The 1919 King's Cup: rugby union's first 'world cup'?

New Zealand captain James Ryan receiving the King’s Cup from George V

New Zealand captain James Ryan receiving the King’s Cup from George V

The Rugby Union World Cup kicks off in little more than three months. I'm reprinting here a slightly updated version of an article I wrote for a conference held in Sydney at the 2003 RWC. It was subsequently published as 'The First World Cup?: War, Empire and the 1919 Inter-Services rugby union tournament' in Mary Bushby and Tom Hickie's edited collection of essays Rugby History: The Remaking of the Class Game (Melbourne 2007).


Between 1895 and 1914, rugby union was in a state of almost continual crisis. Rugby had split in Britain, Australia and New Zealand; the English and the Scots were permanently at loggerheads over professionalism; and the Australian and New Zealand unions were openly dissatisfied with the Rugby Football Union, the de facto leadership of the international game. But by 1920 rugby union was more united than it had ever been and the RFU was the unquestioned leader of the game internationally. The reason for this change in fortune was the activity of the RFU during and immediately after the First World War, which was crystallized in the 1919 Inter-Services Rugby Tournament.

It is widely believed that at the declaration of war in August 1914 rugby union in England immediately closed down for the duration. The reality was not quite so straightforward. Initially, the RFU believed that the game should continue. Nine days after the declaration of war its secretary, C. J. B. Marriott, instructed clubs to carry on playing where possible. However, the militaristic patriotism which had been drilled into players at school and beyond proved to be overwhelming and players flocked to the colours. By September, all club rugby union in England had been suspended until further notice.

But the sport quickly re-emerged as an important military game. By early 1915 something like a structured season had developed for military rugby union teams in the south of England and in 1916 the huge influx of troops from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa into Britain saw the sport enter what, were it not for the circumstances of its playing, could be termed a golden age of domestic competition. Crowds of seven or eight thousand people were not exceptional for matches involving the teams from what were known as the white ‘Dominions’ of the British Empire.

Despite being in the midst of war, tensions between the RFU and sides from the Dominions did not diminish. The 1905 All Blacks, although widely admired for their skills were widely suspected of being professionals - thanks to receiving a three shillings a day allowance while on tour - and of not playing the game in the right spirit. Many of the 1908 Wallabies could not wait for their British tour to end, thanks to the snobbishness and widespread suspicion among English rugby union commentators that they too were professionals. Only the South Africans were unambiguously welcomed to Britain, in 1906 and 1912.

These tensions reflected the changing political relationship between Britain and the Dominions. The war brought to the fore friction between the imperial centre and its periphery, especially Australia, which were most powerfully symbolised by the narratives surrounding Gallipoli. At government level, it had amplified the tendency towards Dominion self-assertion, if not self-government. At the 1917 Imperial War Conference the Dominion prime ministers called for full recognition of the Dominions as ‘autonomous nations of an Imperial Commonwealth’.

The RFU was keen to play a role in closing these imperial fissures. As a supporter spelled out in The Times in February 1919, rugby ‘is not only national but imperial; it is the game of the most rigorous of our colonies; it is the game of the Army that has won the hardest and grimmest of all our wars.’ The prestige which it had gained during the war and its close identification with the war effort - highlighted by the number of England internationals who were killed in the war - gave the RFU both tremendous self-confidence and authority when the war ended in November 1918.

The Kings Cup unveiled

This authority was consolidated in March and April 1919 when, apparently at the request of the War Office, it staged a sixteen match Inter-Services Tournament featuring representative sides from the Dominions and the services which became known as the ‘King’s Cup’. The tournament - which was the biggest international rugby union tournament staged anywhere in the world until the sport’s first world cup in 1987 -  was explicitly designed to capitalise on the popularity of services rugby union during the war years, and became a celebration of rugby union’s past and a signal of future intent. It also had a broader, political motive, as The Times rugby union correspondent noted in March 1919:

It is a most practical means of continuing and strengthening the bonds of interest between us and our relations scattered over the world. War has brought all parts of the Empire closer…. Often in the past the ties between this country and the colonies have been slender, and the strongest of them is the common interest in British games.

As well as the Mother Country, the participating teams consisted of Australia, New Zealand, the Royal Air Force, South Africa and Canada - who were there for ‘missionary’ purposes to popularise the game in North America -  competing in a league table with matches being staged across Britain at Swansea, Portsmouth, Leicester, Newport, Edinburgh, Gloucester Bradford and Twickenham, which staged six matches, including the final play-off.

Despite having ‘Boy’ Morkel, the star of the 1912 Springbok tour of the UK available, the South African side was described as no better than an average club team. The three strongest sides were New Zealand, the Mother Country and Australia, with the first two finishing on top of the table with one defeat each.  A play-off match was arranged at Twickenham to decide the winners and in a tight game, the New Zealand forwards came out on top, scoring two tries to defeat the Mother Country 9-3, in front of an audience which included the NZ prime minister William Massey, who was in Europe for the talks on the Versailles Treaty. 

Why was the British side called the ‘Mother Country’? As RAF captain Wavell Wakefield explained in his 1927 book Rugger, the original idea had been to field Army, Navy and Air Force sides but the Navy withdrew because it felt that it could not raise a competitive side, so the army became the Mother Country. There were some grumblings about the name of the side in the press, but the arrangement meant that Britain fielded the strongest possible side, as is shown by the table of players who were either capped or who would be capped in each side.

It is also revealing to examine the social background of the teams. Just before the tournament began, the Army and the Navy had discussed whether only officers should be allowed to play for their sides - as was the case before the war - and had decided that all ranks should be allowed to play. In the British armed forces, until late 1917 officers were exclusively drawn from those attending private schools or universities. However, despite the formal decision, of the twenty-eight Mother Country players, only one, the Welsh forward Ivor Jones, was not an officer. He was a sergeant-major. Every member of the RAF side was an officer, although their full-back Billy Seddon had an interesting past. 

Unwelcome Guests?

The case of Billy Seddon is intriguing because he was the only rugby league player to play in the tournament for the British sides, scoring the winning four point drop-goal in the RAF’s 7-3 win over Australia. Seddon’s presence may seem surprising at first, given rugby union’s rigorous exclusion of league players from its ranks, but in 1916 the RFU had lifted its ban on league players in the armed services for the duration of the conflict. Military rugby teams with league players came to dominate the game in the war years, none more so than London’s Grove Park Army Service Corps side, led by Great Britain captain Harold Wagstaff and composed of a number of league internationals and leading club players. 

The ban on league players was immediately reimposed by the RFU at its first meeting following the Armistice but a dispensation was allowed for players still in the forces but not yet playing for their league clubs. Despite this concession, not a single league player was chosen by the Mother Country. Seddon slipped through the net because, thanks to his skills as an engineer in the RAF, he had been promoted to lieutenant in 1918 (one of only a handful of league players to be commissioned), and also because he had a powerful champion in Wavell Wakefield, the captain and driving force of the RAF side, although it was admitted in the press that there had been ‘some slight qualms’ about his selection.

However, the Australians had no qualms about including several rugby league players. Rodney Noonan in 2009 article 'Offside: Rugby League, the Great War and Australian Patriotism’, published in the International Journal of the History of Sport (vol. 26, no. 15), discovered that five league players turned out for the Australian side. North Sydney’s Tom Stenning scored Australia’s try in the 6-3 loss to the Mother Country and converted a try in the 8-5 win against South Africa. Eastern Suburbs’ Jack Watkins, Newtown’s Joe Murray and Newcastle’s Tom Quinn also played for Australia but the most notable player was Glebe’s dual international Darb Hickey. 

It is also noticeable that the tournament did not include the French - who had been accepted into what became the Five Nations in 1910 - despite the fact that there was by this time a considerable amount of rugby being played in post-war France. The RAF team had even undertaken a short tour of France before the competition kicked off as part of its preparations. The reason for their non-inclusion was because the tournament was entirely about cementing the links of the Empire. The French were not welcome into this private imperial party. However, they were promised a game against the tournament winners at Twickenham, which New Zealand won 20-3. A return match in Paris was also played, the NZ side winning 16-10.

In fact, this latter Twickenham match was possibly a greater imperial celebration than the tournament final. The Times reported that ‘it was more than a mere football match; it had more the character of a national festival at which the presence of the King and his four sons, Sir Douglas Haig, Sir Henry Wilson [chief of the Imperial General Staff], the French Embassy staff and the High Commissioner for NZ gave a special significance. … it was a true ‘Victory’ match.’ George V was a keen follower of rugby and a regular attendee throughout the 1920s at Twickenham. Before the kick-off the King presented the New Zealanders with the Inter-Services Tournament cup. This match was also the occasion of possibly the most overwrought use of rugby as military metaphor. The speech of Major-General Sir C.H. Harrington, deputy chief of the Imperial General Staff ridiculously described Sir Douglas Haig, General Pershing and the King of the Belgians as ‘loyal and unselfish three-quarter backs ‘ during the war.

The RFU Vindicated

Despite the triumphalism of the tournament, friction between the British and the Australians and New Zealand continued. As was the case before the war, many in the RFU felt that the Antipodeans were too vigorous in their play and did not share the required spirit of sportsmanship. Matters came to a head when the Mother Country played Australia at Leicester. The Australians’ wing-forward play was felt to be blatantly obstructive and, for possibly the first time at a representative rugby match in Britain, the crowd started calling for the referee to send off the offending Australian players. Fearful of taking such a drastic step (no player would be sent off in a representative match in England until All Black Cyril Brownlie was dismissed in 1924 against England), the referee tried to defuse the situation by putting the ball into the scrum himself. (Ironically New Zealand were to propose this as amendment to the rules in August).

Despite these points of friction, the King’s Cup cemented the RFU’s authority over the sport which it had gained due to its perceived blood sacrifice during the war. Later in 1919 it was able to dismiss Welsh calls for minor reforms of the amateur regulations and also the more wide-ranging reforms of the rules and amateurism proposed by New Zealand. Indeed, it was able to state unequivocally that any attempt to unilaterally amend the amateur regulations by rugby-playing nations would bring only one result: “severence”! The tournament also demonstrated the deep-going links between the game and the British imperial elite; no other sport, not even soccer, which was immeasurably more popular than rugby, could command the support of the monarchy, the army high command and the leaders of the Dominions.

But despite its success and the high profile it gave rugby union across the empire, the tournament was never to be repeated. Although the RFU had no great love for league competitions or argumentative colonials, the key reason for its consignment to history is obvious. The King’s Cup had fulfilled one of the RFU’s most cherished desires: it had established rugby union as the uncontested winter sport of the British Empire.

- - For more, my soon-to-be-published The Oval World: A Global History of Rugby will look at the tournament in its wider context and its implications for the future of rugby union,

Sheffield Football, Rugby and the Origins of Soccer

Over the past two decades a vigorous debate has been taking place about the relationship between modern soccer and earlier versions of football as played in the mid-1800s. The self-styled ‘revisionists’, inspired by the work of John Goulstone and Adrian Harvey, have argued that it was football played in Sheffield in the late 1850s and 1860s that was the true originator of modern soccer, and that the Football Association was at best marginal to the development of association football. 

My latest article ‘Early Football and the Emergence of Modern Soccer, c. 1840–1880’ has just been published by the International Journal of the History of Sport. It looks at both sides in the debate and argues that the revisionists and their opponents have failed to understand that the modern division between the different codes did not fully emerge until the 1870s. In this extract, I examine the claim that the rules of football played in Sheffield was independent of developments in the public schools and were the embryo of modern soccer.


"In his Football’s Secret History, John Goulstone has asserted that ‘there is little about the Sheffield code to suggest a significant influence from the elite schools’, because ‘none [of the first Sheffield clubs] had public school alumni as their driving force’. Adrian Harvey too has argued ‘against any decisive public school involvement’ in the development of the Sheffield code of rules. 

The fact that no-one involved in the formation of Sheffield FC appears to have attended a public school does not mean that its founders were not influenced by the public schools. As Harvey notes, the Sheffield club was ‘a socially elite institution’ with many privately-educated members. Emulation of those they perceive to be their social superiors has long been a defining characteristic of the British middle-classes and sport was no exception to this. 

Moreover, the club’s founders would have been well aware of the debates taking place among public school-educated footballers thanks to the popularity of Bell’s Life, The Field and other sporting newspapers of the time. Indeed, two leading members, Nathaniel Creswick and William Prest, wrote to the leading public schools to obtain copies of their football rules. Harvey’s claim that the absence of public school influence is demonstrated by the fact that the 1858 Sheffield rules lacked an offside rule - unlike any public school football code - is also mistaken. Tom Wills, one of the originators of the Australian Rules code of football in 1859, was an old boy of Rugby School yet the game he pioneered had no offside rule at all. 

