Dr Derek J Ripley on the Lancashire Games
PUBLISHED: 11:46 16 April 2013 | UPDATED: 18:04 19 January 2016
In 2012, when the eyes of the world focused on London’s (reasonably successful) Olympic Games, it seems a shame that one of the country’s more traditional sporting events was so sadly neglected. I’m talking about the Lancashire Games which, apart from the war years, have been held continuously every four years since 1900.
Last year’s Preston event may have been much depleted in both entrant and spectator numbers - fewer than 40 people attended the opening ceremony which condensed 800 years of Lancashire history into a pageant which lasted nearly 15 minutes - but it was not always thus. As many as 400 attended the Games held in Blackpool in 1952 – the heyday of a competition.
Despite the affection in which they are held, they have rarely been without incident or controversy. In 1900, Hadley Bradshaw of Uppermill won the inaugural Longridge Cycle Dash, going on to win it again in 1904 and 1908. He was stripped of his medals the following year when he admitted to taking Gerald Fenniwragg’s Patent Bile Tablets which were classed as a performance-enhancing drug.
But the Games also fashioned genuine heroes: George Winterbottom of Bolton won his elusive 5th bobble in the Tour de Ince in 1936 while smoking a pipe and Norman Shaw (at 4ft 8ins the shortest ever competitor in sheep dip hurdling) almost drowned in the 1960 event at Burnley.
Greatest of all were the ‘Flying Finlays’ – two brothers, Willie and Albert – who were joint winners of the Fleetwood Macintosh Hurdles in 1932. After Willie developed a hernia and retired from the sport, Albert went on to set a Games record in 1936 when he jumped a pile of 52 Macs. The 1936 Games are also remembered as the occasion on which a Yorkshireman won four golds, including the tripe jump, the flagship event of the Games, much to the embarrassment of the host Lancastrians.
Yet the county’s sporting legacy lies not only in its Games, as the tale of Wigan’s George Irwell attests. Irwell started as a cub reporter on the Wigan Argus, spending his time at Wigan Zoo writing dispatches on the progress of Elsie the lioness and her cubs and was eventually promoted to his dream job – that of sports editor.
The highlight of his career came in 1936, when Real Madrid invited Wigan to play a friendly to celebrate the opening of their new stadium and Irwell was sent to Spain to report. He was horrified - not only was Franco’s brutal fascist army conducting a war of attrition against the democratically elected regime, but Alberto Sanchez scored a controversial 86th minute penalty for Madrid in a 1-0 defeat of the Lancashire club.
As well as being an accomplished writer, Irwell was a talented footballer and prolific goal scorer, too. A tricky, unorthodox left winger, he played a couple of amateur games before being spotted by a scout for Chorley Town, for whom he scored a hat-trick on his debut in a 5-2 defeat of Lytham Miners’ Welfare. He played 99 games for Chorley Town, scoring 123 goals, but his career was cruelly cut short by injury. In 1923, he was described by the Wigan Argus as the finest player of his generation and, with incredible foresight, in 1924 by the Wigan Daily Star as ‘the Lionel Messi of his day’.
In 1996, Irwell was ennobled when the government discovered his humble origins but he was stripped of his peerage and convicted of expenses fraud in 1997. He had claimed £65,000 for a bird bath for which he had paid just £15 a year earlier, insisting that the claim was a fair reflection of the increase in property prices over the previous twelve months.
On a lighter note, I am delighted that the inaugural Wigan Fun Run will take place later this year. To encourage members of the public to participate, anyone who is unable to run the one mile course will be allowed to walk. And anyone who can’t be bothered to walk will be permitted to drive.