Pursuit in South Wales 1899

I like to call the period between 1895 and 1902 the Dark Ages when we look back into Wigan Rugby's history. Nothing much happened of note on the rugby field other than we got relegated and move grounds three times. There were a few scandals also such as the incident in Morecambe in 1896. But that isn't to say this period wasn't interesting.

Since professionalism hit many northern clubs after 1895, rugby players from elsewhere were keen to earn a wage whilst they played the game they loved. Sometimes it was a hard choice to make for many Welsh rugby player at the time -to up sticks and move to a northern town, away from the Valleys that they called home. To be enticed to play for a Northern Union club with pay wasn't always a simple choice to make. Sometimes, players had to be persuaded to go north - at any cost. The Valleys were crawling with northern men skulking around welsh rugby clubs in the hope of persuading star players to turn professional.

As the 1898/99 season was at the halfway point, the Wigan club were doing quite poorly. The team was not firing at all and even in early February suspended fullback John Winstanley and his brother, forward Joseph. Half-back Robinson had 'disappeared' from the town according to the Aberdeen Evening Express. As such, numerous men came to Wigan and tried their hand at turning the fortunes of the club around. The Wigan committee recently signed Tom Hines from Kendal, who ended up playing one match, and even signed on the brother of captain Frank Dixon, George. So bad were Wigan, that veteran half-back and familiar regular to this website Billy Halliwell (of Slevin days) turned out to help.

George Taylor, the Wigan secretary, was compelled to have a couple of Press interviews. He stated that the Wigan club had an aim to make an effort to strengthen the back division for future Cup ties and that the forward pack, on their day, were equal to any in Lancashire. Mr. Taylor was also asked whether the Wigan supporters were being recent imports from Cumberland and Wales. He was keen to state that the Wigan public were not entirely bothered where the players came from but what they produce. "What the spectators require is sound football; they will not fail to record their appreciation wherever the men hail from, if they elevate the pastime" he said.

And now to South Wales. Northern Union sympathisers patrolled many a town and village in Wales in those days. Wigan had their fingers in many pies as did most other Northern Union clubs. For one such Agent, an interesting affair.

The Penarth Times revealed a story on January 28th, 1899. "ROCKED IN THE CRADLE OF THE DEEP" read it's headline:

"Considerable excitement has been caused in Penarth this week by the appearance of a man from Wigan, who is visiting the district in the hope of obtaining a couple of players to go back with him.

After the match with Llanelly on Saturday last, Smith, a Penarth centre three-quarter was met at the gate by a gentleman who went along and spoke to him, asking him where his dressing room was. After receiving his reply he asked Smith if he ever wet to the Railway Hotel, and being told yes, asked if he should order tea for two at the Railway Inn, and would he meet him there when dressed. This, Smith agreed to do, and went to the hotel with another member of the team, and eventully two or three more turned up.

Mr. Halsall (we are told this is the visitor's name), finding he was in rather warm quarters, said "Come along, Mr. Smith, we'll get along into Cardiff" (Smith was going to stay the evening at the Royal Hotel, Cardiff, and there to talk matters over), and a sovereign had been offered to Smith by Mr. Halsall and drinks had been freely handed round. "Going to town are you," said one of the members, "we are just going in, what say you if we get a cab and all go in together." "Anything as long as we get there," returned the Wigan gentleman, and so all five got into the cab, and having given the cabby a hint the latter drove to the beach, where upon arrival, one of them said to the visitor, "This is Cardiff," and forthwith hauled him out of the cab, over the stage, and into the water, giving him a good ducking. He was brought out and rolle in the sand and mud. Henow handed to sovereign over to Mr. Smith, and was allowed to go in peace.

He made his way as best he could to his headquarters in Cardiff, and the same night went to the police station, Cardiff, and there he stated that he had been robbed by two footballers in Penarth. He was advised to return to Penarth and give information to the police there, but up to the time of going to press nothing has been heard of the visitor by Inspector Hallett. He has not, however, left the district for nearly the whole week he and Jenkins, the late Penarth centre, has been worrying Smith, and using every legitimate means to entice him away, but we are glad to say, without any good result.

It was only on Thursday afternoon last Smith gave the final answer that he would not leave Penarth. In an interview with Smith on Thursday he said "As long as Gibbs sticks to the team I will stand by him." Smith was offered £15 down, and a job as fitter's labourer for 3 days a week at 25s., and 25s. for each match in which he played."

"We do ot believe we have seen the last of these poachers in Penarth," the Penarth Times continued. The paper also stated that a letter had been received to Mr. Halsall from the Wigan Club which read: 'Get Smith and White, of Morriston at any price.'"

W. Llandaff Smith

a very grainy image

The Smith we talk about is William Llandaff Smith. The Penarth Times tried it's best to dissuade Smith fro any forthcoming advances from the Wigan club. "We should not advise Smith or anyone else to leave home on such a risky expedition as that before us" they screamed. "For one thing they are notorious for their rough and unscientific displays, and hold a record for one thing, and one thing only, and that is the numerous players they have already tried this season," giving a nod to Wigan's multiple use of new players during the season to try and recify their on-field problems.

"Six men have been tried at fullback, 19 at three-quarter, and 9 at half, 34 in all for the seven positions behind the scrum, say nothing of the forwards, which make a grand total of nearly 60 players." In fact, 16 players made their debut so far during that 1898/9 season up to the end of January - 5 of them playing only once. Saying that, new names and faces to that team were Harry Ball, Harry Lowe and "Bobs" Hilton who were Wigan mainstays for seasons to come.

