'Where’s George?': League’s Forgotten Feature Film

Mick Martin’s play Broken Time is the first dramatic treatment of the historic events that led to the 1895 rugby split. 

It’s the latest in a small but highly important series of dramas that have rugby league at their heart, most notably David Storey’s The Changing Room, Alan Plater’s Trinity Tales and John Godber’s Up and Under. The most famous of course is the 1963 film adaptation of This Sporting Life

But long before any of these landmarks in film and theatre, rugby league hit the silver screen with Where’s George?, a 1935 comedy starring the comedian Sydney Howard. 

Unlike those that came after it, this production did not aspire to be a work of art. It was a typical 1930s British comedy, firmly in the tradition of George Formby, Will Hay and Gracie Fields. And, as always in British comedy, class was central to the plot.

Talking sport

Where's George?.jpg

Where’s George? was the latest in a series of British films that sought to appeal to the northern industrial working classes. The introduction of talkies in the late 1920s had highlighted a particular problem for the British film industry. 

All of its stars spoke with upper-class English accents (‘received pronunciation’) and there were almost no stars with whom the millions of people in northern cities could identify.

Comedy and sport were felt to be the best ways to appeal to this huge market. Numerous northern comedians found themselves making films that were basically vehicles for their stage personas. Films with sporting themes were particularly popular with film producers.

The first of these genre films seems to have been the 1931 Up For The Cup, in which a soccer supporter from Yorkshire comes to London for the FA Cup Final but loses his ticket. The plot, insofar as there is one, revolves around his inevitably comic antics as he tries to find it. This was followed, perhaps inevitably, by Up For The Derby.

The most popular of the sports comedies in the 1930s were those featuring George Formby. Born in Wigan, Formby was easily the most bankable British star of the 1930s. In 1935 he was a rider at the Isle of Man TT races in No Limit. Two years later he was a boxer in Keep Fit and in 1939’s Come on George he was a jockey. 

So it was perhaps not surprising in 1935 when the British & Dominions Film Corporation decided that they wanted to make a comedy centred on rugby league.

Losing the plot

Where’s George? was modeled on 1931’s Up for the Cup. It was directed by the same person, Jack Raymond, and featured the same star, Yeadon-born Sydney Howard as Alf Scodger. 

Howard had started as a music hall comedian in the early 1900s and came to fame during World War One, but by the 1930s had become a regular in low budget comedies, including Up For The Derby.

Most interestingly, the script was written by Walter Greenwood, the Salford novelist who had achieved overnight success with his 1932 novel (and later film) Love on the Dole. Where’s George? had none of the social commentary of Greenwood’s other work.

In fact, it is difficult to find anything of Greenwood in the script. The plot revolves around Scodger’s attempts to outwit his overbearing wife. As a consequence, he accidentally discovers a talent for rugby and turns out for his local Yorcaster club against Lancastrian rivals Oldcastle.

The George of the title is a foal that Alf buys and then loses. However, while playing in the match, Alf spots George in a neighbouring field and as he runs towards the foal, catches the ball and scores the match-winning try.

The benevolent local dignitary - obligatory in almost all comedies featuring working-class characters - attends the match and sees Alf triumph, which leads to Alf and his wife being reconciled.

The Clark connection

Despite clearly having little knowledge of the game, the film’s producers did make links with rugby league. Both Walter Greenwood and Sydney Howard were fans of the game.

In early 1935, the producers had asked the RFL if two sides could go down to London to film action sequences. The RFL, mindful of the deep economic depression that gripped the north, especially the mining regions, asked if parts of the film could be shot in the north.

So in the summer of 1935 the film crew went to Featherstone to record crowd scenes. Two hundred unemployed miners were hired as extras for crowd scenes at the rate of ten shillings a day, which was probably more than most of them received in unemployment assistance. Rovers and Huddersfield players were used for the action scenes.

There was one more connection too. Carver Doone, a six feet, eight inches tall Devonshire wrestler, played the unfeasibly large full-back around whom Alf has to dodge to score the winning try (oversized rugby league players were a cartoon staple of the day). But Doone himself was a highly successful wrestler who fought Douglas Clark, the English All-In Wrestling champion, no less than six times.

