Rugby in Wigan was now established since forming in 1872. Of course, it was still all new back then. As it was, it wasn't uncommon for the rules of the game to change depending on the opposition or even different rules played in the same match. If your team was playing against Brookhouse (Blackburn) the game would stem from Harrow School rules which was a mixture of Association Football (soccer) and Rugby. This grey area was settled when the official rules were set out in 1871 (before the period as we speak) but Old Boys from say Eton or Cheltenham playing up North would still prefer to play it their way. Thankfully 'hacking and tripping' was outlawed in 1871 (Hacking is best described as where anyone lying in a ruck was fair game, and could be kicked below the knee until retreat was the best option) but as rough as the game was back then, it could still be seen during matches.
So, Wigan had ended their first season 1872/73 as it were against a team from Bolton. Nothing much could have been expected in that first season as it was all new to the team from Upper Dicconson Street. As Spring 1873 set in that only meant one thing: Cricket. Wigan's first ever try scorer, Kyrke, was a dab hand with the bat during those Cricketing months as the gentry of Wigan went about their business with the willow as they did for many a year. BUT... there was to be a slight dilemma with the Wigan Cricket Club. Their ground had been destroyed during the season which meant home matches (and sub money) was not possible and it was reported from a meeting of the Cricket Club that the finances were in an "unsatisfactory condition". As September drew near there seemed to be hope of sorts as a new season of Rugby was about to start again. The Cricketers had an eye on a plot of land near Frog Lane and Miry Lane... which wasn't to be cheap.
On Wednesday September 3rd 1873, an annual meeting was held at the Dicconson Arms. Mr. T.A. Walker held the chair. Wigan Mayor Mr. N. Eckersley was re-elected president and Mr. Edward Holme Woodcock was to continue as captain. (Luckily I stumbled across Woodcock elsewhere and it appears he was a high powered solicitor in Wigan in those days). During the meeting votes of thanks were passed to the retiring officers (players who didn't want to continue), and hopes were expressed that matches would be arranged with Manchester, Preston, Liverpool and others. The accounts, which showed a balance of £2.0s 7½d in favour of the club, were passed. There was also a "very fair attendance", which was a good start to the forthcoming season of legal fighting of sorts.
As the Cricket season came to a close come the end of September thoughts were turning away from how many of the members would fund a new Cricket pitch and onto the matter of rugby. The Wigan Observer states on the Friday issue on October 3rd that "the following matches have already been arranged for this season, and it is hoped dates may be fixed during the next few days for matches with the Manchester Club, Dingle, Liverpool, and Owen's College Manchester". As for the immediate future and pre-season (if you will), the next day Saturday 4th October would be an opening game at Upper Dicconson Street with the Observer stating that "...a good muster of members expected". Here is that initial fixture list and most probably Wigan's first ever set of fixtures:
October 4 1873 - opening game at Upper Dicconson Street
November 1 - versus Warrington at Wigan
November 15 - versus Preston at Preston
November 29 - versus Bolton at Wigan
December 13 - versus Southport at Southport
January 17 1874 - versus Preston at Wigan
January 31 - versus Bolton at Bolton
February 14 - versus Southport at Wigan
February 21 - versus Warrington at Warrington.
You have to remember that there were no league's back then, or at least Wigan weren't involved in any. This may account for quite long periods of time between matches as each club looked after their own fixtures to suit themselves primarily. Also, it was all new back then as league structures were in an infancy stage whilst the established Cricket set up ran differently to say, Bowls or Billiards (other major sports of the day). In the following weeks Observer (10th October) - the opening game consisted of sides being chosen by captain Mr. E.H. Woodcock and vice-captain Mr. Kyrke and that there was a "pretty good muster of members, and some good play was shown".
