'Whinging Poms and Arrogant Aussies?' The roots of the rugby rivalry

-- This is an extract from 'The Tyranny of Deference: Anglo-􏰀Australian Relations and Rugby Union before World War II' published in Sport in History in 2009. It deals with the origins of the rugby union rivalry between England and Australia.

 Although in the 1850s the founders of Victorian (later Australian) rules football took their inspiration from the football that was played at Rugby School in England, it wasn’t until 1863 that a club which actually played the Rugby School code of football was founded in Australia, Sydney University Football Club. Over the next three decades New South Wales and eventually Queensland adopted Rugby football as their primary football code. In 1874 the Southern Rugby Union (SRU) was formed in Sydney as the governing body of the game in Australia. From its inception, the sport was closely associated with the universities and the Great Public [i.e. private] Schools. By the late 1890s, however, rugby had become a mass spectator sport in the eastern states, attracting considerable crowds, press coverage and public interest.

Part of its appeal among all classes was the opportunities it offered for competition between different countries of the Empire. As with cricket, the growth of rugby brought with it regular tours from teams representing New Zealand and, most importantly, Britain. In 1888 an unofficial British rugby tour organised by the sporting entrepeneurs Alfred Shaw and Arthur Shrewsbury had given added impetus to the popularity of the game. Rugby also presented an important an important form of cultural exchange, as young middle-class Australian males took up studentships at Oxford, Cambridge or the London and Edinburgh medical schools. Indeed, a number, such as C.G. Wade and S.M.J. Woods , even represented England or Scotland at international level.

Rugby thus became an important part of the imperial sporting network that included cricket, rowing and athletics. As with these other sports, the goal of rugby tours was to use sport to generate a sense of imperial unity. Welcoming the 1904 British rugby team to Australia, J.C. Davis, Sydney’s leading sports journalist of the time, encapsulated this when he wrote that sporting tours created ‘an extended feeling of appreciation and racial sympathy. They have incidentally shown to the muscular Britisher at home that the Britisher abroad and his sinewy colonial descendents are not aliens because thousands of miles of sea intervene.’

It was in this spirit that the governing body of English rugby, the Rugby Football Union (RFU), organised the first official rugby tour to Australia by a British representative side in 1899. Captained and managed by the Reverend Matthew Mullineux, the tour proved to be unexpectedly controversial. Mullineux was disappointed with the spirit in which the Australians played the game. Most of all, he was horrified by the widespread, and well-founded, rumours that players received money for playing, contrary to the amateur regulations of the sport.

For their part, the Australians felt let down because, contrary to expectations, the British team was not truly representative; only seven of the twenty-one players in the side had ever appeared in an international before. Most importantly, they were somewhat shocked at the highly competitive manner in which the British played the game. Much to their hosts’ surprise, the British tourists appeared to go all out to win, rather then to play the game for its own enjoyment, as would be expected by representatives of the home of ‘fair play’. The contrast between the rhetoric and the reality of British play was highlighted in a newspaper cartoon published during the tour, in which a British lion confronted a kangaroo:

Lion: ‘Look here, you don’t play fair!’ 
Kangaroo: ‘What do you call fair?’ 
Lion: ‘Well-er-you see, I didn’t come out here to get licked.’

Far from being temporary hiccough in international rugby relations, these problems were exacerbated during the next British tour of Australia in 1904. Captained by Scottish forward David Bedell-Sivright, the side departed Australia unbeaten before going on to face sterner opposition in New Zealand, but left a trail of controversy behind them. Foreshadowing Douglas Jardine, the captain of the 1932-33 English cricket tourists, much of the ill-feeling of the tour was generated by the behaviour of Bedell-Sivright, about whom it was said ‘his conception of football was one of trained violence.’

Two of the three test matches were punctuated by brawling between the British captain and his Australian adversaries and a match in Newcastle against Northern Districts was interrupted when he led his men off the field in protest against the dismissal of British forward Denys Dobson. The referee alleged that Dobson had sworn at him after being penalised at a scrum. Bedell-Sivright denied that one of his men would do anything so low and promptly marched his side off the pitch. Eventually they were persuaded to return, but the incident became notorious as another example of the ease with which the British dispensed with their principles of fair play when it suited them. 

The relationship deteriorated further during the first Australian rugby union tour of Britain in 1908.  Following in the wake of successful tours ‘Home’ by the New Zealand and South African national sides, the tourists - known as the Wallabies - were dogged by controversy and deteriorating relations with their British hosts. The Scottish and Irish rugby unions refused to play them because of suspicions that the Australians were professionals. On the pitch, the tourists were accused of being overly-violent and playing solely for the purpose of winning. Unprecedentedly, three players were sent off during the tour, including one, Syd Middleton, against Oxford University, the very embodiment of the amateur ‘rugger’ tradition.

For many in Britain, the tour demonstrated the moral deficiencies of the typical Australian. Scottish rugby writer Hamish Stuart claimed that ‘custom and the national idea have so blunted their moral sense that they are sublimely unconscious of their delinquency and are sincerely surprised when accused of unfair practice’. The Australians were reciprocally less than enamoured by their treatment in Britain. Returning home, James McMahon, the tour manager, complained that

as visitors to the Mother Country, as representatives of part of the British nation, [the players] could not understand and were certainly not prepared for such hostility as was shown them by a section of the press. 

In many ways these rugby disputes anticipated the 1932-33 Bodyline cricket controversy. Like the Bodyline events, the disputes were not caused by any Australian proto-nationalism but by the injustice felt by Australians when British sides did not abide by the supposedly British sporting values of ‘fair play’ or refused to accept their opponents asequally as British as they. This was precisely the basis of much of the anger of Australians during Bodyline. It was not so much that the English cricket captain Douglas Jardine was engaging in intimidatory tactics but that he appeared to have departed from the ethical code of the British gentleman and was using such tactics against fellow Britons. This feeling of betrayed loyalty was captured by an anonymous ‘Man in the Street’ who published a pamphlet in Sydney titled The Sporting English, a scathing attack on the English in response to the 1932-33 cricket tour and its aftermath:

We Australians are at a loss to understand why we, alone of all the Empire, are singled out for these continual attacks. We claim to be loyal to the throne, and to uphold the traditions of the British race. Also we pay our debts and are England’s very best customer within the Empire. When danger threatened, we were of the first to respond to the call to arms by the Motherland.

The underlying imperial loyalty of such complaints was made explicit by Wallaby captain H.M. Moran who, despite noting that his fellow tourists had ‘developed a dislike for everything English’, also pointed out that ‘there is one symbol of [Australian] unity with the nation of nations. It is the monarchy.’

An Australian will often express himself rudely about a visiting Englishman who behaves superciliously. That is common. He will frequently hurl angry criticisms at a British government. That, he considers his right. He will even in a pet be disrespectful to a British government, though this is rare. But to the King, no man with impunity may offer insult.

Thus what was being expressed by Australians in these sporting disputes was not an embryonic form of nationalism but a thwarted Imperial loyalty. And in attempting to deal with this frustration over the next three decades, far from being driven to greater hostility towards Britain, the Australian rugby union authorities sought to bend over backwards in an attempt to appease their tormentors.


Was rugby more dangerous than soccer in Victorian times?

 Rugby or Soccer in 1888? Image from Mike Huggins'  Victorians and Sport.

Rugby or Soccer in 1888? Image from Mike Huggins' Victorians and Sport.

It’s often thought that one of the reasons that soccer became more popular than rugby in the nineteenth century was that it was less dangerous than the oval ball game. Indeed, the sociologists Eric Dunning and Ken Sheard made much of this argument in Barbarians, Gentlemen and Players (1979) their sociological investigation of the history of rugby (you can find my critique of the book here).

This may have been the belief of some people, but it wasn’t shared by the medical profession at the time. The Lancet - then as now the leading medical journal in Britain - argued that it was soccer which was the most dangerous of the football codes. Its 24 March 1894 issue it devoted a major article to the dangers of football, examining both soccer and rugby in detail, and came to the conclusion that: 

it is our opinion that Association, at first sight a tame game compared with the other, is possibly more perilous than Rugby Union; and that its modern developments, though in many ways so similar, are more certainly towards danger than are the developments in the tactics of the older branch.

It returned to the subject over a decade later on 16 November 1907, following the split in rugby and the massive expansion in the popularity of soccer across Britain. It saw no reason to change its opinion:

Everything seems to show that the degree of danger incurred by players is greater in the dribbling than in the carrying game.

Of course, this does not decisively prove that rugby was less dangerous than soccer - just that many doctors thought it was. But, perhaps more importantly, it does demonstrate how easy - and mistakenly - it is to assume that today's preconceptions about the modern football codes were also shared earlier generations.

The Roots of Rugby League - a four week course

I'm really pleased to announce that I've teamed up with Heritage Quay at the University of Huddersfield to teach a free four-week course on 'The Roots of Rugby League' starting on Wednesday 14 October.

Over four Wednesday evenings - starting at 6pm and ending at 8pm - we'll be looking at the development of rugby from its origins in the folk football games of pre-industrial times all the way up to the outbreak of World War One.

Along the way we'll look at the emergence of rugby in the north of England, how it eclipsed soccer in popularity in the north, the 1895 split, the rule changes, and the emergence of the rugby league as we know it today.

The course is free and open to everyone. You don't need to do anything - just come along, listen and, if you want, ask questions and take part in the discussion. I'll be looking at historic documents, showing some rare films from the past and getting to the bottom of what makes rugby league tick. 

You can find the details of how to book your free place at the Heritage Quay website here.

I look forward to seeing you there.

Here We Go Again: 'English Rugby Union is not a middle-class sport'

Every time there's a major rugby union event in England, the press roll out the old cliche about 'rugby union no longer being the preserve of the middle-class'. There was a laughably fact-free discussion along these lines on BBC Radio 4's The World Tonight (starts 30 minutes in) on the eve of the world cup kick-off.

More interesting was Bed Dirs' article on the BBC Sport website, Is English Rugby Union Just For Posh Kids? which makes the point that 61 per cent of top-level English rugby union players went to private schools (67 per cent of the current England world cup squad are privately educated), as opposed to just 6 per cent of elite English soccer players. The figure for rugby league would be even lower. The percentage of the general population who go to private school is 7 per cent.

 'Rugby Football at the Big Schools'. In 2015 as in 1918?

'Rugby Football at the Big Schools'. In 2015 as in 1918?

Defenders of the idea that rugby union is classless often argue that some of these players - it is never stated how many - originally went to state schools but were later given scholarships by private schools to play rugby there. This is undoubtedly true.

But this merely shows just how deeply rugby union is part of the middle-class world of private education. A cohort representing 7 per cent of the population occupy over 60 per cent of the places in the England squad - this makes the England more 'middle-class' than Oxford or Cambridge universities

More to the point, when was the last time a teenage soccer player was sent to a private school to improve his football skills and enhance his chances of playing for England? My guess would be never. 

But this should come as no surprise. Historically speaking, the social composition of rugby union has barely changed, as you can see in the following analysis of the social and educational backgrounds of England internationals between 1871 and 1895 that appeared in chapter five of A Social History of English Rugby Union (needless to say, the chapter goes into much more detail than this blogpost allows):

"Between the first international in 1871 and the advent of professionalism in 1995, 1,143 players were selected to play for England. We know the schools attended by 876 of them. The number of internationals who attended elementary, board, secondary modern or comprehensive state schools was just 66, not a significantly larger number than the 47 who were educated at Rugby School itself.

This leaves 810 who were educated at grammar or fee-paying schools. Of these, 155 went to schools identifying themselves as grammar schools, although this self-definition includes both independent fee-paying schools and state-funded secondary schools, leaving 655  who were unambiguously privately educated. In other words, 92.4% of all England internationals for whom we have school details went to fee-paying or grammar schools.

Of course, there were also players who had originally attended non-fee paying schools but won academic or athletic scholarships to private or grammar schools. Working-class scholarship boys such as Ray French and Fran Cotton featured especially in England sides of the late 1950s to the mid-1970s. But unfortunately there is no data available that would help us quantify their number. It is also the case that the social mobility of this period that was opened up in large part by educational opportunity proved short-lived and was certainly in decline by the mid-1990s.

We could therefore assume that this group would not significantly alter the overall picture. Moreover, the phenomenon of the rugby-playing ‘working-class scholarship boy’ highlights the fact that rugby union was part of the acculturisation process through which talented young students were assimilated into the middle class, rather than rugby union becoming ‘classless’ and moving down the social ladder in its appeal, as was the case with soccer.

What about the players whose schools we do not know? Of these 267 players, 25 attended university, medical school, naval academy or the Royal Indian Engineering College. We know that 68 of those for whom we have no educational data had what can be termed ‘middle-class’ jobs, ranging from sales managers and accountants to company directors and, in the case of John Matters who played for England in 1899, a rear admiral in the Royal Navy. And of those for whom we have neither educational nor occupational data, 15 played for socially-prestigious elite clubs such as Blackheath, Manchester or Richmond. This would indicate another 108 players that could be categorised as being clearly from the middle classes.

What of the remaining 159 players? There are 55 for whom we know only the name of the club for which they played. They played for clubs in the midlands, south-west or pre-1895 north that traditionally had a socially-mixed, cross-class playing personnel, making it impossible to draw any inference about their social background from their club. This leaves us with 104 players whose schools we do not know but who are recorded as having manual occupations, beginning in 1882 when storeman Harry Wigglesworth of the Yorkshire club Thornes made his debut.

The most common employment was that of publican, which provided gainful employment for 22 England internationals. Becoming a pub landlord was invariably an inducement to a player to stay with a club or to join a new one, offering an attractive way out of direct manual labour. Thirteen of these publicans became rugby league players. Indeed, 38 of the 104 manual workers went on to play league. The only other significant manual occupational groups were thirteen police constables and eight ship and dockyard workers who played for clubs on the south-west coast and were employed mainly in naval dockyards. 

We can therefore say that of the 1,088 England players for whom we have verifiable educational or occupational information, only 170 (or 15.6%) were unambiguously not part of the middle classes, either because they attended non-private or grammar schools or were employed in manual labour."

William Webb Ellis - back from the dead

I wrote the following short piece as the prologue to A Social History of English Rugby Union in 2009. At that time, the William Webb Ellis myth seemed to be fading away. But as anyone who saw Friday's opening of rugby union's world cup [which you can see below], it's back with a vengeance, And once again, expediency, this time commercial, has outweighed evidence...

Of the little that is known about William Webb Ellis, we can be certain of one thing. He did not invent the game of rugby football.

An unremarkable schoolboy, he lived his life in dutiful obscurity as an Anglican clergyman until his death in 1872. Four years later, however, a second life began for him when Rugby School old boy and benefactor Matthew Bloxam suddenly named Ellis as the boy who in 1823 first picked up the ball and ran with it. Bloxam offered no evidence for his claim. Nor did he provide any in 1880 when he reiterated his view. 

At the height of the war that split rugby apart in 1895, the Old Rugbeian Society set up a committee to investigate the true origins of the Rugby football. Despite considerable efforts, not one person came forward to support Bloxam. The committee found not a single eye-witness, not a solitary written word, not even a syllable of hearsay evidence to support the William Webb Ellis story. 

Nevertheless, the committee decided ‘in all probability’ that Ellis was the ‘innovator’ of running with the ball. In 1900 a plaque was erected at the school that proclaimed unhesitatingly that Ellis ‘with a fine disregard of the rules of football as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it’ in 1823. 

Not for the first time in the history of rugby, evidence had been outweighed by exigency.

Empire of the Scrum: the history of rugby in Shanghai

In 1839 Britain declared war on Imperial China to defend its right to sell opium to the Chinese. The British occupied Shanghai and, at the war’s conclusion in 1842, the city became what was known as a ‘Treaty Port’ with a permanent British garrison and diplomatic and business settlement. As in the rest of their imperial world, the British colonialists established a local network of social and sporting clubs.

