1878 had been an anonymous year for rugby in Wigan, especially for the 'Wigan' club. Of course, the popularity of the sport was growing year on year and by now the Borough had teams starting to form in Platt Bridge, Aspull, Blackrod, Pemberton, Lowton and Ince (to name but a few). The Wigan and District Football Club had attracted a large amount of spectators and the local Press had only bothered to report matches of this club on a weekly basis (games permitting).
The sport was growing year-on-year. Officially the Wigan club as it was had started in 1872, as we all know yet this break from the sport for a year meant that whatever would happen in the future would mean a fresh new start with new players and new fortunes. Today's modern Warrington Wolves had formed in 1876 themselves and Tyldesley RU also formed in this year after having a team back in 1872 and 1874 respectively. The old concept of 'gentlemen' playing the game was changing as the game spread across Mill towns in the North and a younger athlete took on the mantle of sporting hero and super-athlete. The game was moving on, and so it was in Wigan.
The first inkling of a new rugby team to the Wigan public came in the Wednesday 17th September edition of the Wigan Observer. The image above speaks for itself as the old ground at Folly Field, Upper Dicconson Street, had been secured and the Dicconson Arms would serve as headquarters again.
Wiganers reading the Wigan Observer on Saturday 27th September 1879 would have been pleased to read the following events which occurred on Monday 22nd September 1879 (again, edited into paragraphs for an easier read):
WIGAN WASPS FOOTBALL CLUB -
Now that the cricket season is coming to an end means are being taken to provide other outdoor recreation during the winter months. On Monday evening a meeting of young men who take an interest in football, was held at the Dicconson Arms Hotel, when it was decided to form a club to be called the Wigan Wasps Football Club.
The subscription is to be 3s. for the season, and the opening match will be played on the ground in Upper Dicconson Street. Several matches have already been arranged and a meeting will be held to-night for the purpose of making the arrangements more complete, and carrying out further details that are essential to the good working of the club. Mr. J. Williams has been elected captain, and Mr. J. Underwood has consented to fill the office of honorary secretary.
Already you can get a sense that, despite the information regarding the end of the cricket season, a youthful looking Wigan club had to be more enterprising than the last in a financial way. People who wanted to attend the match had to pay a very small admission fee and of course, changing facilities were once again to be had at the Dicconson Arms Hotel. The main instigators of the formation of the 'Wasps' were Messrs. W.L. Baldwin, J. Slevin, J. Underwood, Joe Wardle and others. Along with Mr. Underwood as secretary, Mr. Alfred Hodgkinson was named as the treasurer. The Upper Dicconson Street (UDS) ground was secured with what was seen as a high rental cost of £2/10/- per season. Alot of these men hailed from the local Hare & Hounds running club in Wigan, sort of a Harriers club, so were athletes to start off with.
James Slevin recalled these earlier moments with the Wigan Wasps: "For some time we battled in the open, but we became sufficiently enterprising in time to have the enclosure canvassed round, and I well remember Charlie Cronshaw obtaining some collecting boxes from St. Thomas's church to enable us to make a collection at the matches".
William Baldwin became club secretary of the hare and hounds running club a couple of years before the formation of the Wigan Wasps in 1879. Baldwin stated that they held a race to become captain of the H&H club, with Mr. Alfre Hodgkinson becoming the successful competitor. A year later, a young Jim Slevin won the race, a paperchase over fourteen mile, with Baldwin being the 'hare' who laid the course. Slevin was the youngest competitor. As stated, other members included Joe Wardle and Jack Underwood. After four years of running the youngsters decided to form a football club.
The preliminary meetings about starting this new venture took place at Baldwins shop in Mesnes Street, Wigan. As mentioned, Jack Underwood as appointed secretary, with Hodgkinson becoming club treasurer and Baldwin himself taking the chairman post. Matches were to be arranged by Baldwin and Underwood with local clubs. These two met with Colonel Ffarington, who at the time was Mayor of Wigan in the hope that he would become club President. He took the role of vice-president, and gave the men a subscription. All they needed now was a field, so approached the old Folly Field ground at Upper Dicconson Street owned by Mr Mason, a local farmer. The guarantors of the money were Baldwin and Underwood themselves - risky!
Things were looking good. The local newspaper had put the information within the 'local news' section to help gain interest in this new venture. Interest indeed seem to be had a week later (27th September) when the first practice match was played at UDS. Despite a reported absence of the captain Mr. Williams, the sides were chosen by the Treasurer and Secretary. Mr. Hodgkinson, the Treasurer, won the toss and chose the goals. There were a lot of scrimmages owing in a great measure to the majority of players not knowing the rules thoroughly. Remember, a new younger breed of sportsman had come along to try their hand at rugby football so it was inevitable that many wouldn't know the rules fully. It was also reported that the match was a very enjoyable one played with spirit. Good! The win was awarded to the treasurer's team by one goal, two tries (one disputed), and one touch-down to nil.