A week later, on 17th October 1873, a scratch match was played at Upper Dicconson Street with sides being chosen by Mr. Clare and Mr. Kyrke (it seems our Solictor captain Mr. Woodcock didn't attend). The afternoon was beautifully fine, and some good play was shown. A match against Swinton had been arranged for Saturday 25th October at the Wigan Cricket ground for some reason. It seems that fixtures were still being finalised, sometimes at short notice. This 'scratch match' was another warm up game before arranged matches had to be played. Here is that match report for the opening fixture of the 1873/74 campaign from the Wigan Observer 31st October 1873:
WIGAN FOOTBALL CLUB - Wigan v. Swinton - October 25, 1873
This match was played on Saturday afternoon on the Wigan cricket ground, and resulted in a victory for Wigan. The Wigan captain (E.H. Woodcock), having won the toss, elected to "kick off", and the ball was started at 3:45pm by J.H. Walker - the visitors having chosen to defend the northern goal. For some time the home team, playing one man short, were penned, and were compelled to touch the ball down three times but about 4.05 the absent man turned up, and the Wigan forwards, playing more together, and aided by some good runs by E.R. Walker, got the ball down towards their opponents goal, and eventually compelled them to touch it down. Swinton now dropped out, and following up very hard kept the ball near the southern goal and managed to touch it down - some of the bystanders getting in the way of the Wigan backs. One of their men, however, kicking it out, the ball was seized by E.H. Woodcock, who managed to get close to the opposite goal before he was stopped. Ends were shortly after changed, and Swinton kicked off. For some time the game progressed very evenly, till one of the Swinton half backs made a good run, and was only collared about 3 yards in front of goal, and Wigan again was forced to touch down. Shorlty after the dropout a loose scrimmage took place close to the touch line near the Swinton end, during which the ball was kicked over the line and out again; very shortly W. Hayes got the ball, and by a splendid left leg drop secured a goal for Wigan. The Swintonians, however, objected to it on the ground that the ball had been thrown out, and their umpire on being appealed to, decided in their favour; the other umpire not being near at the time was unable to give a decision. [Since the match the Hon. Secretary to the Rugby Football Union (Mr. Curry) who was written to for his opinion, has decided that the goal must count for Wigan as no notice was taken of the ball having been into touch until after the goal was secured]. Play was therefore continued, the ball now nearly all the time at the Swinton end, except once when Owen nearly dropped a goal for Swinton, the ball striking the post above the bar and bounding to one side. When, however, "no side" was called at 5:15pm, the ball was again at the opposite end. Andrews (back), and Owen (half back), played very well for Swinton, but with the exception above mentioned their backs invariably punted instead of dropped. Hayes (half back) played very well for Wigan.
Wigan - E.R. Walker and H Wall (backs); J.F. Clare (3/4 back); W Hayes and W Wall (half backs); E.H. Woodcock, R.H.V. Kyrke, J. Lawrence, J. Murray, A. Peck, J. Sayers, G.H. Sowter, C. Twinning and J. H. Walker
Swinton - N. Howarth, captian, J. Dorning (half backs); Owen (3/4 back); E. Parr, Andrews (backs); G.B. Townsend, W. Long, H. Farr, Evans, Morrison, Barker, Ormerod, Denwood, Wright and Judd.
So Wigan got off to a good start even after being awarded a dropped goal later in the week after the Wigan club had written a letter to the RFU. Next up were Warrington who were due to play at Upper Dicconson Street on November 1st. At this period of time in Wigan a lot was happening locally. On 2nd August Wigan witness a horrible rail disaster at the North Western Station as a carriage at the end of a train from London Euston derailed whilst in motion, killing 13 and injuring many more. The inquest and investigation was lengthy and went on for several months. In the Wigan Observer column inches were few as each issue was seven or eight sheets in length. This meant, perhaps, the reporting of Rugby Football matters was lessened - or maybe not. Not to worry though Wigan had a game against Warrington to look forward to on November 1st, 1873.
