Tuesday, 25 February 2020

The Birth of Central Park

THE LOCAL PRESS called it "The Triumph of the Locals". Today most of us simply know that the first game at Central Park happened on the 6th September 1902 against Batley - and leave it at that. None of us were around all those years ago so memories have been lost and stories passed down from father to son have faded. In these modern days most people will remember fondly the LAST game at Central Park but the first game in it's own right has an equal amount of significance. But how did Wigan get to this point in the first place? Here's the story of how we got to Central Park...

We start in 1900. Wigan at the time had quite a poor team. Often playing matches without the required number of players and laguishing towards the bottom of the League table. It was only towards the end of the season that the team rallied and got to safety. Excitement started to grow again, despite still losing matches, as supporters started to make a comeback and travel away from home in their numbers. Due to their poor form, Wigan missed out on being included in the newly created Northern League which included the top teams of Lancashire and Yorkshire.

During the Wigan Rugby Football Clubs Annual Meeting on Thursday June 6, 1901 at the Railway Hotel (Club HQ), it was to be seen that the Clubs finances were in good order. Here is a slight breakdown:

  • Subscriptions, receipts and donations: £129 11s. 9d.
  • Gate Money: £658 17s. 6d. (2nd team £18 18s. 3d.)
  • Watch Books (like a Golden Gamble-type prize): £30 19s. 1d.
  • Transfers: £32 3s. 9d.
  • Cup Gates: £11 6s. 6d.
  • Total: £901 16s 10d.
  • minus expenses...
Wigan had taken £139 3s. 2d. more in gate money than the previous season mainly due to the rallying support of the Wigan supporters. (think back to 2006). I could go on but Club finances were stable yet the Committee felt that a Club of Wigan's stature should have more members (subscription £), better gates etc... the only way to do that was having a better quality team. Easier said than done!

At their current home at Prescott Street, there had been reports of damage being done and timber being carted away as theft. During the meeting, the Chairman (Mr. George Taylor), in answer to an inquiry as to how the club was situated with regard to a ground, said they had had an offer of a new ground, but the committee had thought it was advisable to leave it over until after the annual meeting, instead of entering into any sort of negotiations and agreeing to any terms. A letter has been received from the gentleman making the offer, in which he said he was willing to leave it over. Mr. Taylor stated that despite the offer of a new ground, the Wigan Club were okay to try and stay at Frog Lane/Prescott Street for a further twelve months.

That assumption didn't last long as on Tuesday 25th June, 1901, this advert appeared out of the blue in The Wigan Observer. The Wigan Rugby Football Club were selling up their assets and secured the use of the Springfield Park ground for the forthcoming 1901/02 season. The Rugby team would alternate use on Saturdays with Wigan United Association team.This however meant that Wigan would lose the use of their second team - something which the Club had suggested was vital to build strength and have reserves at a decent grade. Needs must I suppose. After auction, the club received £31.15s.10d, with the grandstand alone getting £15.10s.0d. Ironanically, a syndicate from Wigan United FC bought the grandstand from Prescott Street and built it back up at Springfield Park! With money in their pockets, the Wigan club start the 1901/02 season up the road at Springfield Park which was to be their only season at the ground.

Mid-way through the 1901/02 season a meeting was called for all club members to attend. On 23rd January, 1902, in a basement at the Public Hall on King Street, plans were put forward for a new ground at Powell Street. Councillor Prescott presided over the meeting, who himself was a close supporter of Wigan, even letting the team practice on his land! The meeting was called to see whether they could have better facilities for playing Rugby football matches in the future than in the past. "It was for the members to say whether they, as a committee, were right in suggesting the thing. They were not trying to thrust the new ground question down their throats, and he trusted they would all think the committee had done right in calling the members together and taking them into their confidence".

Mr. Hammersley, the hon.treasurer of the club, stated a few of the reasons why it was thought the Wigan Rugby Club required a new ground:
  • at present they were sub-tennants (sound familiar?)
  • wished to have something to look forward to after the season
  • increase to £240 rent after three-year tennancy by the landowners (if Wigan stayed)
  • Offer of a ground at Greenough Street with favourable terms and long tenancy
  • hands to be tied if they stayed at Springfield Park in terms of arranging matches and accomodating postponed matches - no progress
  • Wishes to run an A team - couldn't try out new lads in reserve matches because they didn't have a reserve team!
  • Wished to host Cup matches (Finals)
  • Host Junior leagues and assist local charities
Once Mr. Hammersley had made his case, a letter was read out from the Springfield Park Company which offered Wigan the use of Springfield Park for 1902/03, free use of the stands and groundsman all for a cut-price sum of £130. But in response to a question as to the price required for the proposed new ground, the Chairman said he did not think it fair to the railway company that the public should know the price, in case the club did not after all lease the ground.He considered the cost of making the ground on this site mentioned would be about £500.

A Mr. John Henderson poiinted out that that cost did not take into account the cost needed for stands and banking, to which the Chairman said only 300 cubic yards would be required extra for the embankment.Mr. Critchley suggested that it would cost about £1,000 to make the ground ready. In reply, Hammmersley said that for a bare minimum cost of £600, the playing surface and banked ground on one side would only be required to start with.

