Rugby in Wigan pre-1879

Wigan is not the oldest rugby club in the land. The earliest Clubs were Colleges and Schools. Durham Grammar School was founded in 1850 and Trinity College claims to be the oldest continuous Club in existence today, founded in 1854. Now here is one... Liverpool St. Helens Football Club (1857) is still going too... in no way connected to our arch rivals but still... There was a host of rugby football clubs in and around London too in the 1860s, which ultimately led to the formation of the Rugby Football Union.

If we look to what are now Rugby League Clubs, the ones we recognise perhaps, Huddersfield Giants 1864, Hull FC 1865, Swinton 1866, Leeds Rhinos 1870, Wigan 1872*, Millom 1873, St. Helens 1873, Warrington 1876. *The actual formation of the current Wigan club was 1879, but we will get to that later on.

It feels awkward that Wigan is such a young Club in comparison. So what happened in Wigan before 1879? anything or nothing? As a past-time "football" as it was known then, or "kicking of", was around. It wasn't the most legal thing to do at that time. Most newspapers in the 1840s and 1850s reported people being charged with trespass on private land and playing football! At the end of 1857, for example, in Wigan, a Mr. Michael Rooney was charged with trespass and playing at football in a field near Hardybutts. He was charged and made to pay costs due to the trampling of Mr. Fairhurt's 'herbage'.

The game back then was still in it's infancy - much different to what we would see in the 1870s and 1880s, the game we are more familiar with. The first mention of anything resembling a Club came in The Wigan Observer of January 11, 1862:

The ground was Folly Field on Dicconson Street, the home of the 1872 Club. Henry Ackerley was the Honourable Secretary and he was asking for anyone who was interested in playing to turn up and pay a subscription fee of 2s. 6d.

Henry Ackerley was heavily involved with the 21st Lancashire Rifle Volunteer Corps, the Hon. Sec. in fact. They practiced shooting and had regular tournaments on the Folly Field ground. Ackerley, born in 1843, was a solicitor by trade and was well-to-do in local society. In later life he became a Colliery Proprietor, but that's irrelevant. He was rich. He even lived with 5 servants according the the 1871 census*. But for some reason he decided to form a Wigan Football Club back in 1862.

On March 29th,1862, a game was played between Ackerleys associates at the Rifle Corps and Volunteers from the town, presumably trialists or gentlemen interested in finding out what this silly 'sport' was about. It is unknown what happened as there was little to no reporting of anything football related until a year later. During 1862 no more matches took place at Folly Field. The Volunteer Rifle corps were busy practicing and playing in tournaments at Folly Field most weeks and Henry Ackerley was quite busy in the Courts, being a solicitor.

On April 2, 1863, Ackerley had wrote a letter to the Wigan Observer responding to a "Peter Simples". In that weekends edition on the front page, Ackerley set out the Wigan Club accounts for 1862 (below):

Henry Ackerley

It showed that from subscription fees to the club, Wigan had made £1 10s. 0d. With 10s. added on to balance the finances at £2. Expenditures were £2 with £1 going to a Mr. J. Platt for footballs and to a Richard Mason which was £1 for rent of the field. W. Byrom, J.G. McCann, J. Platt, D. Aldred, H. Ackerley, J. Lowe, J. Hargreaves, T. Wall, E.L. Wright, C. Peck, W. Roocroft and W. Platt all paid their subscription fee of 2s. 6d. William Byrom was the father of H.T. Byrom who played a few games for Wigan in 1873-75. He was an ale and port merchant (off licence basically) and had his business on Dicconson Street. So why did Ackerley publish a letter on the 2nd April and the accounts appeared in that weekends issue? Let us see...

To the Editor of the Wigan Observer

SIR,- My attention has been called to your correspondent's ("Peter Simples") letter on this subject, and although I never was secretary to this club, no such officer having ever been appointed, as the affairs of the club were managed by the two or three gentlemen who were instrumental in getting it up, still I have reason to believe I am the person alluded to by him.

My reply to his contemptible insinuation concerning the misappropriation of the property of the club is to refer him to the account of money received and payments made by me on account of the club (which appears in the advertising columns of your paper), and from it he will see that, instead of fattening upon the large sums which have passed through my hands, I am a trifle out of pocket on the club's account.

