QUEEN VICTORIA had been on the throne for 35 years by the time the Wigan Cricket Club held their Annual Dinner at the Dicconson Arms pub on Standishgate on the 13th November 1872. The Cricket Club had just enjoyed a successful summer and things were looking bright. In all, 32 members of the club were in attendance when the Annual Dinner took place. During proceedings, and a hearty meal, Mr R.T. Johnson read a statement on behalf of the club which stated that the Wigan Cricket Club had enjoyed a tremendous season. They had played 18 games, winning 9, losing 3 and drawing 6 with this helping the Club to be put in a "highly satisfactory condition" and would "compare with any in the country". Many of the members enjoyed the night and became a wee bit merry. With drink, as we all know, people start to talk. The world was changing in more ways than one. Much talk was had regarding the plight of Haigh Cricket Club, amongst others.
Members numbering around 70 of the Haigh Cricket Club had met in the Balcarres Arms, Haigh, who had their annual meet also. Even though Haigh themselves had enjoyed a reasonable season, they were facing the prospect of losing their ground. It was said that the Cricket pitch at Haigh was one of the most idyllic seen in the country and that the club will pull through to keep themselves in business. Although being roughly 2 miles away up the road from the Plantation Gates, the Wigan Cricket Club in some way were secretly worrying about their own futures. If Haigh were coming into troubles then what security had the Wigan club have despite a successful season in terms of finances?
In the wider expanses of amateur sport, games such as Association Football and Rugby were being played more and more. With the Industrial Revolution in full swing and the British Empire growing fast, workers up North were starting to enjoy decent(ish) pay and free time for social activities. Nothing was better than rival Cotton Mills or Coal Pits going head to head competitively and the role of 'spectators' and sport was growing as a form of social entertainment.
Talk in the Dicconson Arms moved onto what can be done so that the Wigan Cricket Club wouldn't follow Haigh's problems. The Cricket season was over, being November, which meant no form of income for the next couple of months. Talk started about a possible adventure into the Rugby circle. The game was played in the winter months and was growing rapidly. There were already established teams playing in rival industrial towns and cities such as Leeds and Hull since the 1860s and even Cup competitions were being fought out. In Yorkshire for instance, local leagues were formed as teams started and faded. Most of the rugby teams were church-based teams or growing out of Cricket clubs to stay healthy and fit during the winter months. The modern day Leeds Rhinos were first started by Leeds St Johns Church and Hull started to meet and train at St Mary's Church in 1864.
This new adventure may have just been drunken banter and talk in the end. The next day however, someone must have woken up and taken it all seriously. A meeting of the Cricket Club was called for the 21st November, 1872 to be held at the Royal Hotel, Wigan to discuss the possibility (whilst sober) of forming a Wigan Football Club. During the meeting things such as the rules of the game, who would play, which opponents to play against and a backroom structure needed to be established. Hence, the following committee was selected: Messrs. T.R. Ellis, H.V. Kyrke, J. Sayers, E.R. Walker, J. Smith, J. Souter, H. Wall and R. Procter. This was evidently a good start. The problem they faced however that firstly, they had never played a game of amateur rugby together as a team to a level which would be competitive against other clubs.
Clubs had often been formed and disbanded quite quickly, sometimes with huge financial losses and reputations shattered. Wigan needed a bit of bedrock. They turned to a man named Nathan Eckersley. Mr Eckersley had just been re-elected as Mayor of Wigan a week prior to this meeting. He was a solid man and popular within the town who had many business interests and belonged, chaired or presided over many societies. One of which was the Wrightington, Standish and Haigh Ploughing Society which was quite a busy organisation back then, especially with a Ploughing Match at the Boar's Head, Standish, taking place around the time of his re-election and goings on at this Cricket Club. Ploughing aside, Wigan had a successful meeting and had the backing in place to make the venture work, even with a newly re-elected Mayor as President and a bit of cosying up along the way. By the end of the meeting, around 50 members had enrolled into this new club, most of whom were members of the Cricket Club.
The Club was officially established under amateur status a week later on 30th November 1872 when the first of a series of trial matches was played at "Folly-field", adjoining Upper Dicconson Street, Wigan. Nobody knew what to expect or who was the best player. Many went along to try their luck but many more, around 2,000 spectators, went along to see what was going on with this novelty. Each Saturday afternoon trial games were put on and the members were wittled down to those who could actually play the game. Matches against neighbouring towns were organised for the season, which included Warrington, Southport, Ormskirk and Bolton.
