Birth of Central Park
THE LOCAL PRESS called it "The Triumph of the Locals". Today most of us simply know that the first game at Central Park happened on the 6th September 1902 against Batley - and leave it at that. None of us were around all those years ago so memories have been lost and stories passed down from father to son have faded. In these modern days most people will remember fondly the LAST game at Central Park but the first game in it's own right has an equal amount of significance. But how did Wigan get to this point in the first place? Here's the story of how we got to Central Park...
We start in 1900. Wigan at the time had quite a poor team. Often playing matches without the required number of players and languishing towards the bottom of the League table. It was only towards the end of the season that the team rallied and got to safety. Excitement started to grow again, despite still losing matches, as supporters started to make a comeback and travel away from home in their numbers. Due to their poor form, Wigan missed out on being included in the newly created Northern League which included the top teams of Lancashire and Yorkshire.
During the Wigan Rugby Football Clubs Annual Meeting on Thursday June 6, 1901 at the Railway Hotel (Club HQ), it was to be seen that the Clubs finances were in good order. Here is a slight breakdown:
Subscriptions, receipts and donations: £129 11s. 9d.
Gate Money: £658 17s. 6d. (2nd team £18 18s. 3d.)
Watch Books (like a Golden Gamble-type prize): £30 19s. 1d.
Transfers: £32 3s. 9d.
Cup Gates: £11 6s. 6d.
Total: £901 16s 10d.
Wigan had taken £139 3s. 2d. more in gate money than the previous season mainly due to the rallying support of the Wigan supporters. (think back to 2006). I could go on but Club finances were stable yet the Committee felt that a Club of Wigan's stature should have more members (subscription £), better gates etc... the only way to do that was having a better quality team. Easier said than done!
At their current home at Prescott Street, there had been reports of damage being done and timber being carted away as theft. During the meeting, the Chairman (Mr. George Taylor), in answer to an inquiry as to how the club was situated with regard to a ground, said they had had an offer of a new ground, but the committee had thought it was advisable to leave it over until after the annual meeting, instead of entering into any sort of negotiations and agreeing to any terms. A letter has been received from the gentleman making the offer, in which he said he was willing to leave it over. Mr. Taylor stated that despite the offer of a new ground, the Wigan Club were okay to try and stay at Frog Lane/Prescott Street for a further twelve months.
That assumption didn't last long as on Tuesday 25th June, 1901, this advert appeared out of the blue in The Wigan Observer. The Wigan Rugby Football Club were selling up their assets and secured the use of the Springfield Park ground for the forthcoming 1901/02 season. The Rugby team would alternate use on Saturdays with Wigan United Association team.This however meant that Wigan would lose the use of their second team - something which the Club had suggested was vital to build strength and have reserves at a decent grade. Needs must I suppose. After auction, the club received £31.15s.10d, with the grandstand alone getting £15.10s.0d. Ironically, a syndicate from Wigan United FC bought the grandstand from Prescott Street and built it back up at Springfield Park! With money in their pockets, the Wigan club start the 1901/02 season up the road at Springfield Park which was to be their only season at the ground.
Mid-way through the 1901/02 season a meeting was called for all club members to attend. On 23rd January, 1902, in a basement at the Public Hall on King Street, plans were put forward for a new ground at Powell Street. Councillor Prescott presided over the meeting, who himself was a close supporter of Wigan, even letting the team practice on his land! The meeting was called to see whether they could have better facilities for playing Rugby football matches in the future than in the past. "It was for the members to say whether they, as a committee, were right in suggesting the thing. They were not trying to thrust the new ground question down their throats, and he trusted they would all think the committee had done right in calling the members together and taking them into their confidence".
Mr. Hammersley, the hon.treasurer of the club, stated a few of the reasons why it was thought the Wigan Rugby Club required a new ground:
at present they were sub-tenants (sound familiar?)
wished to have something to look forward to after the season
increase to £240 rent after three-year tenancy by the landowners (if Wigan stayed)
Offer of a ground at Greenough Street with favourable terms and long tenancy
hands to be tied if they stayed at Springfield Park in terms of arranging matches and accommodating postponed matches - no progress
Wishes to run an A team - couldn't try out new lads in reserve matches because they didn't have a reserve team!
Wished to host Cup matches (Finals)
Host Junior leagues and assist local charities
Once Mr. Hammersley had made his case, a letter was read out from the Springfield Park Company which offered Wigan the use of Springfield Park for 1902/03, free use of the stands and groundsman all for a cut-price sum of £130. But in response to a question as to the price required for the proposed new ground, the Chairman said he did not think it fair to the railway company that the public should know the price, in case the club did not after all lease the ground.He considered the cost of making the ground on this site mentioned would be about £500.
A Mr. John Henderson pointed out that that cost did not take into account the cost needed for stands and banking, to which the Chairman said only 300 cubic yards would be required extra for the embankment.Mr. Critchley suggested that it would cost about £1,000 to make the ground ready. In reply, Hammersley said that for a bare minimum cost of £600, the playing surface and banked ground on one side would only be required to start with.
The lease of the ground would be seven years to start with. Councillor O'Donohue spoke when a question was asked whether the names within the syndicate would be made known. He refused and suggested that it was not necessary and that they were 'businessmen' in the end with an offer. O'Donahue went on the offensive to suggest that were Wigan scared of the £1,000 costs? He pointed out that the Wigan Cricket Club had raised that amount at a Fair to improve their ground and clear their debts so why couldn;t the Wigan public back the rugby club in this venture?
