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. 

A Rugby Time-Tunnel

The British Film Institute has recently reposted some of its historic Northern Union films on its redesigned website

They are a treasure trove for anyone interested in the early history of rugby. The website has films of Dewsbury v Manningham, Halifax v Salford and Salford v Batley (all from 1901) Hull FC v Wigan, Hull KR v Wigan and a Hull derby (all from 1902). 

The films show us the evolution of rugby league mid-way between the split with rugby union in 1895, when union rules were still largely used, and 1906, when the game decisively left union behind with the introduction of thirteen-a-side and the play-the-ball.

As well as glimpses of great players like Dicky Lockwood (running out for Dewsbury against Manningham), Albert Goldthorpe (in the Hunslet v Leeds clip) and Jim Lomas (playing for Salford at Halifax and at home to Batley), and of grounds that are now long gone, the films show us the game as it was played, something which is impossible to visualise from newspaper reports.

Perhaps the biggest difference from today is the sheer number of scrums. As the films shows, a scrum took place after every tackle. This rule was introduced in 1899 to cut down on the monotonous rucking and mauling that took place after a tackle in rugby union. 

Although it seems illogical to our eyes, part of the logic behind this move was that, as play invariably broke down after a maul or ruck and resulted in a scrum, why not go straight to the scrum. 

The other point to remember is that these scrums were formed very quickly, as can be seen from the films. Even so, the number of scrums in a match would often exceed one hundred and the problem of what to do with the ball after a tackle was only solved with the introduction of the play-the-ball in 1906.

The scrums themselves are very different from both league and union scrums today. Up until the 1920s, most sides packed down according to the ‘first up, first down’ principle, whereby the first forwards to reach the scrum formed the front row. 

Consequently there were rarely any fixed positions for forwards, But, as quickly becomes apparent when watching the films, the way scrums formed varied from team to team. With eight forwards packing down, some teams - as can be seen by Hull KR in their match against Wigan in 1902 - occasionally have a front-row of two forwards, the aim being to push through their opponents’ front row.

Because there was no rule at the time to say how the scrum should be formed, we can also see front rows of four forwards.  The films also highlight how the struggle to get the loose-head in the scrum (in order to get a clear view of the ball going into the tunnel) often resulted in the prop-forward who lost the loose-head racing round to the other side of the scrum to re-join the front row.

The huge difference from today in the skills used by the forwards can also be seen in the way they regularly attempt to dribble the ball. With ball retention not being as important as in the modern game - after all, if you lost the ball, the constant scrums offered an immediate opportunity to get it back - forwards would try to develop a ‘forward rush’ in which they would dribble the ball soccer-style down the field.

Overall, the game was still dominated by forward play and backs have little chance to get their hands on the ball. There are very few passing movements at all in any of the matches on the video. In this sense, the game is obviously very much closer to its rugby union roots. 

Even so, we can still catch glimpses of rugby league DNA in the films. James Lomas - playing for Salford against Batley at the New Barnes ground - scores a great individual try that looks very modern. Ten yards from the Batley line, he bumps of one defender and steps inside of another to score under the posts.

The BFI DVD, Mitchell And Kenyon - Edwardian Sports, features nine Northern Union matches, together with soccer, cricket, athletics and other sports of the time. One of the highlights of the DVD is the 1903 Challenge Cup Final between Halifax and Salford, played in front of a record crowd at Headingley. It’s well worth a look.

A little over three years after that 1903 final, the Northern Union grasped the nettle and made the decisive break from the rugby union past, reducing teams to thirteen-a-side and bringing in the play-the-ball. 

The Mitchell and Kenyon films are the nearest we will ever get to a rugby league time tunnel.

Eddie redux

Anthony Clavane's fascinating play about Eddie Waring, Playing the Joker, produced by Red Ladder Theatre Company, is currently touring and week worth going to see. Needless to say, Eddie remains as polarising a figure today as he was forty years ago, as the post-play discussions have shown. 

I've written about the 2010 BBC4 documentary Eddie Waring: Mr Rugby League about him here, but for a broader historical view of him, the following is an extract from my Rugby League in Twentieth Century Britain, published by Routledge in 2006.

