RUGBY IN WIGAN & DISTRICT: 1877-1879
As we know, the 1872 Wigan and District Football Club disbanded in the winter of 1877 and vanished back to their cricketing pavilion, never to pick up a ball and run with it again. The last recorded match of the Wigan club, as far as I can tell, was on November 17th, 1877 against Liverpool Wanderers - another heavy loss. But that is not to say rugby football suddenly stopped in the town because the cricketers gave up.
Here we will look at what happened in the two year period between November 1877 and November 1879 in and around Wigan before the formation of the current Wigan Warriors club in 1879.
As you can see from this police report in December 1877, the playing of football in the street was still considered to be an anti-social matter. Over in Hindley, a match was being played between Hindley F.C. and the 11th L.R.V. Chorley (Lancashire Rifle Volunteers). Within the Hindley team was C. Blinkhorn and T.G. Waddington. These two gentlemen ended up playing for Wigan at the start of the formation of the 1879 club.
The return match was played a week later in Chorley on a ground 'not at all suited to rugby'. J.R. Knowles travelled with the Hindley team. Mr. Knowles was a regular of the Wigan and District club and of course, as they had disbanded, his services were available.
Bamfurlong F.C. were busy playing Rossall School, Fleetwood under rules that were 'peculiar to the school'. In all essences, the game was extremely similar to the rugby code but a try seemed to be called 'rouge' and the start of the math included the forming of a 'bully'. Of course, Bamfurlong lost, playing with a man short, but this is an example of where the rugby rules were still being formed or in this instance, a particular school stuck to it's particular rules or terminology.
In March 1878 the Abram and Lowton clubs were still going strong. Despite losing to Wigan twice in the 1876/77 season, the Lowton club were still determined to carry on. They were also due to play Wigan the week after the Wiganers played Liverpool Wanderers. Our friend J.R. Knowles was on kicking duties for Abram. C. Blinkhorn, R.V. Heyes and J. Ellam were also on hand to assist Abram. Knowles belonging to the 1872 Wigan club, whereas Blinkhorn, Heyes and Ellam would represent the 1879 club in 19 months' time. As you can see, players were not married to one club, but their services were on offer when called upon. It would become no surprise that several of the Abram representatives were part of the cricket club there. Heyes and Ellam were quite handy with the bat.
You can start to see the seeds being sewn. Or at least, I would like to think so in that the 1879 club already had competent men at hand to show the Hare and Hounds kids how to play rugby.
The Hindley club were very much operational when it came to the start of the 1878/79 season, practicing every Saturday and asking for anyone interested to join them and train. The Adlington club were also continuing to end their cricket season and begin their preparations for the winter pastime. Both of the these clubs, as with Wigan in the past and Abram used 'Cricket and Football Club' in their names.
Perhaps a reason why the 1872 Cricketers of the Wigan and District Club found it difficult was due to the opposition they faced. The Wigan Cricket Club were the premier team in the district when it came to the use of the willow apparatus. They played town teams, if you like: Southport, Rochdale, Liverpool... Many of these bigger teams did not have a rugby football club, and if they did they were quite better than the Wiganers. Matches against Bolton, Southport and Ormskirk in 1873 of the football game correlated with those towns having good good representative cricket clubs. The smaller village teams like Abram and Lowton kept it more local thus, in theory, making it easier for these clubs to call upon men to fill in positions at short notice. When the Wigan cricketers travelled to, say, Preston or Manchester to play football, they often went under-strength and had to rely on the home sides filling in positions. I believe that the position the Wigan Cricket Club held in the sporting world helped their downfall. They were made up of professional men: solicitors, clergy, engineers etc... Teams like Abram played rugby and football with, well, miners from collieries such as the Maypole Colliery. These smaller clubs in Wigan and surrounding were physically better well-off when it came to the effort needed for rugby: the men were strong due to the nature of their work - the men of Wigan were not. That's why they simply gave up.
Back to Hindley, they were simply called the Hindley and District Football Club. C. Blinkhorn, of course, showed his face and his team played the captains team. The Adlington club were due to play Hindley but 'a poor excuse' that the captain was called away on business meant that the Hindley club played among themselves. R.V. Heyes also played in this match. Another example of athletes, interested in the rugby football code playing wherever they could.
Abram were now warming themselves up for the season ahead. R.V. Heyes was the secretary of the Abram club who were playing amongst themselves during their first match of the 1878-9 season (with help from Hindley). J. Clarke would later play a few games for Wigan in the 1881/2 season and of course C. Blinkhorn was present during this match.