The lease of the ground would be seven years to start with. Councillor O'Donahaue spoke when a question was asked whether the names within the syndicate would be made known. He refused and suggested that it was not necessary and that they were 'businessmen' in the end with an offer. O'Donahaue went on the offensive to suggest that were Wigan scared of the £1,000 costs? He pointed out that the Wigan Cricket Club had raised that amount at a Fair to improve their ground and clear their debts so why couldn;t the Wigan public back the rugby club in this venture?

There were still some critics. A Mr. Peacock argued that by paying a groundsman £1 a week to look after the ground didn't really make a change of costs in comparison to what they had at Springfield Park. If the 'stand blew down', the landoweners would simply buildit back up again (if Wigan rented) but if they had their own ground then the costs would fall to the Wigan Rugby Club. In reply, Mr. Henderson said any altercations with Springfield Park they paid for themselves.

Mr Peacock was having none of it. It seemed he wanted to test the waters of this meeting and feel the mood of the room. He said that at Springfield Park Wigan had good gates because they won matches (Wigan were doing alright in 1901/02 compared to last season). "Let them lose, and they would soon see that the gates would be where they had been in the past" he scoffed."If the attendance fell off it would be a serious matter for them to start the season in debt" he finished. Presumably sat down, clicked his fingers etc... Mr. Critchley seconded that.

Despite those protestations, or arguments against a proposed move, an amendment was then moved and seconded that the committee proceed with the preparation of the new ground in question. To this, Mr. Hammersley (who was in favour) said that supposing the cost of the venture was £1,000, and they could raise the money, the interest on that per year would be £50 at 3%, and adding to the rent offered at Greenough Street, it would still work out LESS than what they were paying at Springfield Park! (come on Lenagan!) He also suggested that when the ground was not in use for rugby, then other events can be held there.

Hammersley said, with a great degree of certainty, that if they refused this chance, it would not be offered again. Adding to that, Mr. Almond (an old Wigan forward from the earlier days) pointed out that after the next two seasons, the Springfield Park ground might be taken up for building purposes and if they did not take up the offer then someone else might.

The big question was then asked, the Uncle Mo question. Could they afford £1,000? With less than a week to go before, presumably, the offer was no longer 'live', Hammersley said that he had a promise from eleven gentlemen who would put down £25 each - nearly £300 for a start. He also said that he had the names of several other wealthy gentlemen who would, without doubt, put down a similar amount. He assured the members at this meeting that he could raise £500 straight away. Mr. Critchley, still sitting on the other side of the fence, thought that some of those promises would'be broken like pie crust' (wahey!) as it had happened to him personally before. Mr. Henderson tried to solidify Hammersleys claims by saying that those eleven men were all committee men (and in the room) and that the £25 could be put on the table that evening (if the banks on King Street round the corner were open).

On being put to the committee, the whole of the members, with exception to just eight men (Critchley, Peacock obviously) voted in favour of the amendment. It was passed unanimously as a substantive motion that it wa desirable to negotiate for the new ground in Greenough Street. It was also unanimously passed that the ground be run by the club.

A week later, at the same venueat the Public Hall basement, 300 people turned up from committee members and suporters. It was confirmed that funds had been secured and promises made of to secure such funds. A Ground Committee of thirty people was set up alongside that of the Clubs to oversee work on the new ground over the summer period to be ready for the following season. On Friday 21st February, another meeting was held to assure people that £1,000 had been raised. Weirdly, at that meeting, a draw was made for a 'very handsome pony'.

As the Wigan Club had a successful season on the field at Springfield Park, the summer was approaching fast. wigan had finished top of the West Lancashire League and won their trophy. Supporters were encouraged to follow their team to pastures new in 1902/03. At the end of May a concert was put on by the Wigan club to help fund their new ground at the Public Hall. They hoped to entice supporters to attend by presenting the Lancashire Competition medals to members of the winning Wigan team. There is no record who won the handsome pony however.

As the 1901/02 season closed, Wigan held their Annual Meeting at the Princess of Wales Hotel, Greenough Street (across the road from Central Park back then) and was attended by over 100 members. Wigan had succeeded in raising the number of their members I may add. Councillor Prescott chaired the meeting. In a nutshell, the Wigan accounts were much more profitable than a year ago at their old ground at Prescott Street and profits were large.

The Chairman and treasurer gave their usual updates on the past year and then said this:

"It would be something to hand down to their younger generation when they were gone. The taking of the field off Greenough Street would be the best thing for Rugby Football that had ever happened in Wigan and the district"

The last piece of business of the evening ended in a unanimous result. "Central Park" would be the name of the new ground.

Through the summer, work carried commenced on the ground between the River Douglas and Standishgate. There was a drainage difficulty to contend with so the Wigan Club brought in the services of an expert who build drainage under the playing surface, so any water running off Standishgate would run straight into the 'Dougie' (as we locals call it). The grass had been seeded and grown that summer and members felt it would need to survive the harshness of winter and hope for a dry spring for it to fully be in good quality condition.

Numerous workmen were still trying to erect the main grandstand that could hold thousands of spectators come mid-August (first game due 6th September). Central Park was fully boarded around so you had no option but to pay the entrance fee to watch Wigan. On all sides there are high cinder bankings and at one corer, the ground slopes down off Standishgate which can accomodate hordes of spectators, it was said. It was estimated that around 12,000 people could have a perfect view of the game!

