Whoever opened up the Wigan Observer on Tuesday August 22nd,1916, would have been in for a sad shock. As pictures of local War heroes littered the pages the news of James Leythams passing would have been an utter disappointment for all. I think the best way to tell the story is to simply extract it from the Observer:
Seven out of a boating party of eight were drowned in the Lune near Lancaster on Sunday. The party consisted of R.K. Wright, clerk, Park-road; Constable Joseph Young, of the Lancaster Force, Windermere-road; James Leytham, the well known International Northern Union footballer, Lodge-street; John Wilson and his son William Wilson, 2, Salisbury-road; James Wilson, Scotforth Post Office; William Grisdale, ticket examiner, Willow-lane; and Ashworth Pinder, gasworks foreman, West-road.
The party started from St. George's Quay, Lancaster, at seven o'clock on Sunday morning in the 'Pearl', a pleasure yacht. About one o'clock the boat was overturned in the estuary of the Lune near Cockersand Abbey. The occupants of the boat were thrown into the water, but clung to the side of the boat and the rigging.
After a hasty consultation it was decided that Wright, who was the best swimmer of the party, should make for the shore, which was over a mile distant. Wright pluckily accomplished this, and reached the land in an exhausted condition.
He at first experienced great difficulty in finding assistance, but when once the alarm was raised an anxious search was instituted. The Morecambe and Fleetwood lifeboats, with other boats, joined in the hunt for the boat and its crew, but until a late hour on Sunday night nothing had been found except a couple of oars and a rudder.
A sad feature of the accident is that five of the missing belong to the same family, the two elder Wilsons being brothers, and Grisdale and Leytham being brothers-in-law. Wright, who is saved, was also brother-in-law of the two last-named. Wright stated in an interview on Sunday night that they had been in the habit of taking similar pleasure trips twice a year. They had never had a mishap, and Leytham was well able to manage the boat. They were about to start on the return journey with the incoming tide when the boat overturned. After his long struggle through the rough water to the shore he had more than a mile to walk before he could tell of the plight of his comrades. Exhausted and almost unconscious, he reached the farm of Mr.George Kirkby.
For many years James Leytham was one of the most brilliant and polished exponents of wing three-quarter play in Northern Union football. His forte was essentially attack, and with his great pace and dash he was a prolific try-getter. With a wonderfully intelligent conception of the [rules] of the Northern Union code he was clever alike in taking his passes and exploiting the reverse pass, and in a three-quarter line in which his colleagues were such speedy and resourceful there as Jenkins, Todd and Miller he could round off a movement like a true artist. Not only was Leytham a great player, he was a man whom everyone knew him liked and respected.
SOLITARY SURVIVORS STORY
A DESPERATE SWIM TO SUMMON HELP
Mr. Richard Kenneth Wright, the sole survivor, told his story of the tragedy on Monday to a press correspondent. According to him, the trip was one of a series taken annually by the brothers John and James Wilson, who were accompanied by John's son William and their brothers-in-law, Wright, Leytham and Grisdale. Police Constable Young and Pinder were present for the first time on Sunday. A light breeze prevailed on the outward journey, which ended at No. 5 buoy, about a mile down the river from Sunderland Point and Cockersand Abbey Lighthouse. Luncheon was over, and the boat was being put on her first tack homewards when she suddenly dived nose down. Leytham, who was an experienced boatman, was in charge. All the men were thrown into the water, but the boat was held up by the mast - there were only 7 ft of water - and did not then completely capsize.
Cries for help proving useless in the rising wind, it was arranged that Wright, who is a well known swimmer - "the weakest of the party," as he says, "out of water, yet the strongest in the water" - should attempt to swim ashore. He was given an oar to help him float, and Constable Young took charge of his coat and waistcoat.
The tide was making rapidly and the wind was blowing with increasing force when Wright set out on his difficult task. "I could hear them calling 'Help' and many times I saw them clinging to this boat as I made my way shorewards" he said. "Battling with the waves, I was more than once on the point of giving up and being drowned with them, but luckily, just as I was getting to the end, my feet touched ground. I had swam about a mile. I shall never forget the walk that followed. I tumbled more than walked, and arrived at Cockersand Abbey Farm, not only exhausted but almost unconscious through my exertions."
Wright went on to say that Mr. Kirkby, the farmer, at once went to Cockersand Abbey Lighthouse for help, but the fishermen there would not venture out in the boat he had at his disposal, and word was sent out to Glasson Dock. From there the Fleetwood and Morecambe lifeboats were summoned, but their search was in vain. Search parties were out all Sunday night, but nothing was discovered beyond the pair of oars and rudder mentioned yesterday.
Quite a tragic accident, but one quite common in those days. Trying to swim in Morecambe Bay is like dicing with death at any time of year. Despite holding onto the boat, it seems that the men who lost their lives lost out against the waves and drowned.
WIGAN RELATIVES TO THE PARTY
The whole of the members of the party besides Leytham were well known in Wigan. Two had relatives here, others had friends. They were in the habit of paying a visit to Central Park when some important game was on, mainly of course, with seeing the star artiste, Jimmy Leytham. Consequently there is a particular feeling of sorrow locally at this distressing occurrence.