The South Wales press knew the writing was on the cards and couldn't stop the mass exodus to the north - but they tried their best.

As for the Wigan Agent, 'Mr. Halsall', he still had a job to do. Despite being threatened, led astray, thrown into the sea and then rolled in the mud and slutch on Penarth beach, he didn't give up. Nor was he allowed to. This was big business and Wigan were in a hole that they needed to get out of.




The exhalations eminating from the Penarth Times in February 1899. "We never have thought that Mr. W. Smith, the centre three-quarter of the Penarth Football team, would remain long in Penarth" began their story. "On Monday night he said, if I do not get some work by to-morrow it will be my last day here; and so it proved. On Tuesday last, he left home as usual but did not return. Early on Tuesday morning, a gentleman called at Smith's house, and upon hearing that he had just gone out said to Mrs. Smith, if William does not return to-night do not be anxious about him, he will be allright. Alf. Jenkins has again returned to this district and eventually Smith has yielded to his persuasions and left Cardiff for Wigan. On Wednesday morning, after spending the night at the 'Black Lion' Hotel, Cardiff, he wired to his mother from the G.W.R. Station, the intimation that he was off to Wigan. Strange to say that the wire from Smith and the post card from the Penarth Club, intimating his selection, arrived at the same time Wednesday morning.

"He is to receive the same money as Alf. Jenkins, viz., £15 down, work at 25s. a week, and £1 for each match. More than that, he is not expected to play for another fortnight, and during that time he and Jenkins are spending time together visiting the district, also Hampton Court Races was mentioned. Every effort possible has been made to secure Smith, and a letter from the secretary of the Wigan Club to Jenkins was to this effect, 'Please make every possible effort to secure the services of Smith, and if you are successful we will give you a substantial present for your efforts.' We may say that Jenkins has received £2 10s. weekly since he has signed the articles of agreement, although he has yet not played and also his fare was paid to Penarth again for the purpose of getting Smith.

"Upon making further inquiries this morning we understand that Smith has arrived in Wigan, and also that he started work on Thursday morning as manager of a brewery. He seems to be very content and does not in the least regret the step he has taken. But these are early days to talk like this. He has got to face the summer, and prove the friendship of the Wiganites. We fear it will be the friendship that Quarles talks about when he says there are three sorts of friends, the first is like a torch we meet in a dark street, which lends us a flash of compliment for the time being, but quickly leaves us to our former darkness. However, now that he has gone, we wish him success."

Alfred Jenkins had not yet played a match for Wigan when he was sent back home to try and secure the capture of Llandaff. It seems that the Wigan Club, our club, easily had the resources and finances freely to hand to tempt anyone away and reward those who helped them quite handsomely. There were grievances also given that money quoted in the reported were not a true reflection of what Smith and Jenkins were being paid. As for Alf Jenkins, he returned to Wigan with Smith as reported and managed to play in a win against Morecambe on February 18th. Sadly for Jenkins, he received an injury to the sinews behind his knee cap and was now alreayd, out of action for a while. Llandaff was due to play and make his debut in the following match away to Stockport, but was absent. He was also absent for the match against Tyldesley at the start of March as he was found to be back in South Wales. The problem thatSmith faced was now that he had trodden the right path, he would be inelligible to play back at a local Rugby Union club. He was banned.

Smith, however, managed to get himself together and was ready for the start of the 1899/00 season against the "dark greens" of Runcorn. He didn't play particularly well and was quite inept at the rules of the Northern Union game. He made his debut alongside five other debutatnts, in a backline that was more or less brand new. Of those who made a debut, Arthur Carverhall lasted a week, J Ashbridge last three, William Straughan nearly made a complete season, Tom White - who was subject of an acquirement at the time of Smith from nearby Penrath club Morriston if you remember - saw two Christmases and Tom Ellison had a good run of three season with Wigan. The second game of the 1899/00 season saw Llandaff (and Straughan) become ineligible to play against Stockport due to a violation of the working rule and also were not in a great condition to play rugby.

What a lot of effort the Wigan club were making. This was just one story that attracted some media attention in the press due to the fact that a Wigan scout had got thrown into the sea. Llandaff Smith only made 8 appearances for the Wigan first team between 1899 and January 1st 1901, spending most of his time in Wigan's A team. Alfred Jenkins only last a couple of games himself in Wigan colours, his injury ending his stint in Coalopolis. Wiga at the time were finding anyone to play in their team at any cost. Llandaff was a real rugby talent, but like so many other Welshmen his luck did not travel North with him. He now remains a former player who told his friends to throw a man who wanted his services into the sea, with the same man dusting himself off (having no choice) and to carry on pursuing his talents until he came North. We can see the use of other Welsh players trying to tell the Union players that the grass is greener on the other side (in Wigan). Of course, financially, how could you say no? Practically, it was a new world and not many a player lasted or could handle being away from home playing a different game - albeit in 1899 with many similarities still to the Union code. This was life for many young talentented Welshmen. Swinton, Leigh, Leeds, Hull, Huddersfield... you name them, they were doing the same thing as Wigan.

Sometimes, it pays off. Bert Jenkins, Johnny Thomas, Billy Boston, Jim Sullivan and Johnny Ring, to name but fifty, made it work. Eventually.

Thankyou to Mike Latham for sharing the information via Nigel Winnard for this.