A team in those days consisted of fifteen players and was simply known as 'rugby football', there was a no Union or League code, just a ball handling and jacking game which was sill evolving into what we see as Rugby Union today. Points were recorded by means of goals, punt-outs and touch-downs with mainly no fixed time limit for the game itself. Captains would agree upon how long each half was, aiming for 40 minutes, but many factors came into this decision such as time to catch a train, the time left of sunlight, etc.
Christmas came and went and the calendar moved onto the year 1873. Wigan had arranged a game and were due to travel to Warrington via train on Saturday 18th January, 1873 for the inaugrial match. The Wigan Examiner from Friday 17th January had stated that "The sixth days play in connection with this club took place on Saturday last and was exceedingly successful with a good number of poeple in attendance". All was well, the unknown reporter was unknowingly Wigan's first ever media follower and it was all looking well. Over the six week period beween the first trial match and January, the Wigan public were still turning up in numbers to see what this team will look like and a good crowd surely gathered to wish the gentlemen well in their short trip to Warrington.
As the Warrington match drew near, not much was publicised in the Press. Ploughing got a nice mention but not much going on in terms of sport. Most people would have known about the game by word of mouth if nothing else. Come Saturday 18th January, the new Wigan Football Club set forth to Warrington around noon, with a kick-off time schedueled for 2.45pm that afternoon. Plenty of supporters or people who wanted to see this new kind of physical action joined the club on their trip... their cold and windy trip.
WARRINGTON -v- WIGAN: 18th January 1873
Wigan's first game was against the town of Warrington. The match was reported in the local Wigan Examiner a week later on the 24th January 1873 and here was that report:
WIGAN FOOTBALL CLUB - On Saturday last, this club played their first match, viz. at Warrington, against that town, and which resulted in a drawn game very much in favour of the visitors, who scored three tries and several touchdowns, to one touchdown gained by Warrington. The ball was started at 2.45pm by E.H. Woodcock for Wigan, and although a strong wind was blowing slightly in favour of the home team they were penned all the time, and when half time was called at 3.45pm Wigan had scored a try and several touchdowns; the punt out however being unsuccessful.
Ends were now changed - sided by the wind - several more touchdowns were gained by Wigan. Kyrke ran in but the try (a very long kick) was a failure. Shortly after this, Sayer Jnr. made a fine run right across the ground, and then Wigan scored another try, but the punt out was again unsuccessful. Bromilow, getting the ball, managed to touch it down behind their goal line for a fourth time, the ball, however (owing to the very strong wind) being carried to one side of the goal when the try was made.
Warrington now took the ball out, and by a desperate rush succeeded in gaining the only touch they scored, when "no side" was called, and thus ended a very pleasant game. For Warrington, MacCorquodale (forward) played very well, and Bromilow, Woodcock and Sewter (forwards); Hayes (half back) and E.R. Walker (back) played very well for the visitors.
Wigan - Kyrke (captain), Blakeney, Bromilow, Hughes, Sayer, Sowter, Tarbuck, Wilson, Woodcock (forwards) Hayes, Sayer Jnr. (halfbacks) Clar [sic,Clare] (three-quarter) H & W Wall, E.R. Walker (backs)
The ground they played on was, as far as people can say, is a mystery. According to Wikipedia, the Widnes Guardian has a report of the match being played by no mention of a ground. It was quite likely that the ground, or open space, was situated near the railway station. Often, rugby matches in the early years were dictated by train timetables making travel easier so perhaps any large open space near the Bank Quay train station may have been a possible location. As Wiganers were reading about the Warrington match in their Saturday edition of the Wigan Examiner, the Wigan club were due to play Ormskirk at 2,45pm, Saturday 25th January 1873. A return fixture was established between Wigan and Warrington a week later on the 1st February to be played at Folly Field - Wigan's first home game. The Wigan Observer had reported on the match, the report was published a week later on February 8th:
WIGAN FOOTBALL CLUB - Wigan v. Warrington - The return match between the above clubs was played on Saturday last at Wigan. The home team, having won the toss, elected to play with the wind for the first half of the game, and the ball was kicked off by E. Wright of Warrington, but was quickly returned by the Wigan backs, and after a sharp struggle for about a quarter of an hour, F. Clare by a very fine drop won the first goal of the season and though the home team were now playing against a strong wind, they still managed to keep the ball away from their own goal, and after a few lively scrimmages, Kyrke, by a fine bit of dribbling, took the ball between the goal posts and touched it down. This was converted into a goal by E.R. Walker.