The entrances were fitted with the latest turnstiles, 'handsome' new goal posts were erected which meant that Central Park was a 'modern' stadium. Councillor Prescott oversaw excavation works of the embankments and playing surface; Mr. Ablett obtained the contract for the grand stand and Mr. Cox held it all together being the clerk of works for the project.

Questions, however, were being asked whether or not Wigan had a team fit for the stadium... history tells us the answer. Wigan were now ready for Batley on 6th September 1902... and thats another blog post... thanks for reading.

Sunday, 23 February 2020

The Death of James Leytham

Whoever opened up the Wigan Observer on Tuesday August 22nd,1916, would have been in for a sad shock. As pictures of local War heroes littered the pages the news of James Leytham's passing would have been an utter disappointment for all. I think the best way to tell the story is to simply extract it from the Observer:

Seven out of a boating party of eight were drowned in the Lune near Lancaster on Sunday. The party consisted of R.K. Wright, clerk, Park-road; Constable Joseph Young, of the Lancaster Force, Windermere-road; James Leytham, the well known International Northern Union footballer, Lodge-street; John Wilson and his son William Wilson, 2, Salisbury-road; James Wilson, Scotforth Post Office; William Grisdale, ticket examiner, Willow-lane; and Ashworth Pinder, gasworks foreman, West-road. 
The party started from St. George's Quay, Lancaster, at seven o'clock on Sunday morning in the 'Pearl', a pleasure yacht. About one o'clock the boat was overturned in the estuary of the Lune near Cockersand Abbey. The occupants of the boat were thrown into the water, but clung to the side of the boat and the rigging. 
After a hasty consultation it was decided that Wright, who was the best swimmer of the party, should make for the shore, which was over a mile distant. Wright pluckily accomplished this, and reached the land in an exhausted condition. 
He at first experienced great difficulty in finding assistance, but when once the alarm was raised an anxious search was instituted. The Morecambe and Fleetwood lifeboats, with other boats, joined in the hunt for the boat and its crew, but until a late hour on Sunday night nothing had been found except a couple of oars and a rudder. 
A sad feature of the accident is that five of the missing belong to the same family, the two elder Wilsons being brothers, and Grisdale and Leytham being brothers-in-law. Wright, who is saved, was also brother-in-law of the two last-named. Wright stated in an interview on Sunday night that they had been in the habit of taking similar pleasure trips twice a year. They had never had a mishap, and Leytham was well able to manage the boat. They were about to start on the return journey with the incoming tide when the boat overturned. After his long struggle through the rough water to the shore he had more than a mile to walk before he could tell of the plight of his comrades. Exhausted and almost unconscious, he reached the farm of Mr.George Kirkby. 
For many years James Leytham was one of the most brilliant and polished exponents of wing three-quarter play in Northern Union football. His forte was essentially attack, and with his great pace and dash he was a prolific try-getter. With a wonderfully intelligent conception of the [rules] of the Northern Union code he was clever alike in taking his passes and exploiting the reverse pass, and in a three-quarter line in which his colleagues were such speedy and resourceful there as Jenkins, Todd and Miller he could round off a movement like a true artist. Not only was Leytham a great player, he was a man whom everyone knew him liked and respected. 
Mr. Richard Kenneth Wright, the sole survivor, told his story of the tragedy on Monday to a press correspondent. According to him, the trip was one of a series taken annually by the brothers John and James Wilson, who were accompanied by John's son William and their brothers-in-law, Wright, Leytham and Grisdale. Police Constable Young and Pinder were present for the first time on Sunday. A light breeze prevailed on the outward journey, which ended at No. 5 buoy, about a mile down the river from Sunderland Point and Cockersand Abbey Lighthouse. Luncheon was over, and the boat was being put on her first tack homewards when she suddenly dived nose down. Leytham, who was an experienced boatman, was in charge. All the men were thrown into the water, but the boat was held up by the mast - there were only 7 ft of water - and did not then completely capsize.Cries for help proving useless in the rising wind, it was arranged that Wright, who is a well known swimmer - "the weakest of the party," as he says, "out of water, yet the strongest in the water" - should attempt to swim ashore. He was given an oar to help him float, and Constable Young took charge of his coat and waistcoat. 
The tide was making rapidly and the wind was blowing with increasing force when Wright set out on his difficult task. "I could hear them calling 'Help' and many times I saw them clinging to this boat as I made my way shorewards" he said. "Battling with the waves, I was more than once on the point of giving up and being drowned with them, but luckily, just as I was getting to the end, my feet touched ground. I had swam about a mile. I shall never forget the walk that followed. I tumbled more than walked, and arrived at Cockersand Abbey Farm, not only exhausted but almost unconscious through my exertions." 
Wright went on to say that Mr. Kirkby, the farmer, at once went to Cockersand Abbey Lighthouse for help, but the fishermen there would not venture out in the boat he had at his disposal, and word was sent out to Glasson Dock. From there the Fleetwood and Morecambe lifeboats were summoned, but their search was in vain. Search parties were out all Sunday night, but nothing was discovered beyond the pair of oars and rudder mentioned yesterday.

Quite a tragic accident, but one quite common in those days. Trying to swim in Morecambe Bay is like dicing with death at any time of year. Despite holding onto the boat, it seems that the men who lost their lives lost out against the waves and drowned.