As Simon Drakeford explains in his exhaustively researched book on the history of Shanghai RFC, It’s Rough Game but Good Sportthe settlers set up the city’s first football club in 1867. As with their other cultural activities, the expatriate British mirrored the concerns of what they called ‘home’ and at that time played a football game that was neither modern soccer or rugby. The club did not last long and in 1881 a new Shanghai club was formed, this time committed to playing according to the rules of the Rugby Football Union. This too was short-lived. Other clubs were formed but died away. It wasn’t until 1904 that the recognisable Shanghai RFC came into existence. 

Rugby union became a significant force on the Shanghai sporting and social scene and remained so until the liberation of China by Mao Zedong’s communist forces in 1949. The club, like the rest of Britain’s imperial legacy on the Chinese mainland, was wound up in 1950 and the balance of its assets donated to the RFU. It wasn’t until the 1990s that rugby union was once again played in Shanghai.

It’s Rough Game but Good Sport describes in forensic detail not only the story of the club and rugby in Shanghai but also the social history of the city’s British expatriate community. Spurred on both by enthusiastic players and the Muscular Christian imperatives of the educational system, rugby had become the most popular football code in the port by the outbreak of World War One. Its influence spread and during the inter-war years the game was not merely the preserve of the British in the city but encompassed the French, American and Japanese occupying garrisons, and enjoyed regular tours from visiting European army regiments and Japanese university sides.

By 1939 the city boasted not only an English-speaking league but also a six-team Japanese league, the standard of which was equal to that of the Europeans. Indeed, on 8 December 1941 Shanghai RFC was itself defeated by the local Japanese students of Tung Wen College, a portent of what was to immediately follow. The day after, the Japanese army invaded and occupied the British settlement.

The community in which Shanghai RFC blossomed will be familiar to readers of J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun. Drakeford does not shy away from describing the racism of the British or the club. Horrendous descriptions of the way in which Chinese ‘coolies’ were treated, accounts of the arrogance of the colonialists, and of discrimination by the club itself - against both Chinese and British of the lower classes - recur throughout the text. No Chinese player took part the game until 1932, and he had been educated in England. It would be almost seventy years before significant numbers of Chinese players began to take part in the sport. 

Histories of sports' clubs are notoriously difficult to write successfully. Even the most accomplished, such as Chuck Korr’s West Ham United (1987), Richard Stremski’s Kill for Collingwood (1986) and Andrew Moore’s The Mighty Bears (1996), struggle to maintain a balance between administrative minutiae, repetitive seasons and narrative flow. Yet despite the fact that the book is almost 700 pages long, the tight integration between the sporting and social history of Shanghai means that It’s a Rough Game is never less than interesting. In terms of its command of detail, personalities and sporting history the book is comparable to Tom Hickie’s outstanding 1998 history of Sydney University FC, A Sense of Union.

Most importantly, the book provides historians with a new window into the social world of the British imperial expatriate community. Rugby was a not insignificant part of the recreational life of most British colonialist communities across the imperial world yet remains woefully unexplored beyond the usual Australia/New Zealand/South Africa axis. Yet as Ng Peng Kong’s 2003 history/memoir Rugby: A Malaysian Chapter described, rugby union played an important role both in maintaining the ‘Britishness’ of the expatriate community and in allowing them to resist or regulate the participation of the indigenous population. 

As a history of rugby and of the British community in Shanghai, Simon Drakeford’s book is an important contribution to the historiography of sport and of the British empire.

- - Simon Drakeford, It’s Rough Game but Good Sport: The Life, Times and Personalities of the Shanghai Rugby Football Club (Hong Kong: Earnshaw Press, 2014), Pp. xviii + 696. £47.20 (hb) ISBN 978-9-881-60900-7.

'A Social History of English Rugby Union' wins best book award

I'm deeply honoured that A Social History of English Rugby Union was voted joint 'Best Academic Monograph on Rugby Union' by delegates to the 2015 'World in Union: Rugby, Past Present & Future' conference.

Held at the University of Brighton on 10-12 September and an official part of the 'Festival of Rugby' celebrations for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, the conference attracted over sixty of the world's leading scholars of sport in general and rugby in particular.

Alongside A Social History of the Rugby Union my co-winners were David R Black and John Nauright for their 1998 book Rugby and the South African Nation. The award for the best edited book of essays went to Greg Ryan for his Tackling Rugby Myths: Rugby and New Zealand Society, 1854-2004 and Tim Chandler and John Nauright's Making Men: Rugby and Masculine Identity. The prize for best popular history to Huw Richards' 2007 A Game for Hooligans: The History of Rugby Union

If you haven't read any of these books yet, you now have no excuse.

Miners and rugby league at the National Coal Mining Museum

The National Coal Mining Museum of England is currently hosting the Rugby League Cares 'Rugby League Heritage on Tour' exhibition. It opened on Saturday 1 August and the audience of almost 100 people heard David Hinchliffe, Mike Stephenson, Neil Fox and myself. If you haven't seen the exhibition, there couldn't be a better place to visit. My short address is below:

No sport has such a deep, rich and organic connection with miners and the mining industry than rugby league. Although people in the North East talked about Newcastle Utd calling down a pit for a new centre-forward or in the East Midlands Notts County Cricket Club shouting down a mine shaft for a new fast bowler, neither soccer nor cricket are as intwined with mining as rugby league.

Indeed, the reason why rugby league is this year celebrating its 120th anniversary, the reason why it split from the rugby union in 1895, can in part be blamed on the prominence of miners in rugby!

Rugby was brought to the north by public-school eduucated young men of the upper classes, but within a generation it was been enthusiastically taken up by miners. In 1883, a team from Thornes in Wakefield won the Yorkshire Cup, the biggest upset so far in rugby’s short life. They brought new tactics to the way the game was played and showed that rugby was a game for people of all classes, from all walks of life.

But this was not welcomed by those who ran the game. In 1886 the Yorkshire Post published a letter from ‘a former public schoolboy’ who complained about a recent match:

A great many of the Horbury team were artisans and colliers. Now, I don't object to any working man - collier or whatever he may be - as long as he understands the game he is playing, but when in ignorance he puts on his working boots, which, combined with betting on the event [and] brute force ignorance of the game of Rugby Union ... it is a disgrace to the prestige of “Dear Old England” for time-honoured fair play.

Many of the leaders of the RFU did not like playing teams of working-class players - and even less liked being beaten by them!

And it was this antagonism to the rise of working-class players like miners and other manual workers and the refusal to allow them to receive broken time payments to compensate them for taking time off work that led to rugby splitting in two in 1895. 

When the Northern Union kicked off in 1895 it was common for teams from Wigan, St Helens, Castleford, Wakefield and even Hunslet to have teams composed almost entirely of miners.

Rugby was now also an integral part of the everyday life of miners. If you go to the Railway Hotel pub in Featherstone, you will see a plaque that not only says that the pub was the birthplace of Featherstone Rovers but also that the pub was the site of the inquiry was conducted into the shooting dead of two striking miners in Featherstone during the great strike of 1893. 

Harry Speed, England international in the 1890s and the captain of the original Castleford team, was a surface worker at Glasshoughton Colliery who also organised fund-raising matches for striking miners. Billy Batten, one of three mineworkers in the first ten members of the Rugby League Hall of Fame, donated £350 of his testimonial fund to mining families in his home town of Kinsley during the 1921 miners’ strike.

When Castleford applied to join the rugby league in 1924, the first line of their application stated: ‘Our claim for inclusion as a first-class league club is based upon the fact that Castleford is the centre of a mining district’. In 1926 Featherstone Miners’ Welfare bought Post Office Road ground from the landlord on behalf of the rugby club.

In June 1934 over 1,000 miners at Featherstone’s two pits voted for a weekly wage deduction of threepence to be given to the club. And when Whitehaven joined the rugby league in 1948 their two leading officials worked at Haig Pit and their ground, the Recre, was the Miners’ Welfare ground. 

We can even trace back Wigan’s nickname of ‘The Pie-Eaters’ back to the 1926 Miners’ Lockout, when miners in Wigan were accused by their more militant rivals in St Helens of going back to work early and therefore eating humble pie from the mine owners. 

Internationally, the unforgettable 1946 Great Britain touring side, the only British team never to lose a test match in Australia, was built around a front row of three miners. Five of the 1950 British touring side Down Under were miners, and miners continued to play for great Britain until the late 1980s.

Nor is it just in the north of England where mining is synonymous with rugby league. League is the game of the coalfields of Queensland and NSW in Australia - Andrew Johns himself comes from a mining family. And in New Zealand, the West Coast mining region is a heartland of league in a sea of rugby union.

But the link between mining and rugby league goes deeper. The values that defined the mining communities are also those of rugby league. 

Mining is physical and brutal, it requires great resilience and teamwork - just like rugby league. 

Mining communities gave rise to fantastic expressions of creative talent of ordinary people - like the Pitmen Painters - thanks to Miners’ Welfare Institutes, and rugby league was part of that.

But most of all, mining communities fostered a spirit of fairness, of resistence to injustice and of equality for all. And those are exactly the principles rugby league was founded upon 120 years ago.

So there could be no more fitting place to host this rugby league exhibition than here in this museum, an institution that honours the millions of men and women who built the mining industry.

Maori, Kiwis and the Haka

There's an interesting video on the Follow-Rugby.com website that traces the evolution of the All Blacks' haka, demonstrating that the haka as we know it today has undergone some very significant changes over the past century.

However, the brief clip it shows of the 1922 haka is neither the All Blacks nor rugby union. It's actually the 1922 Maori rugby league tourists playing New South Wales Seconds at the Sydney Cricket Ground, a game the Maori lost 31-14. As well as a long take of the haka, the footage is notable for showing an early version of the play-the-ball, which looks like a mini-scrum (as its originators intended). 

YouTube also has footage of the haka being performed in 1926 by the New Zealand rugby league tourists to Britain, known at the time as the Professional All Blacks, at the first test match of the tour at Wigan. Oddly enough, it seems that Pathe News could not distinguish between league and union, so the clip is labelled as a rugby union match! The haka is led by Phonse Carroll, the NZ hooker who was a relative of Brisbane Bronco and Leeds Rhino Tonie Carroll and, more importantly, a conscientious objector in World War One.

To say the least, the tour was not a success - you can read the full story in John Coffey's excellent book The Tour That Died of Shame - but the British Pathe clip shows the two sides running out, the haka and some of the play. The first two players out for the British side are captain Jonty Parkin followed by Jim Sullivan. The Kiwis are led out by Mildred Mair (the wife of the tour manager), carrying a NZ flag and a stuffed kiwi, followed by captain Bert Avery.

At the time the match took place, hundreds of thousands of miners were locked out by the pit-owners - 40,000 in the Wigan area alone - and five months previously Britain had been gripped by the General Strike. Despite the hardships that were been inflicted on the local miners, fifteen thousand people turned out to watch an exciting 28-20 win for Britain. 

The Walter Camp myth and the origins of American football

 Walter Camp in 1878

Walter Camp in 1878

This is the third article in a short series on the history of the rugby codes in North America. It looks at the origins of American football and its ‘creation myth’ of Walter Camp’s invention of a uniquely American game. The idea that American football was invented by Walter Camp is still widely believed by fans and academics alike, but is based on a misunderstanding of how rugby developed. For a more detailed discussion of the birth of American football, see my ‘Unexceptional Exceptionalism: the origins of American football in a transnational context’ published in the Journal of Global History in 2013.

Just like the William Webb Ellis legend, American football developed its own ‘creation myth’. In the same way that the Webb Ellis story painted a picture of a sport that owed everything to the public schools that supplied the the RFU with its leaders, American football’s tale emphasised how uniquely American its game was.

The story revolves around Walter Camp. He went to Yale University in 1875 and became the starting half-back for the university rugby team. But, so the story goes, he was dissatisfied with the rules of the game. He thought they were too vague and based on British traditions that were inappropriate for the ‘New World’.  In particular he thought the scrum was distinctly un-American, writing in 1886 that: 

English players form solid masses of men in a scrummage and engage in a desperate kicking and pushing match until the ball  pops out unexpectedly somewhere, leaving the struggling mass ignorant of its whereabouts, still kicking blindly where they think the ball may be.

To get rid of this problem, in 1880 he proposed that the scrum should be abolished and in its place the two sets of forwards lined up opposite each other. He invented the ‘snap’ when the ball is handed back to the quarterback to make the game less chaotic. Eventually the forward pass was introduced. 

But this tale of how Camp invented American football is its own scrummage of fact, fiction and supposition. The historical record is not that quite straight forward. 

The first and most glaring problem is that, when it came to playing rugby without a scrum, the Canadians got there first. 

In October 1875, a full five years before Walter Camp proposed abolishing the scrum in America, the first Canadian rugby enthusiasts had proposed precisely the same thing at a ‘Football Convention’. Nine clubs met to discuss the rules of the game in Toronto and decided to adopt the rules of the RFU. But three clubs voted against. These clubs essentially wanted to play rugby without the scrum. Eventually the reformers, led by McGill and Toronto universities, won the argument, and rugby in Canada began its evolution towards gridiron-style Canadian football.

Back in the USA, when Columbia, Harvard, Princeton and Yale students met in November 1876 to found the Intercollegiate Football Association (IFA) and agree a common set of rules, they adopted the RFU rule book including the scrum rules.

But arguments still raged between the elite football-playing universities of the U.S. east coast. The big debate was about the number of players in a team. The first IFA meeting voted for 15-a-side but Walter Camp’s Yale wanted 11-a-side. They had played 11-a-side teams ever since 1873 when a team of footballers from Eton College visited from England. Yale unexpectedly won the match, which was played under a hybrid set of rules. 

The Yale men’s surprising success convinced them that eleven men were all that were needed to play the game. Eventually in October 1880 the other universities agreed to Camp and Yale’s proposal. Rugby in America became an 11-a-side game. 

This move to eleven players fundamentally changed rugby. With just six or seven forwards, instead of the normal nine or ten found in a fifteen-a-side team, a traditional rugby scrum was impossible. In rugby at this time, the aim of the forwards was not to heel the ball backwards but to dribble it forward through the opposing pack. Opponents could line-up several columns deep, preventing headway from being made for considerable periods. 

However, with fewer opposing forwards, dribbling the ball forward resulted in it quickly emerging out on the opponents’ side, giving them use of the ball to set up their own attack. Conventional scrummaging was completely counter-productive. Yale and the other teams playing eleven-a-side rugby therefore began to line their forwards up in a single line, which became known as the ‘open formation’, so that they could heel the ball behind them to their backs as quickly as possible. 

At the same time that teams were reduced to eleven, the ‘snapback’ - where the ball was passed backwards to the quarterback (itself the Scottish rugby term for the scrum-half) - was introduced. Two years later in 1882, the ‘downs’ rule was introduced, which gave a team three ‘downs’ to get the ball five yards upfield or hand it over to the other team (later increased to four downs and ten yards). 

True believers of the Walter Camp myth believe these changes were uniquely American. But similar changes would take place in Canadian rugby and in rugby league. Even blocking, which allowed players without the ball to be tackled, was not unknown in the early days of rugby and was used by Blackheath and at Rugby School itself. There was nothing specifically American about the way Walter Camp changed rugby. Even as late as December 1893 the New York Times could still call the American game ‘rugby’.

What did make the game uniquely American was not one of Walter Camp’s innovations at all. It was the legalisation in 1906 of the forward pass. Introduced to open the sport up and reduce its defensive brutality, more than any other change it was this that gave American football its distinctive character. Camp, by this time dubbed ‘the father of American football’, remained agnostic on this fundamental change that marked the definitive passage of rugby into American football. The gridiron game was now truly an American game, yet its origins lay not in the head of Walter Camp but in the debates about how to play rugby football that took place throughout the English-speaking world in the second half of the nineteenth century.

- - The full story of the fate of the rugby codes in North America is covered in my forthcoming book The Oval World.

