking as their starting point George Orwell’s seminal 1937 publication The Road to Wigan Pier, a sociological investigation into the bleak living conditions of the working class in Yorkshire and Lancashire, six newly graduated students of photography were commissioned by Impressions to record and document social aspects of the North of England. Each worked independently and each took a personal viewpoint.

These non-judgemental, yet sometimes shocking, photographs show us a way of life that was in terminal decline. This picture of Orwellian dystopia acts as an elegy of the northern urban landscape and its people, on the brink of irrevocable social and cultural change. Today, in-post industrial Britain, we are perhaps inclined to forget the recent past as many of the symbols of poverty and neglect have been replaced by regeneration.

Russell Boyce photographed Hull’s fishing dockland and its community. He concentrated on a one-parent family, thereby using Orwell’s example of quoting an individual’s struggle as a call for social change.

Huw Davies work was concerned with industries that had grown up along the Leeds to Liverpool Canal. Originally the canal acted as an artery linking coal and cotton production of the industrial towns of Northern England. With the demise of these industries, the canal changed becoming an area for pleasure rather than business. Davies’ portraits reflect people’s alienation as a result of this change.

Julian Germain documented the decline of industry and deprivation in Wigan and Rochdale, as the results of automation on labour-intensive industries. He looked at the direct effects this process had on a number of individuals made jobless.

Graham Hall concentrated on the miner as his subject. Working in Nottinghamshire and Wigan, he photographed both working and striking miners and recorded working practices which had remained unchanged since Orwell’s observations in the 1930s.

John Kemp’s photographs present Wigan, Burnley, Rochdale and Bradford as a northern wasteland, devoid of ‘local character’, destroyed by the influence of the new and impersonal housing estates. His images set out to highlight environmental poverty, as opposed to personal poverty.

Tim Smith looked at both housing and the traditional industries of Sheffield. High rises, hailed as revolutionary ‘streets in the sky’ built in the 50s and 60s soon became regarded as a legacy of misguided thinking. The majority of people living in these were unemployed, affected by the changes to the local and traditional steel industries.

The exhibition will incorporate original text from the photographers interspersed with quotes from Orwell’s 1930s comments on the miner’s life, class, slums, unemployment and malnutrition. Roads to Wigan Pier serves as a timely reminder of what it is like to have “the dull, evil cloud of unemployment hanging over you”.

An Impressions Gallery Archive exhibition, originally shown in York in 1984.

Untitled © Julian Germain
Untitled © Julian Germain
Untitled © Tim Smith
Untitled © Tim Smith
Roads to Wigan Pier — Impressions Gallery
Untitled © Julian Germain
Untitled © John Kemp
Untitled © John Kemp
Untitled © Tim Smith
Untitled © Tim Smith
Mary Solbie © Huw Davies
Mary Solbie © Huw Davies
Roads to Wigan Pier — Impressions Gallery
J.G. Collins © Huw Davies
Roads to Wigan Pier — Impressions Gallery

Visitor Comments

“Fascinating 1984 exhibition. Makes me want to read Orwell’s book again. Makes you realise that in some cases not a lot has changed.”

“I was very impressed with this exhibition. It brings home to you how people have lived in the industrial north, how once industry and mining was thriving and as it gradually diminished, how people had to live in poverty, we should remember this.”

Roads to Wigan Pier — Impressions Gallery