The whole of the members of the party besides Leytham were well known in Wigan. Two had relatives here, others had friends. They were in the habit of paying a visit to Central Park when some important game was on, mainly of course, with seeing the star artiste, Jimmy Leytham. Consequently there is a particular feeling of sorrow locally at this distressing occurrence.

By the time the Wigan Observer was being read by many, the inquest had already begun into the tragedy. It would be the weekend until people knew more, in public, as to what happened and this was reported in the Observer dated Saturday 26 August. By Friday night (25th) bodies were starting to be discovered. Ashworth Pinder, who hailed from Wigan, was found grasping a rock, only visible at low tide, indicating that he had swum nearly two miles to Cockerham, but was too exhausted to drag himself out. Police-constable Young had floated up river and was spotted by train passengers on the Glasson Dock line. James Leytham was found near the Bazil Buoy.
At the Wigan Rugby Club Committee meeting, held on Monday, touching references were made to the sad fate of Leytham. Councillor J. Counsell, the chairman of the club, spoke as to the popularity of Wigan's former captain on all the football fields were the Northern Union code is played, and in the lands far away of Australia and New Zealand. Adequate testimony was paid to his irreproachable conduct as a man and his skill as a footballer. 
The Committee unanimously passed a vote of sympathy with Leytham's widow and family, and in the event of the body being recovered decided to be represented at the funeral.

The Lancaster District and County Coroner, Mr. Neville Holden, held inquests at the Town Hall, Lancaster, on Monday morning, on the three further recovered victims of the Lune sailing boat disaster: James Leytham, foreman at Lord Ashton's Works, the Northern Union Rugby International; Ashworth Pinder, general foreman at the Lancaster Corporation Gasworks; and Police-constable Joseph Young of the Lancaster Borough Police Force. It was hoped that all the bodies might have been recovered, but in spite of the most persevering efforts during the week-end this was not so. 
Superintendent Scott, of the County Constabulary, and Chief Constable Harris, of the Lancaster Borough Police Force, attended the inquest. Alfred Leytham, 39, Prospect-street, identified the remains of James Leytham, his brother, who resided at 24, Lodge-street, and was 36 years of age. He was a foerman at Lune Works. 
The Funeral of James Leytham will take place at Lancaster cemetray on Wednesday at 2:30, the cortege leaving the house, Lodge-street, at 1:45. Many northern Union organisations have expressed a desire to be represented.


The owner of the boat Pearl said she was a seaworthy boat, and properly managed could stand any weather, and said that she was well ballasted.R.K. Wright, the only survivor of the party of eight, said they had started on the return journey, and Leytham, the footballers, who was in charge of the boat, after hoisting sail, left the rudder to trim the sails, calling out "Someone take the rudder and turn the boat". The wind had freshened, and the waves had got pretty high. Young Wilson took the rudder, brought the boat round suddenly to the wind, and she drive almost straight into a wave, which came over, filled the boat, and she overturned, throwing all the occupants into the water. They all got onto the overturned boat, and, after consultation, Wright agreed to swim ashore and get assistance. He looked back during his long swim several times, and saw the men on the boat, but when he got ashore and staggered to the Abbey Farm the boat and men had disappeared. 
The Coroner said if Leytham had kept hold of the rudder there would probably not have been any accident. He left the rudder to attend to the sails, an inexperienced boy got hold of it, and without casting any blame upon the youth, who doubtless did his best, he brought the boat too sharply round the wave, with the result that it overturned. It was a pure accident. 
The jury returned a verdict that deceased were accidentally drowned.
As mentioned in the reporting between the Lancaster rags and what was handed down to the Observer, many Northern Union clubs wanted to be represented at James' funeral which was held on Wednesday 30th August 1916.


Amid manifestations of general mourning the funeral took place at Lancaster Cemetery, on Wednesday afternoon, of the late James Leytham, the International and Lancashire Northern Union three-quarter back. He was one of seven victims of the Lune sailing boat disaster. There was a representative attendance of Northern Union club representatives, as well as of the Lancaster Amateur Swimming Club, the Lune Sailing Club, Lancaster Reform Club, and the foremen of Lord Ashton's works. 
Councillor J. Counsell and Mr. Sydney Swift represented the Wigan Football Club, and Mr. Geo. Taylor, secretary and Mr. Chas. Seeling capt., were present in their private capacities. The following other N.U. clubs were represented - Swinton, Leeds, Barrow, Oldham, Warrington, and Salford. The bearers were: Sam Lees (Oldham and Warrington), J. Mason (Morecambe and Wigan), J. Mount, John Mount (Barrow), J. Taylor, and B. Orr. A handsome wreath in the Wigan club colours occupied a place of honour, and wreaths were also sent from the Barrow N.U. club, Lancaster Amateur Swimming Club, Lancaster Reform Club (the flag of which was at half mast), and fellow employees at Lord Ashton's works.
Jimmy's grave now sits in Lancaster Cemetery. According to Tom Mather in his 1995 book "James Leytham Diary: Wigan's First Four Cup Season" he "is at rest under a tree in Lancaster cemetery, in a now sadly somewhat neglected grave. The headstone discoloured and covered with lichen makes no mention of his rugby career, but then that was how he, perhaps, would have preferred it! He lies at rest uncared about by the town he loved so much and by a sport he graced so well, sadly so long ago..."

