The meaning of the place name Wigan has puzzled historians for over a hundred years. In the nineteenth century some romantically inclined antiquarians thought that it derived from an Old English word meaning "war". They based this idea on the unsubstantiated belief that that the legendary King Arthur fought some battles in this district.
When later, a more rational approach to the meaning of place-names came to the fore, Henry C. Wylde, writing in 1911, admitted, "I can find no satisfactory suggestion". (1) And in 1976, David Mills concluded that the etymology was "doubtful". (2)
However, in 1922, Eilert Ekwall had offered some suggestions. He believed that Wigan was a personal, or given name, and claimed to have found a place in Anglesey called Wigan. He suggested that this was a shortened form of the type, Tref Wigan or Bod Wigan, meaning, "The village or homestead of someone called Wigan". (3)
But Andrew Breeze, writing in 1998, stated that the place name Wigan was derived from a common diminutive of the Welsh gwig, meaning "a little settlement" ...... It has nothing to do with the personal name of any Celt. As for the personal name Wigan, he was emphatic "It did not exist." (4)
But there are problems with Breeze's interpretation.
Firstly, before 1100 CE most settlements in the North-West consisted of hamlets of a handful of homesteads or single, isolated homesteads. These dispersed settlement patterns could be found in townships near Wigan such as Abram, lnce and Pemberton, where no central village existed. There is no point in calling a place "The little settlement", where virtually all settlements are small.
Secondly, the personal name Wigan may not have existed in Celtic Wales, but it did exist in another Celtic region: Cornwall. (And here it is worth mentioning that Ekwall surmised that Wigan was related to the Old Breton name Uuicon; Brittany being of course, another Celtic region, just across the Channel from Conwall.)
Two individuals named Wigan appear in the records of Cornish lands held by Merton Priory in Surrey for the period 1107-1121 CE. One of these individuals is named twice. The relevant passages read:
"Ruald, son of Wigan, gave and granted to Bernard the Scriptor all the ecclesiastical lands which he held of Brictricius Walensis ...."
"The thicket of the Castle of the fee of Ruald, son of Wigan ...."
"At which were present, Robert de Turci ... William, son of Odo .... Wiganus Marescall."
Moreover these records contain another interesting entry:
"The land of Botwei de Wigan of the fee of Richard de Luci." (5)
So we have here, in the records of the Priory, the use of Wigan as both a personal and a place-name.
Cornwall Record Office could find no trace of a settlement in Cornwall simply called Wigan, but stated that Lambriggan was formerly known as Lambourne, Wigan. This would have been to distinguish it from other places called Lambourne. The use of a personal name used in this way is found in other counties eg. Charnock Richard (Lancs) and Fenton Vivian (Staffs).
We should not be surprised that Wigan town was named after a person. After all, in modern times, roads, airports, towns and even countries (e.g. Rhodesia and Bolivia) have been named after important people.
Wigan was a Celtic personal name, and we find, in the Wigan district, several place-names of Celtic origin (e.g. lnce, Bryn, Pemberton and Makerfield). From this we may infer that Wigan was a man of some standing, at least in the locality; a man of Celtic heritage, living in a community where Celtic influence was well established.
(1) Wylde, H. C. (1911) The place-names of Lancashire. London. Constable
(2) Mills, D. (1976) The placsnames of Lancashire. London. Batsford
(3) Ekwall, E. (1922) The place names of Lancashire. Manchester. Chetham Society.
(4) Breeze, A. (1998) The origin of the name Wigan Lancashire History Quarterly 2 (1), 25-26
(5) Heales, A. (ed) (1896) The records of Merton Priory in the County of Surrey, Amen Corner. Oxford University Press Warehouse.
I am greatly indebted to Bill Aldridge and S. Floyd for directing me to these records.