Warrington again kicked off, and after some good play on both sides, the Warringtonians, by a good, but a lucky kick by E. Wright, scored their first goal. Wigan had now to kick off and shortly after Bromilow managed to obtain a touch down just over the edge of the opponents goal, but as it was some distance away from the goal posts, and against a strong wind, it was deemed advisable to try a punt out, which was, however, unsuccessful.
Subsequently Pratt, by a fine run, was allowed to go within ten yards of the goal, but was collared in time to prevent a touch down. Nothing of any moment occured until just before time was up, when F. Clare had the misfortune to sprain his ankle, and break a small bone below the instep. When "no side" was called the match stood thus:- Wigan two goals, one punt-out, and five touchdowns, against one goal for Warrington. To select one praise would be invidious, when all played so well.
Wigan, forwards:- Blakeney, Burton, Bromilow, Darlington, Kyrke, Sayer, Sowter, W. Wall, E.H. Woodcock; half backs, Hayes, Sayer Jnr., three-quarter: F. Clare; backs, H. Wall and E.R. Walker.
The Wigan team were now starting to establish themselves in the game. Blakeney, Bromilow, Sayer, Sowter, Kyrke and Woodcock had been ever present in the forwards. W. Wall had started in the backs alongside his brother but had now been shifted into the forward pack. Hayes and Sayer Junior were still the halfback pairing as Clare, H. Wall and E.R. Walker were still in the backs. With new players coming and going at wil in these early days, it is clear that at least 12 men were the outstanding performers on the training field and had retained their place. Kyrke was Wigan's first ever captain and Walker seemed to be our first goal kicker - the Frano Botica of his day (minus the wind).
The Wigan Observer a week later also covered the next game against Southport on the 8th February. The opening line gives an insight into how long the game was played for:
WIGAN FOOTBALL CLUB - A match was played Saturday last at Southport, and after an exciting game for nearly two hours resulted in a draw. Southport won the toss and took choice of goals, playing with a slight wind in their favour. Kyrke on behalf of Wigan kicked off, and the ball was kept near the Southport goal for a considerable time, and up to half time two touch-downs had been obtained by each side. Just before half time a maul took place behind the Wigan goal line between Kyrke, Henderson and Woodcock for Wigan, and Pryce and Barron for Southport, which, after a hard struggle ended by Henderson touching the ball down, Woodcock retiring after the commencement.
The goals were now changed, and Southport gained another touch-down. Wigan almost secured a goal by a fine drop kick by E.R. Walker from the centre of the ground, the ball going within a foot of clearing the goal. Sowter had a free kick from a catch, but the try was a failure.
The best play throughout the match was shown by Henderson, Bromilow and Sayer Snr, for Wigan and Hunter, C. Schofield and Burryat for Southport. When "no side" was called the game stood Southport 3 touch-downs to Wigan 2 touch-downs and a free kick at goal from the before mentioned catch.
Wigan (forwards) Kyrke (c) W. Wall, Woodcock, Blakeney, J. Sayers Snr., Sowter, Smith, J.H. Walker and Bromilow; half backs Hayes and J Sayers Jnr., three-quarter back H. Wall, backs, Henderson and E.R. Walker.
Wigan were now starting to become an established team who could play a good game of rugby. On Saturday 1st April 1873, Wigan faced local Mill town Bolton in terrible weather conditions. Whether or not someone thought it was an April Fool's joke that the game should go ahead, Wigan won. The amazing thing here was that Wigan played with 9 men to Bolton's 13... and still won! No wonder Bolton didn't last long in rugby circles!
So, there we have it. It was all started by bored Cricketers who were possibly looking for a bit of extra income ideally but wanted to pioneer this rugby lark which was being played in Yorkshire and filtering into Lancashire. It was to become a few years before Wigan were really on the rugby map but that's for another topic. A word of note, this Wigan Football Club in this form did not last long as there was a decline of interest from members and eventually the club amalgamated with local rivals Up Holland Football Club... again, for another topic. We are thankful to those pioneers who, without them at the Royal Oak pub, we will not have the Wigan Rugby Club as we see it today. They are worth remembering.