The birth of rugby in York

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


- this post was updated on 10 June 2019 to remove a reference to St Peter’s being a Quaker school. Thanks to Mark Hinman for pointing out that it is actually Bootham School that is the Quaker school in York.