Broken Time 'not an issue' in the 1895 split?

There's a discussion on the TotalRL forum about the fact that the clubs that formed the Northern Union in August 1895 actually resigned from the Lancashire and Yorkshire county rugby unions in July 1895 over fixture arrangements for the following season. Does this mean that the split was about fixtures and not about broken-time? Or that the split actually took place not on 29 August but a month earlier? Have historians misunderstood the causes of the 1895 split?

The answer is no, as the following extract from Rugby's Great Split (p. 119) explains:

From its formation in 1892 the Yorkshire Senior Competition (YSC) league had been a self-elected body, entry to which could only be granted by a vote by its clubs. The subsequent creation of the second, third and other junior Yorkshire leagues had put pressure on the YSC to allow automatic promotion for the winners of the Second Competition - and consequently relegation of the bottom side. While accepting the principle in theory, the YSC had voted against any changes at the end of its first season in 1893.

Unsurprisingly, this did not go down well with either the Second Competition clubs or the Yorkshire Rugby Union (YRU), which had taken up the cudgels for the smaller clubs in order to reassert its own power. When the same thing happened at the end of the 1893/94 season the YRU pressurised the YSC to accept the playing of a test match between the bottom YSC club and the top Second Competition club to decide the issue.

However, when the YSC came to incorporate this change into its own rules, a rider was added stating that a club finishing at the foot of the table because of “unforeseen circumstances” may be excused the necessity of playing in the test match. In truth, this clause was added to guard against a club finishing at the bottom of the table due to its suspension for professionalism, as almost happened to Huddersfield and which was to happen to three Lancashire clubs the following season.

This dispute allowed the defenders of amateurism to pose as the protectors of the little clubs - speaking at a Liberal rally during the 1895 general election, Castleford’s Arthur Hartley, a future President of the RFU, railed against the “unelected House of Lords which the YSC has become” and denouncing its refusal to accept the YRU’s call for “equal rights for all”. 

Although this issue became a bitter struggle, which some have claimed was the real reason for the 1895 split, and directly resulted in the YSC clubs resigning en bloc from the YRU in July 1895, it was in fact a battle for position before the inevitable showdown over payment for play.

This was demonstrated by the moves by Lancashire clubs in the First-Class Competition (the Lancashire versions of the YSC) to assert control over promotion and relegation to their ranks following the suspensions of Leigh, Salford and Wigan in 1894. Although automatic promotion and relegation had been accepted from the start of the Lancashire league system in 1892, the suspensions and the placing of the miscreant clubs at the bottom of the First-Class league meant that clubs found guilty of professionalism found themselves facing economic ruin through relegation and the resulting loss of attractive fixtures. Perhaps not as prescient as their Yorkshire counterparts, the First-Class clubs now fought a rearguard action to avoid being picked off one by one by the Lancashire authorities. Eventually, in July 1895, the First-Class clubs, with the exception of Salford and Swinton but with the addition of Widnes, resigned from the competition.

These resignations effectively cleared the way for the formation of a rival rugby union, the necessity of which was underlined on August 12 when the RFU published a draft of the new rules on professionalism which it was to present for ratification to that September’s annual general meeting. They were simply a more thorough rendering of the previous year’s manifesto [which had stated that clubs accused of professionalism would be suspended until they proved their innocence] and, despite hopes by some in the YRU that some arrangement could be reached, represented the RFU’s final nail in the coffin of compromise.

Nevertheless, the waverers in Bradford, Leeds and Huddersfield still remained to be convinced. Bradford’s hand was forced by their players threatening to strike if they did not join and by petitions, many of them prominently displayed in the pubs of Bradford players, raised by their supporters calling on them to support the new union. At Leeds a special general meeting was held which voted decisively to support the splitters, resulting in the resignations from the club of WA Brown and James Miller, current and former secretaries of the club respectively. Any hopes the vacillators may have had of a sympathetic hearing from the Rugby Union were dashed by a letter from RFU secretary, Rowland Hill, which told them that even if they remained loyal they could not expect any fixtures with the leading southern clubs.

Faced with their two allies joining the rebels and, like them, fearful of being unable to generate sufficient revenue to protect the large investments made in their ground, Huddersfield issued a statement announcing their decision to join the new union, blaming it on the RFU’s new laws against professionalism, which they characterised as “too drastic in nature, and make an apparently small offence magnified into one of the gravest kind.”

At 6.30 pm on Thursday 29 August at the George Hotel in the centre of Huddersfield, representatives of Batley, Bradford, Brighouse Rangers, Broughton Rangers, Dewsbury, Halifax, Huddersfield, Hull, Hunslet, Leeds, Leigh, Liversedge, Manningham, Oldham, Rochdale Hornets, St Helens, Tyldesley, Wakefield Trinity, Warrington, Widnes and Wigan met and unanimously adopted the resolution “That the clubs here represented decide to form a Northern Rugby Football Union, and pledge themselves to push forward, without delay, its establishment on the principle of payment for bona-fide broken-time only.” 

Although not at the meeting, Stockport were asked to join and immediately dispatched a representative to take part in the gathering. All the clubs present, except Dewsbury whose committee had not had time to discuss the matter, handed their letters of resignation from the RFU to Oldham’s Joe Platt, who had been elected acting secretary, for him to forward to Rowland Hill. There was now no going back - the game of rugby was utterly and irrevocably split.