Rugby League in North America in the 1950s

 Match-day programme for Newcastle v American All Stars (1953)

Match-day programme for Newcastle v American All Stars (1953)

Rugby league's North American odyssey  began in September 1928 when, on the way back from their Australasian tour, the British tourists played two exhibition games in Canada. Two sides representing England and Wales played matches in Vancouver and Montreal, with England winning 30-17 and 21-18 respectively, the latter being one of the first league games ever to be played on a Sunday. The fact that touring sides from both hemispheres tended to sail via north or central America at the time meant that it didn’t require much imagination to see the possibilities which could open up for the game on the American continent.

Nor had not escaped the attention of those few rugby league supporters and officials who had been able to visit North America that their game bore more than a passing resemblance to American football, especially at the then more popular college level, where forward passing was relatively uncommon and the main difference between the two games was the blocking of opponents without the ball. Philosophically, the two games shared a focus on tackling, running with the ball and retaining possession, together with a common rejection of such rugby union shibboleths as the ruck, maul and line-out. As Jack Gibson somewhat mischievously pointed out in the 1980s, the two sports were basically the same game but with different rules. 

During the 1932 Lions' tour to Australasia the Australian Board of Control discussed the prospects for expansion into North America and recommended that two representatives from England and Australia go to the U.S. to organise a series of exhibition matches. The Board’s idea was to organise matches in conjunction with college football games, with the league teams playing their first half, followed by the first half of the gridiron game, then for the league match to be completed, followed by the second half of gridiron.

Despite this slightly odd proposal, the two tour managers, Oldham’s  G.F. Hutchins and Warrington’s Bob Anderton, enthusiastically backed Miller’s suggestion and proposed that the  R.F.L. should explore the possibility of establishing the game in the U.S. by organising a series of matches between England and Australia in 'the principal cities from New York to San Francisco' but the Council, probably because the game in England was being battered by the slump of the early 1930s, unanimously turned down the idea. 

These hopes for expansion were more than wishful thinking. Professional American football was something of a sickly adolescent in the 1930s, the N.F.L. only having been established very shakily in 1920, and was geographically confined to a handful of industrial cities in the East and Mid-West. Indeed, it wasn’t until the 1940s and 1950s that either the N.F.L. became established on the West Coast. Isolated in sporting terms from the rest of the country, the establishment of sporting links with Australia was a logical move, especially considering that in terms of distance, Sydney was almost as close to California as New York was. 

Despite the Council’s initial opposition, the fascination with America would not go away. At an R.F.L. meeting in June 1934 Brigadier-General A.C. Critchley, who the previous year had set up London Highfield, suggested that he should bring over a team of American footballers to learn the game: 'while these had never played rugby, he thought they could soon be trained and coached into the game and he would like to see them in action against our teams. He said there was a revulsion against the large number of casualties in the American game and that there might be possibilities for the Rugby League game in America.'

Nothing came of the suggestion, probably because the R.F.L. Council were none too impressed with Critchley’s record with London, which had made a huge loss of £8,000 in their first season and were about to moved North to play in Liverpool. Interest continued however. In 1936, the New South Wales R.L. discussed introducing the game to California with a representative of an American millionaire. The following year the R.F.L. Council agreed to send two teams to the U.S. to play a series of exhibition matches, following an offer from a Mr Ormsby of New York to organise and underwrite a tour, but the promises of finance never materialised.

However, the possibility of a very major breakthrough came in June 1939, when, apparently out of the blue, the R.F.L. received a letter from the secretary of the Californian Rugby Union. In it, he explained that California was considering abandoning union for league and asked 'for the Council’s views on the possibility of terms being arranged'. This was potentially the biggest development in the game since the announcement of the 1907 New Zealand tour to Britain.

Sensing that history could be made, the Council decided to pursue discussions, 'even to the extent of visiting California' noted the minutes of the meeting. The following month another letter arrived from California, this time from an exiled Rochdale Hornets fan, explaining the opportunities which were opening up for rugby league. That year’s annual R.F.L. conference met in a state of confident anticipation, with G.F. Hutchins, now the R.F.L. chairman declaring that he was 'happy at the prospect of America coming into the Rugby League'.

Sadly, it was not to be. Less than two months after the annual conference, World War Two broke out and, as with the 1940 tour of Australasia, which the Council had sanctioned at the same meeting, the Californian adventure was postponed indefinitely. It remains one of rugby league’s great 'what ifs'.

Although the war meant an end to any plans for expansion and even, to a large extent, contact with the rest of the league-playing world, it did not curtail North American interest in the game. In late 1943, and yet again apparently out of the blue, the RFL received a letter from the secretary of the Halifax (Nova Scotia) Rugby Union, announcing that they had “changed over from rugby union to rugby league” and asking for rule books to be sent over. Largely in response to the growing war-time popularity of Canadian football - which having started as rugby union had gradually adopted most of the features of American football - the rugby authorities in Nova Scotia had decided to ditch union and take up the more attractive game.

However, the difficulties of communicating regularly across the North Atlantic in the middle of a submarine war meant that the R.F.L. couldn’t provide any practical assistance and it wasn’t until 1946 that the rugby stronghold of the Maritime Provinces - Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island -  could make the switch as a whole. Nevertheless, the new game was quickly hailed as a success, having, in the word of the Halifax (Nova Scotia) Herald: “speeded up play and eliminated much that was deadly dull under the old Rugby Union code”. 

Despite this positive start, rugby league began to struggle in the 1950s as Canadian football made rapid strides in popularity throughout the country. It was not helped by identifying itself as “English Rugby”: the Canadians had simply changed the rules from union to league and didn’t call the sport rugby league. Indeed, the 1954 Canadian Rugger annual didn’t even mention that the Maritime Provinces played rugby league despite an article declaring 'English Rugby strong in the Maritimes'.

The reality was discovered by R.F.L. secretary Bill Fallowfield when he visited in 1954. He found the game in very poor health and proposed that the Canadians should stop calling the game English Rugby, suggested that there could be touring teams sent over from England and France, and recommended that they should approach the Canadian-born Lord Beaverbrook to become patron. None of these ideas were taken up and, despite rumours of tours to and from Canada in the 1950s, Canadian rugby league withered on the vine, finally dying out in the early 1960s.

However, the dream continued to flicker in the U.S. in the early 1950s. After an exploratory visit to the U.S.A. by New Zealand’s J.E. Knowling in 1952, the French Rugby League invited an American team to take part in the inaugural World Cup competition due to take place in 1954. A team was assembled by American wrestling promoter Mike Dimitro, who had seen rugby league in Australia during his time in the U.S. Navy in World War Two, and arrangements were made with the Australian Board of Control to tour Australia and New Zealand in 1953 in preparation for the tournament. Named the “American All Stars” the 22-strong team of gridiron converts consisted of enthusiastic college footballers plus the Pittsburgh Steelers' starting quarterback Gary Kerkorian playing at stand-off.

Despite never having played the game before, the All Stars performed reasonably well, winning 6 and drawing 2 of their 26 games down under. Al Kirkland, their star player, adapted so well that he was signed by Parramatta and became a first grade regular for them in 1956 before moving to England and playing briefly for Leeds. Vince Jones, the tourists’ vice-captain, later played for Oxford University in the rugby union Varsity match. The Americans, helped by Harry Sunderland, went on to play a five match tour of France at the end of 1953, winning one game but going down to the French national side 31-0 in front of 20,000 spectators at the Parc des Princes in Paris in January 1954.

But not everyone in the game was happy with these developments. The French invitation to the U.S. team had incurred the ire of the curmudgeonly Fallowfield who complained in a letter to France’s Antoine Blain in January 1953 that the Americans’ 'standard may in no way compare with that of our own, in which case it would not be practicable proposition to include the US team. If the team from the US is to be included then there appears to be no reason why a team from Canada should not also be invited.' 

Despite there being 'no reason' not to, he did not invite the Canadians, whose presence at the World Cup may have given the ailing game there a lifeline. Nor did he seek to invite Yugoslavia and Italy who were also playing rugby league at the time. And although it had been proposed that the 1954 Lions play in the U.S. on their return journey, the idea was never followed up.

In January 1954, the Americans were again “slapped in the face”, in Harry Sunderland’s words, by the R.F.L. Council when Sunderland tried to organise a floodlit game for the All Stars at Leigh on their way back home from France, causing Fallowfield to write to Mike Dimitro “pointing out the impracticability of arranging a game at short notice under favourable conditions”. With that, Fallowfield snubbed out the life of the only American team ever to play rugby league up to that time.

In fact, the probable reason for Fallowfield’s hostility to Dimitro’s team was because he was pursuing negotiations with a rival set of Americans, led by Californian gridiron writer B. Ward Nash. Nash wanted to use rugby league primarily as a game which could give America international sporting links by using American footballers to play international rugby league matches in their off-season.

In the absence of any serious soccer, rugby union or cricket in the U.S., and given the obvious parallels between league and gridiron, Nash believed that rugby league was the only team sport which could offer the U.S. serious international competition. Boasting of his strong links with N.F.L. club owners, he told the R.F.L. in 1954: 'large numbers of Americans are sincerely interested in furthering better relations with other countries and they have an idea that more international sports competition can be of great help. … If you are successful the interest could be tremendous, equaling our interest in the Olympic Games, international tennis and golf.' He also dangled the carrot of connections in high places; the vice-president of the U.S.A., a former college football player, was a personal friend who would be pleased to meet with rugby league representatives. His name was Richard M. Nixon.

Although Tricky Dicky fortunately never became involved, Nash set up an organising committee in California in May 1954 to plan for two Australia versus New Zealand games to be played on the way back from the World Cup in November. Despite widespread publicity in the gridiron press, only 1,500 spectators turned out for the match in Long Beach and 4,500 for the Los Angeles Coliseum match.

Hampered by some of the worst fog southern California had seen, Australia won both games easily but the losses amounted to over 6,000 U.S. dollars. Fallowfield returned from the games denouncing Nash as being a useless organiser and suggesting, with considerable chutzpah given his attitude towards Dimitro’s team, that an American side be invited over to tour.

At the August 1955 International Board meeting, it was reported that there were 21 American footballers interested in playing the game (one less than had actually toured with the All Stars, who also had over 40 players at the initial try-outs for their tour), a number of colleges interested in playing the game and possible financial backing from an athletics foundation. But the Board also argued about who should develop the game in America, with the southern hemisphere countries arguing bizarrely that England should take responsibility for the game on the Pacific Coast. 

Despite this failure to follow up the work already done, the rugby league flame continued to flicker on the West Coast throughout the 1950s. By 1957 it appears that many California club and university rugby union teams played 13 a side and had outlawed kicking directly into touch, almost spontaneously developing league rules to counter the stagnation rugby union rules brought into the game. Plans were also developed to send schoolboy teams over from Australia and the indefatigable Nash, obviously not a man to let Bill Fallowfield to deter him, sought the help of young former Qantas employee named Pete Rozelle. Two decades later Rozelle was famous as the N.F.L. Commissioner who turned the gridiron game into the most popular sporting phenomenon in America.

In 1960 Nash’s “North American Rugby Football League”, wrote to the R.F.L. asking to be considered for inclusion in that year’s World Cup. They had arranged for the great Australian forward Ray Stehr to coach them and organised finance through one of President Eisenhower’s cold war international relations funds. Despite this forethought, they received a blank refusal from Fallowfield.

At that, American rugby league slipped into a coma until the late 1970s when Mike Mayer, followed by a further trail of U.S. and Canadian pioneers in the 1980s and 1990s, once again brought rugby league’s North American dream closer to reality.

- - This article was originally written in 2000 for Our Game magazine. For the definite account of American rugby league be sure to read Gavin Willacy's outstanding 2013 book No Helmets Required.

The Rise and Fall of American Rugby 1906-15

 Stanford v Cal in 1914: when the Big Game was played under rugby union rules

Stanford v Cal in 1914: when the Big Game was played under rugby union rules

In 1905 American football sailed into the greatest storm it had ever encountered. Since the 1890s there had been growing concerns about violence and brutality in the game. These worries came to a head in the 1905 season, when eighteen deaths and 150 serious injuries were sustained in matches. The outcry was so severe that Teddy Roosevelt - who had once said that Tom Brown’s Schooldays was one of two books everyone should read - met with representatives of Harvard, Yale and Columbia university football teams to encourage them to change the rules of the game to reduce its dangers. As a consequence, the following year the forward pass was introduced into the game.

But on the West Coast of America, disillusionment with the violence and commercialism of the American game was not so easily dislodged. Rugby had first been played at the University of California in 1882 but had been replaced by American football in 1886 as that code swept through US colleges. Now, two decades on in January 1906, the universities of California and Stanford announced that they were abandoning football altogether and taking up rugby union.

The decision to switch back could not have been taken at a better time. The triumphant All Black tourists were on their way back home from Britain and France, returning across North America - and they were keen to fly the flag in the USA for rugby and for New Zealand in particular.

Arrangements were hastily made and in early February 1906 the All Blacks arrived in northern California to play two exhibition matches against a British Columbia side from Canada. Despite being on tour for over six months, the tourists unsurprisingly romped home in both games, at Berkeley by 43-6 and then in San Francisco by 65-6. Despite the one-sided nature of the games, the press were effusive in their praise: ‘the superiority of rugby to our own amended game was demonstrated even more forcibly than at the very interesting contest of last Saturday,’ declared the San Francisco Chronicle.

The experiment was interrupted two months later when the San Francisco earthquake reduced much of the city to rubble. But support for rugby grew and California and Stanford were joined by the universities of Nevada, Santa Clara, the Pacific numerous northern Californian high schools and San Francisco’s elite Olympic athletic club. There was even talk of an American universities' rugby tour of New Zealand. 

And on the East Coast, where the All Blacks had played an unofficial match against a pick-up New York team when they arrived in the US, an Eastern Rugby Union had been founded in April by three clubs. Rugby was back.

The game’s international significance was enhanced by a changing world situation. Japan’s stunning victory over Russia in their 1904-05 war meant that the Pacific Ocean had suddenly become a region of intense diplomatic interest. The Anglo-Japanese Alliance was signed in 1902, causing consternation to the newly federated Australian government, whose ‘White Australia’ policy was based on racist fears of Asian domination. The Australians sought to counter fears that the British might abandon them to the Japanese by developing links with the United States. 

For its part, Teddy Roosevelt’s government wanted to demonstrate that despite Japanese success America was the dominant naval power in the Pacific. So in late 1907 it despatched a fleet of sixteen battleships on a goodwill tour of the region, calling at major ports on both sides of the ocean. In August 1908 it visited Auckland, Sydney and Melbourne. It did not go unnoticed in these cities that their guests had chosen to call this mighty display of sea power the ‘Great White Fleet’.

As part of this Australian-American courtship the 1908-09 Wallabies played three games in California on their way back from their tour of  Britain in February 1909. The Australians won all three matches, but the margins were sufficiently narrow to suggest that West Coast rugby was improving rapidly. 

And, despite the switch from gridiron to rugby, the ‘Big Game,’ the annual showdown between Stanford and California, showed no signs of diminishing in importance as northern California’s most important sporting event. In 1910 it staged the first example of what would become a staple of American college football, the ‘Card Stunt’, where members of the crowd held cards above their heads to form a word or symbol. 

Filled with hope for rugby, that summer an American Universities team of students from California, Stanford and Nevada made a sixteen game tour of Australia and New Zealand, the first overseas visit by a US representative rugby team. Despite only winning three and drawing two matches the students were never out-classed, and the tour was considered a success by all concerned. When they returned home in August the San Francisco Sunday Call was sufficiently impressed to ask in a headline ‘Will California Produce Rugby’s World Champs?’ 

Further evidence for this optimism was seen in 1912. The West Coast hosted an Australian touring side. They were known as the Waratahs, rather than the Wallabies, despite the fact that six of the tourists came from Queensland rather than New South Wales, the state that  had traditionally borne the Waratah nickname. They played eleven matches and lost by a point to both California and Stanford, although they played the former three times and the latter twice. Most significantly, they narrowly defeated the USA national side in its first-ever international by a mere 12-8.

