Classic Games

~Swinton 1890~


1st January, 1890 ~ Chorley Road, Swinton

Going through the records of Wigan games from our early period can sometimes be a bit monotonous. Reading the same thing over and over again about scrimmages, flying kicks, dribbling of the ball etc is boring, especially when the team isn't doing too well. But when you get to particular matches your eyes open a bit more and you get lost in the story that you've been reading through for a year or so. Does anybody know what happened before 1895? Is it written down anywhere? What events happened? Were Wigan any good? I have decided to write about the Classic Games that Wigan Rugby has had before the days of the Northern Union, the days which are undocumented, forgotten and ignored to this day. One such game is one against Swinton, let me tell you the story.

It is 1889 and Wigan are flying along. Wigan had begun the season as double Cup holders, after winning the West Lancashire and Borders Towns Union Cup (West Lancs Cup) and the Wigan Union Charity Cup for a fourth time. Selection for the Lancashire County was still an issue for the Wigan players as most representatives hailed from the older established Manchester and Liverpool clubs, but we were getting a foothold by 1889. Wigan forward Billy Atkinson and back Dickie Seddon had gained County honours a season earlier and when the 1889 season started, Wigan boasted of three Lancashire County men in Ned Bullough (who would go on in time to be Wigans only Rugby Union England cap wearer), Atkinson and the Anglo-Australian tourist Jack Anderton, who had rejoined Wigan by now from the Salford club.

Despite this, Wigans 'card' of fixtures still lacked the big clubs on a regular basis. The committee had secured teams such as Swinton and Broughton Rangers but were still trying to woo the 'bigger' clubs of Lancashire. But as the 1889/90 season kicked off it was all fine as Jim Slevins men had got to the Christmas period only losing one match against Brighouse Rangers at the end of October (and that was a close loss). The packed Christmas period schedule was a success in terms of spectators and wins but Wigan, being tired and with a mixture of second-team forwards in the pack lost a tight affair to St Helens Recreation on December 28th. Wigan's record to this point stood: P 18 W 15 L 2 D 1.

The West Lancashire Champions were in supreme form but all anyone could talk about in the town and within the Club was that all that did not matter until they faced the "Lions" of Swinton on New Year's Day, 1890. There was so much more on offer than simply getting a win. The Swinton team were a formidable outfit led by Jim Valentine. They were seen as the premier rugby club in Lancashire and were in tremendous form. Wigan had been battling against having their voice heard over the last few seasons trying to break the old establishment of Manchester and Liverpool clubs in terms of prestige, County honours and, well, trying to attract the bigger clubs to play against them. Wigan had a point to prove to everyone that they, not Swinton, were THE premier team in all of Lancashire.

The Wigan club had organised three special trains with the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company to run to Swinton for the match. With cheap return fares, the platforms at Wigan Wallgate Station swelled as fully 3,000 spectators travelled with the team for the match. Firstly, that must have been a sight to see! The Swintonians had three England Internationals named in their team, including the Legendary Jim Valentine, along with five or six Lancashire County players. They were strong! Wigan travelled without forward Ellis Wardle (who in time would be Wigans man in the room at the George Hotel when the Northern Union was formed) and half-back Billy Hunter. Wigan enlisted the help of "Daff" Hulme of Aspull to fill in for Hunter at half-back, partnering old chum Billy Halliwell ("Smiler").

As the three thousand men, women and children walked from the train station at Swinton along to the Chorley Road ground it was evident that it was going to be a grand occasion even if Wigan lost. As captain Jim Slevin led his men over the ropes and onto the field of play, fully 10,000 spectators had assembled to witness the contest. You need to remember, 3,000 is a large number of people to travel by train in the days before motor vehicles or coaches. It was a fantastic effort! Wigan were unusually punctual and at three o'clock the sovereign coin was flicked into the air and, to the surprise of many, Jim Slevin lost the toss. Slevin had a well known knack for winning the toss.

At kick off, the teams were as follows:

Wigan: J. Halliwell (fullback); Slevin (c), Seddon, Anderton (three-quarter backs); W. Halliwell, Hulme (half-backs); Hatton, Dempsey, Atkinson, Lowe, Bullough, Brayshay, Swift, Telford, Bibby (forwards)

Swinton: S. Roberts (fullback); Jim Valentine (c), Marsh, Murray (three-quarter backs); Mills, Bumby (half-backs); Horle, Hodgkiss, Rothwell, Hall, Lomax, Hallam, W. Marsh, Clayton, Walker (forwards)

Touchline Guardians: Murray (Swinton), Underwood (Wigan); Referee: Mr. Cattill, Sheffield

Here is how the game unfolded from the match report:

Slevin lost the toss, and Atkinson sent the ball on its first 40 minutes' journey. Murray put in a clever return. Wigan dribbled to the home goal, and capital play forced a minor, wigan drawing first blood. Seddon returned Valentine's drop, and Swinton again defended, Roberts getting to centre with a judicious kick. The Wigan front rank came away with a rush, Murray retaliating with a neat dodgy run.