Duggie Clark was of course better know as the Huddersfield and Great Britain prop forward, hero of the 1914 Rorkes’ Drift test match and a future member of the Rugby League Hall of Fame.

Wrong time, wrong George...

There is an unconsciously surreal quality to the plot, which appears to have crammed as many cliches into the film as possible. It is a veritable compendium of cliche - harridan wife, cutesy animals, unassuming northern male, upper-class patron, dim-witted northerners, all of which appear bang on cue.

The film’s publicity material reveled in its stereotypes. Howard, it claimed, was a ‘lovable, homely Yorkshireman with a large appetite for roast beef and Yorkshire pudding’.

It’s difficult to know what audiences made of it. George Formby’s films were wildly popular and made millions, but Where’s George? seems to have been a flop at the box office.

It did suffer from one unforeseen problem, however. It went on general release in late 1935 but just a few weeks later, in January 1936, the reigning monarch, George V, died. 

Posters asking ‘Where’s George?’ were not felt to be appropriate in the circumstances and the title of the film was quickly changed to The Hope of His Side.

Thus renamed, the film sank without trace.

 [This post originally appeared in Forty-20 magazine in 2012]

This Sporting Life


-- This a short introductory talk I gave before a special screening of This Sporting Life at the wonderful Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds on 4 September. The screening was sponsored by Rugby League Cares.

"I’ll start with the best line in the film. Frank Machin, played by Richard Harris, meets the wife of the club chairman after his first match. 

‘You’re the new star’ she says. He looks at her, ‘We don’t have stars in our game. That’s soccer.’ ‘So what do you have?’ she asks. ‘Just people like me’ he replies. 

Which pretty much sums up what rugby league is all about.

It’s 49 years since the film of This Sporting Life was released. The first words you hear are spoken by Great Britain loose-forward Ken Traill. You’ll see Belle Vue and the great Trinity players of the 1960s. You’ll see the Trinity beating Wigan 5-4 in the 1962 cup quarter-final. Thrum Hall is used for the scenes outside of the ground. And there’s another ground shown too - tell me at the end if you spot it. 

So there’s some great footage of rugby league history.

But the film is far from perfect. It hasn’t aged as well other kitchen sink dramas like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning or The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Listen to the accents - God knows where Richard Harris thinks he is from but it’s certainly not Wakefield. Rachel Roberts doesn’t even attempt to change her Welsh accent. And generally Harris spends too much time trying to out-do Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire.

It also presents a very one-dimensional view of rugby league. The game is portrayed as nothing but violent and aggressive - there’s no sign of the artistry, the skills, the athleticism, the or creativity that also make the game. But this is partly because Storey was still angry about the way he was treated as a young ‘A’ team player at Leeds. 

His dad was a miner and he’d been brought up with the game, but he won a scholarship to Queen Elizabeth Grammar in Wakefield and then went to art school in London. You can imagine how he had his leg pulled in the dressing room. ‘I was permanently belligerent’ he later said. But his later play The Changing Room and his later novels presented the game in much more nuanced and rounded way.

But in reality this isn’t a film about rugby league. Lindsay Anderson, the director, uses the game to explain the doomed love story that is at the heart of the film and the book -  which is essentially about a relationship between an older woman and a younger man. 

Frank Machin isn’t a rebel like Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning or Tom Courtenay in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. Instead, he’s a man trapped in a world and a relationship that he cannot control - and he lashes out with violence. 

At its heart, This Sporting Life is a film about those two great English obsessions: Sex and  Class. Ultimately it is a story about class and what it means to be a man and how to behave as a man - and because of its unique history, no sport illustrates these artistic questions better than rugby league... as we are about to see."

All Aboard for Wembley!

It's the time of year when the Challenge Cup gets serious. And to celebrate, we're taking a look at the forgotten London Transport posters that advertised travel to the Cup Final from 1929, when it was moved to Wembley, to 1939.