But under the surface, all was not well. The Australians disliked the American approach to the game, feeling that the Californian tackling was too physical and that US players were apt to take advantage of the rules. Coming just four years after the split with rugby league in Australia, the tourists were determined to uphold the amateur ethos - and the American approach smacked too much of the professional attitudes that the gentlemen from down under had so recently rejected. 

For their part, the Americans were becoming frustrated with what they saw as the domination of rugby by forward play. In 1913 California suggested that teams should be reduced to 14-a-side by the abolition of one of the forwards. From his vantage point as the ‘Father of American football’, Walter Camp mischievously informed the sporting public that the Californians weren’t even playing the best type of rugby. ‘The Northern Union game, especially in Lancashire and Yorkshire, would be a revelation to many of those who have merely seen the more mediocre play,’ he argued. ‘The men who form these teams are of excellent physique, strong and powerful, putting up a hard, vigorous game with tackling that is earnest enough to be severe’.

Matters come to a head with the 1913 All Blacks tour of California. Any hopes that American rugby ascendency would continue its upwards trajectory were brutally extinguished by the New Zealanders. In thirteen unbeaten games they scored 508 points while conceding just two penalty goals, including a 51-3 demolition of the US national team at Berkeley. 

Only two sides kept the tourists below the thirty-point mark. American rugby was humiliated. Instead of promoting the game, the tour demonstrated that far from being potential ‘World Champs’ America was no more than a second-rate rugby nation. It was not a message she wanted to hear.

To make things worse, the University of California fell out with Stanford over the selection of the national team. In the midst of this confusion and demoralisation, voices began to be heard calling for a return to American football. As college football continued to grow in importance in the US, many in California felt isolated from the intense intercollegiate and increasingly nationwide rivalries of the sport. 

Played by a handful of local universities and now offering no prospect of international prestige, rugby’s appeal ebbed away. In 1915 California pulled the plug and declared that henceforth it would play football: ‘from now on it will be the American game for Americans. and, best of all, for California,’ declared the Daily Californian. Stanford carried on until 1919 before accepting the inevitable. Rugby’s second chance in America was all but gone.

- - For more on the history of rugby in America, pre-order my The Oval World (published in August) and read Gavin Willacy's wonderful No Helmets Required.

The 1919 King's Cup: rugby union's first 'world cup'?

  New Zealand captain James Ryan receiving the King’s Cup from George V

New Zealand captain James Ryan receiving the King’s Cup from George V

The Rugby Union World Cup kicks off in little more than three months. I'm reprinting here a slightly updated version of an article I wrote for a conference held in Sydney at the 2003 RWC. It was subsequently published as 'The First World Cup?: War, Empire and the 1919 Inter-Services rugby union tournament' in Mary Bushby and Tom Hickie's edited collection of essays Rugby History: The Remaking of the Class Game (Melbourne 2007).


Between 1895 and 1914, rugby union was in a state of almost continual crisis. Rugby had split in Britain, Australia and New Zealand; the English and the Scots were permanently at loggerheads over professionalism; and the Australian and New Zealand unions were openly dissatisfied with the Rugby Football Union, the de facto leadership of the international game. But by 1920 rugby union was more united than it had ever been and the RFU was the unquestioned leader of the game internationally. The reason for this change in fortune was the activity of the RFU during and immediately after the First World War, which was crystallized in the 1919 Inter-Services Rugby Tournament.

It is widely believed that at the declaration of war in August 1914 rugby union in England immediately closed down for the duration. The reality was not quite so straightforward. Initially, the RFU believed that the game should continue. Nine days after the declaration of war its secretary, C. J. B. Marriott, instructed clubs to carry on playing where possible. However, the militaristic patriotism which had been drilled into players at school and beyond proved to be overwhelming and players flocked to the colours. By September, all club rugby union in England had been suspended until further notice.

But the sport quickly re-emerged as an important military game. By early 1915 something like a structured season had developed for military rugby union teams in the south of England and in 1916 the huge influx of troops from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa into Britain saw the sport enter what, were it not for the circumstances of its playing, could be termed a golden age of domestic competition. Crowds of seven or eight thousand people were not exceptional for matches involving the teams from what were known as the white ‘Dominions’ of the British Empire.

Despite being in the midst of war, tensions between the RFU and sides from the Dominions did not diminish. The 1905 All Blacks, although widely admired for their skills were widely suspected of being professionals - thanks to receiving a three shillings a day allowance while on tour - and of not playing the game in the right spirit. Many of the 1908 Wallabies could not wait for their British tour to end, thanks to the snobbishness and widespread suspicion among English rugby union commentators that they too were professionals. Only the South Africans were unambiguously welcomed to Britain, in 1906 and 1912.

These tensions reflected the changing political relationship between Britain and the Dominions. The war brought to the fore friction between the imperial centre and its periphery, especially Australia, which were most powerfully symbolised by the narratives surrounding Gallipoli. At government level, it had amplified the tendency towards Dominion self-assertion, if not self-government. At the 1917 Imperial War Conference the Dominion prime ministers called for full recognition of the Dominions as ‘autonomous nations of an Imperial Commonwealth’.

The RFU was keen to play a role in closing these imperial fissures. As a supporter spelled out in The Times in February 1919, rugby ‘is not only national but imperial; it is the game of the most rigorous of our colonies; it is the game of the Army that has won the hardest and grimmest of all our wars.’ The prestige which it had gained during the war and its close identification with the war effort - highlighted by the number of England internationals who were killed in the war - gave the RFU both tremendous self-confidence and authority when the war ended in November 1918.

The Kings Cup unveiled

This authority was consolidated in March and April 1919 when, apparently at the request of the War Office, it staged a sixteen match Inter-Services Tournament featuring representative sides from the Dominions and the services which became known as the ‘King’s Cup’. The tournament - which was the biggest international rugby union tournament staged anywhere in the world until the sport’s first world cup in 1987 -  was explicitly designed to capitalise on the popularity of services rugby union during the war years, and became a celebration of rugby union’s past and a signal of future intent. It also had a broader, political motive, as The Times rugby union correspondent noted in March 1919:

It is a most practical means of continuing and strengthening the bonds of interest between us and our relations scattered over the world. War has brought all parts of the Empire closer…. Often in the past the ties between this country and the colonies have been slender, and the strongest of them is the common interest in British games.

As well as the Mother Country, the participating teams consisted of Australia, New Zealand, the Royal Air Force, South Africa and Canada - who were there for ‘missionary’ purposes to popularise the game in North America -  competing in a league table with matches being staged across Britain at Swansea, Portsmouth, Leicester, Newport, Edinburgh, Gloucester Bradford and Twickenham, which staged six matches, including the final play-off.

Despite having ‘Boy’ Morkel, the star of the 1912 Springbok tour of the UK available, the South African side was described as no better than an average club team. The three strongest sides were New Zealand, the Mother Country and Australia, with the first two finishing on top of the table with one defeat each.  A play-off match was arranged at Twickenham to decide the winners and in a tight game, the New Zealand forwards came out on top, scoring two tries to defeat the Mother Country 9-3, in front of an audience which included the NZ prime minister William Massey, who was in Europe for the talks on the Versailles Treaty. 

Why was the British side called the ‘Mother Country’? As RAF captain Wavell Wakefield explained in his 1927 book Rugger, the original idea had been to field Army, Navy and Air Force sides but the Navy withdrew because it felt that it could not raise a competitive side, so the army became the Mother Country. There were some grumblings about the name of the side in the press, but the arrangement meant that Britain fielded the strongest possible side, as is shown by the table of players who were either capped or who would be capped in each side.

It is also revealing to examine the social background of the teams. Just before the tournament began, the Army and the Navy had discussed whether only officers should be allowed to play for their sides - as was the case before the war - and had decided that all ranks should be allowed to play. In the British armed forces, until late 1917 officers were exclusively drawn from those attending private schools or universities. However, despite the formal decision, of the twenty-eight Mother Country players, only one, the Welsh forward Ivor Jones, was not an officer. He was a sergeant-major. Every member of the RAF side was an officer, although their full-back Billy Seddon had an interesting past. 

Unwelcome Guests?

The case of Billy Seddon is intriguing because he was the only rugby league player to play in the tournament for the British sides, scoring the winning four point drop-goal in the RAF’s 7-3 win over Australia. Seddon’s presence may seem surprising at first, given rugby union’s rigorous exclusion of league players from its ranks, but in 1916 the RFU had lifted its ban on league players in the armed services for the duration of the conflict. Military rugby teams with league players came to dominate the game in the war years, none more so than London’s Grove Park Army Service Corps side, led by Great Britain captain Harold Wagstaff and composed of a number of league internationals and leading club players. 

The ban on league players was immediately reimposed by the RFU at its first meeting following the Armistice but a dispensation was allowed for players still in the forces but not yet playing for their league clubs. Despite this concession, not a single league player was chosen by the Mother Country. Seddon slipped through the net because, thanks to his skills as an engineer in the RAF, he had been promoted to lieutenant in 1918 (one of only a handful of league players to be commissioned), and also because he had a powerful champion in Wavell Wakefield, the captain and driving force of the RAF side, although it was admitted in the press that there had been ‘some slight qualms’ about his selection.

However, the Australians had no qualms about including several rugby league players. Rodney Noonan in 2009 article 'Offside: Rugby League, the Great War and Australian Patriotism’, published in the International Journal of the History of Sport (vol. 26, no. 15), discovered that five league players turned out for the Australian side. North Sydney’s Tom Stenning scored Australia’s try in the 6-3 loss to the Mother Country and converted a try in the 8-5 win against South Africa. Eastern Suburbs’ Jack Watkins, Newtown’s Joe Murray and Newcastle’s Tom Quinn also played for Australia but the most notable player was Glebe’s dual international Darb Hickey. 

It is also noticeable that the tournament did not include the French - who had been accepted into what became the Five Nations in 1910 - despite the fact that there was by this time a considerable amount of rugby being played in post-war France. The RAF team had even undertaken a short tour of France before the competition kicked off as part of its preparations. The reason for their non-inclusion was because the tournament was entirely about cementing the links of the Empire. The French were not welcome into this private imperial party. However, they were promised a game against the tournament winners at Twickenham, which New Zealand won 20-3. A return match in Paris was also played, the NZ side winning 16-10.

In fact, this latter Twickenham match was possibly a greater imperial celebration than the tournament final. The Times reported that ‘it was more than a mere football match; it had more the character of a national festival at which the presence of the King and his four sons, Sir Douglas Haig, Sir Henry Wilson [chief of the Imperial General Staff], the French Embassy staff and the High Commissioner for NZ gave a special significance. … it was a true ‘Victory’ match.’ George V was a keen follower of rugby and a regular attendee throughout the 1920s at Twickenham. Before the kick-off the King presented the New Zealanders with the Inter-Services Tournament cup. This match was also the occasion of possibly the most overwrought use of rugby as military metaphor. The speech of Major-General Sir C.H. Harrington, deputy chief of the Imperial General Staff ridiculously described Sir Douglas Haig, General Pershing and the King of the Belgians as ‘loyal and unselfish three-quarter backs ‘ during the war.

The RFU Vindicated

Despite the triumphalism of the tournament, friction between the British and the Australians and New Zealand continued. As was the case before the war, many in the RFU felt that the Antipodeans were too vigorous in their play and did not share the required spirit of sportsmanship. Matters came to a head when the Mother Country played Australia at Leicester. The Australians’ wing-forward play was felt to be blatantly obstructive and, for possibly the first time at a representative rugby match in Britain, the crowd started calling for the referee to send off the offending Australian players. Fearful of taking such a drastic step (no player would be sent off in a representative match in England until All Black Cyril Brownlie was dismissed in 1924 against England), the referee tried to defuse the situation by putting the ball into the scrum himself. (Ironically New Zealand were to propose this as amendment to the rules in August).

Despite these points of friction, the King’s Cup cemented the RFU’s authority over the sport which it had gained due to its perceived blood sacrifice during the war. Later in 1919 it was able to dismiss Welsh calls for minor reforms of the amateur regulations and also the more wide-ranging reforms of the rules and amateurism proposed by New Zealand. Indeed, it was able to state unequivocally that any attempt to unilaterally amend the amateur regulations by rugby-playing nations would bring only one result: “severence”! The tournament also demonstrated the deep-going links between the game and the British imperial elite; no other sport, not even soccer, which was immeasurably more popular than rugby, could command the support of the monarchy, the army high command and the leaders of the Dominions.

But despite its success and the high profile it gave rugby union across the empire, the tournament was never to be repeated. Although the RFU had no great love for league competitions or argumentative colonials, the key reason for its consignment to history is obvious. The King’s Cup had fulfilled one of the RFU’s most cherished desires: it had established rugby union as the uncontested winter sport of the British Empire.

- - For more, my soon-to-be-published The Oval World: A Global History of Rugby will look at the tournament in its wider context and its implications for the future of rugby union,

Sheffield Football, Rugby and the Origins of Soccer

Over the past two decades a vigorous debate has been taking place about the relationship between modern soccer and earlier versions of football as played in the mid-1800s. The self-styled ‘revisionists’, inspired by the work of John Goulstone and Adrian Harvey, have argued that it was football played in Sheffield in the late 1850s and 1860s that was the true originator of modern soccer, and that the Football Association was at best marginal to the development of association football. 

My latest article ‘Early Football and the Emergence of Modern Soccer, c. 1840–1880’ has just been published by the International Journal of the History of Sport. It looks at both sides in the debate and argues that the revisionists and their opponents have failed to understand that the modern division between the different codes did not fully emerge until the 1870s. In this extract, I examine the claim that the rules of football played in Sheffield was independent of developments in the public schools and were the embryo of modern soccer.


"In his Football’s Secret History, John Goulstone has asserted that ‘there is little about the Sheffield code to suggest a significant influence from the elite schools’, because ‘none [of the first Sheffield clubs] had public school alumni as their driving force’. Adrian Harvey too has argued ‘against any decisive public school involvement’ in the development of the Sheffield code of rules. 

The fact that no-one involved in the formation of Sheffield FC appears to have attended a public school does not mean that its founders were not influenced by the public schools. As Harvey notes, the Sheffield club was ‘a socially elite institution’ with many privately-educated members. Emulation of those they perceive to be their social superiors has long been a defining characteristic of the British middle-classes and sport was no exception to this. 

Moreover, the club’s founders would have been well aware of the debates taking place among public school-educated footballers thanks to the popularity of Bell’s Life, The Field and other sporting newspapers of the time. Indeed, two leading members, Nathaniel Creswick and William Prest, wrote to the leading public schools to obtain copies of their football rules. Harvey’s claim that the absence of public school influence is demonstrated by the fact that the 1858 Sheffield rules lacked an offside rule - unlike any public school football code - is also mistaken. Tom Wills, one of the originators of the Australian Rules code of football in 1859, was an old boy of Rugby School yet the game he pioneered had no offside rule at all. 

In fact, when we examine the text of Sheffield FC’s first written rules of 1858 we find a considerable degree of public school influence. Harvey has stated that he could find ‘no evidence that the Sheffield club’s early rules were derived from examining the codes of various public schools’, but the reality is very different. We can see this by comparing the wording of Sheffield rules to those, in brackets, of a leading English public school:

1. Kick off from the middle must be a place kick. [vi. Kick off from middle must be a place.]

2. Kick out must not be from more than twenty five yards out of goal. [vii. Kick out must not be from more than ten yards our of goal if a place-kick, not more than twenty-five yards if a punt, drop or knock on.]

3. Fair catch is a catch direct from the foot of the opposite side and entitles

a free kick. [i. Fair catch is a catch direct from the foot.]

4. Charging is fair in case of a place kick, with the exception of kick off, as soon as a player offers to kick, but may always draw back unless he has actually touched the ball with his foot. [ix. Charging is fair in case of a place kick, as soon as the ball has touched the ground.]

