Cutting The First Sod 1897 ( Photograph: Edward Robert Crippin - courtesy Ron Hunt)
As the nineteenth century concluded, the population of Britain began to move into the industrial towns and cities, hours of work succumbed to regulation and hence, the factory worker, pit-man and shop assistant found himself with leisure time to fill. Pastimes once enjoyed only by the privileged classes were now common to the working man, producing a variety of sporting clubs during the final 30 years of Queen Victoria's reign.
Wigan could not escape the progression and numerous venues appeared in the late 1800's. The Honeysuckle Ground at Poolstock was owned by an organisation called the Wigan Club, association football amongst other sports was played there. Tennis was a thriving sport at this time with a club based at Bellingham. There was also a rowing club with its boathouse situated on the canal bank at Haigh Basin, a cycling club based at Mesnes Park, fox terrier racing was one of the pursuits at the Pagefield Recreation Ground, curling was played on the Martland Mill Pond and bowling could be enjoyed on a subscription green adjacent to Mesnes Park.
Despite these wide ranging activities the borough began to lose some of its more favoured athletes to neighbouring towns, therefore a group of local businessmen recognizing the need for a good cycling and running facility began the task of building a new stadium. A site was chosen to the north-west of the town and on May 28th 1896, Mr. William Timberlake paid £2,760 for the land that would become Springfield Park on behalf of The Wigan Trotting & Athletic Company Limited. The first five directors of the new enterprise were William Timberlake, a cycle manufacturer; Charles Sawbridge, a butcher; John Dickinson, a pawnbroker; John Henry Green, a butcher and William Rigby, a boot maker. These men had employed an architect called Richardson Thomas Johnson to design the complex. A procession was formed in King Street on Wednesday, January 20th 1897 at half-past two in the afternoon, headed by The Wigan Borough Old Reed Band, who led the party to the site where a large company had gathered. The ceremony to mark the cutting of the first sod was performed by Mr. Richard Johnson J.P. C.C; it partook of "a public character and attracted many people who were in anyway interested in the venture". A large marquee was erected on the ground and refreshments were provided by the contractor.
Later that year, on Monday, 8th March 1897, the statutory meeting of the Wigan Trotting & Athletic Company Limited was held at Timberlake’s Registered Office, Wigan, when a good attendance of shareholders was presided over by the chairman of directors, Mr. William Timberlake. The chairman, addressing the meeting, stated that as a rule at the statutory meeting of any company there was little if anything to report, but in the present instance he was pleased to be in a position to make a few remarks bearing upon the progress and prospects for the company. Since the company was formed in December last and the land at Springfield purchased, the directors had spared neither time nor trouble in getting out contracts for laying out the grounds and tracks upon the most up-to-date and scientific principles, adapting them for various classes of sport. During the meeting Mr. Timberlake made it known that the contract for the laying out and draining of the trotting and athletic grounds at Springfield had been let to Mr. William Winnard, a public contractor from Pemberton, who was under agreement to complete this important part of the undertaking by May 12th 1897 and the contracts for laying the cycling track would probably be given to the company's own engineer, Mr. H. Cooper*, a track expert and very able man. Mr. Timberlake also explained that excavation work was already half completed and that the new complex would be finished by early July 1897. The most pressing concern at that particular moment was where to position the tracks, pavilion and stands and realize the exact cost of the work involved. Mr. Timberlake continued to inform the gathering that the directors proposed to form a strong association football team, they had made an application to the Football Association and steps were being taken to gain admittance to the Lancashire League for the ensuing season. With regard to trotting, the company had been favoured with a full license from the Trotting Union of Great Britain and Ireland. For the information of the shareholders, he might say that the directors had already been approached by several athletics bodies and clubs etc asking for the use of the company’s grounds when completed for athletics festivals, matches, tournaments, agricultural and other shows. It was hoped to secure some of the principal cycling and flat championships. These would be only a few of the many sources of income to the company and he had every confidence that in providing the sporting bodies and the public generally with adequate grounds for sports, and with first class contests at the grounds, the result would be a distinct boon and advantage to the district. At this time two of the retiring directors, Messers William Rigby and John Dickinson were unanimously re-elected and a new director of the company, Mr. Samuel Williams was also appointed. The directors had hopes that Springfield Park would become one of the most famous athletic grounds in the North of England. * ( Also referred to as A. Cooper)
Another meeting was held at the Ship Hotel, Wigan, on Thursday, July 22nd 1897, with the intention to establish an athletic and cycle club using the new Athletic Grounds at Springfield Park. It is interesting to note that the meeting was to establish an "athletic and cycle club" with no mention of football whatsoever. The Wigan Examiner gives mention to the fact that a football club had been formed with the aim of playing at Springfield Park, however no account is to be found in the paper. Further development was to cost £16,000. The grounds consisted of a football pitch, a three and a half lap to the mile running track surrounded by a four lap to the mile cycling track, all of which were enclosed by a fifteen yard wide, half-mile trotting track around the perimeter of the arena. Stabling was also built at the Town End; an ornamental lake was created at the Shevington End, with tennis courts and bowling greens planned in the areas between the cycle and trotting tracks. The cycle track was almost unique in the north of England at this time and was banked at each end for speed riding.