In fact, when we examine the text of Sheffield FC’s first written rules of 1858 we find a considerable degree of public school influence. Harvey has stated that he could find ‘no evidence that the Sheffield club’s early rules were derived from examining the codes of various public schools’, but the reality is very different. We can see this by comparing the wording of Sheffield rules to those, in brackets, of a leading English public school:

1. Kick off from the middle must be a place kick. [vi. Kick off from middle must be a place.]

2. Kick out must not be from more than twenty five yards out of goal. [vii. Kick out must not be from more than ten yards our of goal if a place-kick, not more than twenty-five yards if a punt, drop or knock on.]

3. Fair catch is a catch direct from the foot of the opposite side and entitles

a free kick. [i. Fair catch is a catch direct from the foot.]

4. Charging is fair in case of a place kick, with the exception of kick off, as soon as a player offers to kick, but may always draw back unless he has actually touched the ball with his foot. [ix. Charging is fair in case of a place kick, as soon as the ball has touched the ground.]

The rules quoted in brackets are from the 1845 Laws of Football Played at Rugby School

The links between Sheffield’s written rules and those of Rugby School go much deeper. Sheffield’s rule eight, forbidding the ball from being picked up from the ground, was commonly used by rugby clubs and appears in the consolidated 1862 Rugby School rules. And, as rule three makes clear, the Sheffield was not a purely kicking game but allowed the ball to be handled if it was caught on the full in a ‘fair catch’, a term still in use in American football but which became known as a ‘mark’ in rugby and Australian rules. 

Rule nine, allowing a bouncing ball to be stopped by the hand, is a variation on the Rugby School rule of allowing a bouncing ball to be caught. Rule ten, ‘No goal may be kicked from touch, nor by free kick from a fair catch,’ is based on rule five 1845 Rugby School rules, which also allow a goal to be scored from a fair catch. 

Rule eleven of Sheffield FC defines when a ball is in touch and how it should be returned to play. This too uses the same wording as Rugby’s consolidated 1862 rules, with the exception that a rugby player was also allowed to throw the ball in to himself. Even Sheffield’s rule six, prohibiting the ball being ‘knocked on’ with the hand and penalising it with a free kick, appears with slightly different wording in rule eleven of the consolidated Rugby rules of 1862. 

Only Sheffield’s rules five and seven, forbidding pushing, hacking, tripping, holding or pulling a player over, have no link with Rugby School rules. This may possibly suggest that they objected to the roughness of the Rugby game. But this was also true of many of the adult clubs that adopted Rugby’s rules, many of whom banned hacking and tripping. To make the claim, as Harvey and Peter Swain do, that the first ‘Sheffield rules can be described as markedly anti-Rugby in form’, is therefore simply mistaken. 

However, this is not to suggest that Sheffield football was a version of the Rugby School game or that its origins were rugby-based. As Gavin Kitching has pointed out, it is extraordinarily hard to envisage how games were played by merely reading a rulebook or a newspaper report. Rather, it emphasises the complexity of the ‘primordial soup’ of early codes of football and the impossibility of drawing a direct connecting line from these early sets of rules to modern soccer and rugby codes. Historians cannot simply put a tick or a minus against individual rules and then grade each according to how neatly it fits today’s conceptions of football. Like the versions of football played in Nottingham, Lincoln and elsewhere across Britain in the mid-nineteenth century, Sheffield’s code borrowed elements from public school football rules, local games and its members’ own preferences about how to play the most entertaining game as they perceived it at the time. 

Indeed, the rules of football as played in Nottingham in the 1860s and 1870s may have been closer to modern soccer than those of the Sheffield game. As Andrew Dawes has discovered, local Nottingham rules appear to have forbidden any handling of the ball whatsoever by outfield players. This became an issue when Sheffield FC visited Nottingham because of Sheffield’s acceptance of limited handling and catching of the ball. But, reinforcing the futility of drawing direct links between early rules and modern football, rugby-style hacking seems to have been acceptable in the Nottingham game.

The belief that Sheffield carried the torch that led to modern soccer is further complicated by the fact that Sheffield FC also continued to play games under rugby rules until at least the late 1860s. In 1864 they played home and away matches against Leeds rugby club using ‘rules [that] were of a mongrel type, neither rugby nor association’, according to Leeds’ founder J.G Hudson. In 1868 they played against Manchester, losing the rugby match by one goal and eight touchdowns to nil but winning the home game by two rouges to nil. In 1870 five Sheffield FC players even appeared in the Yorkshire county rugby team that played Lancashire at Leeds in the first-ever rugby Roses Match.

Contrary to the beliefs of the revisionists, Sheffield was not a bastion of soccer purity uninfluenced by the public schools. Its use of Eton’s rouge, allowing the ball to ball to be handled, its effectively non-existent off-side law, and the similarity of a number of its rules to those of Rugby School demonstrate that its game was an intricate melange of old, new and borrowed ideas about how to play an enjoyable game of football.

This is not to say that Sheffield football had no impact on the development of the game that came to be known as soccer - but there is no evidence to support the claim that Sheffield either saved or created modern association football."

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. 

Boxing, race and the working class

Although this blog is primarily about rugby, Lucia Trimbur's 2013 book on boxing in America - Come Out Swinging. The Changing World of Boxing in Gleason’s Gym (published by Princeton University Press in 2013) - deals with many of the social issues that I have sought to address in my writing about rugby. I reviewed her book for the journal Sport in History last year and I think that this revised version of that review will be interesting for at least some readers.

Come Out Swinging looks at New York's historic Gleason's Gym to provide an important commentary on the social devastation wrought on America’s black communities over the past thirty or so years. It also examines the growth of women's boxing and the increasing colonisation of boxing gyms by the elite of New York’s so-called FIRE (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate) economy.

Gleason’s is a gym with an impeccable pedigree. Although now based in Brooklyn’s yuppified, surreally-named DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) district, the gym has its origins in the Bronx of the 1930s and has been the nursery for champions such as Jake La Motta, Roberto Duran and Mike Tyson. Lucia Trimbur began her research there to explore women’s changing relationship to the sport but soon realised that the gym had many other stories to tell.

At the book’s heart is a study of the role that boxing plays in the lives of Gleason’s largely black and Hispanic boxers of colour. For these men, deprived of almost any prospect of work by the destruction of manufacturing industry and living with the continuous threat of jail, boxing becomes their occupation, ‘work without wages’ in Trimbur’s words. Despite being amateurs and few having any ambitions to step up to the professional level, the gym is their workplace and they approach training with the commitment and discipline of a vocation. 

This approach is something that has been observed in other aspects of working-class cultural life. The book’s findings echo Eric Hobsbawm’s observation in his 1986 essay on Count Basie that sport, like the jazz of which he was writing, is ‘a continuous means of asserting oneself as a human being, as an agent in the world and not the subject of others’ actions, as a discipline of the soul, a daily testing, an expression of the value and sense of life, a way to perfection.’

This I think explains the apparent contradiction that Trimbur identifies between the desperate social circumstances of the fighters and the extreme emphasis that the gym’s trainers - who are also black - place on hard work, strict discipline and individualism, directly echoing the rhetoric of neo-liberalism. 

There is an extreme reluctance by the gym’s trainers to allow boxers to blame their failures either on racism or the devastating impact of capitalism on their lives. Lacking any current political solution to their problems, boxing offers these men a way to gain respect in a society that has discarded them. Although politically aware, Gleason’s trainers realise that for their charges to fail at boxing would to be swept away into prison, drug addiction or worse, hence their insistence on complete commitment.

The book also examines the importance of boxing in their lives of the women who train at the gym. Perhaps the most machismo of male sports, boxing has had little tolerance for women. It was only in 1983, when faced with falling membership income, that Gleason’s co-owner Bruce Silverglade suggested accepting women as members in order to boost revenue. ‘Half the world is women!’ he told his reluctant partner. 

It was to be another ten years before women were allowed to compete in amateur boxing bouts. When Trimbur joined the gym it had 300 women members, primarily from the middle classes but also some from working-class backgrounds. For these women, boxing is a means of social and physical empowerment no less than for the men. Yet, as the book recounts, neither the increasing numbers of women fighters nor the success of gym members in women’s amateur tournaments has undermined the male chauvinism at the heart of the sport. 

The third and final part of the book looks at the huge growth in white urban FIRE economy professionals joining the gym over the past couple of decades. In an echo of young men in mid-nineteenth century cities, they fear that their office jobs are causing them to lose touch with their masculinity. These are men for whom Fight Club is a self-help manual. 

As Trimbur explains, their visits to Gleason’s are underpinned by a racist belief that the black boxers they encounter possess an ‘authentic’, ‘primitive’ or ‘tribal’ masculinity that will help them to recover their own maleness, an idea she describes as being ‘based on the very sufferings of racial segregation and class exclusion’. Her description of these men as unashamedly ‘buying and selling blackness’ is a notion that underlines the fact the American Civil War remains unfinished in many respects.

Inevitably a work of this kind will be compared to Loic Wacquant’s 2004 Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer, his classic ethnography of a boxing gym on Chicago’s South Side. Wacquant’s book took us deep inside the world of the boxer, as he immersed himself in the daily lives of the black boxers who inhabited the gym. Wacquant called his study ‘carnal sociology’ in that he sought to understand, by becoming a boxer and exploring his physical experience as much as his intellectual response to his environment. 

There are elements of this approach in Trimbur’s book - for example, she does take up boxing - but this is not her central concern. Rather, Come Out Swinging uses the gym to explore the changing social and urban dynamics of twenty-first century New York, the rise of the financial class, the changing leisure patterns of women and, centrally, the tsunami of social devastation that de-industrialisation has wrought upon America’s black working class.

Lucid and refreshingly free of unessential academic jargon, this is a book that should be read by any anthropologist, historian or sociologist seeking to understand the changing world of sport and leisure since the 1980s. 

Most importantly, it is a book is written with great humanity. Trimbur is aware that boxing has always been an insatiable devourer of men and that it is fuelled by the furnace of poverty, racism and class injustice. Yet, as Come Out Fighting admirably demonstrates, she also knows that it can also be a means by which men and women can gain self-respect and, in a world where capitalism deems increasing numbers of people to be valueless, develop their own sense of self-worth. 

(A version of this review appeared in Sport in History, Vol. 34, Issue 3, July 2014)

Dicky Lockwood - Rugby's Forgotten Giant

The Guardian this week published a short piece about a player of whom few rugby fans of either code will have heard: Dicky Lockwood. It was welcome mention, but failed to mention that he was one of the greatest rugby players of the Victorian era and a player who embodied the causes of rugby's 1895 split.

Dicky Lockwood_2.jpg

A brief glimpse of his career should be enough to convince anyone of his greatness. He made his debut for England in 1887 at the age of nineteen as a wing- threequarter. He equalled E.T. Gurdon’s record of fourteen England caps and would have received many more if the Rugby Football Union had not clashed with the International Board and refused to play in Four Nations matches in 1888 and 1889.

In an age in which tries were not common and matches were low-scoring affairs, he scored five tries and kicked seven conversions in an England shirt. In 1894 he captained England to one of their greatest victories when they routed Wales using the Principality’s own four three-quarter system for the first time.

Lockwood was unquestionably the most outstanding English back of his day - only Welsh captain and rival centre Arthur Gould could compare. Yet he has been forgotten. The official centenary history of the Rugby Football Union (RFU) doesn’t even mention him while O.L. Owen’s earlier book on the RFU notes him only in passing and doesn’t refer to his captaincy of England.

The World’s Wonder

Richard Evison Lockwood was born on 11 November 1867 to a labouring family in Crigglestone, near Wakefield.

His rugby career began at the age of sixteen for Dewsbury - then one of the North’s leading sides - when he made his debut on the right wing against Ossett in November 1884, a few days before his seventeenth birthday. In those days most English sides played with just three three-quarters but Dicky could play on the wing or in the centres with equal accomplishment.

He quickly became a phenomenon and was nicknamed ‘the Little Tyke’ and ‘Little Dick, the World’s Wonder’, partly because of his youth and also because of his diminutive stature - he was only five feet, four and a half inches tall. Even at an early age he was the complete footballer, brilliant in attack, deadly in the tackle and precise in his kicking, with a knack of being in the right place at the right time.

In 1886 he was selected for the first of his forty-six appearances for the Yorkshire county side and shortly after his nineteenth birthday he played for the North against the South, an annual match that was a trial for England selection.

Even at this stage his fame was such that crowds gathered in Dewsbury market place to hear telegram reports from the match being read out. The following month, in January 1887, he made his England debut versus Wales at Llanelli. Dicky-mania quickly engulfed the Dewsbury area, demonstrating that sporting stardom and fan hysteria were not born in the 1960s.

Leaving Dewsbury’s Crown Flatt ground after a blinding display in a Yorkshire Cup tie against Wakefield Trinity, the weekly magazine The Yorkshireman reported that Lockwood ‘was mobbed by a vast crowd which, contracting as the road narrowed, actually pushed down a strong stone wall and then shoved a hawker and a little lad through the aperture into the field below’.

