Home town sports heroes

for Ian Clayton column - Billy Williams Featherstone boxer.
for Ian Clayton column - Billy Williams Featherstone boxer.

I know there is great irony here, but last Saturday I spent the day on the sofa, elbow propped on three plump cushions watching the 

I moved only to make the occasional pot of tea and I had a salad for my tea, not for health reasons, but because it was quicker than cooking a dinner and I didn’t want to miss anything, even if it was only handball and equestrianism, two sports I know nothing about.

Yes, I have become a sofa-bound Olympic addict. With this in mind I’d like to celebrate my own century, because this week is my 100th column for the Express. May I crave your indulgence while I talk about the sporting heroes of my home town?

A few weeks ago when the Olympic torch toured this area, I have to confess I was sorely disappointed that it didn’t come to Featherstone. Of course, it went to Castleford and Pontefract and Ackworth and these are places that have proud sporting traditions, but why didn’t it come to Featherstone? For its size my town has produced more sporting heroes than most.

Did you know for instance that the only selection race for the world’s first alpine cyclo cross championship was held on the snow covered muck stacks at Featherstone? It happened in the 1950s and was organised by the then nationally famous Featherstone Cycling Club. The race was won by Keith Mernickle on his shocking pink bike. At the time, the Featherstone Club was known for its excellence at hill climbing events, it even produced a magazine called the “Alpine Echo.”

The great Featherstone motor bike racer “Tripey” Dan Oldroyds he was one of the great “gentlemen” riders in the Isle of Man TT races in the 1920s. The story goes that Danny, whose mother kept a tripe shop in Station Lane, tried to represent ‘Sunbeam’ motorbike company, but when they turned him down, he entered himself for the 1926 races and finished a creditable third, going one better a year later, he finished second and would have won if he hadn’t hit a sheep on the way round and broken his collarbone.

Twenty odd years ago I met an elderly German pub landlord near Dortmund, who told me he had raced against Danny, he said he was “the greatest daredevil” he ever knew. Danny thought nothing to blasting down to Lincolnshire from his house in Purston on a Sunday morning, shirt flapping in the breeze.

Featherstone also produced some great boxers, Billy Williams, a supremely fit athlete, was an unbeaten middleweight and won the north of England title before the first war curtailed his career; he was also a wrestler, a swimmer and a diving champion. He was a lay Methodist preacher, a poet and head of physiotherapy at Pontefract Infirmary. He maintained a lifelong connection to Rovers, his son, the fondly-remembered Jimmy, was the first man to score a try for Featherstone when they became a professional club in 1921.

In his retirement years I had the pleasure of talking to Harold Coule, the great Featherstone middleweight. He told me he earned more money in his first fight than his family had put in the gas meter in a whole year. On the same afternoon I was introduced to Jimmy Rudd, a lively scrum half who was the first man to kick a rugby ball at Wembley when the Challenge Cup was first held there in 1928.

Did you know that the Yorkshire and England cricket legend Herbert Sutcliffe played at Featherstone? It came about when Herbert was persuaded to take a job in the stores at Featherstone Main pit. At the time the pit side had claims to being the finest club side in the country. As well as Sutcliffe, they had Ernest Moss the demon fast bowler, Jackie Bedford, the best uncapped player in the north and Jack Higgins, a county wicket keeper.

We mustn’t forget the sportswomen. I remember with great pride a schoolteacher from Girnhill Lane Infants, Nora Carlile, who played in goal for the Yorkshire County hockey team and travelled to games on a Lambretta scooter. The first ever women’s rugby team was founded in Featherstone in 1919.

I spoke to Alice Brear in her retirement years. She had been a prop forward along with Edi Williams. The women raised money for striking miners and were coached by Billy Batten. In the late 1960s Maggie Ashton and some other teenage girls who met in the Hideaway café in Station Lane decided to form a soccer team. For a while “The Dollyrockers” became quite famous, they featured on the radio show “Down your Way” and were described by one of England’s best women players, Pat Firth, as “her most feared opponents.”

All this and I haven’t even touched on my rugby heroes, Vince Farrar, Jimmy Thompson, Stevie Nash and Pete Smith. Yes, the Olympic torch may have seen the length and breadth of Britain. It went on a steam train, down a pit, up on the outside of the London Eye, it was clutched by celebrities, some of them whom, in my opinion had no right to be anywhere near it, but it never went down Station Lane and it ought to have done.