From the early part of the 20th Century, London Transport and its forerunners encouraged creativity among its designers. During the inter-war years its design department and the artists it commissioned produced some of the most interesting commercially-based art in the UK. You can find the online exhibition of London Transport art here.

The posters for events at Wembley were one small part of this output, which also included many other sports such as soccer, rugby union, cricket and ice hockey. The first rugby league poster of 1929 (below) was designed by Dorothy Paton, a member of the Society of Women Artists who had exhibited three paintings at the Royal Academy. She clearly could not differentiate between rugby league and rugby union!


Charles Burton's 1930 design was his only league poster, but its use of lines, in this case from the two spotlights, were a common motif in his work.


Perhaps the most interesting posters were produced by Heather 'Herry' Perry, who produced the 1931 (above), 1933 and 1935 posters (there was no 1932 poster as that year's final was staged at Wigan). The first is a startling depiction of players as semi-naked Greek athletes, a bold move for a woman artist in the 1930s.


Perry's 1933 poster is much more conventional, yet it still conveys life and movement. Unlike some of the artists she also appears to be aware that league was not union (a confusion seen in the 1929 poster) and shows a league scrum.


The 1934 poster was designed by Scottish artist Anna Katrina Zinkeisen, who also painted murals on the Queen Mary. It is very similar in concept to the 1936 poster but uses one of her favourite devices of two players to emphasise action.


Herry Perry's final rugby league poster of 1935 was again very different from her previous two. It is less abstract and may well have been based on a photograph of a match - the players loitering in the background seem too natural to be invented.


The 1936 poster is rather derivative of that of 1934 and was the work of Eric Lombers, whose style was generally more abstract than most of the London Transport designers - his 1939 FA Cup Final poster is a classic. He also desigend the poster for the infamous 1934 England versus Germany match at White Hart Lane.


Gill Lancaster only designed four posters for London Transport but the above poster for the 1937 Cup Final is easily the best, highlighting both the stadium and the activity and movement of the players.


The lacklustre 1938 and 1939 posters (shown below) were both the work of Yorkshire artists - Brian Robb from Scarborough and Sheffield-born Charles Mozley respectively - and are by far the weakest of the series.


When the Cup Final resumed at Wembley after the end of World War Two, London Transport no longer felt the need to advertise, possibly because the match had come to be seen as almost an exclusively northern day-out in the capital.

But one of the less well-known  legacies of the 1929 decision to move the Cup Final to London was these wonderful posters - all of which are available to buy from the London Transport Museum Shop.

-- This was originally published at rugby reloaded.com on 6 May 2011.

1895: the aftermath

Most people know what happened at the George Hotel in Huddersfield on 29 August 1895. Twenty-one of Britain’s leading rugby clubs met to resign from the RFU and form the Northern Rugby Football Union, legalising ‘broken time’ payments to players and marking the start of what we know today as rugby league.

But what is not so well-known is how popular the split was among players and fans or how deeply the split affected rugby across the north of England. The split opened up a period of turmoil that caused passionate debate and enmities that would last a century and more.

No-one can doubt that the formation of the Northern Union had overwhelming support from players and supporters alike. Bradford’s players threatened to strike if the club did not support the new NU and supporters raised petitions in the pubs of Bradford calling for the club to back the split.

The club’s international three-quarter Tommy Dobson said that ‘all Yorkshire owes a debt of gratitude to the senior clubs for speaking out so plainly in favour of what should be the leading element in sport - truth’. Just six members resigned in protest.

At Leeds a special general meeting was held which voted decisively to support the splitters, resulting in two resignations from the club. Newspapers reported that the players in Huddersfield ‘naturally champion the Northern Union and a very large section of spectators of matches take the same side’. At Broughton Rangers, the motion to join the NU was moved by the club captain and carried unanimously. Hunslet, St Helens, Manningham, Hull and Leigh were similarly united.

Although they had attended the meeting at the George Hotel, Dewsbury did not join the NU and stayed loyal to the RFU. It was not a popular decision. A local journalist reported that ‘there wasn’t a single supporter who wouldn’t say “Let us have the Northern Union and the sooner the better”.’