Pictures of Dicky were sold outside of the ground and by photographers’ shops in Dewsbury itself, one enterprising trader charging one shilling and a penny per photo, almost one-eighth of the nine shillings weekly wage the player himself then received as a woollen printer in Walmsley’s local textile mill. Playing in Dublin against Ireland in February 1887 he was carried off with a broken collar bone, filling Dewsbury with wild rumours that he had actually been killed in the match. Hundreds waited through the night at Dewsbury railway station to see him come home from the game, just to prove to themselves that their ‘Little Wonder’ was still alive.

On Trial

In 1889 Dicky shocked his fans and left Dewsbury to play for Heckmondwike, a mill town a few miles down the road, which, thanks to an aggressive policy of attracting players through match payments and jobs, boasted one of the best teams in the county, which included England players such as the forward Donald Jowett and three-quarter John Sutcliffe, one of the few men to be capped by England at both soccer and rugby.

Although his ostensible reason for moving was to play for a better team, it was widely reported that he had told friends that ‘he had got all he could out of Dewsbury and that he was going to Heckmondwike to see what he could get there’. Contrary to RFU’s strict amateur regulations, he allegedly received one pound per match to play for the club and was given the tenancy of The Queen’s Hotel pub in Heckmondwike.

Such blatant flouting of the amateur regulations was too much for the Yorkshire rugby union, who were in the middle of attempting to exorcise the professional devil from their midst. Dicky was investigated by the Yorkshire Rugby Union (YRU) about his transfer to see if any money had changed hands or promises of work been made. Being unable to find any direct evidence, the YRU found him not guilty of the charge of being a professional.

That night in Heckmondwike, the Yorkshireman reported that ‘hundreds of people collected in the market place and its approaches, and the news of his acquittal was received with an outburst of cheering, the gathering in all respects resembling those witnessed at an exciting political election.’

But in December he was again summoned to appear before the YRU committee, where he was charged once more with professionalism and cross-examined by the Reverend Frank Marshall, headmaster of Almondbury school and leading YRU official. Marshall claimed that Morley tried to induce Dicky to transfer to them in 1886 with an offer of an apprenticeship but that Dewsbury kept him by offering 10s a week and £1 per exhibition match.

The ‘trial’ lasted for three days and Dicky showed an admirable talent for stonewalling, as the follow extracts from the cross-examination shows:

Marshall: ‘What year were you asked to go to Morley?’

Lockwood: ‘1886 about.’

Marshall: ‘What was the inducement?’ Lockwood: ‘Nothing.’

Marshall: ‘Do you know Mr Crabtree of Morley?’

Lockwood: ‘Yes.’

Marshall: ‘What did he offer you?’ Lockwood: ‘He did not offer to apprentice me to him. I was not paid anything. If anyone stated I was paid it would be wrong.’ Marshall: ‘A gentleman has stated that you were paid 10s a week.’

Lockwood: ‘Well, that gentleman is wrong.’ ... Marshall: ‘I want you to be very particular about this. I have positive information that you were paid after refusing to go to Morley.’ Lockwood: ‘I was not, sir.’

Marshall: ‘I understand you were paid £1 for exhibition matches.’

Lockwood: ‘That is wrong.’

Marshall: ‘Were you in a position to go to these matches and lose your wages?’

Lockwood: ‘Then I was, sir.’ ...

Marshall: ‘I want to be explicit on this point, as to the meaning of ‘dinners’. Have you ever been told that, seeing that you were not so well off, you could have ‘dinners’ if you went to play with any club?’

Lockwood: ‘No, never.’

Unable to penetrate Dicky’s defence, the YRU committee simply gave up and acquitted him yet again. 

Nevertheless, controversy still dogged his career. Unlike his nearest equivalent of the time as a regional sporting hero, Arthur Gould, Dicky was unambiguously working class, a serious handicap to gaining the respect of those who ran the game: ‘Dicky doesn’t sport sufficient collar and cuff for the somewhat fastidious members of the committee,’ the rugby writer of The Yorkshireman reported in 1891. 

The tension between Dicky and the game’s authorities epitomised the relationship between the supporters of amateurism who ran the game and working class players who had come to dominate its playing. In 1891 he was passed over for the Yorkshire county captaincy in favour of Oxford-educated William Bromet. ‘It is simply a case of pandering to social position, nothing more nor less. We thought we were ‘all fellows at football’; yet an alleged democratic Yorkshire committee can still show a sneaking fondness for persons who are... we had almost said in a better social position than ourselves’ complained the same correspondent.

Captain of England

Eventually talent did prevail and in 1892 Dicky was chosen as the captain of the Yorkshire county side, leading them to a hat-trick of county championships over the next three years. His captaincy was notable for more than just his continuation of Yorkshire dominance of the county championship. He helped to implement the Welsh system of playing with four three-quarters. Previously the dominance of northern forwards meant that clubs were reluctant to move to the four three-quarter system first used by the Welsh national side in 1886. ‘Buller’ Stadden had unsuccessfully introduced the system to Dewsbury when he moved there from Cardiff in 1886, but Oldham were the first northern side to use it regularly when Bill McCutcheon joined them in 1888 from Swansea.

Even then, there was still widespread doubt in Lancashire and Yorkshire as to its usefulness - despite northern admiration for the back play of Welsh clubs like Newport, it was believed that its success in Wales was due to the poorer quality of Welsh forward play, especially in comparison to club football in the north of England. When it came to be widely, although not universally, accepted in England in the early 1890s, it was partly due to Lockwood’s influence and the success of the Yorkshire side in using the new system.

Dicky’s unique combination of all-round skill and tactical innovation reached their highest point in 1894, when he was chosen to captain England against Wales at Birkenhead. Playing with four three-quarters for the first time, the English side routed Wales at their own game, winning by 24 points to 3, the highest score by England since the very first Anglo-Welsh game in 1881.

It was, said the Liverpool Mercury, ‘not a beating, it was an annihilation’. Dicky himself scored a try and kicked three conversions, totally outplaying his opposite number Arthur Gould. The most potent factor in this historic victory, according to the Yorkshire Post, ‘was Lockwood, who covered Gould with merciless persistency, and in all his long career Lockwood has never played with greater judgement or effect’.

Even more significant than the victory was Lockwood’s personal achievement in becoming captain of England. Rugby was led on and off the field by middle class ex-public school boys, yet here was an unskilled manual labourer with little secondary education leading men who were, according to all of society’s norms at the time, several times his social superior. It was almost as if a conscript private had taken charge of an elite cavalry regiment. His captaincy symbolised the rise of the working class player in rugby, something which many in rugby’s hierarchy had steadfastly vowed to oppose.

The month after the defeat of Wales, he captained the national side against Ireland at Blackheath, only to go down to defeat by 7 points to 5. Badly hampered by a lack of possession, Dicky scored England’s only try of the match by charging down a kick from the Irish full-back Sparrow, a try acclaimed as: ‘one of the finest pieces of work in the direction of taking advantage of an opponent’s weakness ever seen in first-class football’. Although no-one knew at the time, this was to be not only his last appearance as England captain, but also his last appearance in any type of representative football.

Shortly after the Ireland match he informed the English selectors that he would not be available for the Calcutta Cup match in Edinburgh because he couldn’t afford to take time off work to travel up to Scotland and back. Despite this, he asked the RFU for permission to play for Heckmondwike in a home game taking place on the same day. The Rugby Union refused point-blank to allow him to play for his club - despite the fact Eton house master Cyril Wells had been allowed in similar circumstances to play for Harlequins after pulling out of the Rest of England team beaten by Yorkshire the previous season.

This caused a considerable furore in Yorkshire, where it was seen as gross hypocrisy on the part of the RFU and one more example of how working class players were treated differently from those with a public school background.

The affair added yet more impetus to the calls for working class players to be paid broken time money to compensate for time lost at work due to playing rugby. Disgusted with the RFU and by the Yorkshire Rugby Union’s failure to support him fully, Lockwood announced his retirement from representative football for both England and Yorkshire. Years later, he hinted that he thought he may have been the victim of a conspiracy, commenting that ‘there was always a strong feeling against us’ on the part of the RFU leadership.

1895 And After

Dicky therefore came to embody the growing crisis that was engulfing English rugby union an which led in August 1895 to English rugby splitting in two and the formation of the Northern Union.

Unsurprisingly, given his treatment at the hands of the leadership of rugby union, Dicky was quick to show his support for the new body. He quickly left Heckmondwike, who remained temporarily loyal to the RFU, to join Wakefield Trinity as their captain. He made one appearance for the Yorkshire county Northern Union representative side in 1897 but his rugby league career was beset by age and severe personal problems.

In January 1897 he was declared bankrupt after accumulating debts of over £300 running his pub and was forced to sell all of his household furniture to pay off his creditors. Even so, his own difficulties did not stop him helping to organise charity fund-raising matches for the trade unions during the engineers’ lock out during the same year.

In November 1900, the wheel turned full circle and ‘Little Dick, the World’s Wonder’ returned to Dewsbury to play out the final three years of his career. Over a hundred years later, viewers of the Mitchell & Kenyon collection of Edwardian Northern Union rugby films were able to see footage of him run on to field at Crown Flatt as Dewsbury prepared to take on Manningham in October 1901. Following retirement as a player he spent the rest of his years in manual jobs until on 10 November 1915, just a day before his 48th birthday, he died in Leeds Infirmary. His death occurred shortly before he was due to have a second operation for cancer, and he left a widow and four children. He was buried in Wakefield Cemetery.

Although forgotten in rugby union history, Dicky’s memory flickered on in rugby league, which was the continuator of the glory years of pre-1895 Yorkshire and Lancashire rugby union. Thirty-five years after Lockwood’s retirement, one rugby league writer recalled ‘Dicky Lockwood’s Deadly Tackle - once felt, never forgotten’, while over a century after his birth, Eddie Waring was to regret the fact that he could not include him in The Great Ones.

The virtual disappearance of Dicky Lockwood’s name from the annals of English rugby serves as a warning that sportsmen and women are not simply remembered for their achievements on the field of play. Their survival in the folk memory of sport is dependent on the role they can play in the creation of a mythic past. Thus Arthur Gould’s name lives on in Welsh rugby union because he seemed to embody the spirit of the emerging Welsh national identity of the turn of the century. Likewise, Adrian Stoop was the personification of the dashing Edwardian English public school hero and the idealisation of everything the RFU stood for. Dicky, in contrast, could play no such role.

Indeed, to the supporters of the RFU he represented everything they wanted to forget: the virtual eclipse of middle class players by Northern manual workers in the 1890s, the rise of professionalism and the near loss of control of a sport they viewed as being uniquely theirs. Even the fact that he was a fleet-footed three-quarter seemed an affront to official rugby union history - insofar as it was spoken about at all, the Northern game before the split was thought to be so dominant because of its hardworking forwards, horny- handed sons of toil who were happy to carry out the donkey work while public school-educated backs used superior intelligence to fashion brilliant tries.

It is high time that Dicky Lockwood was restored to his rightful position as one of the greatest English players of either rugby game.

His achievements rank among the most outstanding of any age. Yet his excision from history also serves to remind us that sport is no less subject to political and social prejudice than any other form of human activity. For those who assume that sport stands above society and that excellence inevitably brings it own rewards, the career of Richard Evison Lockwood is powerful evidence to the contrary.

-- This is a slightly edited version of a chapter from my 2009 book 1895 And All That.

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.

Ways of Seeing: W.A. Wollen's 'The Roses Match'

W.A. Wollen's 1895 painting, The Roses Match (seen here on the cover of Rugby's Great Split), occupies an interesting place in the culture of both rugby league and rugby union. It hangs at Twickenham - and there is a copy at Otley rugby club - but it actually belongs to the glory days of pre-1895 northern rugby and depicts the origins of the Northern Union. 

It is a representation of the 1893 Yorkshire versus Lancashire match held at Bradford's Park Avenue ground. The myth surrounding the painting is that players who joined the Northern Union were painted out. It is not true - not least because almost all of those depicted who were still playing in 1895 became Northern Union players.

My article 'Myth and Reality in the 1895 Split' (which can be downloaded here) puts the painting in context, while the late Piers Morgan's excellent short article (download from here) adds more specific detail about the painting itself. The Museum of World Rugby at Twickenham has also posted a very interesting article about 'The Roses Match' on their blog here.

It is not the only painting of nineteenth century rugby to which myths have become attached. For years the painting below from the 1870s, which also hangs in Twickenham, was described as being of Wasps versus Cambridge University. 

It isn't. It is actually Halifax versus York in the first Yorkshire Cup final played in 1877 and staged at the Whitehall Road ground at Holbeck in Leeds. More than anything else, it was the Yorkshire Cup that triggered the explosion of interest in rugby across the north of England that led to its great popularity - as depicted in the Wollen painting - and which would lead to the formation of the Northern Union in 1895.

Rugby League in World War One

- - This post is a very slightly edited version of chapter one of Rugby League in Twentieth Century Britain. You can find my article on English Rugby Union and the First World War by clicking here.

