It would not be wise to solely focus upon the glories of the Wigan players alone. In the time before the Northern Union many legends of the game plied their trade. We know of course about Jim Slevin, Ned Bullough and Billy Atkinson, but what about those men who kept some of the Wiganers out of the Lancashire or England teams? The men who, on later reflection, would be talked about by old players as being the best they ever played against. Some giants of the game to this day once graced football pitches in Wigan and now-defunct stadia across the North. From the immortal Jim Valentine in Swinton to Dicky Lockwood in Yorkshire, we will have a very brief look at the superstars of the rugby game in mainly the 1880s and 1890s.
John Henry Payne
Hailing from Broughton, Manchester, John Payne represented England and was for a period the captain of Lancashire in the early to mid-1880s. He was an incredibly talented half-back, and one of the rugby game's first great players. He represented England on several occasions whilst playing for his club side Broughton, who at the time were one of the premier rugby clubs in the country.
In October 1884, Payne brought a team over to Wigan to play a match. It was common back then for premier players to handpick a selected team to play an opponent, be it via an invitation or a warm up. On this occasion, Payne gave the Wigan public a treat in the way of Rugby Football. The International Payne brought with him several premier players from the Manchester district, who at this time dominated the Lancashire set-up. Of course, Mr. Payne's team dominated the game and wo by four goals, four tries, and minor points to Wigan's two minor points. It would be a few more years until Wigan were considered to be at that level of rugby.
Robert Seddon, Lancashire
Broughton Rangers / Swinton
Robert Seddon was another heavyweight in the early days of the rugby code. Hailing from Salford, he was one of the original members of the Broughton Rangers team founded in 1877 and quickly became one of Lancashire's crack players in the forward ranks. In 1888, he toured New Zealand and Australia with Wigan's Jack Anderton (who was playing for Salford at the time) and was given the captaincy of the British Isles team. Seddon tragically died midway through the tour due to a boating accident. He went rowing on his own on a river in New South Wales and was found by Anderton and Andrew Stoddart some time later.
In 2013, Seddon was inducted into the IRB Hall of Fame. He was a formidable forward and played several times against Wigan for Swinton and the Rangers.
Tom Coop, Lancashire
Tottington / Leigh
Tom Coop was an exceptionally talented full-back who played in the 1890s for Leigh, Lancashire and England. He started his career at the Tottington club. For a short while, in his youth, he assisted Wigan for several matches in 1887 when the Wigan club were looking for a new full-back to replace "Parrot" Anderton. Eventually, Coop threw his lot in with Leigh and Wigan ended up signing James Pilkington of Aspull and latterly Jim Halliwell. Halliwell himself recognised that Coop was a much better full-back than he; "I once had a trial for the county, but there was no chance with Coop on the other side, and I did not get any honours" he once said in an interview. However good a player Halliwell was for Wigan, at County trial matches he was always up against Coop on the other side. After all, Coop was an England International.
Richard Lockwood, Yorkshire
Dewsbury / Heckmondwike / Wakefield Trinity
Lockwood was a remarkably good three-quarter back for Yorkshire and England. Rugby historian Tony Collins described him as “the complete footballer, brilliant in attack, deadly in the tackle and precise in his kicking, with the knack of being in the right place at the right time”.
He first represented Yorkshire just before his nineteenth birthday in 1886. He quickly became an England International a month later and captained the country on two occasions.
Such was his popularity, news spread to Dewsbury in 1887 that Dickie had been killed in a match between Ireland and England. Hundreds, if not thousands, of supporters, eager for new of their hero, gathered around anywhere that had a telegram machine to await news. In fact he had broken his collarbone only and was recovering well.
Johnny Roberts, who played for Wigan mainly in the 1890s, said that "I regarded Dicky Lockwood as the finest three-quarter I ever met ".
H.C. Speakman, Cheshire
Henry Collinge Speakman was one of the finest three-quarters ever to play the rugby game. A Runcorn youth, he made his way through the ranks before establishing himself in the first team, quickly becoming one of the first names on the team sheet for the West Lancashire and Border Towns Union representative sides, alongside Wiganers such as Brayshay, Slevin, and Wardle.