By the time the Wigan Observer was being read by many, the inquest had already begun into the tragedy. It would be the weekend until people knew more, in public, as to what happened and this was reported in the Observer dated Saturday 26 August. By Friday night (25th) bodies were starting to be discovered. Ashworth Pinder, who hailed from Wigan, was found grasping a rock, only visible at low tide, indicating that he had swum nearly two miles to Cockerham, but was too exhausted to drag himself out. Police-constable Young had floated up river and was spotted by train passengers on the Glasson Dock line. James Leytham was found near the Bazil Buoy.
WIGAN CLUB'S VOTE OF SYMPATHY
At the Wigan Rugby Club Committee meeting, held on Monday, touching references were made to the sad fate of Leytham. Councillor J. Counsell, the chairman of the club, spoke as to the popularity of Wigan's former captain on all the football fields were the Northern Union code is played, and in the lands far away of Australia and New Zealand. Adequate testimony was paid to his irreproachable conduct as a man and his skill as a footballer.
The Committee unanimously passed a vote of sympathy with Leytham's widow and family, and in the event of the body being recovered decided to be represented at the funeral.
The Lancaster District and County Coroner, Mr. Neville Holden, held inquests at the Town Hall, Lancaster, on Monday morning, on the three further recovered victims of the Lune sailing boat disaster: James Leytham, foreman at Lord Ashton's Works, the Northern Union Rugby International; Ashworth Pinder, general foreman at the Lancaster Corporation Gasworks; and Police-constable Joseph Young of the Lancaster Borough Police Force. It was hoped that all the bodies might have been recovered, but in spite of the most persevering efforts during the week-end this was not so.
Superintendent Scott, of the County Constabulary, and Chief Constable Harris, of the Lancaster Borough Police Force, attended the inquest. Alfred Leytham, 39, Prospect-street, identified the remains of James Leytham, his brother, who resided at 24, Lodge-street, and was 36 years of age. He was a foerman at Lune Works.
The Funeral of James Leytham will take place at Lancaster cemetery on Wednesday at 2:30, the cortege leaving the house, Lodge-street, at 1:45. Many northern Union organisations have expressed a desire to be represented.
LEYTHAM LEFT RUDDER TO TRIM SAILS
The owner of the boat Pearl said she was a seaworthy boat, and properly managed could stand any weather, and said that she was well ballasted.R.K. Wright, the only survivor of the party of eight, said they had started on the return journey, and Leytham, the footballers, who was in charge of the boat, after hoisting sail, left the rudder to trim the sails, calling out "Someone take the rudder and turn the boat". The wind had freshened, and the waves had got pretty high. Young Wilson took the rudder, brought the boat round suddenly to the wind, and she drive almost straight into a wave, which came over, filled the boat, and she overturned, throwing all the occupants into the water. They all got onto the overturned boat, and, after consultation, Wright agreed to swim ashore and get assistance. He looked back during his long swim several times, and saw the men on the boat, but when he got ashore and staggered to the Abbey Farm the boat and men had disappeared.
The Coroner said if Leytham had kept hold of the rudder there would probably not have been any accident. He left the rudder to attend to the sails, an inexperienced boy got hold of it, and without casting any blame upon the youth, who doubtless did his best, he brought the boat too sharply round the wave, with the result that it overturned. It was a pure accident.
The jury returned a verdict that deceased were accidentally drowned.
As mentioned in the reporting between the Lancaster rags and what was handed down to the Observer, many Northern Union clubs wanted to be represented at James' funeral which was held on Wednesday 30th August 1916.
FUNERAL OF J. LEYTHAM
Amid manifestations of general mourning the funeral took place at Lancaster Cemetery, on Wednesday afternoon, of the late James Leytham, the International and Lancashire Northern Union three-quarter back. He was one of seven victims of the Lune sailing boat disaster. There was a representative attendance of Northern Union club representatives, as well as of the Lancaster Amateur Swimming Club, the Lune Sailing Club, Lancaster Reform Club, and the foremen of Lord Ashton's works.
Councillor J. Counsell and Mr. Sydney Swift represented the Wigan Football Club, and Mr. Geo. Taylor, secretary and Mr. Chas. Seeling capt., were present in their private capacities. The following other N.U. clubs were represented - Swinton, Leeds, Barrow, Oldham, Warrington, and Salford. The bearers were: Sam Lees (Oldham and Warrington), J. Mason (Morecambe and Wigan), J. Mount, John Mount (Barrow), J. Taylor, and B. Orr. A handsome wreath in the Wigan club colours occupied a place of honour, and wreaths were also sent from the Barrow N.U. club, Lancaster Amateur Swimming Club, Lancaster Reform Club (the flag of which was at half mast), and fellow employees at Lord Ashton's works.
Jimmy's grave now sits in Lancaster Cemetery. According to Tom Mather in his 1995 book "James Leytham Diary: Wigan's First Four Cup Season" he "is at rest under a tree in Lancaster cemetery, in a now sadly somewhat neglected grave. The headstone discoloured and covered with lichen makes no mention of his rugby career, but then that was how he, perhaps, would have preferred it! He lies at rest uncared about by the town he loved so much and by a sport he graced so well, sadly so long ago..."
Let's remember Jimmy and all those Great players of those early years. If you so happen to be in Lancaster, give him a visit because after all, he built this Great fine club.