Most people know what happened at the George Hotel in Huddersfield on 29 August 1895. Twenty-one of Britain’s leading rugby clubs met to resign from the RFU and form the Northern Rugby Football Union, legalising ‘broken time’ payments to players and marking the start of what we know today as rugby league.
But what is not so well-known is how popular the split was among players and fans or how deeply the split affected rugby across the north of England. The split opened up a period of turmoil that caused passionate debate and enmities that would last a century and more.
No-one can doubt that the formation of the Northern Union had overwhelming support from players and supporters alike. Bradford’s players threatened to strike if the club did not support the new NU and supporters raised petitions in the pubs of Bradford calling for the club to back the split.
The club’s international three-quarter Tommy Dobson said that ‘all Yorkshire owes a debt of gratitude to the senior clubs for speaking out so plainly in favour of what should be the leading element in sport - truth’. Just six members resigned in protest.
At Leeds a special general meeting was held which voted decisively to support the splitters, resulting in two resignations from the club. Newspapers reported that the players in Huddersfield ‘naturally champion the Northern Union and a very large section of spectators of matches take the same side’. At Broughton Rangers, the motion to join the NU was moved by the club captain and carried unanimously. Hunslet, St Helens, Manningham, Hull and Leigh were similarly united.
Although they had attended the meeting at the George Hotel, Dewsbury did not join the NU and stayed loyal to the RFU. It was not a popular decision. A local journalist reported that ‘there wasn’t a single supporter who wouldn’t say “Let us have the Northern Union and the sooner the better”.’
The popularity of the NU was demonstrated at a special meeting in September of the Hull and District RFU (the forerunner of today’s Hull & District RL) which voted 33-24 to resign from the RFU and join the NU, even though the NU had no mechanism for district bodies or junior clubs to affiliate.
After the Aftermath
The summer of 1896 saw Lancashire’s two remaining big clubs join the NU. Both Salford and Swinton had balked at splitting from the RFU due to personal antagonism and organisational jealousy, but in April 1896 Salford held a special meeting to discuss joining the NU; only three people opposed the switch. Rochdale St Clements, Radcliffe, Werneth, Morecambe and many others followed suit that summer. Most of Warrington’s local clubs went at the same time, as did around fifty clubs which formed the Oldham Junior Rugby League.
At the same time in Yorkshire most of the clubs who had played in the first division of Yorkshire rugby union’s leagues decamped to the NU. Leeds Parish Church, that season’s champions, had only five votes against their switch of allegiance. In June 1897 Hull KR, that year’s Yorkshire cup and league champions, went over and the following summer most of what remained of the first and second divisions resigned en bloc to form the second division of the Yorkshire NU.
By June 1897 there were no rugby union clubs in the Halifax district, which was described by a Sowerby Bridge rugby union supporter as being ‘a hot bed of Northern Unionism bigotry’. At the start of the following season the Yorkshire Post reported that ‘in Leeds, rugby union football is practically non-existent’.
The Bradford and Huddersfield district rugby unions voted to disaffiliate from the YRU and affiliate to the NU. In 1899 Hebden Bridge, Ossett, Kirkstall and Alverthorpe flew the nest and in the summer of 1900 Keighley, Otley and Bingley decided that ‘the interest has gone out of rugby union’ and joined the NU.
At its opening round in 1901, rugby union’s Yorkshire Cup, once one of the biggest sporting contests in Britain, which once attracted bigger crowds than the FA Cup final, and which at its height had 132 clubs, could only muster 11 clubs.
It is also worth noting that two of Yorkshire’s current leading rugby union clubs - Morley and Otley - owe their origins to the aftermath of 1895. The original Morley club joined the NU in May 1897 when a majority voted to leave the RFU. Two months later supporters of the RFU founded a new club, ‘Morley English Rugby Football Club’, to which the present union club owes its origins.
And the original Otley rugby club left the RFU in 1900 and played rugby league for six seasons before disbanding due to financial problems. The current Otley club was founded as a rugby union club only in 1907.
In the North West, Barrow - the region’s leading club - voted unanimously to join the NU in April 1897. Ulverston (who faced a petition raised by fans), Millom and the rest of the followed them in July. By the summer of 1897 the Lancashire Rugby Union had only thirteen clubs, focused on the traditional ex-public schoolboy sides.
The loss of the north-west Lancashire clubs had a knock-on effect on Cumberland and Westmoreland clubs, and at the start of the 1898-99 season Athletic News commented that rugby union in Cumberland had been reduced ‘to an almost vanishing quality’. By January 1899 there was not a single rugby union club left in west Cumberland.
RFU cuts off own nose
The near-death experience of rugby union in the North was not simply due to the Northern Union. It also owed something to the behaviour of the RFU. Immediately after the split the RFU declared that playing for or against an NU team was an act of professionalism, punishable by a life ban from rugby union. This immediately posed problems at a local level.
For example, Beverley FC were left with virtually no fixtures after clubs in the Hull and District Rugby Union voted to support the NU. When they played matches with NU supporting clubs the Yorkshire Rugby Union expelled them.
But it wasn’t just clubs that were threatened. Any player who had any contact with the NU was thrown out of the Rugby Union. In February 1896, a Wyke player was banned for life for travelling with Brighouse Rangers to a match at Leigh, despite not even playing in the match! Elland had two players banned because one of their players had earlier played for a rugby union side against a team which contained a NU player.
Most bizarrely of all, in January 1898 Goole RUFC were ordered not to play a charity rugby match against a touring Little Red Riding Hood pantomime troupe; this was deemed to be an act of professionalism because earlier on its tour the troupe had played in a charity match with Batley!
The old returns as the new
It was only after 1900 that rugby union in the North of England slowly began to rebuild itself. The Yorkshire Rugby Union led the way, encouraging new clubs to be formed by ‘the class of players who hitherto have been elbowed out in the evolution of professionalism’.
Clubs began to be formed by ex-public and grammar schoolboys. Old Dewsburians was formed ‘by some of the better class Dewsbury and Batley residents’. Hull and East Riding club was set up ‘by the sons of Hull and district’s leading citizens’ and Wakefield RFC was founded by ‘Grammar School old boys and others’.
In Lancashire, the Furness, Oldham, Leigh and Vale of Lune rugby union clubs were formed in a similar fashion. By 1907, it was estimated that over 180 of those currently playing rugby union in Yorkshire were former public schoolboys, which, considering that the YRU had barely twenty clubs, accounted for at least half the players in the county.
Heart and Soul
The traditional idea that the split in 1895 was a ‘breakaway’ from rugby union underestimates the sheer scale of what happened in 1895. The entire heart and soul of rugby in the north went over to the Northern Union. Its senior clubs were the strongest in England and its local junior sides (known today as community clubs) were at the core of rugby’s local appeal across the north.
The rugby tradition that had been created in the north since the Yorkshire Cup was first played for in 1877 and which had seen rugby become the dominant sport in Yorkshire, Cumbria and large parts of Lancashire was continued by the Northern Union. It was rugby union that had to recreate a new tradition of its own.
If the meeting at the George in 1895 signaled the start of rugby league as we know it today, the aftermath of the split showed that it was the Northern Union that carried on the historic traditions of rugby in the north.