He was part of the "dark greens" of Runcorn who were famed for playing the game 'as it should be played'. He was taken on the 1888 Tour of New Zealand and Australia but decided to stay 'down under'.
Walter Bumby, Lancashire
Another famous name from the Swinton club. Bumby was a sensational half-back who played over 350 games for Swinton, Lancashire, and the British Isles (1888 tour).
With his obvious talents in that dominant Swinton team of the 1880s and 1890s, Bumby was assured of a regular place in the Lancashire set up. In fact he played 23 times for the Red Rose and formed a remarkable partnership with "Buff" Berry of Tyldesley.
Walter's success meant that Wigan's half-back pairing of Jack Mitchinson and Billy Halliwell had very limited opportunities for representative honours. In fact, only Billy Halliwell only managed to gain one Cap in 1893 against Devon, whilst both had several trial matches to try and dislodge players like Bumby.
Walter Bumby was also another name selected to join on the 1888 British Tour of New Zealand and Australia.
Half-back Billy Cross hailed from the famous Kendal Hornets rugby club, the home of "Buff Berry". Many a time were representative teams pitted against the Westmorland pairing of Buff and Billy.
Although St. Helens were not great during the period of the 1880s and early part of the 1890s, Billy came to prominence and made his way into the Lancashire set up, playing on 16 occasions for the Red Rose.
Harry Eagles, Lancashire
Forward Harry Eagles was a stalwart of the Salford and Lancashire teams throughout the 1880s and 1890s. He was also a New Zealand and Australian Tourist of 1888, alongside Bumby, Jack Anderton and Speakman. His partner in crime, Sam Williams, the Salford captain also went on this tour.
Although Harry didn't go all the way for selection in England team, he represented the North of England on three occasions. Many a forward had to be on their game when up against Salford on game day as Eagles was widely regarded as one of the toughest opponents one could face.
Along with Williams and Tom Kent, Harry Eagles was one of the key figures that lifted the Salford club from near disbandment in 1881, to one of the finest teams in the North, a period that saw Salford supply Lancashire County with no fewer than seventeen players before the Northern Union was formed in 1895.
Buff Berry, Lancashire
John Berry, also known throughout his life as "Buff" hailed from the famous Kendal Hornets club and later joined the "Mighty Bongers" of Tyldesley in 1887.
An exceptional little talent, Buff represented England on three occasions in 1891, his caps are still in the Tyldesley Club House to this day. His talents earned him multiple Lancashire caps but his on field enthusiasm spilled over off the pitch also. He was a character, a practical joker, who always remembered where he came from 'up north' when in company of more 'civilised' people when on representative duties.
Wigan forward Ned Bullough later recalled: In one of the matches against Tyldesley I was told off to do nothing else but watch 'Buff' Berry. I simply went for 'Old Buff' whenever the ball went to him or in his direction. 'Why dussent' thoo play on thi own side?' asked Buff, in his picturesque North country accents. 'Because I've been told to watch you,' I answered, and he replied, 'An' thoost dooin' it, too.'
Wigan half-back Jack Mitchinson also had praise for Buff: "He was not fast, but he was an extraordinarily hard man to tackle. Unless you knew him thoroughly you were lucky to get at him... He was very clever at drawing opponents on to him, and then throwing a pass."
Jim Valentine, England
Perhaps the most famous and legendary of them all. Jim Valentine. I often refer to Jim in my work and with good reason. He was simply dominant for Swinton, Lancashire, and England.
From the mid-1880s, Valentine was the first name on the Lancashire team sheet, playing around 60 matches for the Red Rose. With Swinton, he formed a formidable partnership with Walter Bumby, Dr. Marsh and others, in a team that dominated the Lancashire rugby clubs. In an 18-year career with Swinton he played nearly 500 games for them scoring just over 300 tries. Phenomenal.
Jim Halliwell, Wigan's fullback in the 1890s, stated that Valentine was the finest three-quarter Lancashire had ever produced.
Jack Mitchinson again recalls of Valentine: "He, who in my opinion was the best three-quarter Lancashire ever produced, was also a very hard ma to tackle. He once 'closed' both of my eyes with a knock-off. After I had been off the field some time I returned and Alf Wallwork had just got Valentine by one leg and I could just see to grip the other before the famous three-quarter could get loose."