Welsh Codebreakers in the Inter-War Years

Ahead of BBC Wales' The Rugby Codebreakers, a fascinating and moving documentary about Welsh rugby players who 'went North' to play rugby league, I've reprinted below a piece on Welsh league players in the interwar years taken from my 2006 book Rugby League in 20th Century Britain.

Gus Risman as captain of the 1946 Lions' Tour

Gus Risman as captain of the 1946 Lions' Tour

In the 1920s and 1930s English rugby league was enriched by scores of Welsh players who journeyed north to receive the rewards their rugby talents deserved. Names like Jim Sullivan and Gus Risman, who both went north from Cardiff as teenagers in the 1920s, light up the rugby league firmament to this day, but there were also numerous lesser talented but equally committed players who made their careers, and often their homes, in the three counties of rugby league.

Indeed, the eminent Welsh historian Gareth Williams has estimated that for every international Welsh rugby union player who switched to rugby league, of which there were sixty-nine,  another twelve uncapped players would follow, and that around nine hundred players moved from South Wales to play rugby league between 1919 and 1939. But the actual figure is less than half of that. An analysis of the minutes of Management Committee of the Northern Rugby Football League, which governed the league competition and authorised the registration of all professional players in the league, shows that 392 players from Wales were registered as professionals with northern clubs in this period.

The largest proportion of these Welsh players moved north before the worst of the economic depression took its toll of the Welsh industrial heartlands in the late 1920s and 1930s. If we exclude the 1919-20 season, when many players were still being demobilised, and the aborted 1939-40 season, the average number of players going north prior to the 1926 General Strike was slightly over twenty-five per season, and only in the 1924-25 season did less than twenty players move. In contrast, an average of just under seventeen players went north each year in the thirteen seasons between the General Strike and the outbreak of war. And in only four of those seasons did twenty players or more join rugby league, still one season less than in the much shorter 1920-1926 period.

Even so, rugby players represented a statistically insignificant proportion of the 430,000 Welsh people who emigrated in the inter-war years. Those without rugby skills did not go to the north of England but to the new engineering and services industries of the midlands and the south east. ‘The accents [of those residents of Slough who turned out to welcome a Hunger March of from Wales in the 1930s] were so thick I thought that we were in Rhondda, with this difference, instead of silent pits, massive factories all lit up were in full go,’ reported a Welsh hunger marcher in 1936. Indeed, one of the reasons given for the creation of professional rugby league clubs in London in the mid-1930s was the hope that they would attract support from Welsh migrants who had recently moved to the south east. 

Although rugby league clubs paid great attention to talent-spotting in Wales - in 1938 St Helens paid their Welsh scout £1/10 shillings per week, plus £1 travelling expenses, £7/10 when a player he signed made fourteen appearances and 5 per cent of any transfer fee - the reality was that Welsh rugby union’s loss of talent was a self-inflicted wound. The vast majority of Welsh players went north because they wanted to earn money for their rugby skills, in the same way that their soccer and cricket-playing compatriots could do. It was the WRU’s amateur ethos and refusal to pay them which forced players to leave Wales. The experience of the young Jim Sullivan was typical and illustrates the problems which amateurism caused:

I was serving my apprenticeship to a boiler-maker, and I seemed to have little prospect of securing another job … the Cardiff club would have done anything to keep me, but when I broached the subject, officials said that I could have been given a job on the ground, but that would have meant me being classed as a professional.

Nor was it only the lack of employment opportunities which influenced players’ decisions. The risk of injury and subsequent hardship, given that rugby union insurance schemes were extremely tightly policed (indeed, many officials saw insurance as tantamount to professionalism), was also powerful incentive to take the money and go north.

Rugby league’s appeal to Welsh rugby union players was simple. It offered them the opportunity to benefit financially from their footballing skills. Many were given jobs on a club’s ground staff or with companies connected to club directors. For others, clubs guaranteed to make up a minimum wage if the job which was found for the player did not pay an adequate sum. Some were given the tenancy of a pub. Most importantly, hardly any were given the type of heavy industrial work they would do in Wales. And at least some Welsh players, such as Neath’s Dai Davies who went north in 1926, saw the union game as a stage from which they could land a league contract. In short, rugby league gave working-class Welsh rugby players the chance to escape from a life spent down the pit, in the steel works or on the dole.

Of course, there were also limited opportunities to receive money or employment in Welsh rugby union. Before going north, Dai Davies was paid a flat rate of £3 per match regardless of the result when he played for Neath in 1926 and many others doubtless received similar payments. And from the late 1920s, the relatively healthier economic fortunes of some English union clubs in the South West meant that it was possible for Welsh players to ‘go South’, and receive a job and perhaps surreptitious payments.

But for the players who ‘went south’, there was a world of a difference between a professional contract in league and the sleight of hand of shamateurism. The covert nature of the payments meant that they were unreliable and unenforceable, unlike those made under a contract, and could not provide any guarantees for the future. Nor could players receive large amounts such as bonuses or signing-on fees, which could lift them out of the daily routine. And, of course, the ever-present threat of denunciation and being banned from the sport underlined the insecurity of the paid rugby union player.

Indeed, the damage which the WRU’s adherence to amateurism did to their own game was exacerbated by the life-time ban it imposed on players who played rugby league. This ruled out the prospect of anyone ever returning to Wales to play rugby union. A number of players who went north found themselves unsuited to the different demands that league placed on them yet could not return to their original game – and of the sixty-nine internationals who switched to league, only twelve reached similar heights in their new sport by playing at Test match level. The WRU’s amateurism forced it to ostracise any player who wished to return to union. 

In the one hundred years between the founding of the Northern Union in 1895 and rugby union’s adoption of professionalism in 1995, the WRU only allowed one player back to play union. Glyn John signed for Leigh as a seventeen-year old in 1949 but after two matches in league decided that he wanted to return to union and repaid his £450 signing-on fee. Because he was under eighteen when he signed for Leigh the WRU decided that the laws against professionalism did not apply to him and welcomed him back into the fold. In 1954 he played twice for Wales, much to the chagrin of the Scottish Rugby Union, whose protests that he was a professional forced the WRU to cave in and end his international career. Such was the way in which the WRU repaid his loyalty.

Although John was unique in being allowed to change his mind, a great number of those who went north never felt the need to reconsider their decision. Many Welshmen made their homes in the northern towns in which they had become stars and symbols of the community. Like many, Trevor Foster, whose career as a player and an official of Bradford was to last more than sixty-five years, was initially chary of succumbing to the blandishments of the league scout, Bradford Northern’s managing director Harry Hornby, in 1938:

Mr Hornby looked at me and said, ‘Are you ready?’ I said ‘I’m not going.’ He went red, white and blue and yellow and tore a strip off me. ‘You’ve brought me all the way from Yorkshire and you’re not going to sign - what’s the big idea?’ I said ‘I want a Welsh cap.’ He said ‘Here. There’s £100, £200, £300, £400. Go and buy six Welsh caps.’
Just at that moment my elder sister, who lived a few doors away, came into the bar [of his parents’ pub]. My mum said to her ‘Trevor’s not going.’ She walked into the dining room where we were talking and she said ‘Mum said you’re not going.’ I said ’No I’m not. I want a Welsh cap.’ She said ‘What if you break your leg next Saturday when you play Penarth?’
I picked up the pen and signed. And the greatest thing I ever did was to turn [professional] and play for Bradford Northern.