"Eddie Waring had been the BBC’s rugby league commentator since 1951 and had been an advocate of televising live rugby league since 1950 when he had seen how American football was televised in the USA. As well as his TV commentaries, he was also the sport’s leading journalist, working for the Sunday Pictorial and the Sunday Mirror. As early as 1952 reservations had been expressed about his commentary style - many felt he was too jocular in his comments and that his personality tended to overshadow the action on the pitch - and these grew stronger from the mid-1960s as the fortunes of the game subsided and Waring’s fame increased.

In 1966 he became a presenter of BBC TV’s It’s A Knockout and was to become one of comedian Mike Yarwood’s most famous impressions. As the BBC’s rugby league commentator he fulfilled all the expectations of the northern stereotype: his sometimes unintelligible accent with broad vowels, his insistence on using humour in almost every situation, even the outdated trilby he was always seen wearing.

Worse, many of Waring’s supporters outside of rugby league praised him in terms which reinforced the stereotype. Geoffrey Mather of the Daily Express claimed that Waring’s ‘lips [were] equipped with tiny clogs’. Ian Wooldridge attacked those who criticised Waring and argued that his image ‘was all about slagheaps, Tetley’s ale, black pudding, Lowry paintings, busted noses’. The fact that many, such as Michael Parkinson, often incorrectly and unfairly thought that Waring had little understanding of the game merely added to the stereotype of the unintelligent northerner.

In fact, a great deal of Waring’s on-screen persona was an act. One only has to look at his journalism, or his war-time management of Dewsbury, to see how far from the truth his TV image was. As a journalist, Waring was extremely talented. Astute, opinionated and well-connected, he helped to fashion the pugnacious style of sports journalism that appeared in the mass circulation dailies in the 1950s and 1960s. His articles and books are full of verve and passion for the game, its history and its culture. Through his career he had helped to raise tens of thousands of pounds for players’ benefits, amateur clubs and many other rugby league causes. Perhaps more than any other journalist, it was Waring who also promoted rugby league’s egalitarian ethos: ‘For years I have been plugging rugby league football as being the most democratic game in the world,’ he told his readers in 1948.

But by the late 1960s, the commentator seemed to be becoming bigger than the game. ‘Eddie Waring is rugby league’, said Cliff Morgan, the former Welsh rugby union fly-half who was BBC head of outside broadcasts. Rugby league’s weaknesses meant that Waring became identified nationally as the embodiment of the sport. His TV appearances on It’s a Knockout and programmes such as the Morecambe and Wise Show meant that he had probably had a higher profile than the game itself - certainly one couldn’t imagine soccer commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme attracting such attention. And when people laughed at him, it seemed to many in the game that they were not laughing with him, but at the north and rugby league itself. It was this that caused many in the game to become antagonistic towards him as a commentator. 

The issue came to a head in 1971, when the Manchester-based firm of John Caine Associates was appointed as the RFL’s marketing consultants with a brief to look at the problems facing the game. When they published their findings, a substantial section of the report dealt with the BBC’s presentation of the game, which, it said, was ‘totally detrimental to the life of the game’. Waring’s role as a commentator was characterised as ‘unfortunate’ and his humorous style criticised because ‘the laughter is patronising and lends support to the view of rugby league held by midland and southern watchers’.

The BBC’s response was one of outraged intransigence: ‘Eddie Waring is not just a commentator. He is The Commentator [sic] and the five million viewers prove it,’ declared the BBC’s Derek Burrell-Davies, who had been the first BBC producer of rugby league in 1951, inadvertently confirming that the BBC did think that Waring was bigger than the game. Waring himself seemed to have little understanding of the criticisms of his commentaries, claiming that ’the BBC would not employ me’ if he wasn’t accurately reflecting the language of northern England.

The controversy only made the BBC more determined to keep him. In 1976 the 1895 Club, which had been formed by supporters based in St Helens to campaign for an improvement in the sport’s image, presented a petition with eleven thousand signatures to the BBC calling for an improvement to its coverage and heavily criticising Waring. The BBC took no notice and Waring carried on commentating until his retirement in 1981."

Wally McArthur: A Tribute

Wally McA.jpg

Wally McArthur was the first Aboriginal Australian rugby league player to play for an English club.

But he should not have been.