There seems to be a discrepancy in the location of this match. The published fixture list stated that Wigan were to play Warrington in Wigan, yet in the match report, it stated that the game took place in Warrington. Anyway, here is the match report, as noted in the November 7th issue of The Observer:
WIGAN FOOTBALL CLUB - Wigan v. Warrington. November 1, 1873
This match was played at Warrington last Saturday afternoon. Warrington kicked off at 3.15pm, but the ball was quickly returned by Wigan backs, and was for some time in the Warrington quarters, and eventually touched down by W. Wall. The try, however, by E.R. Walker was a failure, the wind being very high. Shortly after this Hutchings, a member of the Warrington team, unfortunately hurt himself, and for some twenty-five minutes play was discontinued. After the resumption of play the ball was still kept in the Warrington half of the ground, and getting into touch near the goal line, was thrown out by the Wigan captain. Sayers got the ball, and pluckily wriggled through his antagonists and planted the ball beyond the goal line. J.H. Walker punted out, but the wind carried the ball into touch, whence it was thrown out and play continued. Shortly before "no side" , Blower made a splendid run, and nearly got to the Wigan goal. The game was drawn in favour of Wigan by a try and punt out to nothing.
- Wigan: E.H. Woodcock (capt.); J.H. Walker, J. Sayers, C. Wall, Hardy, Kyrke, A. Peck, J. Darlington, J. Murray (forwards); W. Wall and J. Wall (half-backs); Clare (three-quarter back); H. Wall and E.R. Walker (backs)
Wigan were having a good start to their winter game but interest was still shown in members wanting to try out and play for the team. A report from Friday 14th November brings up some interesting reading. On Thursday 13th November, The Wigan Observer reports that "A scratch match of this club was played on Thursday afternoon, according to the association rules, the sides being Smokers v non-Smokers, and resulting, after an exciting contest, in a victory for the latter by 3 goals to 2". Having had a look for these 'association rules', I cannot find mention of such a rule but I suppose in those days it would make sense. And, it also shows that non-Smokers are obviously healthier! Having played their scratch match at Upper Dicconson Street, Wigan were ready to travel to Preston to face the "Grasshoppers" on November 15th.
Now, the Grasshoppers still exist to this day in Preston, playing in the lower leagues of English Rugby Union. It's a weird name today and it was back then. The name originates back to 1869 upon their formation. The name ‘Grasshoppers’ was chosen, as among the founders were several old boys of Cheltenham College. This school had a game ‘Fireflies v. Grasshoppers’ which is believed to continue to this day (source). Wigan were simply Wigan. The November 22nd issue of The Observer reports the match:
WIGAN FOOTBALL CLUB - Wigan v. Preston. November 15, 1873
This match was played on Saturday last, at Preston, and the result was that the home team won by two goals, two tries, and several touch-downs to nothing. Wigan, however, played two men short. The ball was in the Wigan half of the ground all the time, except once, when Woodcock and Sayer, following up very well, nearly touched the ball down behind the Preston goal line. The Preston forwards played up splendidly, and also Campbell, Hutton, T. Hutton and E. Catterall, behind. T. Hutton made one magnificent run. For Wigan Woodcock, Sayer, Byrom, and Twining distinguished themselves.
Wigan - E.H. Woodcock (capt.), Twining, Lawrence, Sayer, Byrom, A. Peck, Hardy (forwards), Hayes, W. Wall, J. Wall (half-backs), H. Wall, Clarem E.R. Walker (backs)
Preston - C.G. Hulton (capt.) G.H. Dickson (backs), T. Hulton, De Hoghton, E. Catterall (half-backs), T. Seed, T. Sellars, Walton, E. Swainson, F.C. Hulton, C. Parkinson, F. Catterall, Calvert, Whitehead, and Threlfall (forwards)
Now, as you can probably gather, match reports were becoming shorter and less information within them. This may be for a number of factors such as fewer column inches to fill, lack of journalism at the match (away at Preston afterall) or many other reasons. Reporting of such a game was still in its infancy in the 1870s and dedicated sports journalists (after from keeping cricket scores) were not really around back then. It is only when time passes and when Rugby grows exponentially in Wigan that more detail and space is given to such games. For now, some reports vary in length and value - something which we need our imagination to take over. Anyway, Wigan got battered by Preston and it seemed that it didn't matter if Wigan fielded 13 or so men, Preston weren't going to take pity. It seemed that Wigan were accustomed to being one or two men short as forthcoming reports will testify.
