The Northern Union had just completed it's maiden season when the summer of 1896 came around. The Wigan club had finished a respectable tenth in the League and endeavoured to climb up the ladder the following season.
The first port of call on Wigan's agenda was a lovely trip to Morecambe at the start of September. A large attendance accompanied Wigan on special trains which helped the Morecambe's "gate". Rugby followers in Wigan, despite not much success since the days of James Slevin were still keen followers of the rugby code. It was the first time Wigan had visited Morecambe under the guise of the Northern Union, and with fine weather, all the cards pointed to a perfect away day for any rugby supporter. For Morecambe, they were in their first season in the top flight, having been winners of the previous season's county championship.
The match itself need not have much to say about it. The first half went in favour of Wigan, with a penalty from James Walkden and a try scored by John Timoney. There was no further scoring in the second half a both teams went through the motions dusting away the cobwebs from the off-season. The important point was that Wigan travelled home with the two points.
I guess this is where the fun stopped for Wigan. In the League, a couple of losses against Runcorn and Stockport came, along with a drab 0-0 draw with Broughton Rangers. A close 3-0 win over Leigh gave Wigan some news cheer about on October 10th, but that was when 'things' started to come out into the public domain.
On Saturday, October 10th, John Winstanley, Ellis Wardle and Peter Foster were charged with disorderly conduct at Morecambe Station, after an incident that happened on September 5th, the day of Wigan's visit to Morecambe.
Mr Waters, of London, prosecuted on behalf of the London and North-Western Railway Company.
After the match, it became apparent that several players got intoxicated and missed their train. They demanded a special train, and because they could not be accommodated, assaulted the station master and a porter, as well as hustling ladies. It was alleged that Winstanley assaulted Mr. J.P. Shaw, the station master, whilst Wardle, the Wigan secretary, and Peter Foster used foul and abusive language.
It was seen that a number of the Wigan team and committee were under the influence of alcohol and allowed the last train, at 9.40p.m. to depart without getting on to it. This is when the disorder erupted. Two members of the Wigan club followed two ladies into a waiting room, and when remonstrated with they knocked the station master down.
The three men summoned did not attend the hearing but were represented by Mr. Bullen, who pleaded guilty on their behalf. John Winstanley, the full-back for Wigan, was apparently the ringleader, and was sentenced to prison for two months without the option of a fine. Wardle and Foster were fined forty shillings and costs. The magistrates at the Lancaster County Bench said that they would stop such ruffianism. Winstanley played against Leigh on the same day, having been represented by a Wigan solicitor, Mr. Bullough. The Chairman (Mr. Garnett), said that Winstanley would have to go to gaol for two months.
Match records would show the absence of Winstanley from the Wigan team sheets until Boxing Day. Wigan had no option but to require the services of Jim Halliwell as fullback, rolling back the years.
Following the news, the story started to develop. Whilst John Winstanley was being sentenced, and playing against Leigh at the same time, he suffered serious injuries during the match. His injury was concussion to the brain which left him ill in bed for several days. A petition had sprung up in Wigan to the Home Secretary to quash his conviction. It stated that Winstanley was not the person who committed the assault, but the guilty person has since come forth and declared Winstanley's innocence. It is stated that an affidavit by the real offender accompanies the petition to the Home Secretary. The player in question was centre Charlie Wilding.
The petition quickly circulated around Wigan, signed by supporters, as well as by all leading officials and players in Lancashire. With the disgraceful scenes, Ellis Wardle, the Wigan secretary, had no other option but to resign his position with the Wigan club.
Wardle was such a stalwart with Wigan and was a throwback to the 'glory days' of the 1880s and early 1890s. With over 200 appearances, Wigan Charity Cups and West Lancashire Cups, he was a popular figure. During his playing days, Wardle acted as club secretary and other roles often organising match days, playing, and continuing to work after the game with his numerous roles. Wardle was the 'man in the room' representing Wigan at the George Hotel when the formation of the Northern Union happened. So the reaction of the Wigan public and fellow committeemen would have been very hard hitting indeed for such a popular member of the Wigan club.