There were still some critics. A Mr. Peacock argued that by paying a groundsman £1 a week to look after the ground didn't really make a change of costs in comparison to what they had at Springfield Park. If the 'stand blew down', the landowners would simply build it back up again (if Wigan rented) but if they had their own ground then the costs would fall to the Wigan Rugby Club. In reply, Mr. Henderson said any altercations with Springfield Park they paid for themselves.
Mr Peacock was having none of it. It seemed he wanted to test the waters of this meeting and feel the mood of the room. He said that at Springfield Park Wigan had good gates because they won matches (Wigan were doing alright in 1901/02 compared to last season). "Let them lose, and they would soon see that the gates would be where they had been in the past" he scoffed. "If the attendance fell off it would be a serious matter for them to start the season in debt" he finished. Presumably sat down, clicked his fingers etc... Mr. Critchley seconded that.
Despite those protestations, or arguments against a proposed move, an amendment was then moved and seconded that the committee proceed with the preparation of the new ground in question. To this, Mr. Hammersley (who was in favour) said that supposing the cost of the venture was £1,000, and they could raise the money, the interest on that per year would be £50 at 3%, and adding to the rent offered at Greenough Street, it would still work out LESS than what they were paying at Springfield Park! (come on Lenagan!) He also suggested that when the ground was not in use for rugby, then other events can be held there.
Hammersley said, with a great degree of certainty, that if they refused this chance, it would not be offered again. Adding to that, Mr. Almond (an old Wigan forward from the earlier days) pointed out that after the next two seasons, the Springfield Park ground might be taken up for building purposes and if they did not take up the offer then someone else might.
The big question was then asked, the Uncle Mo question. Could they afford £1,000? With less than a week to go before, presumably, the offer was no longer 'live', Hammersley said that he had a promise from eleven gentlemen who would put down £25 each - nearly £300 for a start. He also said that he had the names of several other wealthy gentlemen who would, without doubt, put down a similar amount. He assured the members at this meeting that he could raise £500 straight away. Mr. Critchley, still sitting on the other side of the fence, thought that some of those promises would'be broken like pie crust' (wahey!) as it had happened to him personally before. Mr. Henderson tried to solidify Hammersley's claims by saying that those eleven men were all committee men (and in the room) and that the £25 could be put on the table that evening (if the banks on King Street round the corner were open).
On being put to the committee, the whole of the members, with exception to just eight men (Critchley, Peacock obviously) voted in favour of the amendment. It was passed unanimously as a substantive motion that it wa desirable to negotiate for the new ground in Greenough Street. It was also unanimously passed that the ground be run by the club.
A week later, at the Public Hall basement, 300 people turned up from committee members and supporters. It was confirmed that funds had been secured and promises made of to secure such funds. A Ground Committee of thirty people was set up alongside that of the Clubs to oversee work on the new ground over the summer period to be ready for the following season. On Friday 21st February, another meeting was held to assure people that £1,000 had been raised. Weirdly, at that meeting, a draw was made for a 'very handsome pony'.
As the Wigan Club had a successful season on the field at Springfield Park, the summer was approaching fast. wigan had finished top of the West Lancashire League and won their trophy. Supporters were encouraged to follow their team to pastures new in 1902/03. At the end of May a concert was put on by the Wigan club to help fund their new ground at the Public Hall. They hoped to entice supporters to attend by presenting the Lancashire Competition medals to members of the winning Wigan team. There is no record who won the handsome pony however.
As the 1901/02 season closed, Wigan held their Annual Meeting at the Princess of Wales Hotel, Greenough Street (across the road from Central Park back then) and was attended by over 100 members. Wigan had succeeded in raising the number of their members I may add. Councillor Prescott chaired the meeting. In a nutshell, the Wigan accounts were much more profitable than a year ago at their old ground at Prescott Street and profits were large.
The Chairman and treasurer gave their usual updates on the past year and then said this:
"It would be something to hand down to their younger generation when they were gone. The taking of the field off Greenough Street would be the best thing for Rugby Football that had ever happened in Wigan and the district"
The last piece of business of the evening ended in a unanimous result. "Central Park" would be the name of the new ground.
Through the summer, work carried commenced on the ground between the River Douglas and Standishgate. There was a drainage difficulty to contend with so the Wigan Club brought in the services of an expert who build drainage under the playing surface, so any water running off Standishgate would run straight into the 'Dougie' (as we locals call it). The grass had been seeded and grown that summer and members felt it would need to survive the harshness of winter and hope for a dry spring for it to fully be in good quality condition.
Numerous workmen were still trying to erect the main grandstand that could hold thousands of spectators come mid-August (first game due 6th September). Central Park was fully boarded around so you had no option but to pay the entrance fee to watch Wigan. On all sides there are high cinder bankings and at one corer, the ground slopes down off Standishgate which can accomodate hordes of spectators, it was said. It was estimated that around 12,000 people could have a perfect view of the game!
The entrances were fitted with the latest turnstiles, 'handsome' new goal posts were erected which meant that Central Park was a 'modern' stadium. Councillor Prescott oversaw excavation works of the embankments and playing surface; Mr. Ablett obtained the contract for the grand stand and Mr. Cox held it all together being the clerk of works for the project.
Questions, however, were being asked whether or not Wigan had a team fit for the stadium... history tells us the answer. Wigan were now ready for Batley on 6th September 1902... the rest, they say, is History...