Wigan and Leigh Archives Online

1902-1903, Richard Johnson, Mayor of Wigan

Richard Johnson

Mayor or Wigan 1902-1903


Born in Ince, near Wigan, in 1852, son of a miner and grandson of a colliery banksman, Richard Johnson was educated at the National Bluecoat School and Wigan Grammar School before continuing his education with private tuition.


Initially studying for a career in Medicine he chose to follow a different career in mineral water manufacturing, a field that he would lead in, in a management and journalistic role until the business was combined with the Palatine Mineral Water Company.


In the 1870s he took an active interest in politics representing wards in his native Ince for the Liberals for several years and standing for a seat in Parliament. In 1888 he successfully contested a seat in All Saints’ Ward in Wigan County Borough and following a redistribution of seats in 1891 he represented St Patrick’s Ward.


In 1892 he was appointed as a Justice of the Peace for Wigan County Borough and to the County Bench the following year.


A man of forceful character, intellectually gifted, who, it seems, spoke his mind, he attracted many loyal friends and also made many enemies. A man of the people, much respected by friend and foe alike. The Wigan Examiner stated in his obituary in 1906 that:

“We did not always agree with the words and actions but we recognised that he was imbued with the desire to better the lot of the great bulk of the people who knew him so well, and of the many who whilst they may not have entertained feelings of affection towards him at any rate feared him”.


In 1963, at the installation of his namesake Councillor Joseph Johnson as Mayor of Wigan, Alderman Maloney referred to Richard Johnson as having been a “virtual dictator who sued a fellow councillor for libel and was a ‘bit of a lad’”.


An example of his style is shown in a report of a meeting attended by two thousand Pemberton rate payers who met to consider the “Greater Wigan” question in July 1903. With a headline “Mayor’s extraordinary attack on Pemberton’s Library Proposal” the article continued:

“The Mayor of Wigan (Councillor Richard Johnson) spoke in favour of amalgamation, and remarked that the ratepayers had been advised that instead of joining Wigan, and having the use of the Wigan Library, they should ask Mr Carnegie. So they were going to “cadge” for a library! Were Pemberton democrats going on their knees to a millionaire, who had in a very short time made scores of millions out of the blood and sinew of men like those forming that meeting?”



Perhaps it was his forceful personality and political jealously that brought about events that would force him into the political wilderness for several years.


In the 1893 local elections a seat in Swinley Ward was won by a Conservative Mr. R. Leyland with a 16 vote majority. Shortly afterwards Councillor Leyland was elevated to the Aldermanic bench and a by-election was called for 20th December. The Liberal candidate, Thomas Worthington, won with a substantial majority of 142 votes. Rumours circulated alleging that bribery must have taken place and a petition was filed challenging the result.


Witnesses came forward claiming that Richard Johnson had “treated” for the purpose of buying votes in the Saracen’s Head and Green Man public houses in Swinley Ward. There were also suggestions that a witness had been intimidated. However, no evidence could be produced that money had changed hands in Richard Johnson’s case nor that he had bought any drinks for anyone. In addition one of the alleged recipients was not an elector in Swinley Ward and the alleged incident occurred in the late evening when the polls had already closed.


Despite being acquitted Richard Johnson was suspended from the franchise, meaning that he was unable to serve in any political seat. Owing partly to a fall of the Liberal Government this suspension lasted for several years until he was reinstated with great ceremony in 1901.


Elected to Victoria Ward he became Mayor in 1902. He was a leading figure in the discussions leading to the amalgamation of Wigan County Borough with Pemberton District in 1904 and as chairman of the Electric Light and Tramways Committee he oversaw the extension of the tramways system throughout the district and a substantial improvement in the Borough’s financial situation. In 1904 he was appointed Alderman for Swinley Ward.


Early in 1906 poor health forced him to retreat to his favourite resort in Jersey for a time but on returning to Wigan his health again deteriorated and he took a second break in Bournemouth but to no avail. On his return home his condition worsened and he died in the early hours of the morning on 10th April 1906.


Controversy did not die with him however, in July 1910 his executors had to take action in the High Court of Chancery to access shares and property belonging to his estate that had been taken possession of by his widow and daughter.


The defendants claimed that they had been given the shares by Richard Johnson and had enjoyed the sole benefits from any dividends. His widow claimed that she had purchased the property in her own name with her own money.


The executors claimed that when Palatine Mineral Water Company combined with Richard Johnson’s business he had transferred his shares to his wife and daughter purely to avoid any conflict of interest. The company owned licensed premises and Richard Johnson, being a member of the licensing panel, would have been unable to hold the shares in his name.


Richard Johnson’s involvement in politics locally and nationally had caused him to rely on his wife to manage his many business affairs and it was in this capacity that the executors claimed that property was registered in his wife’s name.


The executor’s barrister revealed that the will left a substantial legacy to a lady whom he did not wish to name for reasons that he would explain and made provision for a “separate establishment” that, it appeared, was unknown to his widow, whilst leaving the widow and daughter with only a lifetime’s interest in his estate. The discovery of which had led to her taking action to secure property, furniture and shares from the executors. The parties involved agreed to a settlement.


In October 1910 the property and shares of Richard Johnson’s estate were put up for auction by George Wilcock Auctioneers by order of the High Court. As well as the shares in the Mineral Water Company his estate included fifteen houses in Ormskirk Road, Pemberton. Two houses in Somerville Road, Wigan, twelve houses in Hull Street and Clegg Street Ince and property in Manchester Road Ince.



Wigan Examiner 11 April 1906

Wigan Observer 24 May 1963 p9d,f

Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser 14 July 1903 © The British Library

Wigan Observer 23 July 1910 p12a,b,c

Wigan Observer 29 October 1910 p12h


1 item was found within 1902-1903, Richard Johnson, Mayor of Wigan