That he was the first tells us a lot about the society into which he was born and raised. Although rumours about Oldham's Viv and Billy Farnsworths' Aboriginal background have never been confirmed, the first acknowledged Aboriginal player to come to England should have been Frank Fisher in 1936.

The grandfather of Olympic gold medallist Cathy Freeman, Frank, or 'King Fisher' as he was nicknamed in Queensland, played at standoff for Wide Bay against the touring British Lions. Gus Risman was so impressed by his performance, and by other reports he heard about the player, he told Frank that when he returned to Salford he would recommend that the club offer him a contract.

When the contract duly arrived a few weeks later, Frank approached the Queensland state authorities for permission to move to Salford. But they refused to allow him to go to Britain, saying that there was already one Queensland Aboriginal sports star, the cricketer Eddie Gilbert, and that they didn't want any more.

Why should an accomplished adult man have to ask permission of his government to work in another country? Because until the late 1960s, Aboriginal Australians were what were known as 'wards' of their states 'Protector of Aborigines'. In other words they had no civil rights. This meant that they were not allowed to vote or marry whites and were not even included in the national census until 1967. Their lives were controlled in totalitarian fashion from the cradle to the grave by the white government authorities.

One could almost say that they were treated like children, if it wasn’t for the fact that many of the children of Aboriginal parents were treated by the government in the most horrifying ways imaginable. Since the early 1900s, and in some cases before that, most Australian states had pursued a policy of removing from their mothers the children of inter-racial relationships, disparagingly known as 'half-castes', and placing them in care. Taken at the age of five or six, most never saw their mothers again for decades, if at all. Those boys and girls became known later as the 'children of the stolen generation'.

Wally McArthur, like tens of thousands of others, was one of those children. Born on 1 December 1933 on the banks of the McArthur River across from the tiny township of Borroloola in the Northern Territory of Australia, his mother was an Aboriginal woman and his father was a local white policeman called Langdon. When he was taken from his mother, he was given the name McArthur rather than Langdon because the authorities did not want to acknowledge that his father was white.

In 1998 Wally told John Pilger how he had been kidnapped:

It was a government car, because only the government had cars at that time. The driver put me in the front seat with him and he drove around while I waved at my family. I never seen them since, you know. They were sitting around the camp fire; they didn't understand what was happening.

His younger cousin John Moriarty was simply taken from school by a government official who did not even inform John's parents. Many years later his mother told him what had happened: ‘I went to pick you up [from school] on this day and you were gone'. It was to be fifty-five years before Wally saw another member of his family again.

Wally was taken to a Church of England mission in Alice Springs called the Bungalow, where he was supposed to be educated, although in 1937 there were just two teachers for nearly a hundred children. As the Second World War grew in intensity, fear of a Japanese invasion in northern Australia meant that the area became a heavily militarised zone and the Aboriginal children at the Bungalow were evacuated to more southerly regions. The boys at the mission were moved temporarily to Adelaide before being settled in a mission at Mulgoa, near the Blue Mountains to the west of Sydney.

It was here that Wally became noted not only for his incredible athletic talent but also for his leadership qualities and willingness to stand up against injustice. 'People were frightened to call my cousin Wally nicknames,' recalled John Moriarty in his autobiography Saltwater Fella, 'because they'd get belted. If anyone picked on me at the home, Wally would stand up for me.'

In 1949 the authorities decided to move the boys to Adelaide. Wally protested because he and some of the other boys had passed their second year exams at Penrith High School and the move would prevent them from taking their school certificate exams in New South Wales. His complaint was covered by the Women's Weekly which ran a feature story on him, and questions were asked in the NSW State Parliament. It was all to no avail and the boys were moved from Mulgoa to the St Francis House at Semaphore, a suburb of Adelaide in South Australia.

In Adelaide Wally s sporting career started to develop rapidly. In 1948 while still at Penrith High School he had won twelve of the school's thirteen athletic events and was NSW High School champion in the 100 yards, long jump and 440 yards, in which he recorded a time of 52.2 seconds. At the age of fourteen he ran the world's fastest 440 yards for his age group. After he had moved to Adelaide and left school, he became athletics champion of the Le Fevre Boys Technical High School. In 1951 he became the South Australian Under-19 100 and 220 yards champion.