But, for a couple of years, Wigan had held the limelight in the local press. New teams were springing up everywhere now and a start-up from St. James in Poolstock (to the South of town) had a lead billing for people to read about. St Judes represented the church, obviously, and most probably played their matches on the same ground as what today's amateur rugby club Wigan St. Judes play on today at Worsley Mesnes. Old maps suggest this may be the case. The team from Poolstock had published their full set of fixtures against clubs such as Oak Rangers (of Chorley), Platt Bridge, Southport Grasshoppers, Hindley and Wigan Wasps. The game against Wigan was due to take place on Saturday November 22nd. This can, in some ways, be seen as a starting point in the popularity of football in Wigan and the greater exposure that the game will inherit within publications such as the Wigan Observer, Examiner, Athletic News or Manchester Evening Post. But that will be evident shortly... As the season wore on more teams became visible in the Press. Blackrod had started their inaugural season playing Rugby Football and teams such as Newton Independants, Haydock Temperance, Garswood Park, Adlington Hornets and Westhoughton, Newton St. Peters and Swinley Rovers to name a few more.
Wigan had their eyes set on their first match against Chorley St. Lawrences.
Encouraging signs for the new venture in that there was a large amount of people in attendance, all paying a small fee to watch. Obviously, most players for Wigan were new to the game playing as a team and the thought of winning would have been mostly a dream. But everything starts somewhere and Wigan had set the ball rolling. One member of the Wigan team was a Mr. James Slevin. Slevin would eventually become one of the Great Wigan captains but as the Wigan Story continues so will his. Looking at the team sheet mostly all were new players, which was a good sign.
The season was up and running now and a game against St. Elizabeths of Aspull took place on Saturday November 15th 1879. Thankfully for Wigan, Aspull St. Elizabethswere a new-start themselves. The location of their ground is a mystery but one can assume that St. Elizabeths played on the flat land between the church and Simms Square. Wigan quite comfortably beat the Aspullers by five tries, six touchdowns, and three touches in goal, to nil. Complete annihilation which would only add to the morale of this new venture. The ground was quite hard and frosty and as the cold snap fell upon Lancashire, the players could have been forgiven for playing the game a bit timidly, especially by the backs. Finally, the Wigan captain had managed to turn up and play. For this, he won the toss and it is reported that he was occasionally applauded by those in attendance. Good looking or just plain popular? Our man Slevin, Hayes and Turner played well, displaying some very nice runs at times, easily opening up the Aspull defence. More importantly the Wigan forwards played better together, despite the opposition.
That's all Wigan needed to be honest, a morale boosting win and for their forwards to improve on every match. On November 22nd the Wigan club were to face St James of Poolstock at their home ground of UDS. Unfortunately it turned out to be a sad affair. The game was marred by bad tempered play mostly on the part of St James as a few scuffles broke out after many aggressive mauls. The Umpire for St James ruled out some "clear" Wigan scores which went down as 'disputed'. Wigan won but the game was reminiscent of a brawl than that of a rugby match. Now, this next bit sadly is a bit thin on the ground as my 3 year old daughter deleted some material - but I shall revisit this in time (not much happened to be honest until Christmas 1879).
By the end of November 1879, old boy E.H. Woodcock's wife had died, not that this would really matter but it gives you an idea of how the 'gentlemen' of Wigan at the time were quite popular with readers of the Wigan Observer and more generally, the public. Wigan played Platt Bridge on December 20th at their Upper-Dicconson Street ground with a god muster in attendance. The Wiganers easily won and as a new decade and Christmas descended upon Wigan, the players retired until the New Year.
Wigan started their 1880 year with a routine victory over Aspull (St. Elizabeths) on January 3rd in bitterly cold conditions before heading over to Lowton on Saturday 10th January for what should be another routine victory. "...the Wasps being conveyed there in waggonettes." Despite Wigan fielding an understrength team which didn't include the captain and four good forwards, Wigan ran out easy winners, as expected, by two tries and two touchdowns to one disputed try. Again, Jim Slevin took the plaudits from the match reports, along with Wardle who played very well. Slevin indeed scored a try, along with Wilding as the kicks were left to Blinchorn and Turner who failed both attempts.