Back in Lancaster, Mr. Tilly, on behalf of john Winstanley, made an application to the Bench. He had a certificate from Dr. Rees, of Wigan, certifying that John Winstanley was under his professional care, suffering from the effects of a blow to the left side of the head, causing considerable effusion of blood. He was still confined to his bed, and would not be able to attend Court under fourteen days. The Court had the power if they thought proper to convert the sentence passed upon Winstanley, and he asked the Bench if they could see their way to do that, and substitute a fine. Mr. Dawson said the Bench heard nothing about that when the case was previously before the Court. The Chairman stated that if Winstanley was so unwell, his sentence must be deferred, but that the Bench was not going to stultify itself. A very great crime of ruffianism was committed, and the Bench were determined to put a stop to such things. He said if they allowed that sort of thing in Wigan, they certainly would not allow it in Lancaster. The defendant would not be taken to prison until he was fit.
On and off the pitch, things were going from bad to worse for Wigan. The losses kept on coming. More importantly, the Northern Union suspended all action on the Wigan ground until November 23rd as the result of misconduct by the Wigan spectators towards the referee in a match against Tyldesley at the end of October. The club seemed to be in disarray. Fixture-wise, that only meant one game having to be postponed - that of Rochdale Hornets on November 21st, but still. The game, luckily, was rescheduled to be played in Rochdale.
With the loss of Club secretary Ellis Wardle, a ground suspension and a messy legal issue having to contend with, as well as very poor form in the League, Wigan were losing backers as the sourness turned into complete chaos.
Charlie Wilding was the one who had knocked down the stationmaster, Mr. Shaw, with his bag, and when the police came it turned out that Wilding had gave a false name when arrested. Wilding was ordered to pay costs on a second charge of abusive language, or suffer fourteen days' additional imprisonment. When Winstanley was committed to prison, Wilding had signed an affidavit that he was the player who assaulted the officials.
On Saturday, November 28th, Wilding was committed to gaol for two months for the 'violent assault'. In the case of Winstanley, the Home Secretary had declined to remit the sentence, despite the petition put to him and Wilding's assurances that he was the guilty party. The Wigan club now had two playing members serving a prison sentence. Mr. Bullen, the solicitor from Wigan representing Winstanley, had by now received a reply from the Home Secretary who stated that he did not see sufficient ground to justify him (Winstanley), and would advise her Majesty to interfere in the case.
The news headlines were not the greatest image that the Wigan Rugby Football Club wanted to see. It was damaging. On the field, the club were doing poorly having won only four times since the start of the season, drawing twice and losing eight. As Christmas approached, news came that Winstanley would make his reappearance in the team on Christmas Day against Rochdale St. Clements. He had just completed his term of two months' imprisonment. When he did eventually find his way to prison after suffering concussion to the brain, it was not deemed safe to remove him to gaol for several days. In the end, his health was in such a precarious state that he was detained in hospital during the whole period of his incarceration. Lucky? (Staying in bed for two months sounds fine to me!).
When Winstanley left prison after serving his time, he looked exceedingly well, having gained 11lb. in weight, and, intimating to the Wigan Football Committee his willingness to play, was selected to take part at fullback on Christmas Day. He did well, and played again on Boxing Day against Runcorn.
As for Wilding, he made his return to first team action in a 4-0 win over St. Helens on February 6th. He would make three further appearances that season. Peter Foster would eventually find himself surplus to requirements the following season and ended up at Fleetwood in December 1897.
As for the Wigan club, the damaging effect this whole episode had was huge. Many committeemen and financial backers left the club, and Wigan struggled so-much-so that the club nearly folded. At this time, the Association game was gaining popularity in Wigan and it was a very serious matter whether or not the rugby club would be able to survive this up and coming threat.
As it stands now, I sill need to do a bit of research regarding the impact of the events in Morecambe had in Wigan. When Covid allows the use of the main library that is.