On August 6th 1897 the directors of The Wigan Trotting and Athletic Company invited the press men of the district to inspect the fine new grounds at Springfield Park. A report in The Wigan Examiner tells us that, "Within the intervening period the contractors, Messrs. Winnard and Weston of Wigan, have carried out between 80,000 and 90,000 cubic yards of excavations and filling up, in addition to completing 1,000 yards of puddle trench through the embankment to the lake, and laying about 4,000 lineal yards of drains. From a general description of the grounds we are able to accurately gauge the scope of the company’s intentions. The greater portion of the 19 acres of land acquired by the company will be required for a half mile trotting track, a 3 ½ lap cycle track, a ¼ mile running track, lake, bowling green, pavilion, paddocks, competitors enclosures, sheds for some forty horses, stables with stalls and loose boxes for training purposes, and a well laid out association football ground, whilst it is intended to have three entrances with turnstile buildings and a substantial entrance lodge. As to the pavilion itself the proposal is to erect a brickwork and ironwork structure of some pretensions. It is to be 180 feet in length, 33 feet wide, and capable of seating considerably over a thousand persons, whilst in the basement there will be spacious accommodation for the more modern means of locomotion, refreshment bar, and kitchen. On the ground floor provision will be made for the directors and secretary, and here also will be a members entrance hall, billiard room, large assembly room, bar, ladies and gentleman’s lavatories, ladies retiring room, cycle and general competitors rooms, lavatories, shower baths, slipper baths, and private dressing rooms, the total length of the pavilion being surmounted by a spacious grandstand built upon latest principles, and approached by four wide staircases, and last, but certainly not least in importance, ample accommodation provided in a prominent position for the Press. Considering the short space of time which has elapsed since the venture was seriously inaugurated a surprising amount of work has been accomplished, and with enterprising foresight the directors have already placed the company in a position to start earning an income. The trotting, racing, and cycle tracks are complete, and without doubt will compare favourably with similar tracks in the country. Perhaps of the three the cycle track will command most attention. On the home straight it is 29 ft. wide, and on the banking 24 ft. wide, and 7-6 rise, whilst the back straight is 26 ft. wide. It is interesting to note that the track has a splendid foundation, being built for the greater part on rock. The base is formed of broken rubble, with a course of rough concrete, finally finished with a granolithic surface. Mr. H. Cooper, who has had the contract for the track, assured the Press representatives on Friday that this cycle path is one of the finest in the country. He has had considerable experience in laying many of the principle grounds in the kingdom, and judged from the method of construction his opinion cannot be wide of the mark. As to the trotting and running tracks they are finished with a mixture of cinders and crushed red bricks, and at the present the tracks are in excellent condition." The paper also noted that, "members of the Wigan County Association team have, under the direction of Mr. Barton, late trainer to the Preston North End, commenced practising on the grounds..."
Springfield Park was first used on Wednesday, August 18th 1897, when the newly formed Wigan Athletic and Cycling Club arranged a meeting. At the start of the event the Half Mile Cycle Northern Amateur Track Record stood at 59 1/5 seconds by E.W. Parry (Pendleton W.). Parry broke the record returning a time of 58 3/5 seconds. The new record was then beaten by W.P. Fawcett (Leeds A.C.) in a time of 56 1/5 seconds. Parry failed in his attempt to reclaim the title but he did achieve a time of 58 seconds in a later race and another rider, J. Ramsey (Barrow A.C.C.) attained a time of 58 4/5 seconds ensuring that the established record was bettered four times during the opening session. 6,000 people attended.
Meanwhile, Wigan County Football Club had been formed and notice was given in the Wigan Examiner informing the public that two practice matches would be played on Wednesday, August 25th 1897, and then on the following Saturday, August 28th 1897. The proposed games intended to give the public "a glimpse of the form they may expect the players to show in the coming season". Spectators were to be admitted without charge. The first game was contested by the “Colours” and the “Greys” and attracted about 4000 spectators on a fine evening. The teams, which consisted of the first 23 players (count them) to take part in a football match at Springfield Park, were as follows: Colours:- Robert W. 'Bob' Menham (goal); George R. Holmes and George Molyneux (backs); John Stevenson, William 'Billy' Greer and William Sharpe (half-backs); John 'Jack' Gordon, Patrick 'Paddy' Gordon, John F. Morris, John Henry Salisbury and Sharples (forwards) Greys:- Hugh McKay (goal); Harold Brown and Lyddon (backs); Keegin, Dingley and Smith (half-backs); Snodgrass, Murray, Armstrong, Atherton, Ellison and Whitehouse (forwards) The Greys scored in the first half to lead at the interval while the Colours equalized shortly after the restart with the score remaining unchanged at the final whistle. Unfortunately the goal scorers were not recorded. The second game between the “Colours and the “Reds” was played during an afternoon of heavy showers in front of 5000 spectators and mainly featured the same players. This time the reporter also omitted the scoreline.