Routine is by now a good thing for Wigan. Next up were Chorley St. Lawrences on January 17th and of course, during the return fixture, the Wasps lost in front of quite a large crowd along Upper Dicconson Street. Saturday 24th January was meant to have seen a game between Wigan and Platt Bridge in a return fixture. The Wasps easily won the opening match quite comfortably before Christmas but this fixture was cancelled due to the poor weather, as the Wigan Observer of January 31st states but an air of mystery will surround proceedings:
WIGAN WASPS - Last Saturday the above club ought to have played the return match with Platt Bridge, at Platt Bridge, but owing to the frost they were unable to fulfil the engagement. Many people who never take an active part in a game seem surprised that frost should so completely put its veto on the game, imagining that because the air is generally bracing, football would be all the more enjoyable. It is the ground, however, that the participators in the game look to, and even the most hardened and reckless of players pause before they would run the risk of a dislocated shoulder or broken limbs. It will be remembered that the Wasps won the first match played at Wigan in a somewhat easy manner. The Wasps ought to play Leigh next Saturday at Wigan, and unless a thaw sets in this match will have to be postponed also.
The Observer found it a bit odd that the game should be postponed due to frost, or else it wouldn't have published such a paragraph as a sort of opinion piece. But all will be revealed later. The match against Leigh, as far as I can fathom, would have also been postponed. As February appeared the Wasps were now ready to face Highfield (Pemberton) in what was to be the first fixture between these clubs at Upper Dicconson Street. The rain didn't drive away the spectators who again were very numerous. With the ground being very soft, the backs found it difficult to produce any quality fast play. The game was pretty even for the first half but it became apparent that Wigan were much stronger in the second. The Wasps were declared the winners by 1 try (by Almond), 4 touchdowns and 1 touch-in goal, to 2 touch downs. Again, the best of the Wigan play came from Slevin, Williams and Horrocks.
The mystery surrounding the cancellation of the Platt Bridge match was all about to be revealed by the Wigan Secretary Mr. J. Underwood. Incensed that the Platt Bridgers reported that the game was called off due to the poor excuse of frost, Underwood wrote a strongly worded and damning letter to the Press to give the Wigan account of events:
WIGAN WASPS v. PLATT BRIDGE -
Mr. J. Underwood, secretary of the Wigan Wasps Club writes:-
In reply to what the Platt Bridge secretary added in your last Friday's issue with reference to the report of the football match between Platt Bridge and Wigan Wasps, I beg again to state that the match referred to was won by the Wasps in a somewhat easy manner. In the report of the match which appeared in your paper on Dec 26th, 1879, I stated that the match was not played out, but it did not require to be played out for Wigan to win, as the score at half time stood 1 goal and 1 touchdown for Wigan to nothing, so that what the Platts secretary says about the dead ball, and the match being drawn is incorrect.
He also says the Platts left the field through a dispute. They played until half time, but did not return to complete the match, and at this point "no time" was called, the Wasps being declared the winners.
The Wigan men were too quick for the Platts, as the ball being kicked into touch and quickly returned, a Wigan man getting possession of it ran in and obtained a try, from which a goal was kicked. The Platts men tried to dispute this try but both umpires gave it as a fair try. The Platts secretary also states that they played under a great disadvantage through not having an umpire. The secretary of the St. James Club officiated as umpire for them, and it is strange that the Platts men were not aware of this. The umpire for Wigan was a member of the late Wigan and District Football Club, and I dare say knew the Rugby rules before some of the Platts ever saw a game played.
The secretary also states that they had only had eight first team men, but what does that matter when the second team is quite as good - some think better than the first? He concludes by saying that the Wasps had obtained the services of some very prominent men from St James' and Leigh Football Clubs. The fact is we only had one St James' forwards playing for us, and a gentleman from Leigh who happened to be on the ground, and who was asked to play to make up our number. This gentleman has since become a member of the Wasps.
Just before play commenced another of our men came on the field, and we then lent Platt Bridge one of our best forwards, and without doubt he did good services to them. The fact is our opponents could see they were being beaten, and as they did not relish this little fact they retired.
Ouch! Harsh words from the Wigan Secretary. Since my daughter deleted and damaged some research in time I shall revisit this. But, for the early stages of seasonal fixtures, still no league system, teams were quite compliant with rules and regulations in the end, often going to lengths to make sure that the 'truth' was stated. No Rugby officials as such attended matches but results were posted or telegrammed to the RFU for the archives. Team matches were officiated by umpires attached to their club, with two umpires present per match to agree on scores. Disputed scores happened when the umpires disagreed about a particular play and the score was marked down as 'disputed'. For match reports, queries such as this would have been thought about at a higher level (the RFU for example) and a judgement about whether or not a score should have stood or not. Often though the result stayed simply as 'disputed' unless a big fixture.