When Hindley played against the Oak Rangers, the umpire of the game Mr. Gillett accused the Hindley captain of not knowing the rules. Mr. Heyes wrote this reply (above). Of course, within a year, the captain of the Hindley Club J.S. Taylor would join the Wigan Wasps, but this letter shows that he was simply a football man which undoubtedly helped the Wasps get off the mark. Why would he leave being the captain of Hindley to become perhaps the most experienced player at Wigan Wasps without the captaincy? Hindley would in time fall away towards the Association code of the game so perhaps that was factor in his change of allegiance. That, and Wigan Wasps commanded quite strong crowds (and you'd expect financial payments of some sort).
With the 1878-9 season up and running, the main clubs appearing in the local papers were Abram and Hindley. These clubs had the members with the mot enthusiasm for the game. Mr Heyes, being secretary to Abram, was responsible for sending in to the local papers the match reports. It was this enthusiasm for the game that men like R.V. Heyes helped build the rugby blocks in Wigan. Abram had played against Low Hall (between Platt Bridge and Hindley) and were next up against Leigh.
It seems that rugby in Wigan during this period was concentrated towards the East of the borough where collieries were aplenty: Lowton, Low Hall, Hindley, Abram and Leigh. Further along the Bridgewater Canal, St. James's of Poolstock were getting their season started, again, that club being linked with the Poolstock cricket club.
Hindley and Leigh faced off with a team that included C. Blinkhorn, Heyes, Waddington, Turner and Knowles - all of whom would play weekly for Wigan Wasps less than a year later, apart from Knowles who was a link to the past, the cricketer who couldn't let go!
At the end of 1878, Bamfurlong and St James's went into battle. One can tell that whoever sent in the short match report was from Bamfurlong as the use of the word "bully" was again used. Within the St. James's team was G. Naylor - another future Wigan regular.
Platt Bridge had by now formed after the summer of 1879. Apparently there was room for another rugby football club in between Low Hall Colliery and Abram. The secretary of the club was C. Blinkhorn, with the captain being Mr. R.V. Heyes. J. Tabern would assist the yet-to-be-formed Wigan Wasps in mid-November, but he decided to throw in his lot with the Platt Wazzers. A week later, the following advertisement appeared in the Wigan Observer:
Heads may have been turned. With the location of this new club at Folly Field, Upper Dicconson Street, it was an attractive proposition for nomadic players like Blinkhorn and Heyes. Looking at St. James's fixture list for the 1879-80 season and other scribblings here and there, the local clubs were Platt Bridge, Wigan Wasps, Hindley, Lowton, Leigh, Pemberton and Low Hall whereas cricket clubs were starting to try their hand at the rugby code to the north of the district in Aspull and Haigh.
At the end of October, Platt Bridge had successfully negotiated their way past Swinton Hornets with C. Blinkhorn, T.G. Waddington, Heyes and Knowles playing, despite the Wigan Wasps having practice matches at this time.
November 8th, 1879. Wigan Wasps play their first match against St. Lawrence's of Chorley. Interestingly, the old Hindley captain J.W. Turner played for Wigan and W. Gillett for the Chorley side. If you remember, Mr. Gillett was the umpire for the match between Hindley and Oak Rangers where he basically called Mr. Turner an incompetent captain. I wonder how these two gentlemen played against each other!
It was not until the following week, when Wigan Wasps taught Aspull how to play the game, that we saw Blinkhorn and Heyes become regulars, although both men did not play against Platt Bridge on December 20th. They played for Platt Bridge. During the frozen January of 1880, a dispute erupted between Platt Bridge and Wigan over a frozen pitch. With Blinkhorn being the Platt Bridge secretary, having a war of words in the press with the Wigan secretary J. Underwood, it would come to no surprise that both Blinkhorn and Heyes didn't play for Wigan for the rest of the season In fact, it was several years before Blinkhorn would represent the Wigan club again, but as for Heyes, he threw in his lot with the Wiganers from the following season and enjoyed quite good success.
Rugby in Wigan was now up and running. Clubs were springing up everywhere, from Swinley to Highfield, Blackrod in the north to Newton-le-Willows in the south. The period between 1877-1879 was mainly focused upon the east of the borough, around the collieries and railway hubs. You may even give credit to those nomadic sportsmen such as R.V. Heyes and C. Blinkhorn who had a love of the game and helped out whoever needed their assistance. I doubt that rugby football was on life-support during this two year period in the district, more waiting for the giant to awaken. Heyes and Blinkhorn kept the gears oiled if you like. Wigan Wasps was the giant.