Bolton were up next in a game which was scheduled to be played in Wigan on November 29th, until Bolton changed their mind. Here is the report from The Wigan Observer of the match:
WIGAN FOOTBALL CLUB - Wigan v. Bolton. November 29, 1873
This match, in accordance with the wish of the Bolton Club, was played last Saturday at Bolton instead of at Wigan, as originally fixed, and this being the third consecutive match away from home. The Wigan team was not so strong as it would otherwise have been. Play was commence with ten men on each side, and the ball kicked off by Woodcock of Wigan. It was at once returned, and for some time was kept at the Wigan end of the ground, and Wigan had to touch down three times. At length the absent men turned up, and for the rest of "half time" the ball was kept at the other end of the ground. Ends were changed, and the ball kicked off, but owing to the slippery state of the ground the ball was not returned, and for nearly all the rest of the time the ball was at the Wigan end of the ground. Wright (Bolton) made a good run, and passing the Wigan backs ran in. The "try" was entrusted to Hulton, but, owing to the high wind which prevailed all afternoon, was a failure. Shortly after this, Shaw (half-back) picked up the ball outside a "scrimmage" close to the Wigan goal, and threw himself over the line, but it being disputed as being a "no take up" the ball was dropped out. Lawrence then got the ball, and then made a good run along the lower side of the ground, but nothing further of interest took place until half time was called. The game was thus drawn in favour of Bolton by a try and five touch downs to nothing. For Bolton, Wright, Shaw and Hardcastle played well, and J. Wall did good service for Wigan, but any good play behind the scrummages was frustrated owing to the state of the ground, which was in a very miserable condition through the heavy rain which had fallen during the morning.
Wigan - E.H. Woodcock (capt.) T. Hardy, J. Lawrence, W.D. Brown, R.T. Johnson, A. Peck, J. Melling, J. Sayers, G.H. Sowter (forwards) W. Wall, J. Wall (half-backs), J.P.L Clare (three-quarter back), H. Wall and E.R. Walker (backs)
Bolton - A. Holden (capt.), Meerton, Shaw (half backs), C.E. Hulton, Wright (backs), Hardcastle, Slater, Dixon, Rowe, Kevan, Sharp and Ainsworth
Fancy starting a Rugby game 10-a-side in horrible weather conditions and waiting for more members of your team to turn up sometime during the match! Wigan had lost again but at the end of the match report, it was said that a match will be played on the Wigan ground against Manchester, "...and a good match may be anticipated". Wigan had finally secured a match against kind of a big name in the game at the time: Manchester to be played a week after the Bolton game on Saturday December 6th at Upper Dicconson Street. Amongst those travelling the short distance to Wigan were a couple of England International players in Roger Walker and Jacob Ghent (or Genth). These two players represented England in a match against Scotland in February 1874, the 4th ever international fixture. A bit of a 'did you know' there. Roger Walker also became President of the RFU in 1894 but anyway, to the match.
WIGAN FOOTBALL CLUB - Wigan v. Manchester. December 6, 1873
On Saturday last the Manchester Football Club sent a team over to Wigan and an exceedingly pleasant game ensued ending in favour of the visitors by a goal and four touch-downs to one touch-down. Woodcock kicked off for Wigan who commenced as usual with one man short, but the ball was returned and the visitors aided by their half-backs gradually forced the home team back, and at last compelled them to touch the ball down in self defence. Again did they do this after the drop out, and yet once more and at last from a scrimmage in front of goal Ghent got the ball, and by a fine drop secured a goal for Manchester. Wigan again kicked off, and now reinforced to their full number drove the visitors up to their line. Pilkington then made a good run for Manchester, who by a determined rush succeeded in again forcing Wigan to touch down. The Wigan forwards however well following up the drop out, prevented the ball being returned, and some determined scrummages ensued up to half time. Manchester now kicked off, but H. Wall (back) returned the ball well into touch, and some fierce scrummages took place, Wigan slowly forging ahead. Prichard then got the ball, and by a good run, took it well away up to near the Wigan goal, but was well collared; Blower then made a splendid run right across to the other end, and after and after [sic] a good scrimmage and a fine bit of forward play by Blakeney and Sayers, Manchester were compelled to touch down. The visitors dropped out, and Walker getting the ball made a good run, finishing up with a good drop, but no further advantage [given] to either side until "no side" was called. Blower and Prichard made some excellent runs for their respective sides, while everybody else played well especially the forwards.