Let's remember Jimmy and all those Great players of those early years. If you so happen to be in Lancaster, give him a visit because after all, he built this Great fine club.

"The finest footballer who ever played for the Northern Union"

Friday, 21 February 2020

Billy Boston's Debut

Billy Boston made his debut in Wigan colours in an A-Team match at Central Park against Cumbrian powerhouse Barrow. 8,000 spectators turned up that day to see what all the fuss was about and for an A-Team game that is quite an achievement. I remember going to A-Team matches at Central Park as a kid with 300 at best (it may be more but as I say, I was a kid, too busy chasing converted goals in the Kop to notice the rugby). But, this is a young man boy from Tiger Bay we're talking about here: Billy Boston.

How Billy came to wear the Cherry and White is for another blog, or read several good books on the matter, someting I shall explore in time too...

The reported 8,000 or so Wiganers turned up at Central Park out of curiosity when it was known that the new signing of Billy Boston would be making his debut in Wigan's A-team in the October of 1953. A month later on the 21st November, 1953, Billy made his first team debut against Barrow again in a League game at Central Park. The Saturday afternoon was like any other in Wigan in the early 50s, apart from the small matter of 18,247 fans descending on Central Park. The Hen Pen was swollen with proud dads being crushed on the wall with their sons and daughters squeezed on the wall. The Central Park board room if animate, would have had the biggest grin on it since the Cheshire Cat as gate receipts were published at being £1,280. A giant crowd turned up to witness the first team game of Billy Boston. For such a large crowd, this lad had to be special - and he was!

Here is the match report from the Wigan Observer dated Tuesday 24th November 1953 with the match taking place the Saturday before at 2:30 in the afternoon - Local papers weren't published every day back then hence the date difference.

If you click HERE on the you can download it for yourself! I know its not the best quality.

 The show put up by Wigan and Barrow on Saturday will do more to revive interest in Rugby League than hours of board room discussion or columns of Press chatter about what is wrong at Central Park. This match was a plain answer to the critics. On this display there is nothing wrong at Central Park and if Wigan continue to serve up this brand of football there will be no band of crocodiles of bored spectators leaving the enclosure before the final whistle is blown. It was the best seen at Central Park for seasons. The spectators were delighted with fast running, ball handling and intelligent kicking and there was the double scissors movement that brought a Barrow try which was a sheer delight to see. Above all it was full blooded rugby, clean but robust and attractive rugby as it is intended to be played.

It was good to see Wigan win and there can be no doubt that Barrow were unlucky to lose. A draw would have been a fair reflection of the merits of both sides. The lead changed hands and it came into Wigan's keeping at a crucial stage of the game. Barrow can easily feel a bit peeved about the try which gave Wigan the lead for the last time for spectators on the spot with the try scored by Ashcroft early in the second half following glorious work by Silcock and Gee followed a forward pass. Barton the second-row forward, was so upset by the referee's decision that he went on arguing and his captain had to be called in to quiet him down.
Earlier, Barrow had been denied a try when McGregor was called back for a knock-on after a keen break away by Grundy and Castle. McGregor had only to score when he kicked the ball to the undefended Wigan line but Referee Adams ruled a knock-on. The referee was unsighted and apparently in doubt and he exercised his right to let his doubt operate in favour of the defending side. But it was a hard decision on Barrow for it meant the loss of five certain points. Barrow's bad luck continued when late in the game their captain and halfback Willie Horne had to retire with a facial injury. Wigan got an improved try after Horne had left the field and a try was scored at the time of his injury and this was also improved.
From the foregoing it must not be interpretted that Wigan's victory was without merit. They came from behind to win for they were losing 7-10 at the interval and it was largely the excellent work of their forwards in scrums and those which set Wigan on the victory march. The match marked the first team debut of Boston , Wigan's recruit from the Welsh Rugby Union and he was most impressive. It seems that Boston cannot fail to make the grade for on this showing he is one of Wigan's best ever prospects. Probably because his defence is suspect at the moment, Boston was played on the left wing but he may be even better as a centre. He is a well equiped natural footballer, with a real swerve and side step and an ability to change his pace at will. He has great powers of acceleration and gets up the ground with a most devastating stride. The try he scored showed his fine finishing powers and at the same time set the hallmark on his courage. Wigan spectators will look forward to seeing him again.
 Boston, Ashcroft, Cherrington, Broome and Silcock scored Wigan's tries and Cunliffe scored six goals. Castle (2) and Gibson scored the Barrow tries and Gibson kicked three goals. The crowd of 18,247 was with one exception the highest crowd at a Barrow game since the war. Receipts were £1,280. The exception was the Egan-Gee benefit game.
WIGAN ....... 6 - 5 - 27
BARROW....... 3 - 3 - 15
WIGAN: Cunliffe: Ratcliffe, Broome, Roughley, Boston: Ashcroft, alty: Gee, Mather, F. Collier, Silcock, Cherrington. Street.
BARROW: Gibson: Lewthwaite, Jackson: Goodwin, Castle: Horne, Toohey: Pearson, McKeating, Barton, Grundy, Parker. McGregor.
 Referee: S. Adams (Hull)
Wigan won by 27-15, which was perhaps a bonus on the day for the fans. Barrow were a good side and evenutally finished 1 point and a place below Wigan in the League table. "Wigan spectators will look forward to seeing him again". And they sure did! Boston ended the 1953/54 season with 14 tries from 9 appearances - which is a pretty good start. It is safe to say that that he was one of the first building block in creating another Wigan dynasty, and learning the ropes from such legends as Brian Nordgren on the right wing, Johnny Alty and Brian McTigue in the middle. Such hype wasn't seen again since Shaun Edwards signed or more recently Sam Tomkins made a 5-try debut as a rookie.