The rules quoted in brackets are from the 1845 Laws of Football Played at Rugby School

The links between Sheffield’s written rules and those of Rugby School go much deeper. Sheffield’s rule eight, forbidding the ball from being picked up from the ground, was commonly used by rugby clubs and appears in the consolidated 1862 Rugby School rules. And, as rule three makes clear, the Sheffield was not a purely kicking game but allowed the ball to be handled if it was caught on the full in a ‘fair catch’, a term still in use in American football but which became known as a ‘mark’ in rugby and Australian rules. 

Rule nine, allowing a bouncing ball to be stopped by the hand, is a variation on the Rugby School rule of allowing a bouncing ball to be caught. Rule ten, ‘No goal may be kicked from touch, nor by free kick from a fair catch,’ is based on rule five 1845 Rugby School rules, which also allow a goal to be scored from a fair catch. 

Rule eleven of Sheffield FC defines when a ball is in touch and how it should be returned to play. This too uses the same wording as Rugby’s consolidated 1862 rules, with the exception that a rugby player was also allowed to throw the ball in to himself. Even Sheffield’s rule six, prohibiting the ball being ‘knocked on’ with the hand and penalising it with a free kick, appears with slightly different wording in rule eleven of the consolidated Rugby rules of 1862. 

Only Sheffield’s rules five and seven, forbidding pushing, hacking, tripping, holding or pulling a player over, have no link with Rugby School rules. This may possibly suggest that they objected to the roughness of the Rugby game. But this was also true of many of the adult clubs that adopted Rugby’s rules, many of whom banned hacking and tripping. To make the claim, as Harvey and Peter Swain do, that the first ‘Sheffield rules can be described as markedly anti-Rugby in form’, is therefore simply mistaken. 

However, this is not to suggest that Sheffield football was a version of the Rugby School game or that its origins were rugby-based. As Gavin Kitching has pointed out, it is extraordinarily hard to envisage how games were played by merely reading a rulebook or a newspaper report. Rather, it emphasises the complexity of the ‘primordial soup’ of early codes of football and the impossibility of drawing a direct connecting line from these early sets of rules to modern soccer and rugby codes. Historians cannot simply put a tick or a minus against individual rules and then grade each according to how neatly it fits today’s conceptions of football. Like the versions of football played in Nottingham, Lincoln and elsewhere across Britain in the mid-nineteenth century, Sheffield’s code borrowed elements from public school football rules, local games and its members’ own preferences about how to play the most entertaining game as they perceived it at the time. 

Indeed, the rules of football as played in Nottingham in the 1860s and 1870s may have been closer to modern soccer than those of the Sheffield game. As Andrew Dawes has discovered, local Nottingham rules appear to have forbidden any handling of the ball whatsoever by outfield players. This became an issue when Sheffield FC visited Nottingham because of Sheffield’s acceptance of limited handling and catching of the ball. But, reinforcing the futility of drawing direct links between early rules and modern football, rugby-style hacking seems to have been acceptable in the Nottingham game.

The belief that Sheffield carried the torch that led to modern soccer is further complicated by the fact that Sheffield FC also continued to play games under rugby rules until at least the late 1860s. In 1864 they played home and away matches against Leeds rugby club using ‘rules [that] were of a mongrel type, neither rugby nor association’, according to Leeds’ founder J.G Hudson. In 1868 they played against Manchester, losing the rugby match by one goal and eight touchdowns to nil but winning the home game by two rouges to nil. In 1870 five Sheffield FC players even appeared in the Yorkshire county rugby team that played Lancashire at Leeds in the first-ever rugby Roses Match.

Contrary to the beliefs of the revisionists, Sheffield was not a bastion of soccer purity uninfluenced by the public schools. Its use of Eton’s rouge, allowing the ball to ball to be handled, its effectively non-existent off-side law, and the similarity of a number of its rules to those of Rugby School demonstrate that its game was an intricate melange of old, new and borrowed ideas about how to play an enjoyable game of football.

This is not to say that Sheffield football had no impact on the development of the game that came to be known as soccer - but there is no evidence to support the claim that Sheffield either saved or created modern association football."

The birth of rugby in York

Rugby in York is currently undergoing one of its recurrent crises. But the state of York City Knights in 2015 should not obscure the fact that the game has a long and rich history in the city, and that the York club can trace its roots back to 1868, making it one of rugby's pioneering clubs.

And now, thanks to the publication last year of C.W. Masters’ Rugby, Football and the Working Classes in Victorian and Edwardian York we can see just how deep the roots of rugby are in the old Roman city. 

Masters' short but dense 72 page book gives us for the first time a comprehensive view of the development of rugby in Victorian and Edwardian York. The depth of research and the fact that it roots the sport in the broader social and economic history of the city makes it a major contribution to our understanding of how rugby became an intrinsic part of the cultural fabric of a modern industrial city. 

It was in the 1860s that rugby first emerged in the city, largely due to the influence of York’s private schools, especially the nationally renowned Quaker school, St Peter’s. In 1868 York Football Club was founded by privately-educated ‘young gentlemen’ of the professional and business classes. But the game did not long remain the property of the local middle classes.

York had become an important industrial centre in the nineteenth century based on the railways and confectionary. As the working class grew and its leisure time increased, so too did the appeal of rugby. Spurred on by the start of the Yorkshire Cup competition in 1877, in which York reached the first final, the game was taken up by the working classes, played by men but watched, as Masters points out, by both sexes.

By the early 1880s rugby in the city was increasingly dominated by working-class players and teams. In 1884 York FC decided to merge with the proletarian York Melbourne club after admitting that it could no longer successfully compete against the more plebeian clubs. This too reflected the northern trend, as the original Hull, Leeds and St Helens’ clubs also merged with more successful but less socially-exalted local sides in the same period.

By the 1884-85 season the city could boast 40 rugby clubs, of which 27 were clearly identifiable as being predominantly working-class in players, spectators and location. A decade later, on the eve of the 1895 rugby split, there were 104 clubs, of which Masters categorises 78 as working class. 

The major growth was among neighbourhood-based teams, named after streets or local areas. One typical example of this trend was Leeman Wanderers, a team based on the Leeman Road area of York (where today’s National Railway Museum stands), a district largely comprising skilled and semi-skilled railway workers. Wanderers drew its players from the local streets and achieved considerable success, not just in the city but in wider Yorkshire tournaments. 

There was a also a religious component to this growth too. As in most other cities, local churches continued to demonstrate their Muscular Christian principles by setting up church-based rugby teams. It was not just Anglicans who promoted the game. Sides like York Celtic and the Irish National League demonstrated that rugby’s appeal was ecumenical. And, unlike the playing of the game, which was resolutely male only, Masters points out that women were often active spectators of the sport. 

Even so, average crowds of 3-4,000 in even its most successful seasons were not sufficient to ensure that York FC was a profitable concern and the club usually recorded losses at the end of each season. The cost of travelling also hit local clubs heavily, especially those that experienced a modicum of regional success, and Leeman Wanderers eventually disbanded due to mounting financial problems. 

York's status as a rugby stronghold was not challenged until the 1900s. Although little soccer was played in the city in Victorian times, it was increasingly taken up by local private schools in the 1890s and local board school teachers also promoted the round-ball game, as was the case in other northern cities such as Bradford. 

Moreover, Rowntree, the city’s major employer alongside the railways, actively supported soccer. In 1899, three of the fifteen teams in the district league were Rowntree employee teams. The company’s head of recreation was a keen rugby union player who promoted soccer for the firm’s workers - the Northern Union game was not played on Rowntree’s extensive recreational facilities. By 1912, support for soccer had grown to such an extent that in 1912 York City AFC turned professional and competed in the Midland League. By 1914, as was the case throughout Britain, the template of sport in the city had been set and the two football codes continued to exist side-by-side.

CW Masters' book is essential reading for anyone who wants to know about the history of rugby in York in particular and sport in Victorian times in general. And for those York rugby league supporters campaigning to rescue their club, it is vital ammunition in demonstrating just how deep and important are the club's roots in the ancient city.

Boxing, race and the working class

Although this blog is primarily about rugby, Lucia Trimbur's 2013 book on boxing in America - Come Out Swinging. The Changing World of Boxing in Gleason’s Gym (published by Princeton University Press in 2013) - deals with many of the social issues that I have sought to address in my writing about rugby. I reviewed her book for the journal Sport in History last year and I think that this revised version of that review will be interesting for at least some readers.

Come Out Swinging looks at New York's historic Gleason's Gym to provide an important commentary on the social devastation wrought on America’s black communities over the past thirty or so years. It also examines the growth of women's boxing and the increasing colonisation of boxing gyms by the elite of New York’s so-called FIRE (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate) economy.

Gleason’s is a gym with an impeccable pedigree. Although now based in Brooklyn’s yuppified, surreally-named DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) district, the gym has its origins in the Bronx of the 1930s and has been the nursery for champions such as Jake La Motta, Roberto Duran and Mike Tyson. Lucia Trimbur began her research there to explore women’s changing relationship to the sport but soon realised that the gym had many other stories to tell.

At the book’s heart is a study of the role that boxing plays in the lives of Gleason’s largely black and Hispanic boxers of colour. For these men, deprived of almost any prospect of work by the destruction of manufacturing industry and living with the continuous threat of jail, boxing becomes their occupation, ‘work without wages’ in Trimbur’s words. Despite being amateurs and few having any ambitions to step up to the professional level, the gym is their workplace and they approach training with the commitment and discipline of a vocation. 

This approach is something that has been observed in other aspects of working-class cultural life. The book’s findings echo Eric Hobsbawm’s observation in his 1986 essay on Count Basie that sport, like the jazz of which he was writing, is ‘a continuous means of asserting oneself as a human being, as an agent in the world and not the subject of others’ actions, as a discipline of the soul, a daily testing, an expression of the value and sense of life, a way to perfection.’

This I think explains the apparent contradiction that Trimbur identifies between the desperate social circumstances of the fighters and the extreme emphasis that the gym’s trainers - who are also black - place on hard work, strict discipline and individualism, directly echoing the rhetoric of neo-liberalism. 

There is an extreme reluctance by the gym’s trainers to allow boxers to blame their failures either on racism or the devastating impact of capitalism on their lives. Lacking any current political solution to their problems, boxing offers these men a way to gain respect in a society that has discarded them. Although politically aware, Gleason’s trainers realise that for their charges to fail at boxing would to be swept away into prison, drug addiction or worse, hence their insistence on complete commitment.

The book also examines the importance of boxing in their lives of the women who train at the gym. Perhaps the most machismo of male sports, boxing has had little tolerance for women. It was only in 1983, when faced with falling membership income, that Gleason’s co-owner Bruce Silverglade suggested accepting women as members in order to boost revenue. ‘Half the world is women!’ he told his reluctant partner. 

It was to be another ten years before women were allowed to compete in amateur boxing bouts. When Trimbur joined the gym it had 300 women members, primarily from the middle classes but also some from working-class backgrounds. For these women, boxing is a means of social and physical empowerment no less than for the men. Yet, as the book recounts, neither the increasing numbers of women fighters nor the success of gym members in women’s amateur tournaments has undermined the male chauvinism at the heart of the sport. 

The third and final part of the book looks at the huge growth in white urban FIRE economy professionals joining the gym over the past couple of decades. In an echo of young men in mid-nineteenth century cities, they fear that their office jobs are causing them to lose touch with their masculinity. These are men for whom Fight Club is a self-help manual. 

As Trimbur explains, their visits to Gleason’s are underpinned by a racist belief that the black boxers they encounter possess an ‘authentic’, ‘primitive’ or ‘tribal’ masculinity that will help them to recover their own maleness, an idea she describes as being ‘based on the very sufferings of racial segregation and class exclusion’. Her description of these men as unashamedly ‘buying and selling blackness’ is a notion that underlines the fact the American Civil War remains unfinished in many respects.

Inevitably a work of this kind will be compared to Loic Wacquant’s 2004 Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer, his classic ethnography of a boxing gym on Chicago’s South Side. Wacquant’s book took us deep inside the world of the boxer, as he immersed himself in the daily lives of the black boxers who inhabited the gym. Wacquant called his study ‘carnal sociology’ in that he sought to understand, by becoming a boxer and exploring his physical experience as much as his intellectual response to his environment. 

There are elements of this approach in Trimbur’s book - for example, she does take up boxing - but this is not her central concern. Rather, Come Out Swinging uses the gym to explore the changing social and urban dynamics of twenty-first century New York, the rise of the financial class, the changing leisure patterns of women and, centrally, the tsunami of social devastation that de-industrialisation has wrought upon America’s black working class.

Lucid and refreshingly free of unessential academic jargon, this is a book that should be read by any anthropologist, historian or sociologist seeking to understand the changing world of sport and leisure since the 1980s. 

Most importantly, it is a book is written with great humanity. Trimbur is aware that boxing has always been an insatiable devourer of men and that it is fuelled by the furnace of poverty, racism and class injustice. Yet, as Come Out Fighting admirably demonstrates, she also knows that it can also be a means by which men and women can gain self-respect and, in a world where capitalism deems increasing numbers of people to be valueless, develop their own sense of self-worth. 

(A version of this review appeared in Sport in History, Vol. 34, Issue 3, July 2014)

Dicky Lockwood - Rugby's Forgotten Giant

The Guardian this week published a short piece about a player of whom few rugby fans of either code will have heard: Dicky Lockwood. It was welcome mention, but failed to mention that he was one of the greatest rugby players of the Victorian era and a player who embodied the causes of rugby's 1895 split.

Dicky Lockwood_2.jpg

A brief glimpse of his career should be enough to convince anyone of his greatness. He made his debut for England in 1887 at the age of nineteen as a wing- threequarter. He equalled E.T. Gurdon’s record of fourteen England caps and would have received many more if the Rugby Football Union had not clashed with the International Board and refused to play in Four Nations matches in 1888 and 1889.

In an age in which tries were not common and matches were low-scoring affairs, he scored five tries and kicked seven conversions in an England shirt. In 1894 he captained England to one of their greatest victories when they routed Wales using the Principality’s own four three-quarter system for the first time.

Lockwood was unquestionably the most outstanding English back of his day - only Welsh captain and rival centre Arthur Gould could compare. Yet he has been forgotten. The official centenary history of the Rugby Football Union (RFU) doesn’t even mention him while O.L. Owen’s earlier book on the RFU notes him only in passing and doesn’t refer to his captaincy of England.

The World’s Wonder

Richard Evison Lockwood was born on 11 November 1867 to a labouring family in Crigglestone, near Wakefield.

His rugby career began at the age of sixteen for Dewsbury - then one of the North’s leading sides - when he made his debut on the right wing against Ossett in November 1884, a few days before his seventeenth birthday. In those days most English sides played with just three three-quarters but Dicky could play on the wing or in the centres with equal accomplishment.

He quickly became a phenomenon and was nicknamed ‘the Little Tyke’ and ‘Little Dick, the World’s Wonder’, partly because of his youth and also because of his diminutive stature - he was only five feet, four and a half inches tall. Even at an early age he was the complete footballer, brilliant in attack, deadly in the tackle and precise in his kicking, with a knack of being in the right place at the right time.

In 1886 he was selected for the first of his forty-six appearances for the Yorkshire county side and shortly after his nineteenth birthday he played for the North against the South, an annual match that was a trial for England selection.

Even at this stage his fame was such that crowds gathered in Dewsbury market place to hear telegram reports from the match being read out. The following month, in January 1887, he made his England debut versus Wales at Llanelli. Dicky-mania quickly engulfed the Dewsbury area, demonstrating that sporting stardom and fan hysteria were not born in the 1960s.

Leaving Dewsbury’s Crown Flatt ground after a blinding display in a Yorkshire Cup tie against Wakefield Trinity, the weekly magazine The Yorkshireman reported that Lockwood ‘was mobbed by a vast crowd which, contracting as the road narrowed, actually pushed down a strong stone wall and then shoved a hawker and a little lad through the aperture into the field below’.

