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Saints History

The History Of The Windleshaw Sport Ground


Did you know there is a fascinating history to the Windleshaw Sports Club?

This site is of great historical significance in the town, being the headquarters of St Helens Cricket Club for many years and the home of St Helens RFC until their move to Knowsley Road for the 1890-91 season.

For much of that time the rugby teams changed into their kits at the nearby Lingholme Hotel. The Saints enjoyed large crowds for their matches there and highlights included the visit of the touring Maori team on 14th March 1889 and a famous match against Wigan, two months before, where the ground was illuminated by twelve Well’s Patent Electric Lamps!

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There was another momentous occasion too, when the ground took a special place in rugby history – but first some background.

There is a general opinion in some quarters that before the development of the professional Northern Union, in 1895, all matches were ‘friendlies’ and that the status of clubs was only as good as the fixtures they could obtain.

This is a particularly inaccurate impression as cup competitions and leagues were not exactly unheard of before the great rugby split of 1895. Over in Yorkshire, as early as 1877, a knockout cup competition – the first of its kind in Britain - was organised by the Yorkshire County Football club, which included in its ranks Bradford, Huddersfield, Leeds, Hull and York.

Battles for the ownership of what became known as the ‘Owd Tin Pot’ were eagerly awaited, although the guardians of amateurism shook their heads in disapproval.

Halifax were the first winners, with proceeds from the final going to local charities. It appears that the RFU had a somewhat limited jurisdiction in all of this. Yorkshire in particular was one of the more powerful and forward-thinking counties, who helped to change the face of the sport with specific rule changes and the registering of players, amongst other things. 

Meanwhile, back in Lancashire, it is interesting to note that in the autumn of 1884 the West Lancashire and Border Towns Union was formed, whose members, including the St Helens club, were invited to take part in a cup competition, which ran successfully for many years.

At the end of the 1888-89 season, however, eight clubs decided to establish specified fixtures over a 14-week period, in a more recognisable league format, including 7 home matches to bring in much-needed ‘gate’ money. They were St Helens, Warrington, Wigan, Aspull, Leigh, Tyldesley, Widnes and Walkden. The Saints had an ‘open date’ on their calendar for Saturday 7th September 1889. 


Wakefield Trinity had originally been their opponents in a potentially mouth-watering ‘Roses’ clash at Dentons Green, but it had been called off. Wakefield had been suspended for two months for contributing £50 to the Testimonial fund of one of their players, which constituted professionalism in the eyes of the RFU.

All was not lost, however, and Warrington stepped into the breach at short notice to play a West Lancashire Rugby League match at Dentons Green.

It was the only fixture that day in the fledgling competition and took on great historical significance. Rugby League historian Graham Morris explains: “It was therefore the first-ever league fixture, played in the first-ever senior rugby competition in the Northern counties - Lancashire, Yorkshire, Cheshire, Cumberland and Westmorland and Northumberland.”

The Saints lost narrowly, with Warrington kicking a solitary goal to win the match. Wigan ended the season as champions, winning 13 out of their 14 matches.

The first ‘organised’ encounter between Saints and Wigan took place at Dentons Green on 1st March 1890. Wigan won by two goals and a try to nil, but that’s another story.

So what of the situation in rugby union in the south at the time?

According to leading London rugby expert Dick Tyson: “As far as I know there were no official Union leagues allowed by the Rugby Union for about a century after its formation (1871) as they would have been seen as a sign of professionalism. The earliest Merit Table was compiled in 1892.”

Meanwhile, in South West Lancashire, the League system had been extended by the early 1890s and Saints’ first-ever honour as a ‘rugby’ club was to become Champions of the ‘Lancashire County Rugby Challenge Cup 2nd Division – presented by the West Lancashire and Border Towns Rugby Union’ at the end of the 1893-94 season.

The magnificent trophy, costing 75 guineas, was presented to the St Helens captain Billy Cross by the town’s first-ever MP, Henry Seton-Carr after the last match of the season, against Tyldesley, at Dentons Green.

The last decade of the 19th century had seen a tremendous period of change for St Helens RFC and in 1895, they became one of the founder members of the new professional Northern Union organisation of clubs paying ‘broken time’ money to their players, something that in terms of membership of the RFU was strictly forbidden, but was more widespread than was ever acknowledged at the time!

The creation of the ‘league’ system had exacerbated the situation and professionalism was inevitable.

The RFU allowed the creation of regional ‘Merit Leagues’ in the 1970s. By 1984, there were two national merit tables, when clubs had to play a minimum of 8 games against the clubs in their division. A true national league system was eventually adopted in 1987.

As for cup competitions, the first national RFU knockout competition was launched in 1971-72, when Gloucester beat Moseley at Twickenham. The competition was subsequently sponsored, becoming at one stage the John Player Cup [1975-76] and, of course, links with our own industrial town in 1988-89, when it became known as the Pilkington Cup.Going back to Windleshaw Road, it is good to see that potentially it will retain its sporting links and its significance in rugby history has been truly acknowledged.


This article was written by Rugby League Historian Alex Service and was first published in the St Helens Star on 12th June 2020.

The Future of the Windleshaw Sports Ground.

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