Historically in Lancashire, Wigan during classical antiquity was in the territory of the Brigantes, an ancient Celtic tribe that ruled much of what is now northern England. The Brigantes were subjugated in the Roman conquest of Britain during the 1st century, and it is asserted that the Roman settlement of Coccium was established where Wigan lies. Wigan is believed to have been incorporated as a borough in 1246 following the issue of a charter by King Henry III of England. At the end of the Middle Ages it was one of four boroughs in Lancashire established by Royal charter.
During the Industrial Revolution Wigan experienced dramatic economic expansion and a rapid rise in population. Although porcelain manufacture and clock making had been major industries, Wigan became known as a major mill town and coal mining district. A coal mine was recorded in 1450 and at its peak there were 1,000 pit shafts within 5 miles (8 km) of the town centre. Mining was so extensive that a town councillor remarked that "a coal mine in the backyard was not uncommon in Wigan". Coal mining ceased during the latter part of the 20th century.
Wigan Pier, a wharf on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, was made famous by the writer George Orwell. In his book, The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell highlighted the poor working and living conditions of the inhabitants during the 1930s. Following the decline of heavy industry in the region, Wigan Pier's warehouses and wharfs became a local heritage centre and cultural quarter. The DW Stadium is home to Wigan Athletic Football Club and Wigan Warriors Rugby League Football Club.
The name Wigan has been dated to at least the 7th century and probably originally meant a "village" or "settlement". It has also been suggested that the name is Celtic, named after a person called Wigan. This may have been linked with Tre (meaning homestead) to give an original name of Trewigan. Derivation from Brythonic Celtic *wig, 'dwelling', plus the nominal suffix -an has also been suggested. The name of the town has been recorded variously as Wigan in 1199, Wygayn in 1240, and Wygan in numerous historical documents.
There is very little evidence of prehistoric activity in the area, especially pre-Iron Age; however, Celtic names in the area around Wigan—such as Bryn, Makerfield and Ince—indicate that the Celtic people of Britain were active in the area in the Iron Age. The first people believed to have settled in the Wigan area were the Brigantes, a Celtic tribe who controlled most of northern Britain.