A chat with... James Walkden

In the 80's and early 90's there were several strong junior Rugby clubs in the Wigan district, and it was largely from these organisations that the premier club recruited their players. Mr. James Walkden, who is now a successful businessman, a member of the Wigan Town Council, and the deputy Mayor of the borough, was one who played a prominent part with one of those teams, viz., Wigan Recreation. It is a very interesting fact that the ground on which the Recreation fulfilled their home fixtures now contains property erected by Mr. Walkden, and that the field used by the Woodman Rovers, where he assisted his club to win the Wigan Union Charity Cup, is now the Monument Park Estate, which has been opened out by him, and forms one of the residential parts of Wigan.

"Wigan Recreation, my first club of note," said Mr. Walkden to a representative of the "Examiner," "had a very strong team, and we played the passing game practically throughout the match; we never thought of kicking the ball, except from a penalty, or when having a drop at goal. One season we won the Wigan Union Charity Cup without having a point scored against us - beating Wigan St. Clement's in the final - while we held an unbeaten record for two seasons. I played centre three-quarter, and my brother Jack was on the wing with me, but he got crocked soon after joining Wigan "A," and did not play again. I might say that I undertook the duties of both secretary and treasurer, and at one time acted as captain as well. "Dick Lowe, however, was the captain for a long time, and another good player who was turned out by the Recreation was Peter Foster. One interesting thing I have been reminded of lately in connection with those days is worth recording. We were unable to secure a ground one season, and we approached Mr. John Prescott, the present member of the Wigan Committee, who was heart and soul in the club called Wigan Temperance, to see if we could play on their ground, which as situated in the Pottery. He said, "Yes, with pleasure," and we were allowed to play there on alternate Saturdays. I well remember playing against the Temperance that season, for I dropped three goals. Mr. Prescott played against us in the forwards, and his son, Elijah, was on the wing. When I went to pay the 35s. for the rent of the ground Mr. Prescott gave us the money back."

"When our unbeaten record was broken we finished our career, and I joined Aspull. I went on tour with them to South Wales, and you will perhaps be surprised to hear that we took only fifteen players - not a single reserve. We paid our own expenses, but we had guarantees from the clubs we had arranged fixtures with, and we divided the proceeds amongst us. So much for amateurism! Two of our men were injured during the tour, and when we went to play Neath we borrowed one of the Swansea players, and he got hurt in the match. He received 10s. to assist us. I played for Aspull one season, and then joined Standish South End, along with my brother. We, however, only played in one match - against Wigan St. Joseph's - and I won the game with a drop goal. That was the only defeat St. Joseph's sustained during the season."

"Jack Halliwell, who was then captain of Wigan "A," asked me to join Wigan, and I jumped into the first team after playing in the trial game. I had to follow such a fine player as "Dicky" Seddon, and I had some doubt as to whether I should be able to retain my place in the "fifteen," But I don't think I missed six matches during my career. It was rather remarkable that the first match I should play in was against my old team, Aspull, and I scored a try by jumping over the full-back's head."

"Is there any match that stands out in your memory?"

"I shall never forget the Oldham match on Good Friday, when we beat them in no uncertain fashion, at a period of our existence when it was expected they would run away with us. Oldham had begun to import Welshmen, and were right on the top of their form. I should think McCutcheon and Gwyn were as fine a wing pair as Oldham ever had. We, however, had them beaten from the start of the game. We laid ourselves out just, I suppose, as Widnes do when they oppose such clubs as Wigan and Oldham now. I played half-back with Peter Foster, and I dropped a goal. Charlie Wilding scored a great try that day, and we simply overwhelmed Oldham. There was a tremendous 'gate' for those days, and owing to the great crush in front of the entrances people began climbing over the boards. The players were thus called upon to do duty as checkers, though a great many persons gained admission without paying."

The writer well remembers getting on to the Frog-lane ground for that match without going through the gates in the usual manner. The two entrances were totally inadequate for the occasion, and the crush as so great that the yard wall, over which boys' tickets were sold, was pushed over. A great many people saw little or nothing of that memorable game, which is often the subject of discussion even yet. Another fine couple of Wlsh three-quarters, mentioned by Mr. Walkden, who came north about that time were Williams and Hoskins, who played for Salford.

"Once, when I went on tour with Wigan in South Wales," continued Mr. Walkden, "we were billed as 'The Champions of Lancashire.' In our match with Cardiff I had to face the great Welsh International, Fitzgerald, who had helped Wales to beat England, Scotland, and Ireland, and had just been presented with a gold watch and chain and a purse of gold, as a public testimonial for having done so much for Wales. We only scored one try in that match. From a drop at goal on my part the ball hit the post and rebounded, and I was fortunate enough to secure it again and run behind the goals. In the following season we played Devonport Albion, Plymouth, and Gloucester, and I believe we won all three games. The reason I gave over playing was that I wrenched my knee whilst training before the opening of the season 1898-9, when I had just been appointed captain. The Wigan Cricket Club had moved to Bull Hey, and my foot got in a hole that had been left when the railings were pulled up. I turned out against Runcorn, but my knee gave way the first time the ball came to me, and that was my last match for Wigan, though I have played against them once since, about which I might say a word or two later."