A fortnight later on Wednesday, September 1st 1897, the inaugural competitive football match took place when Wigan County played Burton Swifts, resulting in a 1-1 draw. Bad weather kept the crowd down to 1,500. County’s first League match was against Southport Central when 4,000 spectators witnessed a 5-1 victory. On 23rd March 1898 the Wigan Trotting and Athletic Company was served with a writ for non-payment to the company who constructed the cycling and trotting tracks. The owners maintained throughout a lengthy court battle that the quality of the tracks, especially the one for horse trotting was not up to scratch.
"The extensive and valuable property known as Springfield Park Trotting and Athletic Grounds, Wigan", was offered for auction by Mr. George Wilcock at the Ship Hotel on September 15th 1899 at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. The sale comprised, "16 acres, one rood and 36 perches of freehold land". It was noted that, "the grounds contain a half mile cinder trotting track, quarter mile cinder pedestrian course, grand cement cycling track and a splendid football ground, a well built grandstand, well arranged entrance turnstiles, refreshment bars etc". The large attendance saw bidding opened by Mr W. J. Darbyshire of Wigan at £4,000 with an increase to £4500 by Mr Fyans, the representative of the Royal London Friendly Society. These two gentlemen were the only bidders and the property was eventually sold to Mr Darbyshire for £6000 on behalf of a local syndicate. Mr Fyans subsequently bought the property from Mr Darbyshire for the same amount paid. A question was asked about the prospects for the Association Football Club should the property be sold and the inquisitor was told, "that there was a contract with the Club that they should have the use of the ground until April 30th next year".
The sale of Springfield Park effectively ended any interest in the Wigan Trotting & Athletic Company Limited by the original directors although they continued to run Wigan County FC until the following summer. The sale achieved around 1/3 of the set-up cost burdening the Company with losses of just over £12000. Quite why the grounds lost money can only be assumed. It could be said that the main components of the complex were aimed at the middle classes in a very working class town and although Richardson Johnson’s plans will almost certainly never be seen, we know from reports and maps that certain elements of the design, including the tennis courts, bowling greens and horse sheds, were not completed hinting that the directors concentrated their efforts on self indulgent interests rather than those appealing to a wider public. Admission to the grounds was said to be “sharp” and it is possible that other established venues such as the West End Grounds, who already offered most of the facilities available at Springfield Park, did so at a cheaper rate and therefore kept their patrons. The planned pavilion, which by its description would not have been too dissimilar to the now iconic structure at Lord’s cricket ground (completed in 1890, cost £21,000), was replaced with a small stand suggesting that financial concerns were apparent from the outset and that objectives had to be scaled back. Also, as mentioned earlier, the tracks did not stand up to scrutiny and were failing within six months of the opening event which would not encourage promoters to use the venue. However, these problems did not deter the new owners who continued to run Springfield Park in much the same vein as before, despite the grounds being described as “excellent building land” in the weeks prior to the sale.
Springfield Park 1900
Wigan Wednesday Athletic AFC used Springfield Park during the 1899-1900 season as members of the Wigan Wednesday League. Club president was James Charles Samuels, landlord at the Crofter's Arms
Conditions for the football clubs were still primitive two years after opening and on October 14th 1899 the Wigan Observer noted, "The Wigan County club have just taken a step which is much appreciated by the playing members of the club. They have taken their headquarters toMr David Bell’s, the White Horse Hotel, Standishgate, with the result that instead of the team being compelled to dress in the stables on the field at Springfield Park as hitherto, they will be provided with all the advantages of a most suitable and spacious room at the White Horse." The landlord of this public house "also provided transport for the team to and from the ground. Wigan County folded in the summer of 1900.
Wigan United Football Club was the next football team to use Springfield Park. The club had already been in existence for a few years playing in the Whelley and District League division 2. They took residence in November 1900 after playing their early fixtures at The West End Grounds.
Some fifteen months after Springfield Park was sold the Wigan Examiner of 19 January 1901 reported that John Alfred Quarmby, the secretary of the Wigan Trotting & Athletic Company Limited and Wigan County FC had filed a petition for bankruptcy as he continued to pay accounts on a verbal promise of recompense which was never fulfilled. Mr Quarmby, who had been secretary since November 1896 revealed that the parent company had gone into liquidation leaving debts of over £2000. The directors had lost around £400 each despite keeping some of the gate money from the football club and were not prepared to lose any more. The official receiver was quoted as saying "Then we may take it that this Trotting and Athletic Company was a very disasterous affair to all concerned" and that the debtor had been misled by the directors who he considered to be gentlemen and good to their word, when evidently they were not.