This picture was taken on Billy's A-Team debut against Barrow at Central Park in October 1953 and the first picture of him in Wigan colours. On paper this was just a routine league game, but for many, many people the 21st November 1953 proved to be an I was there moment - just being there and seeing Boston was enough. For this modern day, it still has a place and will be remembered and shared - and maybe bring back some personal memories for a few.

We had Billy, Billy Boston.

Sunday, 16 February 2020

1924 Challenge Cup - The Finals

Thanks for your continued interest as we approach the latter stages of the 1924 Challenge Cup run... let us see what happens:

The time had now come. Would Wigan make it third time lucky and win the only competition they had eluded them thus far? Oldham had beaten Huddersfield in a close encounter at Thrum Hall, Halifax, in the other Semi Final and were keen to win the Cup for only the second time. This was Oldham's fourth Final and they were keen to win it for the first time since 1899. Preparations for the Final had begun weeks before. Playing at the Athletic Grounds in Rochdale, a record crowd was expected between the League leaders and third placed Oldham. Oldham had only a few miles west to travel whilst Wigan only had to negotiate Bolton. The choice of Final was a popular one, the Athletic Grounds could hold upward of 35,000 spectators and the authorities estimated that the current record of 35,500 (occuring in the 1922 Final at Headingley) would easily be broken. So popular in fact that Rochdale Magistrates Court, on the 7th April sanctioned the opening of all public houses at Rochdale from 11am - 10pm with the idea that with the public houses being open longer, road traffic and congestion would be eased as upwards of 40,000 people were to be expected. The Oldham Rugby Club made preparations of their own. They had also gone through the town's Magistrate to ensure that their club house would be open until late if Oldham happened to win the Cup as celebrations were obviously to be expected. In Wigan however, the Borough's Chief Constable didn't see it necessary to open until 11pm and an extension of licensing for the evening of the Cup Final failed to materialise, much to the disappointment of many a Wiganer.

Wigan went into the Final as favourites, despite their poor demolition of Barrow in the Semi Final. The Central Park outfit lost their first two meetings against Oldham in the Lancashire Cup and League tie but beat the Oldham lot 20-3 at the end of January which sparked a 13 game unbeaten run. Despite Wigan being favourites, Oldham were on quite a good bit of form themselves, dislodging Huddersfield and Leigh in the League table and moved up to third, behind Batley. One thing was for sure on the morning of 12th April 1924, the towns of Oldham and Wigan had emptied. The Wigan team for the Final was Sullivan, Ring, Howley, Parker, Van Heerden, Jerram, Hurcombe, Webster, H. Banks, Van Rooyen, Brown, Roffey, Price. Oldham, for those interested in these things, was: Knapman, Rix, Hall, Woodward, Corsi, Hesketh, Bates, Collins, Baker, Tomkins, Sloman, Brough, Hilton.

top left to right, Webster, Van Heerden, Hurcombe, Brown, Roffey, Van Rooyen, Banks, Price (cpt), Sullivan, Ring, Parker, Jerram, Howley

The twenty-fourth Final was responsible for scenes without parallel in the history of the rugby code. So great was the interest manifested in the Wigan-Oldham meeting that the crowds invaded the playing pitch and the game, which more than once appeared likely to be brought to a premature conclusion, was played throughout under abnormal difficulties, so far as the players, referee, and linesmen were concerned. The Athletic Grounds at Rochdale were thankfully generous in terms of space behind the goal posts and touchlines, otherwise, the game would not have taken place due to the sheer number of people inside the stadium. As was expected by many, the gates saw a record for any game of the code played in England. The highest figures previously recorded were the 35,500 at Headingley in the Final of 1922. The Wigan-Oldham tie attracted 40,786 paying spectators with a further couple of hundred who had complimentary tickets and others who somehow entered the ground, with an estimate of 41,500 at this Final. The receipts of £3,611 were not, however, a record. They fell £280 short of the first test match between England and Australia at Leeds in 1921, but for the historic game the admission charges were a bit higher than this 1924 Final (otherwise the receipts would be a record).