Pictures of Dicky were sold outside of the ground and by photographers’ shops in Dewsbury itself, one enterprising trader charging one shilling and a penny per photo, almost one-eighth of the nine shillings weekly wage the player himself then received as a woollen printer in Walmsley’s local textile mill. Playing in Dublin against Ireland in February 1887 he was carried off with a broken collar bone, filling Dewsbury with wild rumours that he had actually been killed in the match. Hundreds waited through the night at Dewsbury railway station to see him come home from the game, just to prove to themselves that their ‘Little Wonder’ was still alive.

On Trial

In 1889 Dicky shocked his fans and left Dewsbury to play for Heckmondwike, a mill town a few miles down the road, which, thanks to an aggressive policy of attracting players through match payments and jobs, boasted one of the best teams in the county, which included England players such as the forward Donald Jowett and three-quarter John Sutcliffe, one of the few men to be capped by England at both soccer and rugby.

Although his ostensible reason for moving was to play for a better team, it was widely reported that he had told friends that ‘he had got all he could out of Dewsbury and that he was going to Heckmondwike to see what he could get there’. Contrary to RFU’s strict amateur regulations, he allegedly received one pound per match to play for the club and was given the tenancy of The Queen’s Hotel pub in Heckmondwike.

Such blatant flouting of the amateur regulations was too much for the Yorkshire rugby union, who were in the middle of attempting to exorcise the professional devil from their midst. Dicky was investigated by the Yorkshire Rugby Union (YRU) about his transfer to see if any money had changed hands or promises of work been made. Being unable to find any direct evidence, the YRU found him not guilty of the charge of being a professional.

That night in Heckmondwike, the Yorkshireman reported that ‘hundreds of people collected in the market place and its approaches, and the news of his acquittal was received with an outburst of cheering, the gathering in all respects resembling those witnessed at an exciting political election.’

But in December he was again summoned to appear before the YRU committee, where he was charged once more with professionalism and cross-examined by the Reverend Frank Marshall, headmaster of Almondbury school and leading YRU official. Marshall claimed that Morley tried to induce Dicky to transfer to them in 1886 with an offer of an apprenticeship but that Dewsbury kept him by offering 10s a week and £1 per exhibition match.

The ‘trial’ lasted for three days and Dicky showed an admirable talent for stonewalling, as the follow extracts from the cross-examination shows:

Marshall: ‘What year were you asked to go to Morley?’

Lockwood: ‘1886 about.’

Marshall: ‘What was the inducement?’ Lockwood: ‘Nothing.’

Marshall: ‘Do you know Mr Crabtree of Morley?’

Lockwood: ‘Yes.’

Marshall: ‘What did he offer you?’ Lockwood: ‘He did not offer to apprentice me to him. I was not paid anything. If anyone stated I was paid it would be wrong.’ Marshall: ‘A gentleman has stated that you were paid 10s a week.’

Lockwood: ‘Well, that gentleman is wrong.’ ... Marshall: ‘I want you to be very particular about this. I have positive information that you were paid after refusing to go to Morley.’ Lockwood: ‘I was not, sir.’

Marshall: ‘I understand you were paid £1 for exhibition matches.’

Lockwood: ‘That is wrong.’

Marshall: ‘Were you in a position to go to these matches and lose your wages?’

Lockwood: ‘Then I was, sir.’ ...

Marshall: ‘I want to be explicit on this point, as to the meaning of ‘dinners’. Have you ever been told that, seeing that you were not so well off, you could have ‘dinners’ if you went to play with any club?’

Lockwood: ‘No, never.’

Unable to penetrate Dicky’s defence, the YRU committee simply gave up and acquitted him yet again. 

Nevertheless, controversy still dogged his career. Unlike his nearest equivalent of the time as a regional sporting hero, Arthur Gould, Dicky was unambiguously working class, a serious handicap to gaining the respect of those who ran the game: ‘Dicky doesn’t sport sufficient collar and cuff for the somewhat fastidious members of the committee,’ the rugby writer of The Yorkshireman reported in 1891. 

The tension between Dicky and the game’s authorities epitomised the relationship between the supporters of amateurism who ran the game and working class players who had come to dominate its playing. In 1891 he was passed over for the Yorkshire county captaincy in favour of Oxford-educated William Bromet. ‘It is simply a case of pandering to social position, nothing more nor less. We thought we were ‘all fellows at football’; yet an alleged democratic Yorkshire committee can still show a sneaking fondness for persons who are... we had almost said in a better social position than ourselves’ complained the same correspondent.

Captain of England

Eventually talent did prevail and in 1892 Dicky was chosen as the captain of the Yorkshire county side, leading them to a hat-trick of county championships over the next three years. His captaincy was notable for more than just his continuation of Yorkshire dominance of the county championship. He helped to implement the Welsh system of playing with four three-quarters. Previously the dominance of northern forwards meant that clubs were reluctant to move to the four three-quarter system first used by the Welsh national side in 1886. ‘Buller’ Stadden had unsuccessfully introduced the system to Dewsbury when he moved there from Cardiff in 1886, but Oldham were the first northern side to use it regularly when Bill McCutcheon joined them in 1888 from Swansea.

Even then, there was still widespread doubt in Lancashire and Yorkshire as to its usefulness - despite northern admiration for the back play of Welsh clubs like Newport, it was believed that its success in Wales was due to the poorer quality of Welsh forward play, especially in comparison to club football in the north of England. When it came to be widely, although not universally, accepted in England in the early 1890s, it was partly due to Lockwood’s influence and the success of the Yorkshire side in using the new system.

Dicky’s unique combination of all-round skill and tactical innovation reached their highest point in 1894, when he was chosen to captain England against Wales at Birkenhead. Playing with four three-quarters for the first time, the English side routed Wales at their own game, winning by 24 points to 3, the highest score by England since the very first Anglo-Welsh game in 1881.

It was, said the Liverpool Mercury, ‘not a beating, it was an annihilation’. Dicky himself scored a try and kicked three conversions, totally outplaying his opposite number Arthur Gould. The most potent factor in this historic victory, according to the Yorkshire Post, ‘was Lockwood, who covered Gould with merciless persistency, and in all his long career Lockwood has never played with greater judgement or effect’.

Even more significant than the victory was Lockwood’s personal achievement in becoming captain of England. Rugby was led on and off the field by middle class ex-public school boys, yet here was an unskilled manual labourer with little secondary education leading men who were, according to all of society’s norms at the time, several times his social superior. It was almost as if a conscript private had taken charge of an elite cavalry regiment. His captaincy symbolised the rise of the working class player in rugby, something which many in rugby’s hierarchy had steadfastly vowed to oppose.

The month after the defeat of Wales, he captained the national side against Ireland at Blackheath, only to go down to defeat by 7 points to 5. Badly hampered by a lack of possession, Dicky scored England’s only try of the match by charging down a kick from the Irish full-back Sparrow, a try acclaimed as: ‘one of the finest pieces of work in the direction of taking advantage of an opponent’s weakness ever seen in first-class football’. Although no-one knew at the time, this was to be not only his last appearance as England captain, but also his last appearance in any type of representative football.

Shortly after the Ireland match he informed the English selectors that he would not be available for the Calcutta Cup match in Edinburgh because he couldn’t afford to take time off work to travel up to Scotland and back. Despite this, he asked the RFU for permission to play for Heckmondwike in a home game taking place on the same day. The Rugby Union refused point-blank to allow him to play for his club - despite the fact Eton house master Cyril Wells had been allowed in similar circumstances to play for Harlequins after pulling out of the Rest of England team beaten by Yorkshire the previous season.

This caused a considerable furore in Yorkshire, where it was seen as gross hypocrisy on the part of the RFU and one more example of how working class players were treated differently from those with a public school background.

The affair added yet more impetus to the calls for working class players to be paid broken time money to compensate for time lost at work due to playing rugby. Disgusted with the RFU and by the Yorkshire Rugby Union’s failure to support him fully, Lockwood announced his retirement from representative football for both England and Yorkshire. Years later, he hinted that he thought he may have been the victim of a conspiracy, commenting that ‘there was always a strong feeling against us’ on the part of the RFU leadership.

1895 And After

Dicky therefore came to embody the growing crisis that was engulfing English rugby union an which led in August 1895 to English rugby splitting in two and the formation of the Northern Union.

Unsurprisingly, given his treatment at the hands of the leadership of rugby union, Dicky was quick to show his support for the new body. He quickly left Heckmondwike, who remained temporarily loyal to the RFU, to join Wakefield Trinity as their captain. He made one appearance for the Yorkshire county Northern Union representative side in 1897 but his rugby league career was beset by age and severe personal problems.

In January 1897 he was declared bankrupt after accumulating debts of over £300 running his pub and was forced to sell all of his household furniture to pay off his creditors. Even so, his own difficulties did not stop him helping to organise charity fund-raising matches for the trade unions during the engineers’ lock out during the same year.

In November 1900, the wheel turned full circle and ‘Little Dick, the World’s Wonder’ returned to Dewsbury to play out the final three years of his career. Over a hundred years later, viewers of the Mitchell & Kenyon collection of Edwardian Northern Union rugby films were able to see footage of him run on to field at Crown Flatt as Dewsbury prepared to take on Manningham in October 1901. Following retirement as a player he spent the rest of his years in manual jobs until on 10 November 1915, just a day before his 48th birthday, he died in Leeds Infirmary. His death occurred shortly before he was due to have a second operation for cancer, and he left a widow and four children. He was buried in Wakefield Cemetery.

Although forgotten in rugby union history, Dicky’s memory flickered on in rugby league, which was the continuator of the glory years of pre-1895 Yorkshire and Lancashire rugby union. Thirty-five years after Lockwood’s retirement, one rugby league writer recalled ‘Dicky Lockwood’s Deadly Tackle - once felt, never forgotten’, while over a century after his birth, Eddie Waring was to regret the fact that he could not include him in The Great Ones.

The virtual disappearance of Dicky Lockwood’s name from the annals of English rugby serves as a warning that sportsmen and women are not simply remembered for their achievements on the field of play. Their survival in the folk memory of sport is dependent on the role they can play in the creation of a mythic past. Thus Arthur Gould’s name lives on in Welsh rugby union because he seemed to embody the spirit of the emerging Welsh national identity of the turn of the century. Likewise, Adrian Stoop was the personification of the dashing Edwardian English public school hero and the idealisation of everything the RFU stood for. Dicky, in contrast, could play no such role.

Indeed, to the supporters of the RFU he represented everything they wanted to forget: the virtual eclipse of middle class players by Northern manual workers in the 1890s, the rise of professionalism and the near loss of control of a sport they viewed as being uniquely theirs. Even the fact that he was a fleet-footed three-quarter seemed an affront to official rugby union history - insofar as it was spoken about at all, the Northern game before the split was thought to be so dominant because of its hardworking forwards, horny- handed sons of toil who were happy to carry out the donkey work while public school-educated backs used superior intelligence to fashion brilliant tries.

It is high time that Dicky Lockwood was restored to his rightful position as one of the greatest English players of either rugby game.

His achievements rank among the most outstanding of any age. Yet his excision from history also serves to remind us that sport is no less subject to political and social prejudice than any other form of human activity. For those who assume that sport stands above society and that excellence inevitably brings it own rewards, the career of Richard Evison Lockwood is powerful evidence to the contrary.

-- This is a slightly edited version of a chapter from my 2009 book 1895 And All That.

Willie Horne - Barrow's working-class hero

On 17 October, Barrow and Great Britain's Willie Horne was inducted into the Rugby League Hall of Fame, one of only twenty-three players to have ever received this honour. He is without doubt one of the most popular players who has become a member of the Hall of Fame.

   Willie and Clive Churchill lead the teams out for the first 1952 test match at Headingley.

 Willie and Clive Churchill lead the teams out for the first 1952 test match at Headingley.

Born on 23 January 1922 in Risedale Maternity Home, Barrow, Willie was the second son and third child of seven born to Alfred Horne, a lathe turner born in Shipley, Yorkshire, and Ethel Horne, also of Shipley.

He went to Cambridge Street primary school from 1927 to 1933 and passed the entrance exam to Furness grammar school but his parents could not afford to buy the uniform. Instead he went to Risedale secondary modern school, where his rugby league skills quickly developed. The school was a hotbed of the game, uniquely producing three captain of the Great Britain national side: Bill Burgess, Phil Jackson and Willie Horne himself (not to mention future England soccer captain Emlyn Hughes, son of Barrow's Welsh import Fred Hughes).

Willie was something of a prodigy, he played for the school’s first team aged twelve alongside boys aged fifteen. In 1937 he left school and became an apprentice turner at the local Vickers’ shipyard, where his father also worked, while continuing his rugby league career with the Risedale Old Boys amateur club, playing at stand-off half. 

In December 1942 he was invited for trials by both Barrow and Oldham. Despite being offered £350 to sign for Oldham, he chose Barrow even though the club paid him only £100 to sign, with the promise of another £150 when World War Two had ended.

He made his professional debut for Barrow at St Helens on 13 March 1943. Two years later in March 1945 he was selected to play for England against Wales, scoring a try in England’s 18-8 win, the first of his fourteen appearances for England, of which the last four were made as captain.

In 1946 Willie was one of four Barrow players chosen in the Great Britain side to tour Australia and New Zealand, the first overseas sports side to visit Australia since the end of World War Two. The journey was made on the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable, which had been built in Barrow. He appeared in all three test matches in Australia, scoring a try in the first game, as Great Britain won the Ashes.

In the days when test matches were infrequent, Willie played five more test matches for Great Britain and was appointed captain for the 1952 Ashes series, which was won by Britain. In 1954, despite being widely regarded as the game’s best stand-off, and possibly best player, he was surprisingly left out of the touring side to Australia. For the first time in thirty years, the tourists returned without the Ashes.

His moment of crowning glory came the following year, when he captained Barrow to victory in the Rugby League Challenge Cup Final at Wembley. Played against Workington Town, the final was probably the high point of sport in England’s far north-west. Over 66,000 spectators, the majority having travelled down to London from the two competing towns, saw Horne control the game and kick six goals in his side’s 21-12 victory. You can see highlights of the match here.

Even so, despite being a local hero, when he returned from Wembley he was forced to resign from his job at Barrow steelworks three days after the Cup Final when the company tried to discipline him for taking an unauthorised day off work.

The 1955 triumph sealed Willie's place in the hearts of the people of Barrow. He had become a symbol of Barrow itself. Born in the depths of the immediate post-World War One depression that hit the shipbuilding industry hard, Willie's rise to rugby league prominence mirrored the boom experienced by the town from the 1940s to the mid-1950s. After he retired from the game in 1959 after 461 matches (in which he scored 112 tries and 739 goals) the ‘Shipbuilders’  fell into a decline that ran parallel to that of the local shipbuilding industry itself.

In 1953 he was awarded a testimonial by the club, which raised a record £950. With the money he opened a sports shop in the centre of Barrow, which became a focus for the town’s sporting community. In 1995 he was made a Freeman of Barrow and in 1999 Barrow rugby league club named their new grandstand after him. He died on 23 March 2001 from cancer and was cremated on 27 March at Thorncliffe Crematorium, Barrow.

Well-liked and self-effacing, in 1995 he told his biographer that he felt that he was just an ordinary man who happened to be born with a gift for playing rugby. Reporting his death, the North West Evening Mail devoted the whole of its front page to his death with the headline of ‘RIP Town Hero and Rugby League Legend’. In 2004 he became one of only a handful of rugby league to have a statue erected in his honour. There could be no more fitting tribute to a man who was as modest as he was great.

- - For more on Willie Horne, I recommend Mike Gardner's wonderful biography Willie - The Life and Times of Willie Horne, a Rugby League Legend.