It was at this point that his athletics career came up directly against the racism that had shaped his life. Despite his success, he was left out of the South Australian athletics team to visit Tasmania for the national championships. Wally protested and was told that he could go, but only if he paid his own fare. Fortunately an unknown well-wisher paid for his ticket and Wally was able to compete. Perhaps unsurprisingly given his prodigious talent, he promptly carried off the national Under-19 100 yards championship. This victory against the odds confirmed a growing feeling in South Australian athletics circles that Wally was a good prospect for the 1952 Olympic Games, which were to be held in Helsinki.

Although it was later claimed that he had been excluded from the Australian Olympic team because of his race, it appears that his times left him just short of having an unarguable case for inclusion in the side that went to Helsinki. Even so, the fact that at that time no Aboriginal athlete had been chosen for an Australian Olympic squad (it wasn't until the 1960s that Aboriginal athletes appeared at the Games) and the way in which he had been treated over the previous two years probably led Wally to conclude that he could go no further in the racist world of amateur athletics. 

So, in 1953, he became a professional sprinter. He won his first ten races, defeating along the way Frank Banner, the current Australian professional sprint champion. But by the spring of that year, Wally had abandoned athletics to concentrate on his other great sporting love, rugby league.

Wally had learned rugby league at Penrith High School and continued to play when the boys were moved to Adelaide. As it remains today, South Australia was one of the heartlands of Australian Rules football but Wally and some of the other boys retained their love of league. Luckily Semaphore at that time had its own rugby league side, one of five clubs in the small South Australian Rugby League (SARL). He was one of three Aboriginal players in the team, a small testimony to the fact that rugby league, in the words of the leading historian of Aboriginal sport Colin Tatz, 'has always been the most generous of the major sports [that Aboriginal men] play’.

Wally quickly became recognised as one of the state's leading league players, despite his youth. Semaphore went through the 1950 and 1951 seasons unbeaten and in 1952 Wally was voted SARL's fairest and best player. In 1953 he decided to concentrate on professional sprinting but returned to the club part-way through the season and was selected to play for South Australia against Western Australia, where he won the Man of the Match award. In his time at Semaphore he was said to have scored over 900 points.

Given such a record, not to mention his prominence as a sprinter, it was no surprise that rugby league scouts began to take an interest. As early as 1950 Wally had been spotted playing league by Paul Quinn, a former Rochdale Hornets player who was living and working as a moulder in Adelaide. It was Quinn who acted as Rochdale's representative in the negotiations over the contract. Wally's disillusionment with racism in athletics meant that he was now far more amenable to signing for the club because it was clear that in rugby league he would be judged on his football ability, not the colour of his skin.

Rochdale were particularly careful about how to proceed with their potential new recruit. International transfers had been banned in 1947 due to fears that the best Australian players would all move to the richer English clubs and Rochdale had been severely criticised in 1950 for trying to get round the ban by persuading league players in Sydney to switch to union for a few matches before moving to England.

Consequently, the press was given the story that Quinn had suggested to Wally that he should finish his engineering apprenticeship in England. It was only when Wally had decided to move to Rochdale for work reasons, so the club claimed, that Quinn had informed Hornets that Wally might be interested in playing for them. As it turned out, the Australian Board of Control (the forerunner of the ARL) didn't pay any attention and the signing went through without incident.

On Thursday 19 November 1953 Wally flew out to Britain from Sydney airport. The news of his imminent arrival was revealed by the Daily Express's Jack Bentley the following day. 'A new Black Flash is on his way to England' declared the headline. Underneath Bentley outlined Wally's athletic achievements and speculated that he could make his debut for Hornets in their match against Leigh the following week.

Leigh's new signing from athletics, MacDonald Bailey, the 1952 Olympic 100 metres bronze medallist and joint 100 metres world record holder, was due to make his first appearance in that match and Bentley suggested that spectators 'may see two black flashes in action - one on each side!' In the end Bailey made just one appearance in a friendly match for Leigh, but Wally was to prove to be made of sterner stuff.