With regard to our correspondent's idiotic attempt at wit concerning swallowing of footballs (and from which I should infer he is better acquainted with the feel of leather in the head than in the stomach), I may state that I had nothing to do either with ordering or keeping any part of the apparatus of the club.

I trust the next time "Peter Simples" appears before the public he may have a better subject upon which to exercise his feeble intellect, and that if he again makes allusion in a public print calculated to injure the character of another, he will consider it more manly and straightforward to write in his own name, and not seek the protection of a subterfuge so mean and cowardly as an anonymous letter. Apologising for occupying so much of your valuable space on so trivial subject,

I am, sir, your obedient servant,


As you can see, Ackerley was a well educated man. "Peter Simples" the previous week had wrote this, which really got on Ackerley's wick!


To the Editor of the Wigan Observer

SIR,- Pray assist me to call the attention of the Relief Committee to a case in which destitution is suspected, though the spirit and pride of the sufferer may hitherto have prevented him from confessing the fact. The latter hypothesis is the more probable, as, though I do not know the individual's name, I am sure he holds a very respectable position in the town. I may tell you, sir, in confidence, that he is the secretary to the Football Club. The grounds for the suspicion I have named are these:- The club being formed very late, the football was only seen a very few times before the season was over. Another season has come and gone, bringing with it starving times, but not the football.

I fear, sir, that it is with good reason that the secretary is dumb as to what has become of it. It seems but too clear that the hard times have touched even him, and that the poor fellow has eaten it for lack of other and more fitting nutriment.

This is evidently a case requiring instant attention, which I hope our Relief Committee will humanely hasten to accord.

I am, sir, your obedient servant,


26th March, 1863.

P.S.- I shall be glad to hear a share in the cost of another football to replace the devoured one, so as to ease the unfortunate fellow's mind as to the view the club may take such a disposal of their property.

It is unknown who this Peter Simples was but he had it in for Ackerley. But from his letter you can tell that it was lean pickings when it came to rugby football in the town and for this particular Wigan Football Club. Disgruntled subscription member or someone who had lost to Ackerley in the Courts? who knows. In reply to Ackerleys reply, Peter Simples responded in the 10th April edition of the paper:


To the Editor of the Wigan Observer

SIR,- I am astounded at the reception my last letter met with. In my simplicity of heart I had thought that its purely joculer and absurd character would have saved it from such gross misinterpretation. I am amazed at the dullness that renders it necessary for me to disclaim, as I now do, with the purest sincerity, any thought in writing it of misappropriation of the club's funds, and I am free to state tat still less, if possible, did I dream of any misappropriation by one for whom I have so sincerely respect as for Mr. Henry Ackerley. I really regret the pain that gentleman has extracted from my letter, and I can smile at the rough abuse at which he has attempted to wound me. This episode aside, the main question of my former letter is just where it was. Mr. Ackerley's letter does not answer it, but deals only with a part of it, to which I never even alluded, viz, the funds. In fact, as he himself states, he is neither the secretary nor the custodian of the "apparatus", and does not attempt to answer the only question asked, viz., as to why that "apparatus" is not forthcoming. His letter and interference are a mere work of supererogation.

Not for myself only, but for all the members of the club, I must press the question - Where is the "apparatus", and why have not its owners the use of it?

The club will have small reason to thank its self-appointed officials if they only brought it into being to choke it immediately afterwards. If the bantling deserves it lot sentence be passed by the proper judges, but to kill it quietly for personal convenience is murder.

I am, sir, your obliged and obedient servant,


Basically, the ball was either lost or someone kept it to themselves. Also they were pretty expensive too! The trail runs cold here. The only mentions of games taking place were in early 1862. The Wigan Football Club must have met regularly during th winter months and played matches or practiced. Just, it wasn't recorded or spoke about. The next bit of news regarding any sort of football/rugby came on the 21st November 1872... the current Club's formation.

It is very unclear when this original Wigan Football Club ceased to exist. Perhaps you could argue that the appetite for rugby football had ended after "ballgate". Just think though, if there was a simple ball to be played with each week we could be 10 years older than what we are now. That's life. But it is interesting to see that people had a go of it and tried, you can't ask for more than that can you? Henry Ackerley will go down in my notes anyway, as one of the founders of Rugby in Wigan, a prequel to it all.

work is continuously ongoing to make links between 1862/63 and the 1872 formation.