Ways of Seeing: W.A. Wollen's 'The Roses Match'

W.A. Wollen's 1895 painting, The Roses Match (seen here on the cover of Rugby's Great Split), occupies an interesting place in the culture of both rugby league and rugby union. It hangs at Twickenham - and there is a copy at Otley rugby club - but it actually belongs to the glory days of pre-1895 northern rugby and depicts the origins of the Northern Union. 

It is a representation of the 1893 Yorkshire versus Lancashire match held at Bradford's Park Avenue ground. The myth surrounding the painting is that players who joined the Northern Union were painted out. It is not true - not least because almost all of those depicted who were still playing in 1895 became Northern Union players.

My article 'Myth and Reality in the 1895 Split' (which can be downloaded here) puts the painting in context, while the late Piers Morgan's excellent short article (download from here) adds more specific detail about the painting itself. The Museum of World Rugby at Twickenham has also posted a very interesting article about 'The Roses Match' on their blog here.

It is not the only painting of nineteenth century rugby to which myths have become attached. For years the painting below from the 1870s, which also hangs in Twickenham, was described as being of Wasps versus Cambridge University. 

It isn't. It is actually Halifax versus York in the first Yorkshire Cup final played in 1877 and staged at the Whitehall Road ground at Holbeck in Leeds. More than anything else, it was the Yorkshire Cup that triggered the explosion of interest in rugby across the north of England that led to its great popularity - as depicted in the Wollen painting - and which would lead to the formation of the Northern Union in 1895.

Rugby League in World War One

- - This post is a very slightly edited version of chapter one of Rugby League in Twentieth Century Britain. You can find my article on English Rugby Union and the First World War by clicking here.

Like the authorities of all sports, it took the Northern Union (NU) General Committee some time to respond to the outbreak of the war. When it met on 11 August it provisionally decided to continue with the season. This initial response to continue with the season was taken before militarist hysteria had fully gripped the country. But by September, professional football of whatever code was under severe pressure to suspend its activities while Britain was at war.

The Football Association (FA) became a favourite target of the anti-football campaigners, despite the fact that the War Office had declared itself ‘favourable to the continuation of football’. In London, the Evening News stopped the publication of its football edition and newspapers were full of letters condemning those who continued to play. ‘A Soldier’s Mother’ writing to the Yorkshire Post captured the spirit of those who called for an end to football: ‘If a Zeppelin were to hover over football grounds in England and drop a few bombs amongst the idle loafers gathered there, then perhaps, and I feel not until then, would those shirkers wake up to a sense of their duty to their King and their country.’ Regardless of the propaganda of the national and local newspapers, there were many who thought the continuation of football would be good for morale: an editorial in Athletic News argued that sport

will assist to keep the body fit and the mind calm until such time as right is vindicated. Courage, determination and patience are demanded of non-combatants, and sport tends to the development of these virtues. Let us not hastily give up that which has served a free people so well.

Such arguments did not stop those who clamoured for an end to football from claiming the moral high ground, with RFU spokesmen occupying its most elevated reaches. RFU secretary Rowland Hill claimed that the FA Council ‘had allowed one of the greatest sports in the world to be solely and entirely governed by commercial principles.’ Yorkshire Rugby Union official James Miller felt that ‘playing fields were being desecrated at the present time’ and that ‘it was necessary to compel those who idled around the streets – those shirkers and bullet-funkers – to join the ranks.’ The references to shirkers indicated the underlying class prejudice at the heart of much of this criticism and Miller had little hesitation in pointing an accusing finger, regretting ‘that members of other football bodies had not responded in a like manner. It seems to me that a hot blush of crimson must come into the faces of those footballers who remained at play when others went abroad to fight their battles for them.’

In fact, the NU was no less patriotic than the RFU. Joseph Platt, the NU secretary, had declared that it was ‘the bounden duty of every player as well as every football enthusiast of suitable age and capacity to give his best service to the nation’ but its decision-making machinery lagged behind events. It wasn’t until 8 September that its governing General Committee met in Manchester to discuss the clamour for the football codes to suspend operations. Taking a lead from the F.A., the meeting unanimously passed a resolution stating that

matches be played as usual, as it is impossible for all men to take up active war service, and it is thought unwise to have no relaxation from the more serious objects of life. … all clubs be asked to encourage their players to join the army for active service, unless their employment is such that by not doing so they equally serve the country’s welfare.

The committee also recommended that clubs provide facilities for enlistment at matches and that they should not sign new players from outside of their immediate districts.

In fact, the decision to continue playing did nothing to deter its players from enlisting in droves. The Manchester district league was decimated after only three weeks of the war due to a huge loss of players. In early September the St Helens league suspended activity for the duration after losing virtually all of its players to the forces; over 70 per cent of eligible men had joined up following Lord Derby’s personal recruitment drive in the town. In Bradford, the local league was reduced to just four sides and numerous other amateur NU sides simply stopped playing. At a professional level, every club lost men to the army. Runcorn shed almost all of its playing staff as twenty-three players volunteered. At Oldham, the club doctor re-enlisted as a colonel in the 10th Manchester Regiment and was allowed to address the players on their patriotic duty; nearly all enlisted, including the club secretary A.J. Swann. Swinton and Broughton Rangers both offered their grounds to the military and Wigan reserved one stand for free admission to men who had signed up. The NU appears to have escaped the criticism directed at soccer clubs that they were insufficiently supportive of attempts to recruit at matches, although there are few records of any recruitment actually taking place at NU grounds. By April 1915, Joe Platt could announce that 1,418 amateur and professional NU players had enlisted. 

Nevertheless, the pattern of volunteering did differ markedly between the NU and the RFU. In general, men in white collar occupations and the professions enlisted earlier and more enthusiastically than the working classes. Recruitment of workers in textiles areas, which were severely affected by the sudden interruption to international trade, was particularly low, although miners, the NU’s other major industrial constituency, had a higher percentage of volunteers than most working class occupations. The low levels of family allowances paid to soldiers and the well-known delays in making the payments were also a disincentive to working men enlisting. As Athletic News pointed out, unlike the usually single and often financially-independent young men of rugby union, many working-class footballers could ‘not afford to throw their wives and families on the fickle charities of the public by enlisting'.

But even if the NU had wanted to follow rugby union and abandon the season there were other factors to take into consideration. As Hunslet president Joe Lewthwaite explained, ‘It must be borne in mind too that football is a business concern in many cases. What would be said if works were closed down? Football is run largely on commercial lines. If the grounds are closed, will the landlord forego rent, and the authorities their rates?’ Although the builder of Hunslet’s new stand publicly offered to forego his £2,500 payment until the end of the war in response to Lewthwaite’s rhetorical question, the reality was that the fortunes of the game at the professional level were almost entirely tied to its commercial success. 

This became clear almost as soon as the season started. By the first week of October there was already concern that attendances at matches had fallen to half those of 1913. Similarly dramatic decreases at soccer matches had already led to the Football League proposing a cut in players’ wages for the duration. On 8 October NU official John Houghton wrote to clubs noting that ‘the past five weeks shows a marked falling off in gate receipts and members’ subscriptions, the average income being reduced by as much as 50 per cent’ and recommending that each club discuss with its players the need to reduce wages and costs. Houghton feared that the game’s poorer sides could not survive the fall in gate receipts and that ‘the loss of four or five clubs would so materially cripple the League that it is felt that the continued existence of the League would be in serious jeopardy.’ 

Although there were some positive responses to what was a non-binding request - Keighley players agreed to a 50 per cent pay cut ‘until better days arrive’ - commercial reality dictated that the bigger clubs simply continued to pay their players at pre-war levels while the weaker clubs continued to struggle. Faced with an impending financial crisis and a desire to demonstrate that professional NU players were making sacrifices for the war effort, a special meeting of clubs was called for 20 October. The attendees heard that only one club, Halifax, had not seen a decline in gate receipts. Crowds at both Leeds and Hunslet had fallen by a half, Wigan season-ticket holders had fallen by two-thirds, Hull’s turnover had fallen by almost £700 compared to the previous season and St Helens season ticket sales had collapsed from £420 in 1913 to just £19. By sixteen votes to five, the meeting imposed a wage cut of 25 per cent, make similar cuts to referees’ fees and ordered all clubs to report players’ wages levels and the savings made from the cuts. 

The decision was met with uproar from players with the leading clubs. Within days Wigan, Halifax and Huddersfield players declared themselves ‘keenly opposed’ to the wage cut and in response the Wigan committee appealed for a delay in its introduction. But the General Committee was unbending: ‘it is, though with the utmost regret, thought better that unwilling players should be sacrificed’ rather than concessions be made. In response, players at Wigan, Halifax, Huddersfield, Rochdale and Oldham went on strike on Saturday 7 November, while those at Bradford and York turned out under protest. The following Friday players’ representatives from 13 clubs met in Manchester to discuss the situation. They decided to play that Saturday’s matches under protest and elected a four-man deputation to meet with League officials the following week. 

The four men elected represented the very cream of the Northern Union. As well as Harold Wagstaff there was Gwyn Thomas, who chaired the players’ meeting, was a 21 year-old full-back from Treherbert who had joined Wigan after captaining London Welsh while barely out of his teens. Charlie Seeling was a veteran Wigan forward from New Zealand who had toured Britain with both the 1905 union and the 1907 league All Blacks while Leeds’s Australian centre-threequarter Dinny Campbell was to prove one of his club’s greatest players. On 17 November they met officials to outline their case. In fact, the clubs’ resolve was already crumbling by the time the meeting took place.

Earlier that week referees from Lancashire and Yorkshire had met and resolved to strike if the cuts to their fees were implemented, while 14 clubs had called for an end to the arbitrary imposition of wage cuts on the grounds that it represented interference in their own business affairs. Some, such as York, were even supporting the players’ demands. The following week yet another special general meeting of the clubs voted to rescind the wage cuts both for players and referees, deciding that ‘any deduction in a player’s wages shall be by mutual arrangement only between individual clubs and players.’ It was also resolved to set up a relief fund for clubs in financial difficulty which would be funded by a levy on gate money and donations from clubs and players. Although the threat of a complete strike by players was now averted, the next fortnight saw strikes by Salford and Wakefield players against their clubs’ attempts to cut wages.

The season continued but enthusiasm drained away as war casualties mounted and it became clear that the conflict would not be over quickly. Increasing numbers of spectators and players joined up – Gwyn Thomas enlisted just before Christmas 1914 and, along with Wigan’s Lance Todd, became one of a handful of NU players to receive a commission – while the longer working hours caused by the needs of war production in industrial areas meant that the opportunities to watch sport were drastically reduced. The season also became increasingly uncompetitive as Huddersfield simply destroyed the rest of the league, winning every competition open to them, scoring 103 points against five in the three finals they contested and losing only two games during the entire season.

There was a palpable sense of relief when the season finally came to an end with Huddersfield’s anticipated demolition of St Helens in the Challenge Cup Final. The following month the NU voted to suspend operations for the duration, except for schoolboy and under-18 competitions. Widnes’s John Smith proposed the suspension, asking if there was ‘a single person who can honestly say that he got any satisfaction at all out of football last season?’ while Wakefield’s J.B. Cooke admitted that one of the reasons they had voted to continue in September was that ‘there was hardly a man among them who thought that the war would continue very long.’ He had now changed his mind however: ‘After 10 months of hard fighting, with dreadful losses to the country and lives, they realised what the great game that was going on in France really meant.’


However, within the ‘great game’ rugby union was undergoing a resurgence  with matches being organised for new recruits almost as soon as the first volunteers arrived in training camps in September 1914. In contrast, matches played under NU rules by services teams were virtually non-existent. The only recorded example in the first months of the war was in January 1915 when a Miners’ Battalion team of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry played Featherstone Rovers at Otley’s rugby union ground to raise money for the widow of a Corporal Dixon of Featherstone. Even army matches played on NU grounds at this time were rugby union games. Nor does it appear that NU football was played much in army units on active service, although Rochdale winger and 1914 tourist Jack Robinson, who was badly wounded at Neuve Chappelle in March 1915, reported that they had played ‘rugby’ during the battle while bombs were dropping, saying that ‘our boys out yonder will have their game of football under all sorts of conditions. It comes as a tonic and a relaxation from trench duty and I cannot understand anybody in England ever questioning the advisability of the game.’

But in fact, rugby of whatever code occupied a distant second place when compared to the popularity of soccer with troops in the field. Douglas Clark’s war diary for 1917 describes a number of soccer matches of varying degrees of formality in which he played while in France but only one game of ‘rugby’. Harold Wagstaff was reduced to playing soccer while stationed in Egypt due to a complete absence of any form of rugby. The danger of injury and the difficulty of playing on an improvised pitch naturally gave soccer a natural advantage. A 1915 letter from an unidentified officer in a Lancashire regiment which played both rugby and soccer encapsulated the problem:

The slush on our football 'pitch' is awful. Shall recommend that in the future all football matches be postponed until the mud is knee-deep. We were called the mudlarkers at home and truly we've sustained the reputation since coming to France. Our last football will be in use on Monday, and I dread to think of it bursting in this dreary hole. I suppose I shall have to improvise a ball or two from pigs' bladders - anything to keep the game and the boys going. 

The simplicity of soccer’s rules and the ease with which a game could be organized gave it an additional advantage over the handling codes. But its popularity was also based on more than technical simplicity. As J.G. Fuller has noted, army soccer was a ‘practical exercise in class collaboration’, a sport which men of all ranks could play and which helped to cement esprit de corps among the troops. Outside of regiments from NU areas or South Wales, rugby was generally viewed as a game almost exclusively for officers. Soccer was the sport of the masses and therefore the ranks. 

Despite this, the beginning of 1916 marked a rise in rugby union’s fortunes, when conscription brought in to the army many NU players who had not already volunteered and greatly expanded the pool of players available to military rugby union sides. The first major union match to be played in the north took place in April 1916 between a ‘North of England Military Team’ and an Australasian representative side at Headingley. When selected, all of the North’s players had been officers and rugby union men, but when the final teams were announced two weeks before the match was due to take place, the North had been augmented by four non-commissioned men: Harold Wagstaff, Ben Gronow and Douglas Clark of Huddersfield plus Willie Davies, captain of Leeds, all of who had recently been called up. For the Antipodean side, Oldham’s Viv Farnsworth, Huddersfield’s Tommy Gleeson and Hull’s Syd Deane and Jimmy Devereux were selected.

Although this wasn’t the first time a NU player had played rugby union during the war - Gwyn Thomas had turned out for the Barbarians against South Africa in November 1915, his fellow Wigan player Percy Coldrick had played for Newport in January 1916 and three NU players, including Huddersfield forward Fred Longstaff, had appeared in a union match at Leicester that February  - the prominence of the game and the players involved raised obvious questions about the validity of the RFU’s longstanding ban on NU players. ‘The teams will play under Rugby Union rules, but they will do so as soldiers of the King; questions of amateur or professional principles do not come into view at all,’ explained the Yorkshire Post.

Perhaps inevitably, the NU players dominated, scoring fourteen of the points in the match as the North won 13-11, with Wagstaff, who had only ever seen one rugby union match before that day, much less played in one, beating several opponents and running half the field to score a memorable try. Three weeks later the team beat the Tees and Hartlepool Garrison in front of 7,000 spectators and on 20 May, now boasting seven NU players, they defeated a Welsh side chosen by the Welsh rugby union secretary Walter Rees before a crowd of over 15,000 at Liverpool’s Anfield soccer ground.

The success of the side opened a debate over the RFU’s ban on NU players. Ever since the 1895 split, the RFU had banned for life any rugby union player found guilty of playing NU football or playing with someone who had played NU football, regardless of whether any payments had changed hands. Now it seemed that the war could bring about a breach in that intransigence. Sir William Forster-Todd, the Lord Mayor of York, argued that ‘the fact of the professional footballer and the university student rubbing shoulders and shedding their blood together in the trenches’ would lead to the distinctions between the NU and the RFU disappearing after the war. C.C. Lempriere, who captained Hull before and after the 1895 split, believed that rugby ‘under whatever rules … is far better preparation for the fighting and combative spirit of mankind if, as now, there is call for their display. Why then should a different standard, as between amateurs and professionals, be any more obtained in Rugby football to that obtaining in cricket and Association?’

