Right in the centre of Ashton Town Centre, directly opposite the old Market Building, stands a statue of a rather short man, stood on a box, wearing a flat cap and holding a basket full of pies.
The life-sized bronze statue commemorates a fella called John Harrison, known locally as “Uncle John” or even moreso – Ashton’s Pieman.
John became a legend in the small town back in the late 1800s when, during the Cotton Famine, he donated his famous pies to the poor and hungry. It was this compassion that led to him being affectionately known as everyone’s “Uncle John”.
The Lancashire Cotton Famine was a particularly horrible time for the North West of England, brought about by overproduction during the ‘boom years’ of 1859-60, and a rise in the price of raw cotton due to the American Civil War and Second Opium War in China.
Factory owners could no longer buy large quantities of raw cotton to process, meaning that in large parts of Lancashire and the surrounding areas, workers became unemployed – becoming impoverished in mere weeks.
With highly specialised industries in each town, whole communities found themselves out of work and destitute, with many areas deciding to move away from cotton and into other production, such as wool in Heywood and hat making in Stockport.
Tameside was the hardest hit though, and there was a mass exodus of people over the decade, many to towns in Yorkshire, but also to New York, Australia and New Zealand, the latter of which even offerered free passage.
So with everyone poor, hungry and struggling to survive, local hero John Harrsion, who was a former collier turned caterer, stepped up – providng much-needed food to the suffering masses.
He’d made a name for himself before then by selling his pies at local football matches, and he managed to get himself a loyal band of supporters and opened up his own shop on Market Street – not far from where his statue stands today.
Often seen walking the streets in his flat cap and apron, handing out pies from his basket, John’s generosity was known across the town, and never forgotten, even long after his death in 1906.
The statue commemorating Uncle John was unveiled on 23rd September 2005 by Civic Mayor of Tameside, Councillor Jacqueline Lane, and the plaque reads:
Uncle John the Pieman reads: THE ASHTON MARKET TRADER ‘Uncle John’ the Pieman John Harrison was well-known throughout Ashton for his generosity to the poor during hard times in the late 1800’s.
What a top lad, and I bet his pies were amazing. If you’re looking for a good pie in Ashton nowadays – you have to go to Bradley’s on Kings Road near the football ground – they’re the best.