The popularity of the NU was demonstrated at a special meeting in September of the Hull and District RFU (the forerunner of today’s Hull & District RL) which voted 33-24 to resign from the RFU and join the NU, even though the NU had no mechanism for district bodies or junior clubs to affiliate.

After the Aftermath

The summer of 1896 saw Lancashire’s two remaining big clubs join the NU. Both Salford and Swinton had balked at splitting from the RFU due to personal antagonism and organisational jealousy, but in April 1896 Salford held a special meeting to discuss joining the NU; only three people opposed the switch. Rochdale St Clements, Radcliffe, Werneth, Morecambe and many others followed suit that summer. Most of Warrington’s local clubs went at the same time, as did around fifty clubs which formed the Oldham Junior Rugby League.

At the same time in Yorkshire most of the clubs who had played in the first division of Yorkshire rugby union’s leagues decamped to the NU. Leeds Parish Church, that season’s champions, had only five votes against their switch of allegiance. In June 1897 Hull KR, that year’s Yorkshire cup and league champions, went over and the following summer most of what remained of the first and second divisions resigned en bloc to form the second division of the Yorkshire NU.

By June 1897 there were no rugby union clubs in the Halifax district, which was described by a Sowerby Bridge rugby union supporter as being ‘a hot bed of Northern Unionism bigotry’. At the start of the following season the Yorkshire Post reported that ‘in Leeds, rugby union football is practically non-existent’.

The Bradford and Huddersfield district rugby unions voted to disaffiliate from the YRU and affiliate to the NU. In 1899 Hebden Bridge, Ossett, Kirkstall and Alverthorpe flew the nest and in the summer of 1900 Keighley, Otley and Bingley decided that ‘the interest has gone out of rugby union’ and joined the NU.

NU triumphant

At its opening round in 1901, rugby union’s Yorkshire Cup, once one of the biggest sporting contests in Britain, which once attracted bigger crowds than the FA Cup final, and which at its height had 132 clubs, could only muster 11 clubs.

It is also worth noting that two of Yorkshire’s current leading rugby union clubs - Morley and Otley - owe their origins to the aftermath of 1895. The original Morley club joined the NU in May 1897 when a majority voted to leave the RFU. Two months later supporters of the RFU founded a new club, ‘Morley English Rugby Football Club’, to which the present union club owes its origins.

And the original Otley rugby club left the RFU in 1900 and played rugby league for six seasons before disbanding due to financial problems. The current Otley club was founded as a rugby union club only in 1907.

In the North West, Barrow - the region’s leading club - voted unanimously to join the NU in April 1897. Ulverston (who faced a petition raised by fans), Millom and the rest of the followed them in July. By the summer of 1897 the Lancashire Rugby Union had only thirteen clubs, focused on the traditional ex-public schoolboy sides.

The loss of the north-west Lancashire clubs had a knock-on effect on Cumberland and Westmoreland clubs, and at the start of the 1898-99 season Athletic News commented that rugby union in Cumberland had been reduced ‘to an almost vanishing quality’. By January 1899 there was not a single rugby union club left in west Cumberland.

RFU cuts off own nose

The near-death experience of rugby union in the North was not simply due to the Northern Union. It also owed something to the behaviour of the RFU. Immediately after the split the RFU declared that playing for or against an NU team was an act of professionalism, punishable by a life ban from rugby union. This immediately posed problems at a local level.

For example, Beverley FC were left with virtually no fixtures after clubs in the Hull and District Rugby Union voted to support the NU. When they played matches with NU supporting clubs the Yorkshire Rugby Union expelled them.

But it wasn’t just clubs that were threatened. Any player who had any contact with the NU was thrown out of the Rugby Union. In February 1896, a Wyke player was banned for life for travelling with Brighouse Rangers to a match at Leigh, despite not even playing in the match! Elland had two players banned because one of their players had earlier played for a rugby union side against a team which contained a NU player.