When he arrived in Rochdale a few days later, his signing was described as 'almost unbelievable' by the local press. His athletic records, were described with reflected pride by the club and his footballing prowess was recounted by the former Leeds player Jack Lendill who had emigrated to Adelaide. Describing Wally as 'probably the fastest winger in football boots', he went on to predict that:

He will be a sensation in English football. In a league final in Adelaide, the club I played with (Railways) were defeated by Wally's team (Semaphore) thanks to Wally. It was simply impossible to catch him and he turned the heat on that day with a bag of tries. I played centre to Wally for the state team - he certainly doesn't need much room - and as regards tackling, on those granite grounds in Australia he can bowl a man over with terrific strength and power.

His four-year contract stipulated that he was to receive £200 per year, plus match fees and a return ticket to Australia. The club also arranged for him to continue his engineering apprenticeship at the local Adas Works of Thomas Holt Ltd.

In general the press paid little attention to the colour of Wally’s skin, although it is notable that it was only those players with dark skin whose colour was mentioned; no-one ever called Brian Bevan the white flash'. And after a few weeks even the references to the 'Black Flash' disappeared as he became a regular member of the team. Wally was carefully described as 'part-aboriginal' by the few journalists who mentioned it.

The only discussion of his origins appeared in a feature article in the Rochdale Observer a few days after his arrival. 'From boyhood, Wally McArthur has been in the midst of one of the greatest Christian and social experiments ever attempted in Australia... Wally appears to be one of many proofs of the success of the experiment,' it claimed, although it pointedly didn't say that this 'experiment' involved him being kidnapped and taken from his mother, never to see her again.

He made his debut for Hornets on 12 December against Salford, playing on the right wing, scoring three goals and creating a very favourable impression among the team's supporters. In thick January fog he scored an outstanding hat-trick against Whitehaven. He played another seventeen times that season, mainly on the wing but also starting one game at stand-off in an attempt to get the ball more frequently.

In August 1954 he started the new season with a bang by equalling the club record for most points in a match against Blackpool. He appeared to be on a different planet to the rest of the players, scoring three tries and kicking eight goals for a total of 25 points. For the first three months of the season, home crowds averaged more than 10,000 per match for the only time in the club's history, no doubt spurred by the hope that Wally's performances brought to the team.

Like many others, supporters' club official Bob Fletcher was stunned by his talent: 'who will ever forget the sight of Wally in full cry? He was probably the fastest runner with the ball ever seen in rugby league football, although he once told me that in his native Australia, where the sun warmed his muscles faster than in Britain, he ran faster.'

The early months of the 1954-55 season proved to be the high point of his Hornets career as he struggled for consistency in a poorly performing side. 'He was given a raw deal on the field of play,' recalled Hornets' supporter John Lang. 'He came to the Hornets direct from junior football in Australia and was immediately put into the first team without a chance of getting used to the conditions over here and adapting himself to the type of play. The crowd expected too much of him. He was given the ball with no room to work in. That again was the fault of those in charge of the team.'

Lang’s opinions were obviously shared by a number of other Hornets' supporters. Club officials complained to the local newspaper that some supporters had been telling Wally that he 'would be better off somewhere else' and should move to a club that could make more use of his talent.

It wasn't just on the field where Wally was experiencing problems. A few months after he arrived in Rochdale his fiancee Marlene had joined him and they had been married. Wally had been led to believe that the club would find him and his new wife suitable accommodation but the club backed out of the agreement, claiming that as he had been single when he arrived they had provided appropriate housing for him. This was disingenuous to say the least as all the newspaper reports at the time of his signing mentioned that Marlene would join him as soon as he was settled in the town.

Such sharp practices by club officials were commonplace, especially when it came to offering accommodation and employment to overseas players. Promises of jobs and homes sent by telegram to unsuspecting players often turned out to be quite different when players arrived at their new club.

Wally's protests about his treatment led to unnamed club officials complaining that he had 'attitude problems', usually a codeword for someone who refuses to accept their place in the class or racial hierarchy. Unsurprisingly, he became increasingly irritated at the behaviour of the club and in January he decided that enough was enough and asked for a transfer.

On 17 January 1955 the Hornets board of directors agreed to his transfer request and put Wally up for sale for £2,500. 'The idol of thousands of rugby fans in the town, 21-year-old Wally McArthur' reported the Rochdale Observer, was set to leave the town and possibly even Britain because he was 'fed up to the teeth' with the way the club had treated him. He even talked about going back to professional sprinting in Australia.