But these arguments carried little weight with the hardline supporters of amateurism in the RFU ‘War-time recognises no rules,’ pointed out W.L. Sinclair sagely in the Athletic News. ‘But in times of peace the cherished canons of Rugby football will once more be observed. Rugby Union men will be tolerant of the Northern Union player, but there can be no intermingling of the two organisations in common system of play.’

But the fact that many rugby union officials had voted with their feet and included NU men in their sides regardless of the rules meant that the RFU had to act to maintain control of the situation. On 4 October 1916 the RFU therefore issued a statement to clarify its position:

Northern Union players can only play with Rugby Union players in bona-fide naval and military teams. Rugby Union teams can play against naval and military teams in which there are Northern Union players. Munitions workers cannot be regarded as naval and military players. These rulings only obtain during the war.

This was not so much a concession as a recognition of the new status quo. It allowed the RFU to embrace national unity while also signalling its intention to remain an exclusive organisation as soon as the war ended. Nevertheless, the temporary lifting of the ban was seized upon by the more active recruiters for military sides. In particular, Major R.V. Stanley, the Oxford University representative on the RFU Committee, had been working since at least December 1915 to recruit NU players to his Army Service Corps (Motor Transport) team at Grove Park in south London. When the new season began the week after the RFU announcement, his diligent work was clear to all - the A.S.C. team included Huddersfield’s Wagstaff, Clark, Gronow and Rosenfeld, Rochdale’s Joe Corsi and international Ernest Jones, together with Oldham’s Frank Holbrooke. They then proceeded to tear apart almost every other team in the south of England, including Australian and New Zealand services sides, winning 25 out of 26 games and scoring 1110 points while conceding just 41. In the process they broke the senior club record for points in a season.

Their only defeat was 6-3 loss to a United Services side which included eight rugby union internationals plus Wigan’s Billy Seddon and Leeds’ Willie Davies. Even in the heat of the match, the team was expected to observe the etiquette of social and military rank: Wagstaff called his winger, the Harlequins’ player Lieutenant Nixon, ‘Sir’ and Nixon reciprocated by calling the centre ‘Wagstaff’. The attention which Grove Park’s success brought was not all complementary. Echoing the criticisms of football in 1914 the team was accused of being ‘a dumping ground of professional slackers’, a characterisation probably not unconnected with the fact that the A.S.C. was unfairly seen as an easy option for soldiers and was known by its detractors as ‘Ally Sloper’s Cavalry’, after the work-shy cartoon character of the era.  

A similar side was assembled at the Devonport Royal Navy depot which eventually comprised nine NU players, captained by Willie Davies and featuring at various times his team-mate and future international Joe Brittain, future England captain Jonty Parkin and Harold Buck, who became rugby league’s first £1,000 transfer in 1921. Unlike the A.S.C. side which broke up when its members were posted to France in April 1917, the Devonport side played together for the rest of the war, making three tours of the north of England. By playing against NU club sides and under NU rules, the Devonport tours were contrary to both the letter and the spirit of the RFU’s laws but the prevailing atmosphere of national unity meant that there was little that could be done to stop them. In May 1917 a Yorkshire NU representative side had even played against and defeated a New Zealand army team including three All Blacks under union rules at Headingley. 

Despite this intermingling of players, it is noticeable that despite the public debate, no NU player or official called for unity of the two games - other than lifting the ban on players, the most radical proposal was former NU chairman J. B. Cooke’s call for an annual charity match between them. No NU player with a services rugby union side expressed a desire to carry on playing union after the war and even W.L. Sinclair admitted that most rugby union converts to NU preferred the thirteen-a-side game. The same appears to be true of spectators in the north - with the exception of the 1916 match at Anfield, none of the rugby union games in which NU players participated in the north attracted larger crowds than the major NU games during the war. Few attracted more than 4,000 spectators and even the showpiece North versus Australasia match at Headingley in April 1916 attracted somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 spectators. Two weeks later 13,000 saw the Leeds versus Dewsbury NU match on the same ground. 


Crowds of such sizes underlined the continuing strength of the NU in its heartlands. Despite the formal suspension of competitions in June 1915, the professional game had continued on a regional basis organised by the Lancashire and Yorkshire county committees. And despite difficulties due to the enlistment of players and spectators, the majority of clubs continued to play. Only four didn’t compete in the 1915-16 season, but to bolster the ranks Brighouse Rangers, Featherstone Rovers and St Helens Recreation were promoted from district leagues to join the senior clubs for the duration, although Featherstone only lasted one season.

The announcement of conscription in 1916 also helped clubs to justify playing because they would not be accused of keeping men from volunteering. Wakefield, Warrington and Widnes, all of which had closed for the 1915-16 season, recommenced playing in 1916 following its introduction. Some experienced a surge in their fortunes due to munitions factories in their areas. Barrow, despite being forced to close by the town’s military authorities at the start of the war, soon re-established themselves and, boosted by an influx of players and spectators into the local shipyards for war production, became one of the dominant teams of the war, winning the unofficial championship title in 1917-18. Dewsbury were even more successful, finishing champions in the 1915-16 and 1916-17 seasons, and attracting players and crowds due to the town’s prominence as a manufacturer of woollen cloth for uniforms.

In recognition of the economic fragility of professional sport in wartime, the NU’s 1915 annual general meeting banned payments to players and relaxed registration rules to allow players to play for clubs based near their work or military base. Naturally the ban on payments was widely ignored and the freeing of players from their pre-war club registrations also created difficulties; none more so than in October 1917 when Billy Batten was selected to play by both Dewsbury and Hull in the same match. He plumped for Dewsbury and helped them to a 32-0 victory.

Despite the supposed war-time camaraderie, there is no evidence that the war led to a more chivalrous mode of play. As the Yorkshire Post pointed out after six players had been sent off in two Leeds matches in March 1917, games were ‘fought in a much rougher and keener spirit than was the case in the normal competition days’. Nor were crowds any better behaved. The Runcorn and Keighley grounds were shut after crowd trouble in March 1915. Six months later the Brighouse versus Rochdale match was abandoned by the referee due to crowd trouble and the November 1917 derby between Broughton Rangers and Salford ended ten minutes early after spectators joined in a fight between players. The occurrence of these incidents was no greater than in pre-war times - in the four years up to 1910, eight instances of crowd disturbances were reported to the NU - but the fact that they continued in war-time suggests that the social pressure to behave differently during a national crisis was neither as strong nor as prevalent as supporters of the war would have hoped. 

The same reluctance to change pre-war behaviour was also true for the RFU leadership. Within a month of the war ending, RFU secretary C.J.B. Marriott had written to a Royal Artillery team based at Ripon in North Yorkshire forbidding them from playing planned matches against NU sides. On 14 January 1919, at its first committee meeting since war broke out, the RFU’s first act was to pass a resolution stating that NU players could play rugby union in the services only if they did not play NU football or sign for an NU team while in the services. It tightened its restrictions further in April when it announced that ‘civilian clubs are not permitted to play against Service teams containing Northern Union players.’

Such shenanigans indicated that the core leadership of the RFU was determined to re-establish the status quo ante bellum, despite coming under  pressure internally towards the end of the war to moderate its stance. Those leading the RFU saw the war as a complete vindication of their pre-1914 policies, not a cause for change. The authority which it had gained during the war and its close identification with the military allowed the RFU to brush aside easily the reformers in its ranks: ‘moderation is impossible’ was how one supporter summed up its position.

Much of this authority came from the huge and tragic toll of death that had cut a swathe through the RFU’s ranks during the war. Rugby union’s supporters were proud of their mortal sacrifice and pointed to the hundreds of dead players, twenty-seven of them England internationals, as a justification for its assumed moral superiority over other sports. The NU too lost numerous players at all levels: Billy Jarman, Fred Longstaff and Walter Roman of the 1914 touring side were killed, St Helens’ 1907 New Zealand tourist Jum Turthill lost his life and Hull’s Jack Harrison was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross in 1917 for his bravery at Oppy Wood in France.

At a club level, Leeds lost fifteen of fifty-one players who served, Widnes lost thirteen, Hull twelve and Swinton nine. But no figures for the total number of NU players killed, either at professional or amateur level, were ever compiled. The only information for the sport as a whole available is that relating to fifteen of the professional clubs published by Athletic News’s  correspondent in 1919. Of 760 players of these clubs who served in the armed forces, 103 lost their lives. 

Unlike the RFU and its clubs, which sought to create what George Mosse has described as a ‘cult of the fallen soldier’ and celebrate the deaths of players and supporters, the NU never produced a roll of honour or lists of players’ war records, and the memorials which were so common at rugby union clubs were either short-lived, such as one erected to Jack Harrison at Hull, or non-existent. The sport’s annual handbook, the Official Guide, for the first season after the war did not even mention it. Wakefield Trinity’s annual report for 1918-19 not only makes no reference to the war but does not refer to the death of its captain, W. L. Beattie, in action in France in 1917. The minute books of the Yorkshire Society of Referees contain not a single reference to the war at all between 1914 and 1918. Indeed, the only remembrance ritual which the game as a whole undertook was the laying of wreaths at the Cenotaph before the Challenge Cup final at Wembley. Even this seems to have petered out by the mid-1930s - and this symbolism could also be interpreted, in the absence of any militarist rhetoric accompanying the ceremony, as part of rugby league’s attempt to establish its legitimacy in national sporting traditions. 

This contrast with rugby union’s elaborate rituals of remembrance can partly be explained by the differing social purpose of the club in the two sports. Rugby union clubs were essentially social institutions organised for the purpose of playing the game, comprised chiefly of current and former players, and equipped with a full bureaucratic structure like any other form of middle-class association. Senior NU clubs were professional organisations designed for the purpose of providing entertainment. Amateur NU clubs generally had no wider purpose other than to organise matches and training. Almost none had any level of permanent organisation other than that needed to rent a pitch and arrange fixtures. There is no way of knowing how many members of amateur clubs were killed - only forty-two clubs were listed in the 1919-20 Official Guide, down from 210 in the 1914-15 edition, but this decline was probably in large part due to the economic and organisational difficulties facing clubs. Nor is there any way of knowing how many thousands of supporters of NU clubs never returned from the war to take their places back on the terraces.

There are also deeper reasons that explain the contrasting remembrance of the war by the NU and the RFU. Perhaps most strikingly, the everyday experience of death and injury was profoundly different for the working class and the middle class. For members of the working class, especially those in heavy industry, death in the course of daily work was not an unusual occurrence. For example, in 1913 there were 1,149 fatal accidents in the British coal industry, a shocking figure which itself was overshadowed by a record 1,818 deaths in 1910, and 178,962 non-fatal injuries. In December 1910 344 men lost their lives in an explosion at the Pretoria pit in Westhoughton, near Wigan.

Although even this could not compare with the 20,000 men slaughtered on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, it highlights the daily familiarity of working-class people with death and serious injury. And, as Joanna Bourke points out, ‘even without the war, physical disabilities were not rare in many communities. It was also a common part of urban life and employment.’ As late as the 1960s, sociologist Dennis Marsden noted that in Huddersfield textile factories ‘disablement was an everyday fact of working at the mill’. But for professional and white collar workers, who provided the backbone of rugby union, this familiarity with mortality and serious disablement was largely unknown. Thus faced with the awful loss of sons, brothers and friends, they reached to create a ‘cult of the fallen soldier’ in order to justify the sudden and devastating appearance of everyday death in their midst. For rugby union and other sections of the middle classes, this highlighting of their sacrifice had the broader political purpose of reasserting Edwardian middle-class values and leadership during a period of great social dislocation.

One must also consider the extent to which patriotic militarism was popular within the working class. Clearly in certain areas and in particular sections of industrial workers the war was indeed popular. For example, around 25 per cent of miners had enlisted by mid-1915, although even here it can be argued that the prospect of escaping from pit life was a greater push to enlistment than the pull of patriotism; the truth was perhaps a shifting amalgam of reasons. Certainly the initial ‘rush to the colours’ in the early months of the war was far more apparent among middle-class and white-collar workers than it was among the majority of the working classes.

And in certain areas of the country there was a positive resistance by sections of the working-class to wartime jingoism. The large-scale industrial conflicts in South Wales, Glasgow and Sheffield have been well-documented by historians but it is also noticeable for our purposes that Huddersfield was a also centre of anti-war feeling. The town had a long tradition of radicalism and in 1914 demonstrated no great enthusiasm for the declaration of war. Peace meetings were staged regularly without interference and by 1917 the town had become, in the words of historian Cyril Pearce, ‘a virtual citadel for the anti-war cause’. This would suggest that, at the very least, pro-war enthusiasm was not as widespread or as uniform as has previously been believed, and that this was reflected to some extent by the attitudes shown towards remembrance by the Northern Union, and perhaps also the Football League.

So whereas rugby union had pledged itself not to forget the war, the NU showed little desire to look back on it - indeed, references to the war by NU administrators and players are comparatively rare. To some extent this also reflected a degree of irritation that developed during wartime about the way the game had been treated. The Army had shown a marked reluctance to organise matches under NU rules even in the north and it was felt that there was a distinct lack of publicity given to its war dead in comparison to those of rugby union. When the war was mentioned after 1918 it was generally at international matches, when the links between the competing nations during the war were referred to as a sign of international friendship. For example, when Warrington hosted a visit by the pioneering French club Villeneuve in 1934, an article in the match programme pointed out that:

There was no question of amateurism or professionalism in the Great War. English and French men fought and fell side by side on the battlefields of Flanders, irrespective of their standard in life, and now in times of peace it is most gratifying to know that Frenchmen and Englishmen can join together on the playing fields of our two great countries.

The implication that rugby union’s attitude to rugby league ran counter to the experience of the war was made most pointedly by S. G. Ball, the manager of the 1920-21 Australian tourists who, after the French rugby union authorities had forced the cancellation of an exhibition match in Paris, told his players that ‘Northern Union players of England and Australia had helped France in the Great War, but had they been Germans the French Rugby Federation could not have treated them worse.’

This use of the war and the common sufferings of soldiers of Britain and other nations to argue for ‘democratic’ reform of sport was made explicit by a NU supporter writing during 1916 to Athletic News: ‘as the war in this country is being fought on democratic lines, so will the future government of this land be on more democratic lines. There will be far less class distinction than we have been accustomed to. Merit will be recognised. Is it not possible that this may obtain in our sports?’

The idea that the war should serve as a catalyst for social change was in direct contrast to the views of the RFU and more in line with mainstream liberal and social democratic thinking, perhaps best expressed in the call to build a post-war ‘land fit for heroes’. Even in the necessarily limited context of sporting culture, it adds weight to the idea that disillusionment with the war at this time was more prevalent among the working-classes than the middle-classes. Indeed, the months immediately following the war were marked by soldiers striking to demand demobilisation and major strikes in the mines, cotton industry and the railways, among others, emphasising the sense that the working classes felt they were owed something for their sacrifices during the war.

Similar disenchantment with the war and militarism could be detected in soccer too. John Osborne’s study of Athletic News, in many respects the house organ of the Football League, has shown how its attitudes changed at the end of the war. ‘There was no more talk of training players in drill and marksmanship and, in a more impressionistic light, the language of even the match reporting signified war weariness,’ he noted, pointing to a substantial decline in the use of military metaphors to describe the action on the pitch. This is not to say that the NU or the Football League were articulating a political programme, merely that they reflected to some extent the prevailing feelings of their working-class supporters. And even conservative working-class patriotism differed from that of rugby union and its followers. Despite the tremendous weight of official patriotism on the national psyche, working-class men also proved stubbornly resistant to embracing its structures; the British Legion, even with its national network of social clubs, never had more than 500,000 members, less than 10 per cent of the total number of men who served. 

If Britain was still divided at the end of the war, rugby was no less so.