Referee 1924 Cup Final
Half an hour before kick-off the congestion on the popular side of the ground caused a number of people to jump the barriers and take up positions on the cinder track which surrounds the playing field (used for Speedway weirdly... Rochdale Speedway didn't last long, up until around 1930). Almost immediately there was a rush from all sides of the ground, and the pitch was invaded by thousands of fans. The three mounted policemen, reinforced by two others, ambulance men and club officials of Rochdale made strenuous efforts to clear the ground but it was not until the Rev. Mr. Chambers, the referee, called the players out and lined them up that the spectators could be persuaded to retreat over the touchline. Several times the game had to be stopped due to encroachment but the officials prevailed and the game thankfully was completed. From all parts of Lancashire and Yorkshire thousands of Rugby enthusiasts piled into Rochdale for the Final. The larger numbers were from Lancashire of course, but despite having no Yorkshire representation for the first time in 13 years, many from the White Rose County made the trip over the Pennines for the occasion. Early in the morning, people started to arrive from Wigan and Oldham. Six special trains left Wigan, three from the L. and Y. Station (Wigan Wallgate) and three from the L. and N.W. (Wigan North Western), by which route the players travelled. Two special trains travelled the 6 miles from Oldham, and the roads leading into the town from Manchester, Bolton and Oldham were crowded with motor cars and char-a-bancs. Finally, it was reported that four men walked all the way from Wigan, starting at three o'clock in the morning over a distance of 26 miles!

You can picture the scene. The roofs of both the stands swarmed with people, but the only accident befel a Mr. Garside, of Ashton New Road, Manchester, who fell from the main stand a distance of 30 feet severly damaging his ribs and suffering shock. Many more spectators even climbed up flag poles to get a view! In the week leading up to the Final, newspapers were tipping a Wigan win. Oldhams last and only in up to that point was in 1899 - a quarter of a century earlier but Wigan's backs were in startling form. But this was a Final and anything could happen!

It seemed like a dramatic build up, and it was up until kick off finally came. The start of the game itself was a brisk affair as one might expect, each team trying to get the upper hand early on. It was Wigan who gained an advantage when the game was forced into a kicking duel between Jim Sullivan and his opposite number, Knapman, of Oldham. Knapman's third effort in returning Sullivan's kicks ended up into touch. It was nip and tuck early on, each side playing safe until Wigan gave away a try after Danny Hurcombe made an error which meant Sullivan had to kick the ball to safety. The ball however was charged down and Oldham may have scored if it hadn't been for Van Rooyen being in the right place at the right time to make the ball safe. Wigan's first chance to score points fell to Jim Sullivan who had an attempt at goal after Wigan's skipper Price was obstructed. The wind took care of the ball and Sullivan missed. The game up until now had little by way of handling, and this showed when a freekick by Sullivan earned Wigan a strong chance of opening the scoring. The usual fluency of the Wigan backs wasn't on show as of yet and the oldham defence held firm, tackling anything that came their way.

Oldham had their turn to press at the Wigan line. A faulty pass by Van Rooyen put Sullivan in a rather tricky situation, but the daring young fullback, with help from Hurcombe, prevented Oldham's Brough and Hilton from scoring. Oldham took the lead after a penalty was given during a scrum, and Knapman easily kicked the goal to send Oldham into the lead after the quarter-hour mark. Oldham fans were happy - for less than half a minute! Fred Roffey's kick out was knocked on by Oldham's Corai and before an Oldham hand could get to the ball, Fred Brown, the Wigan forward, passed it back to Roffey who then ran through to score in at the corner. The score stayed at 3-2 as Sullivan missed the awkward conversion attempt. Johnny Ring then officially got into the game on defensive duties when Rix and Hall of Oldham made a break down his flank, but the Welsh wingman was too clever and made a great tackle, which was heavily applauded by the supporters. Both teams gave away good opportunities to score as the game was starting to become neutralised. Nobody told Attie Van Heerden this though. The Wigan scoring machine scored after the half hour mark when Parker's kick was watched by Knapman and Corai going into touch. Van Heerden instead ran and collected the ball unopposed and ran in under the posts. The never say die attitude of Van Heerden earned Wigan 5 points as Sullivan couldn't miss. Van Heerden had now scored in every round of the Cup, this being his seventh try of the tournament. The memorable thing about this try was that Van Heerden actually scored behind a police horse which was on the pitch trying to keep the crowd at bay.

The game had to be stopped due to crowd encroachment on the playing field, but once under way again, Van Heerden was unlucky not to score another try when his fine run was terminated by Hilton, who bundled the South African into touch. Wigan went in at half time 8-4 to the good after Brough earned Oldham 2 extra points from a penalty. Oldham had thought that their spirited tackling had kept Wigan within arms reach. The second half was a reality too far for Oldham. Despite starting the first half well, the Oldham forwards were gradually worn down by Wigan. The Wigan backs of Ring, Howley, Parker and Van Heerden started to work their magic. Tommy Parker edged Wigan further ahead on the 47th minute of proceedings but due to the wind and angle, Sullivan again missed at the conversion to make it 11-4. Wigan's superiority in the forwards was now showing when Skipper and loose forward Jack price got on the scoresheet to all but end Oldham's hopes of a win in the 55th minute. A final try from Johnny Ring with 10 minutes remaining put the icing on the cake for Wigan and earn the Cherry and White's their first ever triumph in the Challenge Cup.

Wigan had finally done it, it had taken three finals and many years but their name was on the famous trophy, alongside the great sides such as Huddersfield, Batley and Leeds. The Cup was presented to Jack Price by Mrs Dannatt of Hull, who was the wife of Andy Dannatt, the President of the Rugby Football League. Mr. R. Gale of Leigh, the vice-chairman, introduced Mrs Dannatt, who congratulated Wigan on their performance and success. Price, accepting the thanks, said that he thought that there could be no doubt that the better team had won and knew that Oldham would be stronger in the forwards. He also said that he hoped Oldham would win the competition again, but not when Wigan were the opponents. The town of Rochdale was abuzz with rugby fans from across the North that evening, many rival supporters drinking together, either in celebration or in mourning.