But a fortnight later it looked as if he was about to get the opportunity to play for a leading club when it was announced that he was on the verge of signing for Warrington, the current league leaders and the previous seasons Championship and Challenge Cup winners. The prospect of seeing a three-quarter line of Brian Bevan, Stan McCormick, Jim Challinor and Wally McArthur was enough to make even non-Warrington fans salivate. However, negotiations were held up because Wally insisted that Warrington guarantee to pay his passage home when he eventually decided to end his career. No doubt his experience with the Rochdale board made him anxious to ensure that nothing was left to chance.

There then occurred an event which, in hindsight, proved to be crucial to Wally's future but at the time appeared to make sound financial sense. Warrington's former manager, Chris Brockbank, was now the manager of Blackpool Borough and heard of the impasse in the negotiations with Warrington. Seeing an opportunity to capture a star for his new club, he approached Wally with an offer from the Seasiders. Blackpool had only joined the league at the beginning of the season and were looking for a headline name to boost their crowds.

Brockbank agreed to Wally's terms and he signed for the club on 1 February, just a few hours before the deadline to be eligible to play for them in the Challenge Cup. Although Blackpool's contract was undoubtedly attractive, there was just one problem. While Warrington sat imperiously at the top of the league table, Blackpool were rock bottom last, having won just two of their previous twenty-four matches. If Wally had found it difficult to get the service he needed from the Rochdale players, he would find it almost impossible at Blackpool.

Joining the side turned out to be a mistake not just from a playing point of view. Despite Brockbank's assurances, Blackpool were struggling to attract spectators and simply couldn't afford to pay Wally what they had promised. Within twelve months he had again requested a move and the club transfer-listed him at £1,500. Realising that Blackpool's poor form meant that few clubs would be interested in signing him at that price, Wally appealed to the rugby league authorities to reduce the fee.

In December the fee was reduced to £1,000 but there were still no takers. Despite being dogged by niggling injuries and disgruntled at the poor form of the club, which remained locked at the foot of the table, Wally continued to play, scoring twenty tries and thirty-seven goals over his two and a half seasons at the resort. Eventually money matters came to a head again and in May of 1957 Wally complained again to the RFL that Blackpool owed him £750 in unpaid wages for that season.

It is not clear whether Wally ever received his wages because during the summer Salford approached him and he signed for them in June. Although a better side than Blackpool, the Red Devils were at that time a decidedly mid-table team. But at last it seemed that Wally had finally got the chance to prove himself. He made his Salford debut at Swinton on 10 August 1957 in the annual Red Rose Cup clash, scoring his sides only points with three goals in a 25-6 defeat.

In his first season he scored twenty-two tries and seventy-three goals, despite the club finishing fifteenth in the thirty-team league. He also played a key role in one of Salford's most memorable victories of the decade, scoring a blistering try and kicking two mighty goals in a heroic 12-7 victory over the all-conquering St Helens side in December 1957.

The rugby league historian and lifelong Salford fan Graham Morris remembers as a young boy the excitement that was created at the Willows by Wally s arrival:

Tall and slim, Wally had the look, grace and speed of an outstanding athlete (which he certainly was) which, combined with a classic side-step, made him a great crowd pleaser at the Willows. Although the Reds were a mid-table team during this period, McArthur still managed 29 tries in 46 matches, a feat aided by the fact that he played outside either John Cheshire or Bob Preece, both robust centres prepared to take punishment and protect the gifted flyer. Wally was undoubtedly, until the arrival of David Watkins in 1967, the most exciting player seen in a Salford jersey in the post-Second World War years.

In hindsight, his season at Salford was to be the best Wally ever had. But in September 1958 it looked as though he was about to get his chance with a top side when Workington Town, runners-up in both the Championship and Challenge Cup finals the previous season bought him from Salford for £3,000.

Sadly fate let Wally down again. The near misses of 1958 turned out to be the last gasps of the great Town side of the 1950s and in Wally's first season the club crashed to twentieth in the league, just two places above Salford. Even so, he still managed to score fifteen tries and eighteen goals in his twenty-six appearances for the club. Yet again, however, Wally found himself at the wrong end of the sharp practices of club officials. He protested that the club failed to pay him £800 it had promised when he signed on and that it had also reneged on a deal to provide him with a return flight to Australia.

