An institute in the hamlet of Highfield since 1924, Highfield Cricket Club celebrates its 95th anniversary this year. The club’s extensive history was officially chronicled by current Chairman Gary Speakman back in 1999 for the club’s 75th anniversary, and he hopes to bring that illustrious heritage to the forefront once again five years ahead of the centenary.
Interestingly, the club actually predates its own birthday. ‘There was a Highfield Cricket Club around earlier than 1924,’ Gary explains as we sit overlooking the beautiful, tree lined and tranquil cricket ground, ‘playing close by off Enfield Street but not on this ground. This incarnation of the club was created from scratch by colliery workers who were laid off work at the time.’
The land used for the club was bequeathed by Major Blundell, proprietor of the Pemberton Colliery Company Ltd. and owner of much of the land in Highfield in the early twentieth century. The club was established as a recreational area to encourage a better work-life balance for miners, who for the nominal fee of two pennies a week deducted from their wage packet, could enjoy a subscription to the club.
A keen cricketer himself, Gary’s interest in researching the club’s history may well stem from a coincidental connection: ‘When we were conducting the initial “who’s who” at the beginning, I found something rather astonishing,’ he tells me. ‘The very first chairman I could find was a WH Speakman – completely unrelated to me as far as I know! I’ve been involved with the club for 43 years now, but to have another Speakman who chaired the club at the outset is crazy.’
Gary has now been Chairman of the club for fifteen years, and hopes to continue as the club reaches its centenary in 2024. ‘It would be a real honour to be Chairman for the hundredth anniversary but there is a democratic vote on all committee roles every year so we will wait and see. I’ve never fully retired as a player, so I do fill in now and then – well, I turn up!’
‘I’ve always been interested in local history, and the strange thing about Highfield is there is no natural centre to it – however the hub of Highfield is St Mathews church, St Mathews Primary school and the cricket club,’ Gary continues. ‘A lot of the research process was social history – how the club managed to survive through the post-World War I era in the 20s, the Great Depression in the 30s and then through another World War. The fact that clubs with grounds this size were able to be sustained is incredible and a testament to some key individuals, too many to name all, but certainly previous Chairman like David Ascroft and Harold Gaskell were driving forces.’
Highfield Cricket Club has also seen some famous faces pass through its doors – although not all of them were famous for their cricketing skills. ‘We have had a very strong link with Wigan rugby league club over the years, and Billy Boston proved to be a very quick opening bowler and consistent performer for Highfield even when still playing rugby professionally.’ Boston, who spent fifteen years playing for Wigan, took around 160 wickets for Highfield’s first team between 1956 and 1961. Jim Sullivan, boasting a career that spanned 25 years at Wigan rugby league, was also fond of amateur cricket and played for Highfield.
Such a long and lustrous heritage deserves an appropriate celebration for its 95th anniversary – and a celebration it will have. The club have already hosted a dinner for around 130 guests, including its honorary life members, invited along for an evening of reminisces and entertainment. The evening included a tribute to club stalwart Eileen Gaskell, who passed away in January of this year, from her successor as President Brian Lancaster and her family led by son Martin Gaskell.
For the August bank holiday weekend, a huge community day is planned, where members of the public can find out a bit more about what the cricket club has to offer while enjoying a party atmosphere.
‘Cricket does face its challenges,’ Gary continues. ‘Celebrating 95 years is one thing, but we want to keep reinvigorating the club – attracting new adult and junior players, and volunteers to help maintain the ground and wider facilities. Our youngest age groups through to the age of 11 now has over 70 members but we have capacity for more and we would also love to see youngsters picking up the game at 12 years onwards.
Community, friendship and fun are just as important to the club as the game of cricket. Working together with the church as we have for 95 years, members can enjoy fully licensed premises which are open every evening along with parish hall and function room hire for parties and businesses.”
To develop that theme further, Highfield Cricket Club host Fun Fridays each week, offering juniors a chance to get a feel for the sport. In late July the club will also be hosting a summer sports school, offering a mix of cricketing and wider sports-based fun.
For more information about Highfield Cricket Club and its events, visit www.highfieldcricketclub.co.uk