Getting to the Wigan half, Mills picked up and smartly passed to Bumby, the ball finally landing in Valentine's hands. The latter ran and landed a good try, close to touch. He also placed a beautiful goal from the difficult place. This reverse did not dishearten the Wigan 15, for they rushed away in splendid style, and little "Daff", getting hold behind the scrimmage on the Swinton 25 line, ran smartly and landed a capital try, amid loud cheering from the Wiganers. The place kick failed.

Valentine dropped out, and Wigan again got offensive, Bumby taking play to the Wigan end by a very good run. For a few minutes Swinton looked like scoring, but steady play by the Wigan forwards ultimately got out of danger. Grand play was now witnessed in midfield, Roberts having a shot at goal from a penalty kick. Finally the visiting forwards got together, and a magnificent rush enabled Tom Brayshay to land No 2 try close to the spectators. Anderton failed at an easy chance. Half time now arrived the score then being Wigan, 0 2 1; Swinton, 1 0 0.

Bumby resumed, and for some time it was doubtful which side would eventually get the upper hand. The doubt was settled by the Wigan forwards, who played like Trojans, ultimately pressing very hard a few yards from line, the pressure in the end becoming too heavy, and Dempsey was awarded a try. Anderton this time placing a good goal.

Swinton now fell off considerably and it was plain to see they were getting pumped out. Wigan forced a couple of minors, and five minutes off time Swinton made a spurt. Valentine, Marsh, Bumby, and Mills, striving hard to avert defeat. They failed, and the West Lancashire and Wigan Cup holders won handsomely by 1 goal, 2 tries, 3 minors, to 1 goal.

The scene was now of wild excitement, everybody from Wigan meeting you with a hearty "How do" and "a happy new year". Seldom have the Wigan team played a more combined game, and this victory places them, without doubt, champions of Lancashire. The "Lions" took their defeat with a good grace, and owned themselves conquered fairly.

It may not seem so to you, the reader, but writing that was just joyous. Following Wigans progression from 1879 to this point and seeing this team reach its peak is a good thing to witness, even if it was 130 years ago! There was no Lancashire Cup or national league championship to play for. The West Lancashire Cup was the best on offer back then and the clubs we faced were Aspull, Tyldesley, Southport Olympic and Warrington. Take my word for it, this was a magnificent result, against the best team in Lancashire packed full of International players and County men.

The reaction to the game was a great one. The ancient town of Wigan was buzzing. For those few who didn't travel to Swinton, had to wait outside tobacco shops and other establishment awaiting news 'on the wires' about the score. Cheers were heard around the streets when the tries and goal were scored and a loud celebratory cheer was heard when it was known that Wigan were the victors. To beat Swinton at Swinton had always been an ambition for the Wigan club. Wigan had gained draws and losses in the past, never getting over the line. This had now been accomplished and did what plenty top Lancashire and Yorkshire clubs have failed to do. The general consensus was that Wigan were now the Champions of Lancashire having lowered Swintons colours on enemy territory. Here is how "Crossbar" of the Wigan Observer commented on the match:

For my own part, when put to the test and with a full team up, I have no fear at Wigan meeting and of our Lancashire teams. I have formed this opinion after the splendid victory over the "Lions" on the first day of the new year, and beg to compliment the team on their really magnificent performance.

To score a goal and two tries against a team containing two internationals and I don't know how many county men, is an enviable feat, and yet this has been accomplished by the West Lancashire and Wigan cupholders, who have brought such honour to this town this year.

To say that the great match had been anticipated with keen interest would be idle, and every body in Wigan - footballers and non-footballers - knows how it has been the great theme of conversation, and how hundreds, yes, thousands had made up their minds to occupy the first afternoon of the year in watching the performance against Swinton. The name itself seems to inspire us with dread, but this feeling is now a thing of the past, and having turned the flow of the tide, Wigan are now determined to continue their victorious course.

Thousands did go, and the three trains that left Wigan were packed with enthusiasts anxious to watch the fray. When the teams entered the field there would be quite ten thousand persons present, and the scene of enthusiasm was almost beyond description...

...It has been aptly described as a desperate game, and so it was, and I leave my readers to imagine for themselves the exhilaration of the Wigan detachment at the finish.

And here we are 130 years later. This truly was the greatest achievement Wigan had got in my opinion up to this point. It meant alot and thinking about those 3,000 spectators in a Victorian party mode leaving the train at Wallgate and walking up those steps into the street and celebrating the win in one of the plentiful pubs in town is quite an image to think about.

Wigan would go on to finish the season with 18 more wins, 2 drawn games and 3 losses to Cardiff and Pen-y-Crag during their Easter Welsh Tour and a loss to Leeds St. Johns (now Leeds Rhinos). The Trophy double was again achieved winning the West Lancs Cup with 27/28 points and another Wigan Charity Cup win against the old enemy Aspull. Billy Atkinson and Ned Bullough gained more Lancashire Caps. Wigan had finally reached the top.

This was the Wigan v Manly of it's day