James Alfred Henry Catton - the Lancashire pioneer of sports reporting

PUBLISHED: 14:31 25 June 2020 | UPDATED: 18:29 25 June 2020

James Catton, pioneering sports writer

James Catton, pioneering sports writer

not Archant

A Lancashire-based reporter showed the way for modern sports writers to fill the back pages.

As football returns from its lockdown hiatus, every pass, tackle and goal is being analysed in detail by the back pages and sports sections of the nation’s press. Every comment by managers and players is pored over and the impact of every result carefully considered.

Most fans of Lancashire football will be aware of the role played by the county’s famous old clubs in the development of the modern game – from the introduction of paid players to the formation of the Football League in 1888, the creation of grandstands and the cultivation of early fan culture, they were invariably among the frontrunners.

But few will know of the role played by the county’s journalists in popularising what is now seen as the Victorian sporting revolution in the late 1800s, as blood sports and violent pastimes gradually gave way to gate-money competitions and team sports with common rules and fixed sporting calendars.

Chief among Lancashire’s sporting journalists at the turn of the last century was James Alfred Henry Catton, Jimmy to his pals, “Tityrus” to his readers as editor and chief reporter of the Manchester-based weekly Athletic News. He also wrote for the city’s Sporting Chronicle and Sunday Chronicle; three papers with national circulations based on sports news.

Catton was remarkable for his fresh style of personality-driven and chatty sports reporting, the influence he was reckoned to wield among football administrators, his understanding and knowledge of sport – and his diminutive stature. Less than 5ft tall he worked in an age that was only slowly accepting the idea that in order to write with authority and insight on sport one did not necessarily need to have been a talented sportsman. He was acutely aware of his lack of height as he mixed with the era’s athletic greats.

Catton had joined the Preston Herald as a 15-year-old in the 1870s. It was an ideal fit for the sport-loving London-born apprentice reporter. For the next eight years he learned his trade covering all manner of news across the county’s mill towns – the twice-weekly Herald claimed readers from Preston and Blackburn to Burnley. But more importantly he witnessed Lancashire’s adoption of football as Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Preston North End, Darwen, Blackburn Olympic and dozens of other clubs (most now forgotten) were formed and the game fine-tuned its appeal to spectators and players alike.

As Catton was to later write, “There were all sorts of little feuds and personal vendettas... The county went frantic on football.”

What he witnessed as a boy reporter, his early contacts with Lancashire’s influential football pioneers, players and administrators, the inside information, the rumour and gossip were grist to the mill in a 60-year writing career – most of it spent in Lancashire – that took him from unfenced pitches in fields to the newly-built Wembley stadium.

His appointment as Athletic News editor in 1900 saw him at the pinnacle of his trade. For football, in particular and, to a slightly lesser extent, cricket, it was the top job in British sporting journalism.

In Manchester Catton worked for ex-racing tipster Edward Hulton who had created Britain’s leading stable of sports-led penny newspapers over the previous quarter-century. In Darwen, jobbing printer J J Riley pioneered community sports journalism with the East Lancashire Cricket and Football Times. In Blackburn, one-time paper mill labourer Edmund Walmsley was the inspiration behind the long-forgotten weeklies Cricketers’ Herald and Saturday Football.

Former saddle maker William Fairhurst masterminded the penny Football Field and Sports Telegram in Bolton. And in Manchester, Joe Stoddart’s weekly Athletic Journal and then Sporting Luck saw him heralded as Britain’s “king” of sports coupons competitions long before the famous Littlewoods brand was created.

Catton and his Red Rose contemporaries led the way in stimulating the county’s passion for sporting news and in the early development of modern sports journalism. His story now appears in the book ‘A History of the British Sporting Journalist c1850-1939. James Catton, Sports Reporter’ by Dr Stephen Tate, who teaches history at Blackburn College University Centre.

A History of the British Sporting Journalist c1850-1939. James Catton, Sports Reporter, (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2020) is out now.

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