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.