Like the authorities of all sports, it took the Northern Union (NU) General Committee some time to respond to the outbreak of the war. When it met on 11 August it provisionally decided to continue with the season. This initial response to continue with the season was taken before militarist hysteria had fully gripped the country. But by September, professional football of whatever code was under severe pressure to suspend its activities while Britain was at war.

The Football Association (FA) became a favourite target of the anti-football campaigners, despite the fact that the War Office had declared itself ‘favourable to the continuation of football’. In London, the Evening News stopped the publication of its football edition and newspapers were full of letters condemning those who continued to play. ‘A Soldier’s Mother’ writing to the Yorkshire Post captured the spirit of those who called for an end to football: ‘If a Zeppelin were to hover over football grounds in England and drop a few bombs amongst the idle loafers gathered there, then perhaps, and I feel not until then, would those shirkers wake up to a sense of their duty to their King and their country.’ Regardless of the propaganda of the national and local newspapers, there were many who thought the continuation of football would be good for morale: an editorial in Athletic News argued that sport

will assist to keep the body fit and the mind calm until such time as right is vindicated. Courage, determination and patience are demanded of non-combatants, and sport tends to the development of these virtues. Let us not hastily give up that which has served a free people so well.

Such arguments did not stop those who clamoured for an end to football from claiming the moral high ground, with RFU spokesmen occupying its most elevated reaches. RFU secretary Rowland Hill claimed that the FA Council ‘had allowed one of the greatest sports in the world to be solely and entirely governed by commercial principles.’ Yorkshire Rugby Union official James Miller felt that ‘playing fields were being desecrated at the present time’ and that ‘it was necessary to compel those who idled around the streets – those shirkers and bullet-funkers – to join the ranks.’ The references to shirkers indicated the underlying class prejudice at the heart of much of this criticism and Miller had little hesitation in pointing an accusing finger, regretting ‘that members of other football bodies had not responded in a like manner. It seems to me that a hot blush of crimson must come into the faces of those footballers who remained at play when others went abroad to fight their battles for them.’

In fact, the NU was no less patriotic than the RFU. Joseph Platt, the NU secretary, had declared that it was ‘the bounden duty of every player as well as every football enthusiast of suitable age and capacity to give his best service to the nation’ but its decision-making machinery lagged behind events. It wasn’t until 8 September that its governing General Committee met in Manchester to discuss the clamour for the football codes to suspend operations. Taking a lead from the F.A., the meeting unanimously passed a resolution stating that

matches be played as usual, as it is impossible for all men to take up active war service, and it is thought unwise to have no relaxation from the more serious objects of life. … all clubs be asked to encourage their players to join the army for active service, unless their employment is such that by not doing so they equally serve the country’s welfare.

The committee also recommended that clubs provide facilities for enlistment at matches and that they should not sign new players from outside of their immediate districts.

In fact, the decision to continue playing did nothing to deter its players from enlisting in droves. The Manchester district league was decimated after only three weeks of the war due to a huge loss of players. In early September the St Helens league suspended activity for the duration after losing virtually all of its players to the forces; over 70 per cent of eligible men had joined up following Lord Derby’s personal recruitment drive in the town. In Bradford, the local league was reduced to just four sides and numerous other amateur NU sides simply stopped playing. At a professional level, every club lost men to the army. Runcorn shed almost all of its playing staff as twenty-three players volunteered. At Oldham, the club doctor re-enlisted as a colonel in the 10th Manchester Regiment and was allowed to address the players on their patriotic duty; nearly all enlisted, including the club secretary A.J. Swann. Swinton and Broughton Rangers both offered their grounds to the military and Wigan reserved one stand for free admission to men who had signed up. The NU appears to have escaped the criticism directed at soccer clubs that they were insufficiently supportive of attempts to recruit at matches, although there are few records of any recruitment actually taking place at NU grounds. By April 1915, Joe Platt could announce that 1,418 amateur and professional NU players had enlisted. 

Nevertheless, the pattern of volunteering did differ markedly between the NU and the RFU. In general, men in white collar occupations and the professions enlisted earlier and more enthusiastically than the working classes. Recruitment of workers in textiles areas, which were severely affected by the sudden interruption to international trade, was particularly low, although miners, the NU’s other major industrial constituency, had a higher percentage of volunteers than most working class occupations. The low levels of family allowances paid to soldiers and the well-known delays in making the payments were also a disincentive to working men enlisting. As Athletic News pointed out, unlike the usually single and often financially-independent young men of rugby union, many working-class footballers could ‘not afford to throw their wives and families on the fickle charities of the public by enlisting'.

But even if the NU had wanted to follow rugby union and abandon the season there were other factors to take into consideration. As Hunslet president Joe Lewthwaite explained, ‘It must be borne in mind too that football is a business concern in many cases. What would be said if works were closed down? Football is run largely on commercial lines. If the grounds are closed, will the landlord forego rent, and the authorities their rates?’ Although the builder of Hunslet’s new stand publicly offered to forego his £2,500 payment until the end of the war in response to Lewthwaite’s rhetorical question, the reality was that the fortunes of the game at the professional level were almost entirely tied to its commercial success. 

This became clear almost as soon as the season started. By the first week of October there was already concern that attendances at matches had fallen to half those of 1913. Similarly dramatic decreases at soccer matches had already led to the Football League proposing a cut in players’ wages for the duration. On 8 October NU official John Houghton wrote to clubs noting that ‘the past five weeks shows a marked falling off in gate receipts and members’ subscriptions, the average income being reduced by as much as 50 per cent’ and recommending that each club discuss with its players the need to reduce wages and costs. Houghton feared that the game’s poorer sides could not survive the fall in gate receipts and that ‘the loss of four or five clubs would so materially cripple the League that it is felt that the continued existence of the League would be in serious jeopardy.’ 

Although there were some positive responses to what was a non-binding request - Keighley players agreed to a 50 per cent pay cut ‘until better days arrive’ - commercial reality dictated that the bigger clubs simply continued to pay their players at pre-war levels while the weaker clubs continued to struggle. Faced with an impending financial crisis and a desire to demonstrate that professional NU players were making sacrifices for the war effort, a special meeting of clubs was called for 20 October. The attendees heard that only one club, Halifax, had not seen a decline in gate receipts. Crowds at both Leeds and Hunslet had fallen by a half, Wigan season-ticket holders had fallen by two-thirds, Hull’s turnover had fallen by almost £700 compared to the previous season and St Helens season ticket sales had collapsed from £420 in 1913 to just £19. By sixteen votes to five, the meeting imposed a wage cut of 25 per cent, make similar cuts to referees’ fees and ordered all clubs to report players’ wages levels and the savings made from the cuts. 

The decision was met with uproar from players with the leading clubs. Within days Wigan, Halifax and Huddersfield players declared themselves ‘keenly opposed’ to the wage cut and in response the Wigan committee appealed for a delay in its introduction. But the General Committee was unbending: ‘it is, though with the utmost regret, thought better that unwilling players should be sacrificed’ rather than concessions be made. In response, players at Wigan, Halifax, Huddersfield, Rochdale and Oldham went on strike on Saturday 7 November, while those at Bradford and York turned out under protest. The following Friday players’ representatives from 13 clubs met in Manchester to discuss the situation. They decided to play that Saturday’s matches under protest and elected a four-man deputation to meet with League officials the following week. 

The four men elected represented the very cream of the Northern Union. As well as Harold Wagstaff there was Gwyn Thomas, who chaired the players’ meeting, was a 21 year-old full-back from Treherbert who had joined Wigan after captaining London Welsh while barely out of his teens. Charlie Seeling was a veteran Wigan forward from New Zealand who had toured Britain with both the 1905 union and the 1907 league All Blacks while Leeds’s Australian centre-threequarter Dinny Campbell was to prove one of his club’s greatest players. On 17 November they met officials to outline their case. In fact, the clubs’ resolve was already crumbling by the time the meeting took place.

Earlier that week referees from Lancashire and Yorkshire had met and resolved to strike if the cuts to their fees were implemented, while 14 clubs had called for an end to the arbitrary imposition of wage cuts on the grounds that it represented interference in their own business affairs. Some, such as York, were even supporting the players’ demands. The following week yet another special general meeting of the clubs voted to rescind the wage cuts both for players and referees, deciding that ‘any deduction in a player’s wages shall be by mutual arrangement only between individual clubs and players.’ It was also resolved to set up a relief fund for clubs in financial difficulty which would be funded by a levy on gate money and donations from clubs and players. Although the threat of a complete strike by players was now averted, the next fortnight saw strikes by Salford and Wakefield players against their clubs’ attempts to cut wages.

The season continued but enthusiasm drained away as war casualties mounted and it became clear that the conflict would not be over quickly. Increasing numbers of spectators and players joined up – Gwyn Thomas enlisted just before Christmas 1914 and, along with Wigan’s Lance Todd, became one of a handful of NU players to receive a commission – while the longer working hours caused by the needs of war production in industrial areas meant that the opportunities to watch sport were drastically reduced. The season also became increasingly uncompetitive as Huddersfield simply destroyed the rest of the league, winning every competition open to them, scoring 103 points against five in the three finals they contested and losing only two games during the entire season.

There was a palpable sense of relief when the season finally came to an end with Huddersfield’s anticipated demolition of St Helens in the Challenge Cup Final. The following month the NU voted to suspend operations for the duration, except for schoolboy and under-18 competitions. Widnes’s John Smith proposed the suspension, asking if there was ‘a single person who can honestly say that he got any satisfaction at all out of football last season?’ while Wakefield’s J.B. Cooke admitted that one of the reasons they had voted to continue in September was that ‘there was hardly a man among them who thought that the war would continue very long.’ He had now changed his mind however: ‘After 10 months of hard fighting, with dreadful losses to the country and lives, they realised what the great game that was going on in France really meant.’


However, within the ‘great game’ rugby union was undergoing a resurgence  with matches being organised for new recruits almost as soon as the first volunteers arrived in training camps in September 1914. In contrast, matches played under NU rules by services teams were virtually non-existent. The only recorded example in the first months of the war was in January 1915 when a Miners’ Battalion team of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry played Featherstone Rovers at Otley’s rugby union ground to raise money for the widow of a Corporal Dixon of Featherstone. Even army matches played on NU grounds at this time were rugby union games. Nor does it appear that NU football was played much in army units on active service, although Rochdale winger and 1914 tourist Jack Robinson, who was badly wounded at Neuve Chappelle in March 1915, reported that they had played ‘rugby’ during the battle while bombs were dropping, saying that ‘our boys out yonder will have their game of football under all sorts of conditions. It comes as a tonic and a relaxation from trench duty and I cannot understand anybody in England ever questioning the advisability of the game.’

But in fact, rugby of whatever code occupied a distant second place when compared to the popularity of soccer with troops in the field. Douglas Clark’s war diary for 1917 describes a number of soccer matches of varying degrees of formality in which he played while in France but only one game of ‘rugby’. Harold Wagstaff was reduced to playing soccer while stationed in Egypt due to a complete absence of any form of rugby. The danger of injury and the difficulty of playing on an improvised pitch naturally gave soccer a natural advantage. A 1915 letter from an unidentified officer in a Lancashire regiment which played both rugby and soccer encapsulated the problem:

The slush on our football 'pitch' is awful. Shall recommend that in the future all football matches be postponed until the mud is knee-deep. We were called the mudlarkers at home and truly we've sustained the reputation since coming to France. Our last football will be in use on Monday, and I dread to think of it bursting in this dreary hole. I suppose I shall have to improvise a ball or two from pigs' bladders - anything to keep the game and the boys going. 

The simplicity of soccer’s rules and the ease with which a game could be organized gave it an additional advantage over the handling codes. But its popularity was also based on more than technical simplicity. As J.G. Fuller has noted, army soccer was a ‘practical exercise in class collaboration’, a sport which men of all ranks could play and which helped to cement esprit de corps among the troops. Outside of regiments from NU areas or South Wales, rugby was generally viewed as a game almost exclusively for officers. Soccer was the sport of the masses and therefore the ranks. 

Despite this, the beginning of 1916 marked a rise in rugby union’s fortunes, when conscription brought in to the army many NU players who had not already volunteered and greatly expanded the pool of players available to military rugby union sides. The first major union match to be played in the north took place in April 1916 between a ‘North of England Military Team’ and an Australasian representative side at Headingley. When selected, all of the North’s players had been officers and rugby union men, but when the final teams were announced two weeks before the match was due to take place, the North had been augmented by four non-commissioned men: Harold Wagstaff, Ben Gronow and Douglas Clark of Huddersfield plus Willie Davies, captain of Leeds, all of who had recently been called up. For the Antipodean side, Oldham’s Viv Farnsworth, Huddersfield’s Tommy Gleeson and Hull’s Syd Deane and Jimmy Devereux were selected.

