Sport gave post-war life in Leigh a much-needed boost

This photograph illustrates the popularity of table tennis in 1948
This photograph illustrates the popularity of table tennis in 1948
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Local historian Alf Ridyard looks at how the Leigh community bounced back after World War Two...

Having just had two weeks of fantastic sports in the Commonwealth Games and the wide diversity of sports on view, we take a look back to 1948 and the re-emergence of sport after the war.

Firstly we have to give a cursory mention the great efforts of the British to rekindle the Olympic flame in the austerity games at Wembley but it is the local explosion of a variety of sports after the conflict that we focus on.

The churches played a gigantic part in all kinds of sports. Church teams emerged in football leagues, at one time there were 54 teams in three divisions covering all denominations throughout the district.

Scores were reported in the local press and the more senior league tables were published on a weekly basis. One team name confirms the diversity of the teams, the unusually named “Butts Bible Class.” What brings me to write this piece is that, watching the Commonwealth Games, we have seen sports that although are quite obviously still played, yet we do not see them played locally – or should we rephrase that and say we do not see any reports of them therefore the public will very unlikely know of their existence.

Back in 1948, the town had a table tennis league of 16 teams; churches – like they did in football –played a prominent role. Butts Methodist were champions, winning all 30 game.

We also had three of our local firms represented in the league, Hiltons Engineering; Courtaulds and Suttcliffe; and Speakmans.

Moving on to tennis and Leigh developed its own league, again the churches, Atherton Unitarians, Bedford Meths, Wesley Guild plus Leigh Cricket Club, Astley and Tyldelsley A&B teams, Pennington Hall A&B teams, Courtaulds and Albion all took part.

Returning to football for a moment, apart from the Saturday leagues we had midweek leagues, firstly the Leigh Wednesday League. This, for those not old enough to remember, was because all shops closed Wednesday afternoons giving the staff time off which was turned into a leisure break, as they were at work on Saturday afternoons when the rest of the workforce had their leisure time.

Sport was a nonentity on Sundays at that time, I would assume that the churches played such a proactive role in ensuring the Sunday observation laws were maintained.

We also had a transport football league where the different bus companies had a team and this was certainly a highly competitive league.

Atherton LUT shared the cup that year with Stockport Corporation Transport after a 2-2 draw. The transport companies also had a thriving cricket league in the summer months.

It was not unheard of for companies to employ people in those days because of their sporting prowess which would enhance the team’s chances of winning a competition. This was certainly true of BICC who when winning the CMA (cable makers association) national cup was akin to winning a very large order for their products.

Now we move to a sport that nowadays would be classed as a minority sport, mainly due to a lack of facilities, water polo. Locally we had many thriving teams, Leigh, Tyldesley, Atherton all had teams back in 1948 when all had a public baths which were well utilised.

Travel restrictions had been lifted and they were free to travel all over the county to play, again this was another ultra-competitive sport.

We have to acknowledge sports that are still with us today, albeit on a much reduced scale. First we look at snooker. Leigh Snooker League had three divisions in 1948, again church organisations played a major roll along with the politically affiliated clubs, add to this 12 crown green bowling leagues with clubs affiliated to churches, works plus the Leigh corporation parks.

Every night a different league or competition was taking place somewhere within the town.

I would hazard a guess that every pub had a darts and dominos team as well as a bowling team - many of our pubs had a bowling green, or at least use of one.

Many greens nowadays are made into beer gardens or car parks as I have referred to in previous pieces.

Not only were the churches, firms and drinking establishments encouraging people to get out and re-kindle their lives. Not to be outdone, Leigh Rugby Club on July 31, 1948, organised a 7-a-side competition at Kirkhall Lane, 66 players were invited and eight teams were selected from these players randomly.

The likes of Brian Bevan (Warrington), Lionel Cooper (Huddersfield), Harry Bath (Warrington), Leigh icons Tommy Sale, Jimmy Ledgard and Charlie Pawsey were all on show plus many more stars of the day.

Entertainment had to be brought back to the general public after the horrors of war to re-establish a sense of normality. We see this year at the Leigh Sports Village Lionel Richie making an appearance, the concept is not some new idea, and back in 1948 Leigh RLFC had similar ideas when the Wingates Brass band performed on Friday July 24.

Unfortunately the British weather was unkind and the rain and wind kept the crowd down to 250. Not only did Leigh RLFC have these promotional ideas.

Leigh Harriers had staged professional boxing matches on the in -field on Friday June 4, 1948, although this was not a new concept for the club as we have evidence of local professional boxers Bobby Tunstall, Jimmy Weir from Leigh and Johnny Weir from Boothstown fighting between 1936 to 1939 on a regular basis.

Harriers had also advertised two scratch cycle races between Reg Harris, the world champion, and A Bannister, the British champion over 1/2 and 1/4 miles. Unfortunately Harris, due to illness, did not arrive.

Cycle races had been a major sport for the Harriers in the pre and postwar years. No doubt changing lifestyles in the present day have all but seen many of these organised sporting events disappear or run on a greatly reduced basis, either to participants or spectators.

Churches have, like many pubs, been closed, and it is a sad reflection that no Leigh league exists for football or rugby league. Any teams have now to play in other district leagues but we still must acknowledge the efforts after World War Two of the people who worked hard to bring back normality through our sports and recreation outlets.