Most bizarrely of all, in January 1898 Goole RUFC were ordered not to play a charity rugby match against a touring Little Red Riding Hood pantomime troupe; this was deemed to be an act of professionalism because earlier on its tour the troupe had played in a charity match with Batley!

The old returns as the new

It was only after 1900 that rugby union in the North of England slowly began to rebuild itself. The Yorkshire Rugby Union led the way, encouraging new clubs to be formed by ‘the class of players who hitherto have been elbowed out in the evolution of professionalism’.

Clubs began to be formed by ex-public and grammar schoolboys. Old Dewsburians was formed ‘by some of the better class Dewsbury and Batley residents’. Hull and East Riding club was set up ‘by the sons of Hull and district’s leading citizens’ and Wakefield RFC was founded by ‘Grammar School old boys and others’.

In Lancashire, the Furness, Oldham, Leigh and Vale of Lune rugby union clubs were formed in a similar fashion. By 1907, it was estimated that over 180 of those currently playing rugby union in Yorkshire were former public schoolboys, which, considering that the YRU had barely twenty clubs, accounted for at least half the players in the county.

Heart and Soul

The traditional idea that the split in 1895 was a ‘breakaway’ from rugby union underestimates the sheer scale of what happened in 1895. The entire heart and soul of rugby in the north went over to the Northern Union. Its senior clubs were the strongest in England and its local junior sides (known today as community clubs) were at the core of rugby’s local appeal across the north.

The rugby tradition that had been created in the north since the Yorkshire Cup was first played for in 1877 and which had seen rugby become the dominant sport in Yorkshire, Cumbria and large parts of Lancashire was continued by the Northern Union. It was rugby union that had to recreate a new tradition of its own.

If the meeting at the George in 1895 signaled the start of rugby league as we know it today, the aftermath of the split showed that it was the Northern Union that carried on the historic traditions of rugby in the north.

In honour of Albert Goldthorpe

This is the text of the address I gave to the annual Albert Goldthorpe Medal Awards dinner - organised by League Publications - on 16 September 2009.

I just want to spend a few minutes talking about Albert Goldthorpe himself and why he was not only an immortal player, but in many ways represents the very soul of rugby league.

There can be no doubt that he was a very great player, both under rugby union rules before 1895 and then under rugby league rules after the great split.

He made his debut for Hunslet aged 16 in October 1888 at full back. He was, reported the Leeds Mercury, 'properly put to the test and came through the ordeal with flying colours'. He soon moved into the centres and became known as one of the game's greatest drop-kickers. He played his last game aged 40 in 1911 - a career of over 22 years.

He was selected to play for Yorkshire aged 20. This was when Yorkshire dominated dominated rugby union, winning the county championship seven times in its first eight years. In 1892 he played for Yorkshire here at Headingley when they defeated a full-strength England national side.

In 1895, when the northern rugby clubs formed the Northern Union, he became as prominent in the new game as he was in rugby union.

He was the first player to score 100 goals in a season.

At the age of 36 he captained Hunslet to All Four Cups in 1908, the first team ever to do the Grand Slam, building probably the first truly great team in rugby league history, based on the 'Terrible Six' forward pack and such great backs as Fred Farrar 'the Farsley Flyer' and the legendary Billy Batten.

But Albert Goldthorpe represented much more than this. He was known as 'Ahr Albert' and became a symbol of Hunslet and its community, and of rugby league itself.

In 1892 he played a star role when Hunslet beat Leeds in the Yorkshire Cup final in front of 21,000 people at Huddersfield. This was a time when the Yorkshire Cup was rugby's biggest tournament and often had bigger crowds than the FA Cup Final. When Hunslet arrived home with the cup the spirit of community solidarity overflowed.

The ‘Leeds Mercury’ described the scene:

A procession of wagonettes and other vehicles conveying the victors and their jubilant friends, was headed by the Hunslet Brass Band playing ‘see the conquering heroes come’... Some difficulty was experienced by the procession in passing the junction of Boar Lane and Briggate, both thoroughfares being so densely crowded that for a time the ordinary vehicular transport had to be suspended. ... In Waterloo Road banners were flying from bedroom windows; and at some of the principal hostelries coloured lights illuminated the animated scene. ... Several thousand people had collected at the Anchor Hotel (the club’s hq) and it was with considerable difficulty that the players could make their way from the wagonettes to the building. The scene was one of the wildest enthusiasm. The appearance of Albert Goldthorpe at one of the upper windows was the signal for a thunderous cheer.