Frustrated, Wally decided that it was time to go back home to Australia and in August 1959 he applied to the RFL for a clearance certificate to allow him to play professionally in Australia. Workington objected, claiming that they had kept their side of the bargain but that he had failed to fulfil his obligations to the club, although what these were was not specified. By October Wally was back in Adelaide; he never received a clearance certificate and he never played professional top-class rugby league again.

But if Wally's career was over, he had helped blaze a trail for dozens of other Aboriginal Australians to come and show their skills in Britain. Indeed, the next player to come was Wally's cousin, Jim Foster, who had grown up with him in the mission homes. Encouraged by Wally, he came over in 1955 and played one senior game for Wigan.

More were to follow in the 1960s. In 1967 future international George Ambrum spent a season at Bradford, where he scored fifteen tries before moving back to North Sydney where he won two Australian caps in 1972. In 1968 Artie Beetson, one of the game's greatest ever players and a future captain and coach of Australia, played twelve games for Hull KR before breaking a leg in the last-ever Christmas Day derby game with Hull, leaving behind a legacy which is still remembered by Rovers' fans today.

The lifting of the international transfer ban in 1983 allowed British fans to see some of the greatest Aboriginal footballers of all time. The impact of John Ferguson's single year at Wigan still reverberates and the winger's two tries in the 1985 Challenge Cup final are among the finest to be scored there, while Steve Ella's season at Central Park meant that he probably left Britain with a reputation even higher than the one he had acquired at home.

It is also interesting to note how many of these players captured the imagination of supporters and became cult heroes. What Halifax supporter doesn't remember the full-back of their 1986 championship-winning side 'Smokin' Joe Kilroy, possibly the coolest full-back since Puig Aubert? Ronnie 'Rambo' Gibbs made an even bigger impact at Castleford and became the embodiment of physical intimidation untrammelled by personal fear. And at Leeds, Cliff Lyons, a magician in football boots, demonstrated that the delicate arts of the stand-off had not been crushed under the weight of game-plans and structured sets of six tackles.

But perhaps the man with the biggest impact was Mal Meninga, whose time at St Helens was treated by the club’s supporters as a secular second coming. By all accounts the players reciprocated the warmth shown to them by supporters. Certainly Wally and Jim Foster, together with their boyhood friends Charlie Perkins and John Moriarty, who had come to England as soccer players in the late 1950s, found their time in the north of England to be largely free of the overt racism they had experienced at home.

And it is also worth noting that none of these players was treated according to racial stereotypes. They were not simply seen as being fast runners or strong athletes as black players have tended to be in all sports. Tony Currie, whose grandfather had been one of the star Aboriginal league players in the 1930s, playing in a rare victory for NSW Country over Sydney in 1937, and who himself had starred for Leeds in the 1980s, blazed another new trail by coaching the London Broncos from 1996 to 1998, guiding them to their highest ever league position. All of these players, with the possible exception of Smokin' Joe, the ultimate 'laid-back back', were viewed as leaders and examples for other players, whatever the colour of their skin, to follow and emulate.

These masters of the game trod the path that was first walked by Wally McArthur. Today Wally is an old and sick man, suffering from chronic emphysema. Although he never quite achieved the honours his football talents deserved, his memory was imprinted on the minds of British rugby league supporters. When I started writing this article, I wondered whether there would be enough material to make it interesting. I quickly discovered that, despite barely playing seven seasons in Britain, the name Wally McArthur survives strongly in the folk memory of supporters who had seen him play. I rarely had to explain who he was; most of those I spoke to knew the name instantly.

The biggest public acknowledgement of Wally's talent was to be awarded a place in the Aboriginal and Islander Sports Hall of Fame in 1994. But perhaps an even greater tribute is the place he earned in the hearts and minds of those rugby league supporters lucky enough to see him play, 14,000 miles from home in the cold and grey winters of northern England in the 1950s.

— Originally published in The Glory of Their Times: Crossing the Colour Line in Rugby League (Skipton: Vertical Editions, 2004)