A tribute to Jack Hilton who would have turned 100-years-old today. By Keith Sutch
Jack Hilton – Heritage number 460
Growing up as a young lad in Wigan it is probably a faraway dream to play for your hometown Rugby League club… to achieve the dream and surpass it to become a director in later life is more of a pipedream, however – eventually over time – Jack Hilton achieved both.
Though Jack Hilton had a distinguished playing career he undoubtedly made a bigger impact in transforming the history of conceivably the most successful Rugby League club in Britain.
Jack Hilton was born in Wigan on the 2nd May 1921 and signed his first professional contract for Salford. Although he first played professionally for Salford, Hilton had joined Wigan as a young winger after being wounded by shrapnel in the wrist and thigh in North Africa during the Second World War.
However, prior to the 1946-47 season Hilton returned home and signed for his much-loved club Wigan.
He made his Wigan debut against Halifax at Central Park on the 30th May 1942 – the match was a Challenge Cup Semi Final second leg, which was common concept during the War years.
Wigan had lost the first leg by 10 points to nil but managed a draw at Central Park 16-16, losing the tie-on aggregate 26-16.
Hilton’s debut commenced a distinguished playing career for Wigan and Great Britain, and he established himself as an outstanding try scoring wing three-quarter, but undoubtedly, he made a bigger impact on the history of perhaps Britain’s most successful Rugby League club long after he had retired.
Since his debut in 1942, Hilton went on to make 137 appearance for the Club, scoring 122 – including a hat-trick or better on 13 occasions, with conceivably his most significant scoring feats occurring in the 1948 and 1951 Challenge Cup Finals respectively at Wembley Stadium with successful wins against Bradford Northern (8 points to 3) and Barrow (10 points to nil).
Along with his Challenge Cup medals, Hilton won a Lancashire Cup in 1949 against local rival Leigh at Wilderspool Warrington – playing on the right wing he scored a try in Wigan’s 20–7 victory – quite remarkable really that Wigan won six consecutive Lancashire Cups during his time at the Club and this was the only one he managed to play in.
On 10th May 1952, Hilton was again on Wigan’s right wing at the now defunct Leeds Road ground in Huddersfield where Wigan beat Bradford Northern 13 points to 6 in the Championship Play-Off.
Hilton also added two Championship and two Lancashire Championship medals to his collection.
In the 1948-49 season, Hilton scored 25 tries for Wigan and this put him in line for a tour place.
There is probably no doubt that Hilton’s most memorable year was 1950, when he was one of eight Wigan players selected to tour Australia and New Zealand. He was a sensation in Australia, scoring 22 tries on the tour including a record equalling seven tries against Western Australia in the opening game.
He played two Tests for Great Britain in each country and this was the sum total of his international career. Sadly, he lost in three of his four appearances with his only victory coming on his debut v Australia in Sydney – his brace of tries sealed the win by 6 points to 4.
Hilton also made three appearances for England with a try scoring debut on 4th December 1949 v France at the Stade du Parc Lescure, Bordeaux – England the victors by 13 points to 5. His second appearance saw him score a hat-trick at his beloved Central Park in an 11 point to 6 win over Wales, on 1st March 1950.
He brought his Wigan playing career to a close with his final match being played at Central Park on 27th March 1954 against Widnes with a convincing 31 points to 12 victory.
Having finished his playing career with the Club, Hilton’s connection didn’t end there as he joined the board of directors and was an established long-serving member of the large and unwieldy Wigan board of directors. He was due to take his turn as chairman when the Club was turned upside down by a boardroom revolution in 1982.
At the time, the Wigan Club was sadly in decline – being relegated from the topflight of Rugby League in 1980. However, Wigan won promotion back to the First Division the following season and Hilton – along with three relatively unknown directors – joined forces to reverse the Club’s decline by effectively taking it over.
Ultimately, Maurice Lindsay became the driving force – supported by Jack Robinson with Tom Rathbone providing much of the finances – and Hilton providing the “quiet wisdom” of the ex-player not over obsessive with past glories but more of what could be achieved in the future.
The history of Wigan Rugby League Club and its records confirms that Hilton’s wisdom proved to be beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
Wigan first success and silverware under the new regime was the John Player Trophy in 1983 – their first trophy for ten years, which initiated a campaign of collecting silverware that saw them dominate the British game for almost a decade.
As the chairmanship was rotated, Hilton took his turn in leading the team out at Wembley but graciously, he remained a quiet, dignified presence in the background.
Hilton handed over the controls of chairmanship in 1987 to Maurice Lindsay and remained on the Wigan board until 1996 – completing more than half a century of involvement with his home-town club.
Jack Hilton, Rugby League player, chairman, director and administrator, died on 23rd December 1998, aged 77.
Written by Keith Sutch