Although this wasn’t the first time a NU player had played rugby union during the war - Gwyn Thomas had turned out for the Barbarians against South Africa in November 1915, his fellow Wigan player Percy Coldrick had played for Newport in January 1916 and three NU players, including Huddersfield forward Fred Longstaff, had appeared in a union match at Leicester that February  - the prominence of the game and the players involved raised obvious questions about the validity of the RFU’s longstanding ban on NU players. ‘The teams will play under Rugby Union rules, but they will do so as soldiers of the King; questions of amateur or professional principles do not come into view at all,’ explained the Yorkshire Post.

Perhaps inevitably, the NU players dominated, scoring fourteen of the points in the match as the North won 13-11, with Wagstaff, who had only ever seen one rugby union match before that day, much less played in one, beating several opponents and running half the field to score a memorable try. Three weeks later the team beat the Tees and Hartlepool Garrison in front of 7,000 spectators and on 20 May, now boasting seven NU players, they defeated a Welsh side chosen by the Welsh rugby union secretary Walter Rees before a crowd of over 15,000 at Liverpool’s Anfield soccer ground.

The success of the side opened a debate over the RFU’s ban on NU players. Ever since the 1895 split, the RFU had banned for life any rugby union player found guilty of playing NU football or playing with someone who had played NU football, regardless of whether any payments had changed hands. Now it seemed that the war could bring about a breach in that intransigence. Sir William Forster-Todd, the Lord Mayor of York, argued that ‘the fact of the professional footballer and the university student rubbing shoulders and shedding their blood together in the trenches’ would lead to the distinctions between the NU and the RFU disappearing after the war. C.C. Lempriere, who captained Hull before and after the 1895 split, believed that rugby ‘under whatever rules … is far better preparation for the fighting and combative spirit of mankind if, as now, there is call for their display. Why then should a different standard, as between amateurs and professionals, be any more obtained in Rugby football to that obtaining in cricket and Association?’

But these arguments carried little weight with the hardline supporters of amateurism in the RFU ‘War-time recognises no rules,’ pointed out W.L. Sinclair sagely in the Athletic News. ‘But in times of peace the cherished canons of Rugby football will once more be observed. Rugby Union men will be tolerant of the Northern Union player, but there can be no intermingling of the two organisations in common system of play.’

But the fact that many rugby union officials had voted with their feet and included NU men in their sides regardless of the rules meant that the RFU had to act to maintain control of the situation. On 4 October 1916 the RFU therefore issued a statement to clarify its position:

Northern Union players can only play with Rugby Union players in bona-fide naval and military teams. Rugby Union teams can play against naval and military teams in which there are Northern Union players. Munitions workers cannot be regarded as naval and military players. These rulings only obtain during the war.

This was not so much a concession as a recognition of the new status quo. It allowed the RFU to embrace national unity while also signalling its intention to remain an exclusive organisation as soon as the war ended. Nevertheless, the temporary lifting of the ban was seized upon by the more active recruiters for military sides. In particular, Major R.V. Stanley, the Oxford University representative on the RFU Committee, had been working since at least December 1915 to recruit NU players to his Army Service Corps (Motor Transport) team at Grove Park in south London. When the new season began the week after the RFU announcement, his diligent work was clear to all - the A.S.C. team included Huddersfield’s Wagstaff, Clark, Gronow and Rosenfeld, Rochdale’s Joe Corsi and international Ernest Jones, together with Oldham’s Frank Holbrooke. They then proceeded to tear apart almost every other team in the south of England, including Australian and New Zealand services sides, winning 25 out of 26 games and scoring 1110 points while conceding just 41. In the process they broke the senior club record for points in a season.

Their only defeat was 6-3 loss to a United Services side which included eight rugby union internationals plus Wigan’s Billy Seddon and Leeds’ Willie Davies. Even in the heat of the match, the team was expected to observe the etiquette of social and military rank: Wagstaff called his winger, the Harlequins’ player Lieutenant Nixon, ‘Sir’ and Nixon reciprocated by calling the centre ‘Wagstaff’. The attention which Grove Park’s success brought was not all complementary. Echoing the criticisms of football in 1914 the team was accused of being ‘a dumping ground of professional slackers’, a characterisation probably not unconnected with the fact that the A.S.C. was unfairly seen as an easy option for soldiers and was known by its detractors as ‘Ally Sloper’s Cavalry’, after the work-shy cartoon character of the era.  

A similar side was assembled at the Devonport Royal Navy depot which eventually comprised nine NU players, captained by Willie Davies and featuring at various times his team-mate and future international Joe Brittain, future England captain Jonty Parkin and Harold Buck, who became rugby league’s first £1,000 transfer in 1921. Unlike the A.S.C. side which broke up when its members were posted to France in April 1917, the Devonport side played together for the rest of the war, making three tours of the north of England. By playing against NU club sides and under NU rules, the Devonport tours were contrary to both the letter and the spirit of the RFU’s laws but the prevailing atmosphere of national unity meant that there was little that could be done to stop them. In May 1917 a Yorkshire NU representative side had even played against and defeated a New Zealand army team including three All Blacks under union rules at Headingley. 

Despite this intermingling of players, it is noticeable that despite the public debate, no NU player or official called for unity of the two games - other than lifting the ban on players, the most radical proposal was former NU chairman J. B. Cooke’s call for an annual charity match between them. No NU player with a services rugby union side expressed a desire to carry on playing union after the war and even W.L. Sinclair admitted that most rugby union converts to NU preferred the thirteen-a-side game. The same appears to be true of spectators in the north - with the exception of the 1916 match at Anfield, none of the rugby union games in which NU players participated in the north attracted larger crowds than the major NU games during the war. Few attracted more than 4,000 spectators and even the showpiece North versus Australasia match at Headingley in April 1916 attracted somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 spectators. Two weeks later 13,000 saw the Leeds versus Dewsbury NU match on the same ground. 


Crowds of such sizes underlined the continuing strength of the NU in its heartlands. Despite the formal suspension of competitions in June 1915, the professional game had continued on a regional basis organised by the Lancashire and Yorkshire county committees. And despite difficulties due to the enlistment of players and spectators, the majority of clubs continued to play. Only four didn’t compete in the 1915-16 season, but to bolster the ranks Brighouse Rangers, Featherstone Rovers and St Helens Recreation were promoted from district leagues to join the senior clubs for the duration, although Featherstone only lasted one season.

The announcement of conscription in 1916 also helped clubs to justify playing because they would not be accused of keeping men from volunteering. Wakefield, Warrington and Widnes, all of which had closed for the 1915-16 season, recommenced playing in 1916 following its introduction. Some experienced a surge in their fortunes due to munitions factories in their areas. Barrow, despite being forced to close by the town’s military authorities at the start of the war, soon re-established themselves and, boosted by an influx of players and spectators into the local shipyards for war production, became one of the dominant teams of the war, winning the unofficial championship title in 1917-18. Dewsbury were even more successful, finishing champions in the 1915-16 and 1916-17 seasons, and attracting players and crowds due to the town’s prominence as a manufacturer of woollen cloth for uniforms.

In recognition of the economic fragility of professional sport in wartime, the NU’s 1915 annual general meeting banned payments to players and relaxed registration rules to allow players to play for clubs based near their work or military base. Naturally the ban on payments was widely ignored and the freeing of players from their pre-war club registrations also created difficulties; none more so than in October 1917 when Billy Batten was selected to play by both Dewsbury and Hull in the same match. He plumped for Dewsbury and helped them to a 32-0 victory.

Despite the supposed war-time camaraderie, there is no evidence that the war led to a more chivalrous mode of play. As the Yorkshire Post pointed out after six players had been sent off in two Leeds matches in March 1917, games were ‘fought in a much rougher and keener spirit than was the case in the normal competition days’. Nor were crowds any better behaved. The Runcorn and Keighley grounds were shut after crowd trouble in March 1915. Six months later the Brighouse versus Rochdale match was abandoned by the referee due to crowd trouble and the November 1917 derby between Broughton Rangers and Salford ended ten minutes early after spectators joined in a fight between players. The occurrence of these incidents was no greater than in pre-war times - in the four years up to 1910, eight instances of crowd disturbances were reported to the NU - but the fact that they continued in war-time suggests that the social pressure to behave differently during a national crisis was neither as strong nor as prevalent as supporters of the war would have hoped. 

The same reluctance to change pre-war behaviour was also true for the RFU leadership. Within a month of the war ending, RFU secretary C.J.B. Marriott had written to a Royal Artillery team based at Ripon in North Yorkshire forbidding them from playing planned matches against NU sides. On 14 January 1919, at its first committee meeting since war broke out, the RFU’s first act was to pass a resolution stating that NU players could play rugby union in the services only if they did not play NU football or sign for an NU team while in the services. It tightened its restrictions further in April when it announced that ‘civilian clubs are not permitted to play against Service teams containing Northern Union players.’

Such shenanigans indicated that the core leadership of the RFU was determined to re-establish the status quo ante bellum, despite coming under  pressure internally towards the end of the war to moderate its stance. Those leading the RFU saw the war as a complete vindication of their pre-1914 policies, not a cause for change. The authority which it had gained during the war and its close identification with the military allowed the RFU to brush aside easily the reformers in its ranks: ‘moderation is impossible’ was how one supporter summed up its position.

Much of this authority came from the huge and tragic toll of death that had cut a swathe through the RFU’s ranks during the war. Rugby union’s supporters were proud of their mortal sacrifice and pointed to the hundreds of dead players, twenty-seven of them England internationals, as a justification for its assumed moral superiority over other sports. The NU too lost numerous players at all levels: Billy Jarman, Fred Longstaff and Walter Roman of the 1914 touring side were killed, St Helens’ 1907 New Zealand tourist Jum Turthill lost his life and Hull’s Jack Harrison was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross in 1917 for his bravery at Oppy Wood in France.

At a club level, Leeds lost fifteen of fifty-one players who served, Widnes lost thirteen, Hull twelve and Swinton nine. But no figures for the total number of NU players killed, either at professional or amateur level, were ever compiled. The only information for the sport as a whole available is that relating to fifteen of the professional clubs published by Athletic News’s  correspondent in 1919. Of 760 players of these clubs who served in the armed forces, 103 lost their lives. 

Unlike the RFU and its clubs, which sought to create what George Mosse has described as a ‘cult of the fallen soldier’ and celebrate the deaths of players and supporters, the NU never produced a roll of honour or lists of players’ war records, and the memorials which were so common at rugby union clubs were either short-lived, such as one erected to Jack Harrison at Hull, or non-existent. The sport’s annual handbook, the Official Guide, for the first season after the war did not even mention it. Wakefield Trinity’s annual report for 1918-19 not only makes no reference to the war but does not refer to the death of its captain, W. L. Beattie, in action in France in 1917. The minute books of the Yorkshire Society of Referees contain not a single reference to the war at all between 1914 and 1918. Indeed, the only remembrance ritual which the game as a whole undertook was the laying of wreaths at the Cenotaph before the Challenge Cup final at Wembley. Even this seems to have petered out by the mid-1930s - and this symbolism could also be interpreted, in the absence of any militarist rhetoric accompanying the ceremony, as part of rugby league’s attempt to establish its legitimacy in national sporting traditions. 

This contrast with rugby union’s elaborate rituals of remembrance can partly be explained by the differing social purpose of the club in the two sports. Rugby union clubs were essentially social institutions organised for the purpose of playing the game, comprised chiefly of current and former players, and equipped with a full bureaucratic structure like any other form of middle-class association. Senior NU clubs were professional organisations designed for the purpose of providing entertainment. Amateur NU clubs generally had no wider purpose other than to organise matches and training. Almost none had any level of permanent organisation other than that needed to rent a pitch and arrange fixtures. There is no way of knowing how many members of amateur clubs were killed - only forty-two clubs were listed in the 1919-20 Official Guide, down from 210 in the 1914-15 edition, but this decline was probably in large part due to the economic and organisational difficulties facing clubs. Nor is there any way of knowing how many thousands of supporters of NU clubs never returned from the war to take their places back on the terraces.

There are also deeper reasons that explain the contrasting remembrance of the war by the NU and the RFU. Perhaps most strikingly, the everyday experience of death and injury was profoundly different for the working class and the middle class. For members of the working class, especially those in heavy industry, death in the course of daily work was not an unusual occurrence. For example, in 1913 there were 1,149 fatal accidents in the British coal industry, a shocking figure which itself was overshadowed by a record 1,818 deaths in 1910, and 178,962 non-fatal injuries. In December 1910 344 men lost their lives in an explosion at the Pretoria pit in Westhoughton, near Wigan.

Although even this could not compare with the 20,000 men slaughtered on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, it highlights the daily familiarity of working-class people with death and serious injury. And, as Joanna Bourke points out, ‘even without the war, physical disabilities were not rare in many communities. It was also a common part of urban life and employment.’ As late as the 1960s, sociologist Dennis Marsden noted that in Huddersfield textile factories ‘disablement was an everyday fact of working at the mill’. But for professional and white collar workers, who provided the backbone of rugby union, this familiarity with mortality and serious disablement was largely unknown. Thus faced with the awful loss of sons, brothers and friends, they reached to create a ‘cult of the fallen soldier’ in order to justify the sudden and devastating appearance of everyday death in their midst. For rugby union and other sections of the middle classes, this highlighting of their sacrifice had the broader political purpose of reasserting Edwardian middle-class values and leadership during a period of great social dislocation.