But this community spirit was not just about the town, it was also part of the game. When Albert Baskerville's 'All Golds' - the first ever rugby league tourists - arrived in Leeds from New Zealand in September 1907, they were met by the same outpouring of emotion - in fact, the newspaper report in the Yorkshire Post sounds uncannily similar to that of 1892:

When the players appeared the crowd burst into tremendous cheering, which continued until the men had got into their charabanc. The Wright, the New Zealand capt, called for “Three cheers for the people of Leeds”, which were followed by the stirring Maori war-cry and further cheering. The players were escorted to the Grand Central Hotel by the Hunslet charabanc [which was decorated with the banner “Hunslet welcomes the New Zealand team”] and the Northern Union officials in carriages, together with the still cheering crowd. The crush was so dense in Boar Lane and Briggate as to cause the stoppage of traffic.

So Albert Goldthorpe embodied rugby league's community spirit. He also organised benefit matches to raise funds for striking workers and in 1904 the Leeds & District Schoolboys Trophy was named after him in respect for the tremendous work he had put into the community.

But he also represented something equally as important. He stood for character, for self-respect and integrity.

When the northern clubs broke from the RFU in 1895, the players took an enormous risk. They had no idea what would happen to the new rugby organisation, all it offered was six shillings per week broken time payments.

But they did know for certain that they would never again have the chance to play for the England or Yorkshire rugby union teams and that they would forever be treated as pariahs by the RFU. But Albert, and hundreds of other northern rugby players did not flinch in their support for the Northern Union.

Albert explained his support for the rebels:

The formation of the NU was a fine thing… There is now none of the old hypocrisy that we had to contend with [under the RFU]. It is a question of paying players openly, which is considerably better for all concerned… [and] the alteration of the rules has made accidents to players less likely.

[In passing, it is interesting that Albert's brother James, himself a great Hunslet player who later became the secretary of Leeds, was something of a visionary when it came to the rules of the game, arguing in the 1920s for a sin-bin and for the introduction of two divisions, fifty years before they became a feature of the game.]

It is worth remembering how easy it would have been for a prominent player like Albert to have turned his back on the new Northern Union and continue to play union. He would have been lauded and celebrated as a hero of rugby union, and would have been considerably more famous (and probably richer, despite the amateur regulations of the RFU).

But he knew that loyalty to your team-mates, to your community and to the game that made him a hero was much more important. Albert Goldthorpe instinctively knew, like all rugby league players do, that the most important thing was to be able to look yourself in the mirror and say 'I did the right thing'.

No wonder then, that the old Rugby League Gazette magazine paid tribute to Albert in 1950 with the words: ‘character is one of the few things that money cannot buy'.

It is those three principles - Community, Integrity, Character - that made Albert Goldthorpe the great man he was. Those same fundamentals are what makes the Albert Goldthorpe Medal so important to our sport. And ultimately they are precisely the things that make rugby league what it was, what it is, and what it will always be… the greatest game of all.

The hidden history of Sevens and 'short-form' rugby

This post was originally published on rugbyreloaded.com on 21 August 2010.

Although Wednesday’s Carnegie 9s is one of rugby league’s newest competitions, it builds on a tradition of ‘limited player’ or 'short form' rugby that dates back over 130 years.

Today, the seven-a-side rugby union circuit is a never-ending smorgasbord of corporate hospitality junkets and, of course, the 'short form' game will be played at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Open any match programme or web page about sevens and you'll be told that the limited player version of rugby was invented in Melrose in Scotland in April 1883.

But that’s not quite true.

Although the idea to have seven players per side may have started in Melrose, that was certainly neither the first nor even the only version of limited player rugby.

Huddersfield again

If anything, Melrose was behind the times. In fact, it appears that the first type of 'short form' rugby began with a six-a-side tournament in Huddersfield in 1879.