Wigan - E.H. Woodcock (capt.), E.H. Blakeney, Byrom, Lawrence, Murray, A. Peck, Sayers, Sowter, Twining and W. Wall (forwards), R.G. Blower, J. Wall (half backs), Clare (three quarter back), E.R. Walker and H. Wall (backs)
And so ended 1873. Wigan were due to play Bolton on January 31st, Southport on Valentines Day 1874 and Warrington on 21st February but records have as yet not been able to be found for the Bolton and Warrington matches although the match against Warrington DID go ahead. From the reports, though, it seemed that Wigan could play against an established Manchester Football Club, especially in the forwards, but there was a problem with getting the correct number of players onto the pitch at the start of the game. On the other side of Mesnes Park in Wigan, the New Year seemed to start well for the Cricket Club, whose ground was destroyed earlier in 1873. The Club put a small piece in the Observer to let the public know that land was now acquired from the Earl of Derby and that £500 needed to be raised to get funds to build a new pavilion. The next bit of information appears way ahead in Valentines Day 1874 when Wigan faced Southport again.
WIGAN FOOTBALL CLUB - Wigan v. Southport . February 14, 1874
This match came off on Saturday last, and after a very good game resulted in favour of Southport by a goal, a try, and two touch-downs, to one touch-down. Woodcock kicked off for Wigan, Southport having chosen the town goal, and so having the wind and the hill in their favour. The ball was quickly returned, and almost directly Southport managed to touch the ball down, but the "place" was a failure. The rain which until now had fallen heavily, cleared off, and by the ball being taken out some good play ensued till Schofield, getting the ball right in front of the Wigan fortress succeeded in dropping a beautiful goal for Southport. Woodcock again kicked off, and the game became more even, although Wigan had to touch down in self-defence. After half-time Wigan, who were playing more together, had rather the better of the game, except once when some of the spectators getting in the way of the Wigan backs Southport managed to touch it down again; but one of their side kicking the ball before being taken out it was touched down by Wigan, and the home team well following up the drop out it was taken down to the opposite end of the ground. Burnyeat (half back) then made an excellent run, but was well tackled. He again got the ball and nearly got in, being twice tackled by H. Wall, the second time right on the goal line. It being, however, a no take-up, the ball was brought back, and then kicked off, but nothing further of interest took place until "no side" was called. For Southport, Schofield and Burnyeat played very well, while Peck, Lawrence and Sayers forward, and Blower half-back did good service for Wigan.
Southport - R.W. Smith (capt.), W. Smith, G. Andrew, Milner, Hall, Greenall, W.S. Smith, G. Bromilow, J. Schofield (forwards), Hartley, Burnyeat (half backs), G. Schofield (three quarter back), A. Andrew, E. Schofield (backs)
Wigan - E.H. Woodcock (capt.), Sayer, Twining, H.T. Byrom, Lawrence, A. Peck, J. Wall, W. Wall, Sowter (forwards), Blower, McCorquedale (half backs), Clare (three quarter back), H. Wall, E.R. Walker (backs).
The 1873/74 'season' had come to a close just in time for the Cricket season. Games were played on Saturdays as the game was still that of Gentlemen with Solicitors, Doctors, Councillors and business owners having free weekends (as oppposed to half-day saturdays and off sundays), this was the only time to play the game.