Wigan Rugby League Football Club
The Nineteen Fifties and Sixties
The end of an era and a new beginning in the glorious fifties. Memories of a club with a long and proud history, firmly embedded within the culture of its home town and associated with many sporting heroes for more than a century, names that rank with the best in the world that will live forever in the club's hall of fame. In the days when Wigan owed its relative prosperity to the coal mining, cotton and engineering industries and the working week only finished at lunchtime on Saturday, it was a wonderful sight to see the crowds gathering in the town centre ready for the procession down Standishgate to Central Park for home games and the kick off. The Legs of Man public house was a popular gathering place for the miners to slake their thirst after the shift and to set the mood for the gladiatorial contest they had spent the whole week looking forward to. Most of the players were home grown and part time only, recruited from many of the thriving local amateur clubs in the area, but the club was also able to attract the best talent from the rugby heartland of south Wales, the Antipodes and South Africa. Apart from the odd cherry and white scarf, no particular uniform for the spectators, just a raincoat and cloth cap for protection against inclement weather and clogs for comfort standing on the terraces. A special "pen" for youngsters to guarantee them a good view of the pitch and a reduced entrance price. With autograph book and pen at the ready, there would be queues of youngsters outside after the match hoping to catch the eye of their idols, especially if they were the winning side. My paternal family were almost exclusively miners, previously from the Rainford, Skelmersdale area, moving to Highfield, Wigan in the wake of the Tawd Vale Colliery disaster in 1897 when the river Tawd broke through into the workings, causing hundreds of miners to lose their livelyhoods. After spending many years at Blundell's Pemberton colliery in Foundry Lane, the second generation of the family had to diversify and two of the five brothers moved to Sutton Manor in St Helens to work in the newly developing colliery there. By this time however these ardent rugby league fans started to have conflicting loyalties, having grown up watching their favourite sport at Central Park now finding themselves surrounded by rival supporters in both working and social environments. Over the years both brothers learned to be diplomatic and refrained from talking about the sensitive issues surrounding the rivalry between the two clubs and often my father would meet up with them at Knowsley Road or Central Park for derby matches, especially those on Good Friday or Boxing Day. Unfortunately these matches were to lead to an incident which put me off the sport for years afterwards.
Eric Ashton and Billy Boston were the exciting young players at Wigan and Alex Murphy and Tom Van Vollenhoven now causing quite a stir with the crowds at Knowsley Road, and an important away match between the two teams was in the offing. As a rather shy and retiring fifteen year old, with a penchant for books and a quiet life, but a great admirer of Boston and Ashton, I was rather flattered and happy to be asked to accompany my father to Knowsley Road to witness this clash of the titans. I felt really grown up being invited to share in my dad's passion for his beloved rugby team, it was to be a unique and cherished moment of family bonding, for in those days childcare was exclusively in the hands of mothers and maiden aunts. However little did I realise that soon I was to find myself part of a group of just four Wigan supporters in the middle of a capacity home crowd of St Helens supporters. My uncles, well behaved as always, engaging in light hearted banter with neighbouring fans as Ashton, Boston, Murphy and Vollenhoven whipped up the crowd with a stunning display of skill, in the most exciting spell of free open rugby I have ever seen. However the excitement was to turn into a rather scary nightmare for me when that master tactician and play maker Alex Murphy upset the equanimity of the moment by committing an outrageous foul, at least it was so in the eyes of the Wigan supporters, at a critical stage of the match too, which was to prove the turning point. Dad, I'm afraid lost his cool and proceeded to remonstrate with the referee and the crowd in the most aggressive tones, bringing down upon us a torrent of abuse which made my hair curl and I braced myself for the impending doom which was to follow. The brothers, who after all were long term residents in the borough and spoke the same language, and more importantly had to go back to work on Monday, were making heroic efforts to diffuse the situation and stave off the threatening onslaught of the baying mob surrounding us by justifying Murphy's actions and clarifying dad's misreading of the incident, a scene reminiscent of Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler in the thirties. Luckily, and in the nick of time, the crowd's attention was diverted by renewed excitement on the field as Tom Van Vollenhoven took a fabulous pass from Alex Murphy and ran the length of the field to score and put the outcome of the match beyond the reach of the visitors, giving the besieged Wigan quartet the opportunity to slip away towards the exit with their tails between their legs. So traumatised was I by the experience I never went near Central Park or any other rugby stadium for a good ten years until I was persuaded back with a visit to an away match with Wakefield Trinity, I think it was the opportunity to see Neil Fox that finally persuaded me to give it a go. Happily I found the Yorkshire crowd far more welcoming than my near neighbours and fellow Lancastrians, an experience which went a long way to completing my rehabilitation into the fold, leading to further visits to less hostile venues including Perpignan and the Nou Camp Stadium in Barcelona.
1951 Challenge Cup team (vs Barrow) Wembley Stadium attendance 94,000.
Jack Cunliffe, Jack Hilton, Jack Broome, George Roughley, Brian Nordgren, Cec Mountford, Tommy Bradshaw, Ken Gee, George Curran, Frank Barton, Nat Silcock, Ted Slevin, Billy Blan. Coach: Jim Sullivan.
Wigan Players c1953
Johnny Alty, Alan Armstrong, Ernie Ashcroft, Frank Barton, Dia Bevan, Billy Blan, Derek Brindle, Jack Broome, Peter Carroll, Teddy Cheetham, Peter Clubb, Bill Collier, Frank Collier, Len Constance, Jack Cunliffe, Jack Flemming, Ken Gee, Frank Griffin, Jack Hilton, Ronnie Hurst, Denzil Jones, Cecil Kelly, Brian Ludbrook, Ronnie Mather, Brian Nordgren, Jim Parr, Tommy Parr, Don Platt, Bert Ralph, Gordon Ratcliffe, Brian Richards, George Roughley, Martin Ryan, Nat Silcock, Harry Street, Roy Williams, George Woosey,
1958 Challenge Cup team (vs Workington Town) Wembley Stadium attendance 66,000.
Jack Cunliffe, Terry O'Grady, Eric Ashton (c), Billy Boston, Mick Sullivan, Dave Bolton, Rees Thomas, John Barton, Bill Sayer, Brian McTigue, Norman Cherrington, Frank Collier, Bernard McGurrin. Coach: Joe Egan
The legendary pair of Billy Boston and Eric Ashton joined Wigan RLFC in 1953 and 1955 respectively and over two decades established themselves among the greatest players in the club's history. The following is an article which appeared in the (Lancashire Evening Post)? sometime in the late nineteen fifties and transcribed from a cutting from a scrapbook collection around that time.
CAN BOSTON SMASH THE TRY RECORD
Will Wigan winger Bill Boston smash Brian Nordgren's seven-year-old Wigan club scoring record this season? This possibility is now looming up as the Cardiff boy gradually nears the 64 tries which Nordgren scored in season 1949-50 to break the previous record held by Johnny Ring (61 tries). Boston now has 39 tries to his credit and the chance of appearing in at least seventeen more matches this season. Wigan have sixteen more league games to play, and at least one cup game. There is, of course, the possibility of top four championship games, further cup games and a mid-week Test Match with France at St Helens which would not interfere with his club commitments. So it is safe to assume that Boston can play in at least 18 more matches this season and he has to register 25 tries in that time to equal Nordgren's record. Wigan captain Ernie Ashroft was playing centre when Nordgren got his record and he is still playing in the centre for Wigan now, while Ashroft himself holds the centre scoring record.
Palfreyman April 2020