For eight years, if you were into Northern Soul, there was only one place you wanted to go: Wigan Casino.
At 2.00 am on Sunday 23 September 1973, the doors of the Wigan Casino opened to the Northern Soul all-nighter crowd for the first time.
The scene had been bereft of a spiritual home since the closure of the Golden Torch in Stoke six months earlier. The Highland Rooms of the Blackpool Mecca had developed a passionate following under DJs Ian Levine and Tony Jebb, but as the Mecca existed during normal club hours, the scene was still in search of a favoured all-nighter venue following in the tradition of Manchester’s Twisted Wheel of the late 60s.
As a building, the Casino was well past its heyday, but with the best-kept dancefloor that the circuit had ever seen – and with superb acoustics to match – it could have been tailor-made for Northern Soul.
Its huge ballroom easily held 1200 people, the dancefloor flanked on three sides by ornate balconies where the acrobatic dancers, illuminated by just two fluorescent lights suspended from the domed ceiling, could be watched from on high.
An ante-room – known originally as the Palais and later Mr M’s – was a scaled-down version of the main hall, giving the Casino another substantial dance area that was soon utilised as a regular ‘oldies’ room, increasing the total capacity of the venue to well over 2000.
As midnight approached every Saturday, hundreds of young music fans – who had travelled in cars, coaches and trains from across the country – converged on a street in the middle of Wigan.
Wigan’s dancers were demanding, and the music had to be just right, or they would walk. There could be few experiences worse for a DJ standing behind the turntables on the stage of the main ballroom when the mighty, heaving Wigan dancefloor cleared in a show of spontaneous musical disapproval, revealing that vast expanse of sprung wooden flooring to the watchers on the balcony.
Unlike the small, concrete-floored Twisted Wheel, the dancefloor at Wigan was ideal for the backflipping daring of its dancers. Similarly, the rigours of eight-hour-long dance marathons on a floor that dwarfed that of the Blackpool Mecca and the Golden Torch led to an amphetamine culture that required the sounds of Wigan to be fast and frenetic and the beat to be stomping.
The driving force at Wigan was local DJ Russ Winstanley, who – together with Casino manager and soul enthusiast Mike Walker – persuaded the venue’s owner, Gerry Marshall, to take a gamble on the nights.
Winstanley set about building a roster of talented but untried young DJs who would help develop a unique sound and style for Wigan.
Watching the dancers at WIgan – in 32-inch wide Spencers and vests adorned with badges emblazoned with slogans such as “keep the faith” and “night owl” – was awe-inspiring.
At the height of its popularity, the Wigan Casino had over 100,000 members. Indeed, by April 1975, Mike Walker temporarily suspended the membership because of complaints about overcrowding. The Saturday soul nights grew, and eventually, the club also featured regular evening soul sessions on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
After several rumours of licences not being renewed, battles with the police and the drugs squad and many other problems, it was ultimately none of these that caused the Casino’s demise – It was simply that the local council wanted to redevelop the site to extend the Civic Centre.
It was first recognised in 1978 that the lease on the land that the Casino stood on would soon be up for renewal, but in 1981, the council refused to extend the lease. And so, on 19 September 1981, the “last” all-nighter was held.
However, the council then informed Gerry Marshall that they did not need the site immediately, so two more “last” all-nighters were held – on 2 October and 6 December of the same year. On the final night – after Russ Winstanley played Frank Wilson’s Do I Love You (Indeed I Do), the crowd of dancers just sat down on the floor and cried their eyes out.
Demolition began in 1982, during which time a fire broke out and major damage was caused. It was not until February 1983 that the Casino was finally no more.
The Civic Centre was never built. The Casino is commemorated with a Blue plaque, which was installed in 2014, marking the place where the doors to the club once stood. The site is now occupied by the Grand Arcade shopping centre.