A chat with... William Leighton Baldwin
The present Wigan Rugby Football Club was founded in the year 1879, and the subject of our sketch this week was one who took a very prominent part in the formation of he "Wasps," which was the name by which the organisation was known in its early days. Mr. Baldwin, together with Messrs. Slevin, Underwood, Joe Wardle, and others, were interested in running, and a few years before the football club came into being they formed a hare and hounds club. Mr. Baldwin was the secretary, and during the first season he also acted as captain.
"At the opening of the second season," remarked Mr. Baldwin, when seen by a representative of the "Examiner," "it was decided to hold a race for the captaincy, and Mr. Alf. Hodkinson was the successful competitor. I won two handicaps that year, both from scratch, one being a half-mile race, and the other a three-mile contest. In the championship for the position of captain the next year Mr. Slevin came in first. We had a paper chase over fourteen miles, and I was the hare who laid the course. Mr. Slevin as the youngest competitor."
"After the hare and hounds club had been in existence four years the suggestion was made that a football club should be formed, and the preliminary meetings in connection with it were held in the shop I then had in Mesnes-street. Jack Underwood was appointed secretary, Alf. Hodgkinson the treasurer, and I was the chairman of the committee. Jack Underwood and I arranged the matches, and we also went to see the late Col. Ffarington, who had been elected Mayor of Wigan. He consented to become a vice-president, and gave us a subscription. I believe we rented the ground - in (Upper) Dicconson Street - from Mr. Mason, the farmer; and we pid what we considered to be a large sum of £2 10s. 0d. for the season. Jack Underwood and I were the guarantors for the money."
Do you remember the first game that was played by Wigan?
"Yes, I think it was against Fletcher-street Wesleyans, at Bolton. We had only had one practice game before we tackled them, and the less said about that match the better. There was a rather amusing incident that comes to my mind. After our opponents had been scoring pretty freely for some time one of their players went up to the full-back, and said, 'Heigh, Jack, has tha getten a try yet?' The player in question replied in the negative, whereupon his colleague added, 'Well, goa and get one.' And get one he did. I think our next match was against Aspull, who afterwards became Wigan's greatest rivals. We beat them rather easily. Chorley St. Lawrence's, whom we opposed a week or two later, complimented us, and said in time we should prove a thorn in the side of the leading Lancashire clubs.
They were true prophets. When we played the return match with Bolton Fletcher-street Wesleyans we secured the services of F.W. Schofield, of Liverpool, who was staying in Wigan at the time. He played three-quarter and he scored one of the finest tries I ever saw. Schofield received the ball on the Wigan '25' line, and went through the whole of the opposing team. He 'floored' six men one after the other, and the full-back had not the pluck to attempt to tackle him. That was the only try scored in the match. I played forward in most of the games, but occasionally I figured at full-back, half-back, and three-quarter."
"In the second season I decided not to take an active part in the game, but the second team invited me to be their captain. That was the most successful season the second team ever had; we won every match, and we got so cocksure, I suppose, that we challenged the first team. I am not certain whether we beat them or not, but if they defeated us it was through Jim Slevin. The best man in the second team was Jack Anderton, then a short sturdy lad of about fourteen or fifteen years, almost as broad as he was long. His favourite way of tackling was to jump round the man's neck and stick like glue. Slevin got a try against us from half-way, and I have recollection of seeing Jack Anderton clinging to his neck as he went over the line. At the conclusion of that season I retired from the game, and the last game I saw until recently was that in which the Maories opposed Wigan, in December, 1888. One evening during our first season Wigan played a six a side match with Aspull, and Jim Slevin scored one of his finest tries. He beat all the six opponents without handing one off - which was unusual for him."
Asked is he could recall some of the athletic meetings on the old cricket ground, Mr. Baldwin said at the athletic sports held in connection with the opening of the Wigan Infirmary Mr Sowter won three races - sprint, quarter mile, and half-mile, and was presented with the championship medal for the most successes. In the following year the cricket club arranged three district race at their sports. Mr. Harry Wall won the sprint, Mr. Slevin was first in the youths' race, and Mr. Baldwin carried off the quarter mile. At another athletic meeting organised by the cricket club F.W. Schofield was first in the local quarter, G. Bradley the second and the subject of our article the third; while at the Volunteer sports Mr. Baldwin won the half-mile flat against Dr. Debb, of Golborne, and J.W. Tebay, of Upholland.
Mr. Baldwin, who is over on a visit to Wigan, saw the Huddersfield match, and was delighted with the splendid form shown by the Wiganers. He expressed the opinion that the game had been wonderfully improved by the reduction in the number of players.
...Put into Context
In his day job, William Leighton Baldwin was an engineering draughtsman but one day packed it all in to travel around Europe and become a magician known as "Professor Leighton". He had an interest in magic and conjuring, as well as rugby. A fantastic Victorian mix! His life changed when he inherited £1000 from his grandfather. He married his sweetheart Matilda, and went touring in Europe as a travelling magician under the performing name "Professor Leighton". His wife Matilda was a performing clog dancer, as well as his assistant. He ended up coming back to Lancashire where he worked for a travelling fairground owned by "Professor Lloyd" (photo above, Lloyd is sitting, Leighton standing). He also kept a magic book which is still in his family to this day including a self portrait. Apparently, he was also a very keen and mean clog dancer in Lancastrian circles!
With regards to the match against Bolton Fletcher-street Wesleyans, Wigan did indeed get battered. Wigan lost by a goal, two tries and several minor points to nil. It was the fourth match of the season but you can forgive Mr. Baldwin for trying to remember specifics 30 or so years later. In the return fixture with Bolton FSW, indeed F.W. Schofield did put in a remarkable display as the tables turned, Wigan winning by 2 tries and 5 minors, to one minor point. Schofield scoring twice.
With utmost thanks of course to Mike Latham for the source material from the Wigan Examiner, and to Robert Ernberger: William Baldwin's great, great grandson for the contextual family story and family photos. The family stories told and remembered really are worth more than gold to some people aren't they.