"Which try of yours do you remember best?"

"Well, the best try I ever scored was against Rochdale St. Clement's, when I ran the whole length of the field after getting a pass from Billy Halliwell on the Wigan line. I was interested to read Reuben Sharrock's reference to the footballers' race at Aspull, and I might recall another hundred yards race which was held at the Diamond Jubilee Sports for the championship of the Wigan club. I was one of the back markers, and had to concede another yard through being too eager. A new second teamer, who was almost an unknown quantity at the time, won the race, and I was either second or third."

"You played for a time under Northern Union rules?"

"Yes, and I may say that, as a player, I was strongly in favour of open and avowed professionalism instead of the alleged amateurism, for it was well known to many people that the majority of clubs were paying players. During my first season with Wigan I did not receive any money, but I had a very good offer made to me by a neighbouring club, and Wigan then came to terms with me. In the following season another club, not many miles from the Wigan Parish Church, offered me 30s. a match and guaranteed occupation at £2 per week. I, however, decided to stay with Wigan, who promised me £40 for the season. That was all in the amateur days. A well known three-quarter who played at that time once showed me his bank book, and said, 'I never spend a penny of my football money. I should advise you to save all you get.' I took his advice, and the result was at the end of my football career I had a nice little sum with which to commence the business I have now."

It is interesting to recall the fact that Mr. Walkden took part in the first medal competition promoted by the Wigan club at Central Park. A few old exponents were asked to assist Wigan Athletic, who won the medals, Harry Lowe and Jimmy Bullen being amongst the players who formed the club. The winners received £20 as their share of the gates, which were then divided amongst the clubs. Mr. Walkden was one of the members of the committee who arranged the benefit match for the late "Billy" Atkinson, one of Wigan's greatest forwards. A team of old players opposed the Wigan League "thirteen," and Mr. Walkden, who was captain of the "old brigade," registered a try by intercepting a pass from Johnny Thomas to Bert Jenkins (though we have a suspicion that Wigan's half-back will state that he was bribed to allow the try to be scored). However, we mention this point in the game, because a laughable incident is associated with it. One of the veteran scrummagers, who had not had a kick at the ball during the match, informed Mr. Walkden, who now gave him the chance he had been waiting for. The captain lay down and placed the ball, in the old style, for the veteran to take a kick at goal, but, judge of the surprise that was caused when, instead of kicking a goal, the scrummagers lifted a piece of turf and completely missed the ball.

Mr. Walkden never represented Lancashire, but he was once on the reserve for the county, and he played in a match for West Lancashire. He once had a trial with Chorley Association team at centre-half, and gave satisfaction, but the committee only offered him 15s. a match, and he declined the terms, and remained with Wigan. In answer to a question as to present day football compared with the old game, Mr. Walkden declared that the Northern Union code is capable of producing the finest possible football, and there was no doubt the reduction in the number of players had tended to make the game more fast and open.

In conclusion, Mr. Walkden, who is a member of the Wigan Committee, stated that the committee were unanimous in their desire to further strengthen the "A" team, and to get capable reserves for every position. They were hoping to have as strong a League "thirteen" as ever represented the club.

James Walkden during "Billy" Atkinsons benefit game (i believe, stood far right arms folded)

...Put into Context

Walkden's property empire, we shall say, lies in the present day around Bellingham Lodge and Swinley, up near Wigan Infirmary. There is a Walkden Avenue close but I cannot say whether the road is linked to him, although his influence is huge around that part of Wigan around Gidlow and Swinley.

Wigan Temperance were indeed a solid amateur club in the town. The club was founded on the belief of self-restraint from alcohol amongst other things. A few Wigan players or Old Boys did join the club when it formed in 1888. They initially met at Mesnes Park Cafe!

When Mr. Walkden joined Wigan, as mentioned, he had to take over from Richard "Dicky" Seddon, the Wigan captain and one of the last remaining old boys from the 'glory years' of the mid-1880s and early 1890s. At this time, Wigan started to play with four three-quarter backs like we see in the game today. He had quite a successful partnership alongside Whitehead, Joe Winstanley (whom was nicknamed 'soap' due to his slippiness), Johnny Roberts, the old Aspull captain and dependable back, Percy Jago and Teddy Flowers in time as Wigan headed into the Northern Union. Like Dicky Seddon taking over the batton from Jim Slevin, Walkden had an impossible task to follow in Seddon's footsteps as a three-quarter.

Walkden openly discusses being paid by the Wigan club in the days of amateurism. Of course, in the 1910s there was nothing to fear telling all. His story can be told by almost all rugbyites of that era and is interesting to see how much players were paid and how the went about their business. A little gem is this conversation from over 100 years ago.

With utmost thanks of course to Mike Latham for the source material from the Wigan Examiner. Portrait top of head is missing

Billy Atkinson benefit match via: https://www.wiganworld.co.uk/album/photo.php?opt=7&id=26782&gallery=Wigan+RFC+1909&page=1