This first six-a-side tournament took place on 13 September 1879 and was organised by Huddersfield Cricket & Athletic Club (the foreunner of today’s Huddersfield Giants).

Leeds, Dewsbury, Bradford (today’s Bulls), Leeds St Johns (today’s Rhinos), Huddersfield themselves, Bradford Juniors and Kirkstall entered for the chance to win six silver cups, with six leather bags for the runners-up. Playing regular rugby rules in ten-minute halves, Huddersfield's six over-ran Leeds 23-0 in the final.

Other six-a-side tournaments were played over the next three or four years, with Dewsbury, Bramley, Cleckheaton, Wakefield and Leeds Parish Church all hosting contests. Six-a-sides were played during the summer, usually at athletic carnivals, with the aim of raising money for the club or, more often, for local hospital charities.

When Six became Nine

But by the mid-1880s the popularity of six-a-sides appears to have been eclipsed by the nine-a-side form of the game.

In August 1881 Batley staged the first nine-a-side tournament. Seven clubs entered, competing for a first prize of nine Vienna Regulators (a type of pendulum wall clock), valued at £2 10s each, and nine gentleman's travelling bags for the runners-up.

Dewsbury defeated Batley in the final, but the match ended in uproar, as Batley historian C.F. Shaw described in his 1899 book The Gallant Youths:

The Batley men declared that three points had to be obtained before a win could be claimed. This view was stoutly opposed by Dewsbury, and when the referee, a Mr Bentley of Heckmondwike, was appealed to, he waived his decision which so exasperated a certain section f the crowd that a free fight ensued. The referee was expected to attend a meeting of the Batley committee, but failed to make his appearance, as he had received several threatening letters in regard to the contest; and the committee decided to submit the matter to the editor of the Athletic News, and abide by his decision, which was given in favour of Dewsbury

Batley became the centre of summer 9s competitions. In 1885 two to three thousand people gathered at Batley Town Hall to see them receive the silver trophy from the mayor. The fact they had defeated Barrow in the final showed the appeal of the limited player game to fans and clubs alike.

Nine-a-side tournaments were staged throughout the 1880s in Leeds, Castleford, Dewsbury, Huddersfield and also in Lancashire, attracting large crowds and raising thousands of pounds for local charities.

Union authorities cut nines down to size

So why did nines die out? As you might guess, the leadership of rugby union were not keen on limited player contests.

This was due to two reasons. Most tournaments were played outside of the regular season using modified rules, thus undermining the official leadership of the game. For example, the 1881 Batley tournament was played under a point-scoring system. A converted try was worth eight points, a goal was six and an unconverted try four. But at this time, official rugby union rules only counted goals as a method of scoring.

The second problem for the authorities was that the limited player contests were suspected of professionalism. The prizes were often valuable and it was well-known that players would often simply sell-on the clocks and medals for their cash value.

And some tournaments even offered cash prizes, strictly against RFU rules. Wakefield's 1882 six-a-side contest saw the winning Thornes' players pick up two pounds each.

In August 1890, the Yorkshire Rugby Union suspended eight teams for playing in a summer six-a-side tournament. The following month the Lancashire Rugby Union outlawed limited player contests. Feelings ran 'very strongly against the nine-a-side game during the closed season and it was decided that in future no more contests be allowed during the summer,' stated a Lancashire spokesman.

This marked the end of the line for sixes and nines, early victims of the convulsions in rugby that would be caused by the RFU's campaign for pure amateurism.

Innovation and Tradition

The limited player version of rugby continued only in the Border region of Scotland, where it spread to other towns in the area after emerging in Melrose.

Isolated from the rugby union mainstream, the Borders seven-a-side version of the game continued largely unnoticed until 1926, when, freed of its previous associations with rule-changes and professionalism, limited player rugby was allowed back into English rugby union with the start of the Middlesex Sevens.

But, as with so many innovations in rugby, the initial impulse for limited player rugby came from those clubs in the north of England who were to revolutionise the sport and found the Northern Union.