One must also consider the extent to which patriotic militarism was popular within the working class. Clearly in certain areas and in particular sections of industrial workers the war was indeed popular. For example, around 25 per cent of miners had enlisted by mid-1915, although even here it can be argued that the prospect of escaping from pit life was a greater push to enlistment than the pull of patriotism; the truth was perhaps a shifting amalgam of reasons. Certainly the initial ‘rush to the colours’ in the early months of the war was far more apparent among middle-class and white-collar workers than it was among the majority of the working classes.

And in certain areas of the country there was a positive resistance by sections of the working-class to wartime jingoism. The large-scale industrial conflicts in South Wales, Glasgow and Sheffield have been well-documented by historians but it is also noticeable for our purposes that Huddersfield was a also centre of anti-war feeling. The town had a long tradition of radicalism and in 1914 demonstrated no great enthusiasm for the declaration of war. Peace meetings were staged regularly without interference and by 1917 the town had become, in the words of historian Cyril Pearce, ‘a virtual citadel for the anti-war cause’. This would suggest that, at the very least, pro-war enthusiasm was not as widespread or as uniform as has previously been believed, and that this was reflected to some extent by the attitudes shown towards remembrance by the Northern Union, and perhaps also the Football League.

So whereas rugby union had pledged itself not to forget the war, the NU showed little desire to look back on it - indeed, references to the war by NU administrators and players are comparatively rare. To some extent this also reflected a degree of irritation that developed during wartime about the way the game had been treated. The Army had shown a marked reluctance to organise matches under NU rules even in the north and it was felt that there was a distinct lack of publicity given to its war dead in comparison to those of rugby union. When the war was mentioned after 1918 it was generally at international matches, when the links between the competing nations during the war were referred to as a sign of international friendship. For example, when Warrington hosted a visit by the pioneering French club Villeneuve in 1934, an article in the match programme pointed out that:

There was no question of amateurism or professionalism in the Great War. English and French men fought and fell side by side on the battlefields of Flanders, irrespective of their standard in life, and now in times of peace it is most gratifying to know that Frenchmen and Englishmen can join together on the playing fields of our two great countries.

The implication that rugby union’s attitude to rugby league ran counter to the experience of the war was made most pointedly by S. G. Ball, the manager of the 1920-21 Australian tourists who, after the French rugby union authorities had forced the cancellation of an exhibition match in Paris, told his players that ‘Northern Union players of England and Australia had helped France in the Great War, but had they been Germans the French Rugby Federation could not have treated them worse.’

This use of the war and the common sufferings of soldiers of Britain and other nations to argue for ‘democratic’ reform of sport was made explicit by a NU supporter writing during 1916 to Athletic News: ‘as the war in this country is being fought on democratic lines, so will the future government of this land be on more democratic lines. There will be far less class distinction than we have been accustomed to. Merit will be recognised. Is it not possible that this may obtain in our sports?’

The idea that the war should serve as a catalyst for social change was in direct contrast to the views of the RFU and more in line with mainstream liberal and social democratic thinking, perhaps best expressed in the call to build a post-war ‘land fit for heroes’. Even in the necessarily limited context of sporting culture, it adds weight to the idea that disillusionment with the war at this time was more prevalent among the working-classes than the middle-classes. Indeed, the months immediately following the war were marked by soldiers striking to demand demobilisation and major strikes in the mines, cotton industry and the railways, among others, emphasising the sense that the working classes felt they were owed something for their sacrifices during the war.

Similar disenchantment with the war and militarism could be detected in soccer too. John Osborne’s study of Athletic News, in many respects the house organ of the Football League, has shown how its attitudes changed at the end of the war. ‘There was no more talk of training players in drill and marksmanship and, in a more impressionistic light, the language of even the match reporting signified war weariness,’ he noted, pointing to a substantial decline in the use of military metaphors to describe the action on the pitch. This is not to say that the NU or the Football League were articulating a political programme, merely that they reflected to some extent the prevailing feelings of their working-class supporters. And even conservative working-class patriotism differed from that of rugby union and its followers. Despite the tremendous weight of official patriotism on the national psyche, working-class men also proved stubbornly resistant to embracing its structures; the British Legion, even with its national network of social clubs, never had more than 500,000 members, less than 10 per cent of the total number of men who served. 

If Britain was still divided at the end of the war, rugby was no less so. 

A Rugby Time-Tunnel

The British Film Institute has recently reposted some of its historic Northern Union films on its redesigned website

They are a treasure trove for anyone interested in the early history of rugby. The website has films of Dewsbury v Manningham, Halifax v Salford and Salford v Batley (all from 1901) Hull FC v Wigan, Hull KR v Wigan and a Hull derby (all from 1902). 

The films show us the evolution of rugby league mid-way between the split with rugby union in 1895, when union rules were still largely used, and 1906, when the game decisively left union behind with the introduction of thirteen-a-side and the play-the-ball.

As well as glimpses of great players like Dicky Lockwood (running out for Dewsbury against Manningham), Albert Goldthorpe (in the Hunslet v Leeds clip) and Jim Lomas (playing for Salford at Halifax and at home to Batley), and of grounds that are now long gone, the films show us the game as it was played, something which is impossible to visualise from newspaper reports.

Perhaps the biggest difference from today is the sheer number of scrums. As the films shows, a scrum took place after every tackle. This rule was introduced in 1899 to cut down on the monotonous rucking and mauling that took place after a tackle in rugby union. 

Although it seems illogical to our eyes, part of the logic behind this move was that, as play invariably broke down after a maul or ruck and resulted in a scrum, why not go straight to the scrum. 

The other point to remember is that these scrums were formed very quickly, as can be seen from the films. Even so, the number of scrums in a match would often exceed one hundred and the problem of what to do with the ball after a tackle was only solved with the introduction of the play-the-ball in 1906.

The scrums themselves are very different from both league and union scrums today. Up until the 1920s, most sides packed down according to the ‘first up, first down’ principle, whereby the first forwards to reach the scrum formed the front row. 

Consequently there were rarely any fixed positions for forwards, But, as quickly becomes apparent when watching the films, the way scrums formed varied from team to team. With eight forwards packing down, some teams - as can be seen by Hull KR in their match against Wigan in 1902 - occasionally have a front-row of two forwards, the aim being to push through their opponents’ front row.

Because there was no rule at the time to say how the scrum should be formed, we can also see front rows of four forwards.  The films also highlight how the struggle to get the loose-head in the scrum (in order to get a clear view of the ball going into the tunnel) often resulted in the prop-forward who lost the loose-head racing round to the other side of the scrum to re-join the front row.

The huge difference from today in the skills used by the forwards can also be seen in the way they regularly attempt to dribble the ball. With ball retention not being as important as in the modern game - after all, if you lost the ball, the constant scrums offered an immediate opportunity to get it back - forwards would try to develop a ‘forward rush’ in which they would dribble the ball soccer-style down the field.

Overall, the game was still dominated by forward play and backs have little chance to get their hands on the ball. There are very few passing movements at all in any of the matches on the video. In this sense, the game is obviously very much closer to its rugby union roots. 

Even so, we can still catch glimpses of rugby league DNA in the films. James Lomas - playing for Salford against Batley at the New Barnes ground - scores a great individual try that looks very modern. Ten yards from the Batley line, he bumps of one defender and steps inside of another to score under the posts.

The BFI DVD, Mitchell And Kenyon - Edwardian Sports, features nine Northern Union matches, together with soccer, cricket, athletics and other sports of the time. One of the highlights of the DVD is the 1903 Challenge Cup Final between Halifax and Salford, played in front of a record crowd at Headingley. It’s well worth a look.

A little over three years after that 1903 final, the Northern Union grasped the nettle and made the decisive break from the rugby union past, reducing teams to thirteen-a-side and bringing in the play-the-ball. 

The Mitchell and Kenyon films are the nearest we will ever get to a rugby league time tunnel.

Eddie redux

Anthony Clavane's fascinating play about Eddie Waring, Playing the Joker, produced by Red Ladder Theatre Company, is currently touring and week worth going to see. Needless to say, Eddie remains as polarising a figure today as he was forty years ago, as the post-play discussions have shown. 

I've written about the 2010 BBC4 documentary Eddie Waring: Mr Rugby League about him here, but for a broader historical view of him, the following is an extract from my Rugby League in Twentieth Century Britain, published by Routledge in 2006.

"Eddie Waring had been the BBC’s rugby league commentator since 1951 and had been an advocate of televising live rugby league since 1950 when he had seen how American football was televised in the USA. As well as his TV commentaries, he was also the sport’s leading journalist, working for the Sunday Pictorial and the Sunday Mirror. As early as 1952 reservations had been expressed about his commentary style - many felt he was too jocular in his comments and that his personality tended to overshadow the action on the pitch - and these grew stronger from the mid-1960s as the fortunes of the game subsided and Waring’s fame increased.

In 1966 he became a presenter of BBC TV’s It’s A Knockout and was to become one of comedian Mike Yarwood’s most famous impressions. As the BBC’s rugby league commentator he fulfilled all the expectations of the northern stereotype: his sometimes unintelligible accent with broad vowels, his insistence on using humour in almost every situation, even the outdated trilby he was always seen wearing.

Worse, many of Waring’s supporters outside of rugby league praised him in terms which reinforced the stereotype. Geoffrey Mather of the Daily Express claimed that Waring’s ‘lips [were] equipped with tiny clogs’. Ian Wooldridge attacked those who criticised Waring and argued that his image ‘was all about slagheaps, Tetley’s ale, black pudding, Lowry paintings, busted noses’. The fact that many, such as Michael Parkinson, often incorrectly and unfairly thought that Waring had little understanding of the game merely added to the stereotype of the unintelligent northerner.

In fact, a great deal of Waring’s on-screen persona was an act. One only has to look at his journalism, or his war-time management of Dewsbury, to see how far from the truth his TV image was. As a journalist, Waring was extremely talented. Astute, opinionated and well-connected, he helped to fashion the pugnacious style of sports journalism that appeared in the mass circulation dailies in the 1950s and 1960s. His articles and books are full of verve and passion for the game, its history and its culture. Through his career he had helped to raise tens of thousands of pounds for players’ benefits, amateur clubs and many other rugby league causes. Perhaps more than any other journalist, it was Waring who also promoted rugby league’s egalitarian ethos: ‘For years I have been plugging rugby league football as being the most democratic game in the world,’ he told his readers in 1948.

But by the late 1960s, the commentator seemed to be becoming bigger than the game. ‘Eddie Waring is rugby league’, said Cliff Morgan, the former Welsh rugby union fly-half who was BBC head of outside broadcasts. Rugby league’s weaknesses meant that Waring became identified nationally as the embodiment of the sport. His TV appearances on It’s a Knockout and programmes such as the Morecambe and Wise Show meant that he had probably had a higher profile than the game itself - certainly one couldn’t imagine soccer commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme attracting such attention. And when people laughed at him, it seemed to many in the game that they were not laughing with him, but at the north and rugby league itself. It was this that caused many in the game to become antagonistic towards him as a commentator. 

The issue came to a head in 1971, when the Manchester-based firm of John Caine Associates was appointed as the RFL’s marketing consultants with a brief to look at the problems facing the game. When they published their findings, a substantial section of the report dealt with the BBC’s presentation of the game, which, it said, was ‘totally detrimental to the life of the game’. Waring’s role as a commentator was characterised as ‘unfortunate’ and his humorous style criticised because ‘the laughter is patronising and lends support to the view of rugby league held by midland and southern watchers’.

The BBC’s response was one of outraged intransigence: ‘Eddie Waring is not just a commentator. He is The Commentator [sic] and the five million viewers prove it,’ declared the BBC’s Derek Burrell-Davies, who had been the first BBC producer of rugby league in 1951, inadvertently confirming that the BBC did think that Waring was bigger than the game. Waring himself seemed to have little understanding of the criticisms of his commentaries, claiming that ’the BBC would not employ me’ if he wasn’t accurately reflecting the language of northern England.

The controversy only made the BBC more determined to keep him. In 1976 the 1895 Club, which had been formed by supporters based in St Helens to campaign for an improvement in the sport’s image, presented a petition with eleven thousand signatures to the BBC calling for an improvement to its coverage and heavily criticising Waring. The BBC took no notice and Waring carried on commentating until his retirement in 1981."

Wally McArthur: A Tribute

Wally McA.jpg

Wally McArthur was the first Aboriginal Australian rugby league player to play for an English club.

But he should not have been.

That he was the first tells us a lot about the society into which he was born and raised. Although rumours about Oldham's Viv and Billy Farnsworths' Aboriginal background have never been confirmed, the first acknowledged Aboriginal player to come to England should have been Frank Fisher in 1936.