It was during the 1901-02 season that professional Rugby League was first played at Springfield Park when both United and Wigan Rugby League Club shared the facilities, using the ground on alternate Saturday’s. The first rugby league match took place on September 7th 1901 when Wigan entertained St. Helens with the home team recording an 8-2 victory. Jimmy Barr became the first try scorer at the venue. Wigan remained unbeaten during their short spell at Springfield Park. They moved to Central Park at the end of this term.
On December 20th 1902 Wigan United were held to a 1-1 draw by Barrow. This would prove to be their last game at the ground as the club’s lease expired at the end of the month, forcing the team to play all their remaining matches away from Springfield Park and as expected the club did not return to the ground for the 1903-04 season.
On August 16th 1903, 56 year-old William Buckler, who was the Long Distance Pedestrian Champion of the World in 1896, gave up his attempt to walk 1613 miles in 1000 hours at Springfield Park (average 1.6 mph over 6 weeks)
On August 13th 1904 the Wigan Observer ran the following report under the title "Wigan Athletic Sports Club".....On Wednesday evening the members sports in connection with the Wigan Racing and Athletic Club were held at Springfield Park.Despite the quality of competition and the interesting events which were down for decision there was only a meagre attendance.The last item was one of more than ordinary interest, being a pursuit race between Ben Jones and T. Sherratt, resulting in a victory for Jones by about five yards.
The meeting held various race categories and named a number of local racing cyclists including William Clarke, Thomas Sherratt and Benjamin Jones.Jones went on to compete in the 1908 London Olympic games where he won an individual gold medal and a team gold medal.,
A Trotting Match 1904
Wigan County Police held their annual sports festival at Springfield Park on July 1st 1905. This is the earliest record found of this event but it was an association that would intermittently continue for at least the next 31 years.
Wigan Town A.F.C. became the third club to use Springfield Park. Formed in July 1905, the club aquired the stadium in early November of that year when operations started in earnest. Town’s first home game was on December 30 1905 in a friendly match against Hull City, when 4,000 spectators attended. On January 17 1906, Music Hall comedian George Robey brought a team of professional players to Springfield Park for a charity match against Wigan Town in aid of the Chief Constable’s Clog and Stocking Fund.
Thomas Jones, the famous Aspull wrestler better known as Burgy Ben, fought Japanese ju-jitsu expert Yukio Tani in an exhibition match at Springfield Park in the mid-1900's. Jones claimed to be the only white man ever to beat Tani, although Tani historians dispute the victory.
Undaunted by his previous failure, William Buckler started another long distance walk at Springfield Park on May 24th 1906. This time he was to attempt 2050 miles in 1000 consecutive hours (average 2.05 mph over 6 weeks).
Wigan Town were the first senior Wigan side to court trouble with the authorities when on January 8th 1907, Town were suspended from The Combination sine die for "alleged wrong treatment of certain players". The ban lasted approximately two weeks. Wigan Town management offered Springfield Park as a neutral venue for a possible second replay of the English Cup, third round tie, between Everton and Bolton Wanderers. The tie was decided in favour of Everton in the first replay on February 27 1907. As a result of the offer, two representatives of the English Association visited Springfield Park on March 9 1907 to asses the suitability of the ground to host a semi-final in the same competition. It is thought Wigan would have been allocated one of the semi-finals if there had been better stand accomodation. In September 1907 the Lancashire Combination Executive received a complaint from referee, Mr Rowley, about the "inadequate accomodation" at Springfield Park. He felt aggrieved at having to change with the home team because the window in his compartment was broken and the "rain was blowing through, making matters very uncomfortable." On April 7th 1908, an appeal was made to the Wigan public for subscriptions to start a new football club which more or less gave notice that the current club was to be abandoned. For the remaining games, Wigan Town used mainly amateur players and often fielded teams with less than a full contingent, leading to a number of heavy defeats. Town finished next to bottom of the Lancashire Combination Div 2 in 1907-08 prompting their resignation from the League at the end of the season. They disbanded in the close season with many outstanding debts and the directors were taken to court by a former player for non-payment of wages. The subscriptions for the new team did not materialise leading to closure of the scheme in June 1908.
Springfield Park was mainly used for activities other than football in the period to 1919, although Wigan Amateurs Football Club did use the ground at various times up to the First World War.
The image from the early 1900's shows the original stand on the Popside, which had seating for 700 spectators. In the foreground is the cement cycling track and the cinder running track while a cyclist and runner pose for the camera.
Photograph: John Lindsay Cooper - Courtesy Frank Orrell