It is obvious that whatever happened between the 'Platts' and the Wasps caused a bit of a rift locally. Mr. Underwood certainly gave a good account and a sarcastic attack on the Platt Bridge team which perhaps shows that the Wasps were quite a bigger club. Anyway, we are in February 1880 and time for another match against Bolton, or Fletcher Street - Bolton. The Wasps welcomed the Boltonians to Upper Dicconson Street with the Observer stating that this was the most important match of the season. Unusually the weather was very fine, for Wigan normally play in rain. A large crowd was starting to become the norm and this fixture drew a good muster of people from both Wigan and Bolton. The previous match between these sides was played in Bolton and at that time the Wasps were very green and consequently Bolton had it all their own way and won by one goal and about half a dozen minor points. Wigan wanted to put things straight.
At 3.20pm Wallwork kicked off for Wigan, having lost the toss, and straight away the Wigan forwards played mostly in the Bolton half. The passing by Slevin, the dodging by Gillett, and fine runs by Schofield were too much for the visitors, and they were compelled to act on the defensive. The big play, as it were, of the match came from Schofield who started on half way. He came through and went round the Boltonians in a magnificent manner, handing off five of his opponents; the sixth man rather than be handed off in the same way ran up behind, but did not prevent Schofield from obtaining a try. The spectators, it was reported, loudly cheered this piece of play, even the Bolton followers. Eventually Wigan held on for the rest of the match and won by two tries, five touchdowns, and two dead balls to Bolton's one touchdown.
A fantastic result for Wigan in a match that was mainly played in the forwards. Underwood, Almond, Berry, Proctor, Hodgkinson, W. Taylor, Clegg, Wallwork, and Wardle completed the Wigan pack, with, for some reason, Mr. Underwood playing upfront instead of in the backs. At the end of the Observer report we start to see something new develop. It may not seem like anything important to many but there is information regarding the Wigan A team's forthcoming match against Aspull. This is the first time that any 2nd team has had a mention in any newspaper or publication and it goes to show that home matches at Folly Field were quite popular with the Wigan public. More importantly though, this bland piece of information goes to show that the new venture of the Wigan Wasps is going along nicely. Having two teams shows us a lot into the state of the new Club in that there are enough men to fill two teams (30 minimum) and money is being raised via subscriptions per member. If you think back to the Wigan and District Football Club there were many a game whereby matches were played without the full quota of players representing Wigan, and often, meaning a losing team. The Wasps seem to be in a healthy state, which is nice to see.
Back towards the end of the season now and Wigan are up against Highfield, Pemberton on March 13th 1880. The match would be played at Highfield's ground off Enfield Street, a stones throw away from Pemberton train station. In those days, Highfield played at the cricket ground. Today, nothing much remains of that site and as you can see from this picture it is a childrens playground. Funny to think that today's Wigan Warriors played a competitive match on this spot in 1880.
Strangely again for Wigan, the weather was 'beautifully fine', but not-so-strangely for Wigan a large crowd had gathered as a consequence. Wigan by now were used to playing in front of large crowds home and away. Sadly no figures will ever be obtained but one could imagine people lined along Upper Dicconson Street or in this case Enfield Street getting a glimpse of this sport.
Highfield were up for the match and fancied their chances, given the team they had put together. The Wigan backs must have thought it would be a hard task to play decent football as the ground was very soft and dirty, no good for fast running. With the sun on Wigan's backs the first half of the game saw Wigan threatening to score but when half time came only one try (by Stuart) and a couple of dead balls were recorded. Some of the dead balls could have been easy tries had it not been for the ditch which ran just behind and parallel to the goal line. The second half saw a fighting Highfield beng cheered on by a well supported crowd who would not keep behind the Wigan goal line, thus robbing the Wigan backs of their chance of defence. As a consequence, Highfield ended up scoring one goal, one disputed try, and one touchdown. Wigan forward Banks had the last laugh as near the end of the match he scored a spending drop goal to win it for Wigan in a well contested and enjoyable game of rugby. With Wigan clearly winning the match, the Highfield club submitted their own report to which they claimed the win for themselves. Of course, that was absurd.
The Highfield match was the end of the season for Wigan Wasps. The Wasps had come a long way in a short space of time. After a year of no rugby club as far as a 'Wigan' were concerned in 1878/79, the Wasps set-up had done an admirable job in recruiting members and interest enough so to create two competitive teams. The Wigan public were still coming to watch rugby matches in their numbers at Upper Dicconson Street and a fair few were following the Wasps at away matches. The trains and waggonettes made that a possibility of course but the popularity of social sporting events was about to boom in England. Association Football was attracting large crowds all over the country from Newcastle to Southampton. The larger Lancastrian Mill towns such as Blackburn and Bolton were also starting to flirt with soccer.
Wigan were now set up for the future.