The grandfather of Olympic gold medallist Cathy Freeman, Frank, or 'King Fisher' as he was nicknamed in Queensland, played at standoff for Wide Bay against the touring British Lions. Gus Risman was so impressed by his performance, and by other reports he heard about the player, he told Frank that when he returned to Salford he would recommend that the club offer him a contract.

When the contract duly arrived a few weeks later, Frank approached the Queensland state authorities for permission to move to Salford. But they refused to allow him to go to Britain, saying that there was already one Queensland Aboriginal sports star, the cricketer Eddie Gilbert, and that they didn't want any more.

Why should an accomplished adult man have to ask permission of his government to work in another country? Because until the late 1960s, Aboriginal Australians were what were known as 'wards' of their states 'Protector of Aborigines'. In other words they had no civil rights. This meant that they were not allowed to vote or marry whites and were not even included in the national census until 1967. Their lives were controlled in totalitarian fashion from the cradle to the grave by the white government authorities.

One could almost say that they were treated like children, if it wasn’t for the fact that many of the children of Aboriginal parents were treated by the government in the most horrifying ways imaginable. Since the early 1900s, and in some cases before that, most Australian states had pursued a policy of removing from their mothers the children of inter-racial relationships, disparagingly known as 'half-castes', and placing them in care. Taken at the age of five or six, most never saw their mothers again for decades, if at all. Those boys and girls became known later as the 'children of the stolen generation'.

Wally McArthur, like tens of thousands of others, was one of those children. Born on 1 December 1933 on the banks of the McArthur River across from the tiny township of Borroloola in the Northern Territory of Australia, his mother was an Aboriginal woman and his father was a local white policeman called Langdon. When he was taken from his mother, he was given the name McArthur rather than Langdon because the authorities did not want to acknowledge that his father was white.

In 1998 Wally told John Pilger how he had been kidnapped:

It was a government car, because only the government had cars at that time. The driver put me in the front seat with him and he drove around while I waved at my family. I never seen them since, you know. They were sitting around the camp fire; they didn't understand what was happening.

His younger cousin John Moriarty was simply taken from school by a government official who did not even inform John's parents. Many years later his mother told him what had happened: ‘I went to pick you up [from school] on this day and you were gone'. It was to be fifty-five years before Wally saw another member of his family again.

Wally was taken to a Church of England mission in Alice Springs called the Bungalow, where he was supposed to be educated, although in 1937 there were just two teachers for nearly a hundred children. As the Second World War grew in intensity, fear of a Japanese invasion in northern Australia meant that the area became a heavily militarised zone and the Aboriginal children at the Bungalow were evacuated to more southerly regions. The boys at the mission were moved temporarily to Adelaide before being settled in a mission at Mulgoa, near the Blue Mountains to the west of Sydney.

It was here that Wally became noted not only for his incredible athletic talent but also for his leadership qualities and willingness to stand up against injustice. 'People were frightened to call my cousin Wally nicknames,' recalled John Moriarty in his autobiography Saltwater Fella, 'because they'd get belted. If anyone picked on me at the home, Wally would stand up for me.'

In 1949 the authorities decided to move the boys to Adelaide. Wally protested because he and some of the other boys had passed their second year exams at Penrith High School and the move would prevent them from taking their school certificate exams in New South Wales. His complaint was covered by the Women's Weekly which ran a feature story on him, and questions were asked in the NSW State Parliament. It was all to no avail and the boys were moved from Mulgoa to the St Francis House at Semaphore, a suburb of Adelaide in South Australia.

In Adelaide Wally s sporting career started to develop rapidly. In 1948 while still at Penrith High School he had won twelve of the school's thirteen athletic events and was NSW High School champion in the 100 yards, long jump and 440 yards, in which he recorded a time of 52.2 seconds. At the age of fourteen he ran the world's fastest 440 yards for his age group. After he had moved to Adelaide and left school, he became athletics champion of the Le Fevre Boys Technical High School. In 1951 he became the South Australian Under-19 100 and 220 yards champion.

It was at this point that his athletics career came up directly against the racism that had shaped his life. Despite his success, he was left out of the South Australian athletics team to visit Tasmania for the national championships. Wally protested and was told that he could go, but only if he paid his own fare. Fortunately an unknown well-wisher paid for his ticket and Wally was able to compete. Perhaps unsurprisingly given his prodigious talent, he promptly carried off the national Under-19 100 yards championship. This victory against the odds confirmed a growing feeling in South Australian athletics circles that Wally was a good prospect for the 1952 Olympic Games, which were to be held in Helsinki.

Although it was later claimed that he had been excluded from the Australian Olympic team because of his race, it appears that his times left him just short of having an unarguable case for inclusion in the side that went to Helsinki. Even so, the fact that at that time no Aboriginal athlete had been chosen for an Australian Olympic squad (it wasn't until the 1960s that Aboriginal athletes appeared at the Games) and the way in which he had been treated over the previous two years probably led Wally to conclude that he could go no further in the racist world of amateur athletics. 

So, in 1953, he became a professional sprinter. He won his first ten races, defeating along the way Frank Banner, the current Australian professional sprint champion. But by the spring of that year, Wally had abandoned athletics to concentrate on his other great sporting love, rugby league.

Wally had learned rugby league at Penrith High School and continued to play when the boys were moved to Adelaide. As it remains today, South Australia was one of the heartlands of Australian Rules football but Wally and some of the other boys retained their love of league. Luckily Semaphore at that time had its own rugby league side, one of five clubs in the small South Australian Rugby League (SARL). He was one of three Aboriginal players in the team, a small testimony to the fact that rugby league, in the words of the leading historian of Aboriginal sport Colin Tatz, 'has always been the most generous of the major sports [that Aboriginal men] play’.

Wally quickly became recognised as one of the state's leading league players, despite his youth. Semaphore went through the 1950 and 1951 seasons unbeaten and in 1952 Wally was voted SARL's fairest and best player. In 1953 he decided to concentrate on professional sprinting but returned to the club part-way through the season and was selected to play for South Australia against Western Australia, where he won the Man of the Match award. In his time at Semaphore he was said to have scored over 900 points.

Given such a record, not to mention his prominence as a sprinter, it was no surprise that rugby league scouts began to take an interest. As early as 1950 Wally had been spotted playing league by Paul Quinn, a former Rochdale Hornets player who was living and working as a moulder in Adelaide. It was Quinn who acted as Rochdale's representative in the negotiations over the contract. Wally's disillusionment with racism in athletics meant that he was now far more amenable to signing for the club because it was clear that in rugby league he would be judged on his football ability, not the colour of his skin.

Rochdale were particularly careful about how to proceed with their potential new recruit. International transfers had been banned in 1947 due to fears that the best Australian players would all move to the richer English clubs and Rochdale had been severely criticised in 1950 for trying to get round the ban by persuading league players in Sydney to switch to union for a few matches before moving to England.

Consequently, the press was given the story that Quinn had suggested to Wally that he should finish his engineering apprenticeship in England. It was only when Wally had decided to move to Rochdale for work reasons, so the club claimed, that Quinn had informed Hornets that Wally might be interested in playing for them. As it turned out, the Australian Board of Control (the forerunner of the ARL) didn't pay any attention and the signing went through without incident.

On Thursday 19 November 1953 Wally flew out to Britain from Sydney airport. The news of his imminent arrival was revealed by the Daily Express's Jack Bentley the following day. 'A new Black Flash is on his way to England' declared the headline. Underneath Bentley outlined Wally's athletic achievements and speculated that he could make his debut for Hornets in their match against Leigh the following week.

Leigh's new signing from athletics, MacDonald Bailey, the 1952 Olympic 100 metres bronze medallist and joint 100 metres world record holder, was due to make his first appearance in that match and Bentley suggested that spectators 'may see two black flashes in action - one on each side!' In the end Bailey made just one appearance in a friendly match for Leigh, but Wally was to prove to be made of sterner stuff.

When he arrived in Rochdale a few days later, his signing was described as 'almost unbelievable' by the local press. His athletic records, were described with reflected pride by the club and his footballing prowess was recounted by the former Leeds player Jack Lendill who had emigrated to Adelaide. Describing Wally as 'probably the fastest winger in football boots', he went on to predict that:

He will be a sensation in English football. In a league final in Adelaide, the club I played with (Railways) were defeated by Wally's team (Semaphore) thanks to Wally. It was simply impossible to catch him and he turned the heat on that day with a bag of tries. I played centre to Wally for the state team - he certainly doesn't need much room - and as regards tackling, on those granite grounds in Australia he can bowl a man over with terrific strength and power.

His four-year contract stipulated that he was to receive £200 per year, plus match fees and a return ticket to Australia. The club also arranged for him to continue his engineering apprenticeship at the local Adas Works of Thomas Holt Ltd.

In general the press paid little attention to the colour of Wally’s skin, although it is notable that it was only those players with dark skin whose colour was mentioned; no-one ever called Brian Bevan the white flash'. And after a few weeks even the references to the 'Black Flash' disappeared as he became a regular member of the team. Wally was carefully described as 'part-aboriginal' by the few journalists who mentioned it.

The only discussion of his origins appeared in a feature article in the Rochdale Observer a few days after his arrival. 'From boyhood, Wally McArthur has been in the midst of one of the greatest Christian and social experiments ever attempted in Australia... Wally appears to be one of many proofs of the success of the experiment,' it claimed, although it pointedly didn't say that this 'experiment' involved him being kidnapped and taken from his mother, never to see her again.

He made his debut for Hornets on 12 December against Salford, playing on the right wing, scoring three goals and creating a very favourable impression among the team's supporters. In thick January fog he scored an outstanding hat-trick against Whitehaven. He played another seventeen times that season, mainly on the wing but also starting one game at stand-off in an attempt to get the ball more frequently.

In August 1954 he started the new season with a bang by equalling the club record for most points in a match against Blackpool. He appeared to be on a different planet to the rest of the players, scoring three tries and kicking eight goals for a total of 25 points. For the first three months of the season, home crowds averaged more than 10,000 per match for the only time in the club's history, no doubt spurred by the hope that Wally's performances brought to the team.

Like many others, supporters' club official Bob Fletcher was stunned by his talent: 'who will ever forget the sight of Wally in full cry? He was probably the fastest runner with the ball ever seen in rugby league football, although he once told me that in his native Australia, where the sun warmed his muscles faster than in Britain, he ran faster.'

The early months of the 1954-55 season proved to be the high point of his Hornets career as he struggled for consistency in a poorly performing side. 'He was given a raw deal on the field of play,' recalled Hornets' supporter John Lang. 'He came to the Hornets direct from junior football in Australia and was immediately put into the first team without a chance of getting used to the conditions over here and adapting himself to the type of play. The crowd expected too much of him. He was given the ball with no room to work in. That again was the fault of those in charge of the team.'

Lang’s opinions were obviously shared by a number of other Hornets' supporters. Club officials complained to the local newspaper that some supporters had been telling Wally that he 'would be better off somewhere else' and should move to a club that could make more use of his talent.

It wasn't just on the field where Wally was experiencing problems. A few months after he arrived in Rochdale his fiancee Marlene had joined him and they had been married. Wally had been led to believe that the club would find him and his new wife suitable accommodation but the club backed out of the agreement, claiming that as he had been single when he arrived they had provided appropriate housing for him. This was disingenuous to say the least as all the newspaper reports at the time of his signing mentioned that Marlene would join him as soon as he was settled in the town.

Such sharp practices by club officials were commonplace, especially when it came to offering accommodation and employment to overseas players. Promises of jobs and homes sent by telegram to unsuspecting players often turned out to be quite different when players arrived at their new club.

Wally's protests about his treatment led to unnamed club officials complaining that he had 'attitude problems', usually a codeword for someone who refuses to accept their place in the class or racial hierarchy. Unsurprisingly, he became increasingly irritated at the behaviour of the club and in January he decided that enough was enough and asked for a transfer.

On 17 January 1955 the Hornets board of directors agreed to his transfer request and put Wally up for sale for £2,500. 'The idol of thousands of rugby fans in the town, 21-year-old Wally McArthur' reported the Rochdale Observer, was set to leave the town and possibly even Britain because he was 'fed up to the teeth' with the way the club had treated him. He even talked about going back to professional sprinting in Australia.

But a fortnight later it looked as if he was about to get the opportunity to play for a leading club when it was announced that he was on the verge of signing for Warrington, the current league leaders and the previous seasons Championship and Challenge Cup winners. The prospect of seeing a three-quarter line of Brian Bevan, Stan McCormick, Jim Challinor and Wally McArthur was enough to make even non-Warrington fans salivate. However, negotiations were held up because Wally insisted that Warrington guarantee to pay his passage home when he eventually decided to end his career. No doubt his experience with the Rochdale board made him anxious to ensure that nothing was left to chance.