Rugby union may have forgotten its own history but, when you go down to Headingley to watch this year's Carnegie 9s on Wednesday, take a few seconds to remember that you're watching one of rugby's oldest innovations and longest lasting traditions.

Kenneth Wolstenholme and rugby league

This post was originally published on rugbyreloaded.com on 14 May 2010.

Tomorrow is FA Cup Final day, so what more appropriate time to reprint the boyhood rugby league memories of soccer's most famous commentator, Kenneth Wolstenholme, originally published in his 1999 autobiography Fifty Sporting Years and It's Still Not Over.

He was born in 1920 into a well-to-do Lancashire cotton family that fell on hard times during the depression of the late 1920s. Short of money, his family could not afford private education for him so he ended up at a local state school in Swinton, where he takes up the story.

'The cotton trade was particularly badly hit [by the depression of the late 1920s].We left the Priory, and instead of going to a public school like Edna and Leslie, or a famous grammar school like Neil [his brothers and sister], who was a pupil at Manchester Grammar, I found myself at Cromwell Road Council School in Swinton. And I loved every minute of it.

'As far as education goes we were given a sound grounding in the three Rs, and the more you think of the three Rs - reading, writing and arithmetic (there has got to be a little poetic licence somewhere) - the more you realize that those three subjects were the very foundation of learning.

'It was a long walk to and from school and we worked hard. We also played hard, but the main game for the boys at Cromwell Road was rugby . . . Rugby League, not Rugby Union. We had a good school team, far too good for me to be a member because frankly I was never any good at the game, but I loved Rugby League, and still do.

'We were lucky enough to have the school not more than a drop kick away from Station Road ground, home of the Swinton RL Club, one of the best in the league. Not too far away was the Willows, home of Salford, Swinton's deadly rivals. Whenever the two teams met the ground was packed with spectators, and what rugby they saw.

'I remember going to watch a Test Match al the Swinton ground - England against Australia. With a number of my school chums I was allowed to sit inside the small concrete wall at one end of the field, just behind the try line. It was a rough, skilful rugby. The only thing it lacked was any scoring. Then, in the very last minute, England launched an attack.

'My chums and I were sitting on the grass not far from the corner flag at the end England were attacking. The excitement mounted as the ball moved swiftly from one English player to another, then suddenly the England loose forward - I think his name was Frank [it was actually Fred] Butters and that he played for Swinton - broke clear. He was being chased by at least three Aussies so it was touch and go whether he would make the try line before he was grounded.

'Suddenly one of the Australians pounced and made a desperate lunge at Butters, who dived for the line at the very moment the Australian grabbed his ear. We had a close-up view of the Englishman touching down for a try... and also a close-up view of his ear being partly torn off his head. It was the winning try, but what a price to pay for it. If I remember correctly, Frank Butters wore a skullcap for the rest of his playing career. [In fact, Kenneth's memory is playing tricks here. The match is the famous 1930 0-0 drawn Ashes Test match and it was the Australian scrum-half Joe 'Chimpy' Busch who went in for a try at the end of the match, only to have it disallowed. Fred Butters was injured making the tackle that stopped the try. For the full story see p. 124 of Rugby League in Twentieth Century Britain.]

'Exciting and memorable though that fantastic victory was, there were just as exciting and memorable moments in the schoolboy Rugby League tussles which were organized by the Daily Dispatch, one of the Kemsley newspapers produced in Manchester. The Daily Dispatch Shield was our FA Cup. In fact it was run on the same lines as the FA Cup, or should I say the Rugby League Challenge Cup.

'Schools from all over the area entered and the big prize was a place in the final, which was always played on a senior Rugby League club ground. Warrington, Widnes, Wigan, Salford, St Helens and Swinton had their share of finals, but it seemed tome that Central Park Wigan was the venue which most closely filled the Wembley role. Every season Cromwell Road were favourites to win the prized Daily Dispatch shield.

'Sadly, the Daily Dispatch which did such a lot for schools rugby, and for our entertainment, went out of business like so many other provincial papers, soon after the Second World War.'