Who knows what happened to those four Wigan men who set off at 3.30am to walk the 26 miles to Rochdale. I am sure they were part of the homecoming celebrations though! Wigan, on returning home, had a magnificent reception from a crowd of 100,000 people. Yes, an estimated 100,000 from all across the borough had descended upon Wigan to welcome home their heroes. The townships of Aspull, Standish, Pemberton, Ince and as far as Ashton united for this historic occasion. Half an hour before the Wigan players returned home on train, Wallgate and Standishgate were impassible for vehicular traffic, and the tramway service had to be suspended. All along the processional route, Wallgate, Standishgate, Greenough Street, Scholes and Rodney Street were a concrete wall of people and whilst the excitement was high, the crowd remained somehow orderly. Only two men, out of 100,000 or so were arrested for drunkeness (probably football fans) and no accidents were reported. The Chief Constable had no problems with his men and would have been quite relieved that his decision to not allow public house openings times to extend was a successful one.

The band of the 8th Batallion Manchester Regiment assembled at the L. and N.W. Station and led by a posse of mounted police, with the team in a gally decorated charabanc, and another motor vehicle conveying the direction, they proceeded to the Town Hall where the civic reception took place. After a while of congratulatory handshakes and speeches, the team set off again along King Street, up Wallgate and down Standishgate to the club headquarters through a dense sea of people. Scenes like this had never been seen before in Wigan. It was late into the night that the crowd started to die down and even the mounted police horses were dressed in Wigan colours of cherry and white. Everywhere you looked you could see streamers and banners congratulating Wigan from house and shop windows to flag poles and barges on the canals. That day lived long in the memories of who was there to witness it.

During the civic reception at the Town Hall, the players were greeted by the Mayor Mr. J. Cavey in the Old Council Chamber. They Mayor was supported by Mr. J. Allen Parkinson MP and Alderman James Walkden, the president of the Wigan Club. The Mayor gave a speech: "The Wigan Rugby Football Club had been in existance for a very long time, and had won every trophy that was to be won except the Northern Union Cup. They had come very near winning it on several occasions, and that day they had brought it off with honour and credit to themselves and the town. There were no two opinions about the merits of the two teams. and the Mayors of Rochdale and Oldham even acknowledged that the better team had won. The game had not been more than fifteen minutes in progress when it became the general impression that Wigan were a winning team. The question of a civic reception may cause some quibbling, but he would not make any apology." It went on...The Mayor looked upon the sport as something that was good for the people and for the betterment of people. Mr Cavey thought that it was an honour for him to be the first Mayor to welcome home a successful Wigan team. With a little bit of foresight, the Mayor had hoped that the time was not far distant when the Rugby League authorities would see to it that a bigger and better ground was secured for such an occasion as the Cup Final.

It is also good to see how the game was viewed by the critics:
"The match itself was another revelation of the all-round brilliance of the wigan team and more particularly of the real effectiveness of their forwards. It was in the pack where Oldham's hopes lay, but they were even beaten at their own game, and getting down to solid solid scrummages, the Blues (Wigan) obtained possession time after time. When the ball came loose, there was only one team in it, and that was not Oldham. With rapid movement and brisk short passing, Wigan were always forging ahead, and the men from Watersheddings spent practically the whole afternoon endeavouring to stem onslaughts on their own lines. Looking back, I cannot recall Oldham being really dangerous more than three times in the whole match" - Daily Courier.

"Wigan were full of sparkle, and were always relishing their work. The forwards have not played better this season, finishing as strong as they began. There were two outstanding men, and these were Van Rooyen and Price. The South African was brilliant, using his great weight to advantage, and always being in the thick of the fray, whilst Price was always giving out judicious passes and being altogether a successful rover. At half back, Jerram and Hurcombe were superior to Hesketh and Bates, though the Oldham pair did some clever things without materialising. There was, however, more variation aboutthe play of the Wigan pair. Jerram was always changing his tactics, while Hurcombe's defence was as strong as his attack. Parker was the pick of the wigan centres. He had a safe pair of hands, gave out some judicious passes, and was a dour defender... Ring on the left flank, was none too prominent. It was only in the closing stages he began to show his paces. Van Heerden, on the other hand, was always in the picture, his work being stamped with the hall-mark. What a dangerous tackler he is!.. Sullivan also at full back was strong. He went down in great style to forward rushes, and so far as I could see made only one mistake during the whole course of the game. He was superior to Knapman, for the Oldham full back's defence was at times shaky" The Sporting Chronicle.

Job done. Wigan were there at long last and what an occasion! For Oldham, they reached the Final in 1925, 1926 and 1927, only losing out in 1926 to Swinton. They had their days in the sun. Wigan, on the other hand, went from one historic Cup game to another. The next game in the Challenge Cup concerned a little Cumbrian amateur team named Flimby and Fothergill on Valentines Day 1925... the rest, they say, is history. Wigan failed at the second round stage for the next three seasons, losing all ties to Leeds strangely. Wigan's next Final was another historic occasion, in 1929 where the Cup Final was played at Wembley (or the Empire Stadium) for the first time... but thats for another day.

The rest... they say... is History...