As a child in postwar Wigan, Barbara Nettleton helped her mother organise fund-raising beetle drives while the men of the community occupied positions and sat on committees at the working men’s clubs and local trade unions. “The community was organised through the working men’s clubs – and women weren’t even allowed in the tap rooms,” she recalls.
She still lives in the town, up the hill from the site of the infamous tripe shop where George Orwell stayed when he came to research The Road To Wigan Pier. The buildings he described are long gone – a car park stands where the tripe shop used to be – but the area is still one of the poorest in Wigan.
Now 67, Nettleton runs Sunshine House, a community centre behind Scholes Precinct, a concrete shopping parade teetering on the brink of desolation since the post office closed.
The area has changed little over the decades, but today those on the frontline between hardship and officialdom are women. “My whole board, all my senior staff, are women – and the people we’re sent by agencies working with the long-term unemployed are men,” she says.