Miners and rugby league at the National Coal Mining Museum

The National Coal Mining Museum of England is currently hosting the Rugby League Cares 'Rugby League Heritage on Tour' exhibition. It opened on Saturday 1 August and the audience of almost 100 people heard David Hinchliffe, Mike Stephenson, Neil Fox and myself. If you haven't seen the exhibition, there couldn't be a better place to visit. My short address is below:

No sport has such a deep, rich and organic connection with miners and the mining industry than rugby league. Although people in the North East talked about Newcastle Utd calling down a pit for a new centre-forward or in the East Midlands Notts County Cricket Club shouting down a mine shaft for a new fast bowler, neither soccer nor cricket are as intwined with mining as rugby league.

Indeed, the reason why rugby league is this year celebrating its 120th anniversary, the reason why it split from the rugby union in 1895, can in part be blamed on the prominence of miners in rugby!

Rugby was brought to the north by public-school eduucated young men of the upper classes, but within a generation it was been enthusiastically taken up by miners. In 1883, a team from Thornes in Wakefield won the Yorkshire Cup, the biggest upset so far in rugby’s short life. They brought new tactics to the way the game was played and showed that rugby was a game for people of all classes, from all walks of life.

But this was not welcomed by those who ran the game. In 1886 the Yorkshire Post published a letter from ‘a former public schoolboy’ who complained about a recent match:

A great many of the Horbury team were artisans and colliers. Now, I don't object to any working man - collier or whatever he may be - as long as he understands the game he is playing, but when in ignorance he puts on his working boots, which, combined with betting on the event [and] brute force ignorance of the game of Rugby Union ... it is a disgrace to the prestige of “Dear Old England” for time-honoured fair play.

Many of the leaders of the RFU did not like playing teams of working-class players - and even less liked being beaten by them!

And it was this antagonism to the rise of working-class players like miners and other manual workers and the refusal to allow them to receive broken time payments to compensate them for taking time off work that led to rugby splitting in two in 1895. 

When the Northern Union kicked off in 1895 it was common for teams from Wigan, St Helens, Castleford, Wakefield and even Hunslet to have teams composed almost entirely of miners.

Rugby was now also an integral part of the everyday life of miners. If you go to the Railway Hotel pub in Featherstone, you will see a plaque that not only says that the pub was the birthplace of Featherstone Rovers but also that the pub was the site of the inquiry was conducted into the shooting dead of two striking miners in Featherstone during the great strike of 1893. 

Harry Speed, England international in the 1890s and the captain of the original Castleford team, was a surface worker at Glasshoughton Colliery who also organised fund-raising matches for striking miners. Billy Batten, one of three mineworkers in the first ten members of the Rugby League Hall of Fame, donated £350 of his testimonial fund to mining families in his home town of Kinsley during the 1921 miners’ strike.

When Castleford applied to join the rugby league in 1924, the first line of their application stated: ‘Our claim for inclusion as a first-class league club is based upon the fact that Castleford is the centre of a mining district’. In 1926 Featherstone Miners’ Welfare bought Post Office Road ground from the landlord on behalf of the rugby club.

In June 1934 over 1,000 miners at Featherstone’s two pits voted for a weekly wage deduction of threepence to be given to the club. And when Whitehaven joined the rugby league in 1948 their two leading officials worked at Haig Pit and their ground, the Recre, was the Miners’ Welfare ground. 

We can even trace back Wigan’s nickname of ‘The Pie-Eaters’ back to the 1926 Miners’ Lockout, when miners in Wigan were accused by their more militant rivals in St Helens of going back to work early and therefore eating humble pie from the mine owners. 

Internationally, the unforgettable 1946 Great Britain touring side, the only British team never to lose a test match in Australia, was built around a front row of three miners. Five of the 1950 British touring side Down Under were miners, and miners continued to play for great Britain until the late 1980s.

Nor is it just in the north of England where mining is synonymous with rugby league. League is the game of the coalfields of Queensland and NSW in Australia - Andrew Johns himself comes from a mining family. And in New Zealand, the West Coast mining region is a heartland of league in a sea of rugby union.

But the link between mining and rugby league goes deeper. The values that defined the mining communities are also those of rugby league. 

Mining is physical and brutal, it requires great resilience and teamwork - just like rugby league. 

Mining communities gave rise to fantastic expressions of creative talent of ordinary people - like the Pitmen Painters - thanks to Miners’ Welfare Institutes, and rugby league was part of that.

But most of all, mining communities fostered a spirit of fairness, of resistence to injustice and of equality for all. And those are exactly the principles rugby league was founded upon 120 years ago.

So there could be no more fitting place to host this rugby league exhibition than here in this museum, an institution that honours the millions of men and women who built the mining industry.