Tragic death of Lancashire's first sporting superstar

August 20 marks the 100th anniversary of the tragic death of a man dubbed Lancashire's first sporting superstar. Jessica Hay reports
James Leytham was one of rugby's first superstarsJames Leytham was one of rugby's first superstars
James Leytham was one of rugby's first superstars

James ‘Gentleman Jim’ Leytham was the Sam Tomkins of his day.Widely regarded as Rugby League’s first superstar, the records he set a century ago are still marvelled at today.But just four years after calling time on his glory-laden career, the international winger was killed in an accident while sailing on the Lune which claimed seven lives.He was among a group of eight friends from Lancaster who died when their vessel capsized near the Cockersand Abbey lighthouse, situated about six miles from the city. Shortly after 7am on August 20, 1916 the party set off from St George’s Quay, Lancaster, in a sailing boat named the Pearl. After a morning in Morecambe Bay they turned for their homeward journey at around 1pm.Leytham had been in charge of the vessel but handed the rudder to the youngest member of the group. William Wilson.He brought the boat round suddenly to the wind and she drove near headlong into a wave which came over the side and filled the boat.With the incoming tide against them. the boat capsized. throwing all onboard into the river and leaving them scrambling to cling on to the upturned boat, crying desperately for help.There was no other boat in sight and Leytham was one of only two men able to swim but he insisted on staying with the stricken vessel.After a hasty consultation. it was decided Richard Wright, who was the other good swimmer of the party, should swim to shore which was more than one mile away. The tide was building rapidly and the wind was blowing with increasing force when Wright set out on his difficult task. He later recalled: “I could hear them calling ‘Help’ and many times I saw them clinging to this boat as I made my way shorewards. “Battling with the waves, I was more than once on the point of giving up and being drowned with them, but luckily, just as I was getting to the end, my feet touched ground. I had swam about a mile. I shall never forget the walk that followed. “I tumbled more than walked, and arrived at Cockersand Abbey Farm, not only exhausted but almost unconscious through my exertions.”Once the alarm was raised an anxious search was launched with the Morecambe and Fleetwood lifeboats joining other vessels in the hunt for the boat and its crew.After two hours scouring the waters nothing had been found except for an oar and a rudder.Late on that Sunday evening the craft was found but its sails were missing and there was still no trace of any of those who had been on board. One account states that the boat was found close to the spot Wright said he had left it in his search for help, which supported the theory of the sole survivor.In his account of the accident he said that the party discussed the possibilities of righting the position of the boat, which had overturned, all the men being then on the upturned boat.They came to the conclusion that the anchor must have become embedded in the sand.A second account states the boat was found a mile below the fatal spot, however, there is room for doubt as to the exact location of the place where the boat might have gone down. Dragging operations were carried out for many hours by Lancaster Police and a number of helpers and it was not until late that afternoon that two bodies were recovered: those of William Grisedale and postal worker William Wilson.Two hours later a third body was found, that of William Wilson’s nephew James.After many hours of searching, three more bodies were discovered about one quarter of a mile from the No.5 Buoy, not far from the scene of the tragedy. All of the deceased came from Lancaster and five belonged to the same family: brothers William and John Wilson, John’s son James while William Grisdale and James Leytham were brothers-in-law. Wright, who managed to swim to shore, was also brother-in-law of Leytham and Grisedale. Wright stated in an interview that the trip was one of a series taken twice a year by the Wilson brothers accompanied by their brothers-in-law, Wright, Leytham and Grisdale, and William Wilson. For Joseph Young, a police constable, and gas worker Ashworth Pinder it was their first time on board the Pearl. For many years father-of-two James Leytham, was one of the most brilliant exponents of wing three-quarter play in Rugby League, or Northern Union football as it was then known.Kind and sincere off the pitch and professional on it, Leytham was not just a great player, he was a man who everyone knew, liked and respected.He played for Lancaster between 1897 and 1903 before moving to Wigan, where he shot to fame during a nine-year career at the club.Leytham also represented Lancashire, England and Great Britain, touring Australia and New Zealand.He still stands fifth on the Wigan club’s all time highest try scorers list, 18th on the goal scoring list and ninth on the list of highest point scorers for the club. Not only that, he is also the highest try scorer of a player from either Wigan or St Helens in derby matches, with 28 tries.And 100 years on he remains the only player to score four tries for Great Britain in a test match against Australia, a feat achieved in 1910 with the Lions.Lancaster District and County Coroner, Neville Holden, held inquests at Lancaster Town Hall on James Leytham, Ashworth Pinder and Joseph Young.The jury returned the verdict that the men accidentally drowned. Crowds of people attended Leytham’s funeral at Lancaster Cemetery, including representatives of all of the great rugby clubs of the day. The Wigan Observer reported: “Amid manifestations of general mourning the funeral took place at Lancaster Cemetery, on Wednesday afternoon, of the late James Leytham, the International and Lancashire Northern Union three-quarter back. He was one of seven victims of the Lune sailing boat disaster. “There was a representative attendance of Northern Union club representatives, as well as of the Lancaster Amateur Swimming Club, the Lune Sailing Club, Lancaster Reform Club, and the foremen of Lord Ashton’s works.”