There then occurred an event which, in hindsight, proved to be crucial to Wally's future but at the time appeared to make sound financial sense. Warrington's former manager, Chris Brockbank, was now the manager of Blackpool Borough and heard of the impasse in the negotiations with Warrington. Seeing an opportunity to capture a star for his new club, he approached Wally with an offer from the Seasiders. Blackpool had only joined the league at the beginning of the season and were looking for a headline name to boost their crowds.

Brockbank agreed to Wally's terms and he signed for the club on 1 February, just a few hours before the deadline to be eligible to play for them in the Challenge Cup. Although Blackpool's contract was undoubtedly attractive, there was just one problem. While Warrington sat imperiously at the top of the league table, Blackpool were rock bottom last, having won just two of their previous twenty-four matches. If Wally had found it difficult to get the service he needed from the Rochdale players, he would find it almost impossible at Blackpool.

Joining the side turned out to be a mistake not just from a playing point of view. Despite Brockbank's assurances, Blackpool were struggling to attract spectators and simply couldn't afford to pay Wally what they had promised. Within twelve months he had again requested a move and the club transfer-listed him at £1,500. Realising that Blackpool's poor form meant that few clubs would be interested in signing him at that price, Wally appealed to the rugby league authorities to reduce the fee.

In December the fee was reduced to £1,000 but there were still no takers. Despite being dogged by niggling injuries and disgruntled at the poor form of the club, which remained locked at the foot of the table, Wally continued to play, scoring twenty tries and thirty-seven goals over his two and a half seasons at the resort. Eventually money matters came to a head again and in May of 1957 Wally complained again to the RFL that Blackpool owed him £750 in unpaid wages for that season.

It is not clear whether Wally ever received his wages because during the summer Salford approached him and he signed for them in June. Although a better side than Blackpool, the Red Devils were at that time a decidedly mid-table team. But at last it seemed that Wally had finally got the chance to prove himself. He made his Salford debut at Swinton on 10 August 1957 in the annual Red Rose Cup clash, scoring his sides only points with three goals in a 25-6 defeat.

In his first season he scored twenty-two tries and seventy-three goals, despite the club finishing fifteenth in the thirty-team league. He also played a key role in one of Salford's most memorable victories of the decade, scoring a blistering try and kicking two mighty goals in a heroic 12-7 victory over the all-conquering St Helens side in December 1957.

The rugby league historian and lifelong Salford fan Graham Morris remembers as a young boy the excitement that was created at the Willows by Wally s arrival:

Tall and slim, Wally had the look, grace and speed of an outstanding athlete (which he certainly was) which, combined with a classic side-step, made him a great crowd pleaser at the Willows. Although the Reds were a mid-table team during this period, McArthur still managed 29 tries in 46 matches, a feat aided by the fact that he played outside either John Cheshire or Bob Preece, both robust centres prepared to take punishment and protect the gifted flyer. Wally was undoubtedly, until the arrival of David Watkins in 1967, the most exciting player seen in a Salford jersey in the post-Second World War years.

In hindsight, his season at Salford was to be the best Wally ever had. But in September 1958 it looked as though he was about to get his chance with a top side when Workington Town, runners-up in both the Championship and Challenge Cup finals the previous season bought him from Salford for £3,000.

Sadly fate let Wally down again. The near misses of 1958 turned out to be the last gasps of the great Town side of the 1950s and in Wally's first season the club crashed to twentieth in the league, just two places above Salford. Even so, he still managed to score fifteen tries and eighteen goals in his twenty-six appearances for the club. Yet again, however, Wally found himself at the wrong end of the sharp practices of club officials. He protested that the club failed to pay him £800 it had promised when he signed on and that it had also reneged on a deal to provide him with a return flight to Australia.

Frustrated, Wally decided that it was time to go back home to Australia and in August 1959 he applied to the RFL for a clearance certificate to allow him to play professionally in Australia. Workington objected, claiming that they had kept their side of the bargain but that he had failed to fulfil his obligations to the club, although what these were was not specified. By October Wally was back in Adelaide; he never received a clearance certificate and he never played professional top-class rugby league again.

But if Wally's career was over, he had helped blaze a trail for dozens of other Aboriginal Australians to come and show their skills in Britain. Indeed, the next player to come was Wally's cousin, Jim Foster, who had grown up with him in the mission homes. Encouraged by Wally, he came over in 1955 and played one senior game for Wigan.

More were to follow in the 1960s. In 1967 future international George Ambrum spent a season at Bradford, where he scored fifteen tries before moving back to North Sydney where he won two Australian caps in 1972. In 1968 Artie Beetson, one of the game's greatest ever players and a future captain and coach of Australia, played twelve games for Hull KR before breaking a leg in the last-ever Christmas Day derby game with Hull, leaving behind a legacy which is still remembered by Rovers' fans today.

The lifting of the international transfer ban in 1983 allowed British fans to see some of the greatest Aboriginal footballers of all time. The impact of John Ferguson's single year at Wigan still reverberates and the winger's two tries in the 1985 Challenge Cup final are among the finest to be scored there, while Steve Ella's season at Central Park meant that he probably left Britain with a reputation even higher than the one he had acquired at home.

It is also interesting to note how many of these players captured the imagination of supporters and became cult heroes. What Halifax supporter doesn't remember the full-back of their 1986 championship-winning side 'Smokin' Joe Kilroy, possibly the coolest full-back since Puig Aubert? Ronnie 'Rambo' Gibbs made an even bigger impact at Castleford and became the embodiment of physical intimidation untrammelled by personal fear. And at Leeds, Cliff Lyons, a magician in football boots, demonstrated that the delicate arts of the stand-off had not been crushed under the weight of game-plans and structured sets of six tackles.

But perhaps the man with the biggest impact was Mal Meninga, whose time at St Helens was treated by the club’s supporters as a secular second coming. By all accounts the players reciprocated the warmth shown to them by supporters. Certainly Wally and Jim Foster, together with their boyhood friends Charlie Perkins and John Moriarty, who had come to England as soccer players in the late 1950s, found their time in the north of England to be largely free of the overt racism they had experienced at home.

And it is also worth noting that none of these players was treated according to racial stereotypes. They were not simply seen as being fast runners or strong athletes as black players have tended to be in all sports. Tony Currie, whose grandfather had been one of the star Aboriginal league players in the 1930s, playing in a rare victory for NSW Country over Sydney in 1937, and who himself had starred for Leeds in the 1980s, blazed another new trail by coaching the London Broncos from 1996 to 1998, guiding them to their highest ever league position. All of these players, with the possible exception of Smokin' Joe, the ultimate 'laid-back back', were viewed as leaders and examples for other players, whatever the colour of their skin, to follow and emulate.

These masters of the game trod the path that was first walked by Wally McArthur. Today Wally is an old and sick man, suffering from chronic emphysema. Although he never quite achieved the honours his football talents deserved, his memory was imprinted on the minds of British rugby league supporters. When I started writing this article, I wondered whether there would be enough material to make it interesting. I quickly discovered that, despite barely playing seven seasons in Britain, the name Wally McArthur survives strongly in the folk memory of supporters who had seen him play. I rarely had to explain who he was; most of those I spoke to knew the name instantly.

The biggest public acknowledgement of Wally's talent was to be awarded a place in the Aboriginal and Islander Sports Hall of Fame in 1994. But perhaps an even greater tribute is the place he earned in the hearts and minds of those rugby league supporters lucky enough to see him play, 14,000 miles from home in the cold and grey winters of northern England in the 1950s.

— Originally published in The Glory of Their Times: Crossing the Colour Line in Rugby League (Skipton: Vertical Editions, 2004)

Peter O'Toole and rugby league


Peter O’Toole, who died yesterday aged 81, grew up in Hunslet playing rugby league. If his 1996 autobiography Loitering With Intent is to be believed, he gained local fame as as a speedy twelve years-old back playing for a side known as Raggy-Arsed Rovers against opponents such as Chip Shop Wanderers and the Silly Army. As he explained, their rugby balls were of a rather inconsistent quality; patchworks of leather pieces were inflated by a bicycle tyre inner-tube, newspapers or just rags. At the worst, an unlucky player would ‘volunteer’ a shoe. To say the least, as O’Toole recounted them, his childhood games were rugby league at its rawest:

Two or three matches between teams from various clusters of streets were played simultaneously. One sometimes found oneself straying into others’ matches. Goalposts were a premium. If the pair had already been snatched, often a player’s younger brother, ‘our kid’, would find himself elected as a post. Kit was irrelevant. A familiar figure with the ball, you supported him; an unfamiliar, you downed the bastard.

- adapted from Rugby League in Twentieth Century Britain (2006), p. 41.

Walter Camp on rugby league

In 1906 Stanford and California universities switched from American football to rugby union. Both the 1905-06 All Blacks and the 1908-09 Wallabies played matches in California on their way back home from their European tours, and an American Universities team had toured down under in 1909. Walter Camp, known as the 'Father of American football' was not impressed, as he made clear in a 1911 article:

A first class Australian league team or a team from the Northern Union such as journeyed to Australia last summer from England would outpass the Californians in many ways. Of course, in these Northern Union teams lost time is paid for, which although it does not rate the players as regular professionals, detracts from their amateur standing. 
The Northern Union game, especially in Lancashire and Yorkshire, would be a revelation to many of those who have merely seen the more mediocre play. The men who form these teams are of excellent physique, strong and powerful, putting up a hard, vigorous game with tackling that is earnest enough to be severe. The business is business far beyond the notion of those who have never seen it and is rendered even more strenuous by the fact that all the games are in competitive league series. (‘Rugby Football In America’, Outing Magazine, 57 [March 1911], p. 710.)

The experiment with union didn't last. By 1919 Cal, Stanford and the other schools that followed them had gone back to the gridiron game. For more on Walter Camp, the origins of American football and its relationship to rugby, take a look at my article on the origins of the gridiron game, Unexceptional Exceptionalism.






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.

'Where’s George?': League’s Forgotten Feature Film

Mick Martin’s play Broken Time is the first dramatic treatment of the historic events that led to the 1895 rugby split. 

It’s the latest in a small but highly important series of dramas that have rugby league at their heart, most notably David Storey’s The Changing Room, Alan Plater’s Trinity Tales and John Godber’s Up and Under. The most famous of course is the 1963 film adaptation of This Sporting Life

But long before any of these landmarks in film and theatre, rugby league hit the silver screen with Where’s George?, a 1935 comedy starring the comedian Sydney Howard. 

Unlike those that came after it, this production did not aspire to be a work of art. It was a typical 1930s British comedy, firmly in the tradition of George Formby, Will Hay and Gracie Fields. And, as always in British comedy, class was central to the plot.

Talking sport

Where's George?.jpg

Where’s George? was the latest in a series of British films that sought to appeal to the northern industrial working classes. The introduction of talkies in the late 1920s had highlighted a particular problem for the British film industry. 

All of its stars spoke with upper-class English accents (‘received pronunciation’) and there were almost no stars with whom the millions of people in northern cities could identify.

Comedy and sport were felt to be the best ways to appeal to this huge market. Numerous northern comedians found themselves making films that were basically vehicles for their stage personas. Films with sporting themes were particularly popular with film producers.

The first of these genre films seems to have been the 1931 Up For The Cup, in which a soccer supporter from Yorkshire comes to London for the FA Cup Final but loses his ticket. The plot, insofar as there is one, revolves around his inevitably comic antics as he tries to find it. This was followed, perhaps inevitably, by Up For The Derby.

The most popular of the sports comedies in the 1930s were those featuring George Formby. Born in Wigan, Formby was easily the most bankable British star of the 1930s. In 1935 he was a rider at the Isle of Man TT races in No Limit. Two years later he was a boxer in Keep Fit and in 1939’s Come on George he was a jockey. 

So it was perhaps not surprising in 1935 when the British & Dominions Film Corporation decided that they wanted to make a comedy centred on rugby league.

Losing the plot

Where’s George? was modeled on 1931’s Up for the Cup. It was directed by the same person, Jack Raymond, and featured the same star, Yeadon-born Sydney Howard as Alf Scodger. 

Howard had started as a music hall comedian in the early 1900s and came to fame during World War One, but by the 1930s had become a regular in low budget comedies, including Up For The Derby.

Most interestingly, the script was written by Walter Greenwood, the Salford novelist who had achieved overnight success with his 1932 novel (and later film) Love on the Dole. Where’s George? had none of the social commentary of Greenwood’s other work.

In fact, it is difficult to find anything of Greenwood in the script. The plot revolves around Scodger’s attempts to outwit his overbearing wife. As a consequence, he accidentally discovers a talent for rugby and turns out for his local Yorcaster club against Lancastrian rivals Oldcastle.

The George of the title is a foal that Alf buys and then loses. However, while playing in the match, Alf spots George in a neighbouring field and as he runs towards the foal, catches the ball and scores the match-winning try.

The benevolent local dignitary - obligatory in almost all comedies featuring working-class characters - attends the match and sees Alf triumph, which leads to Alf and his wife being reconciled.

The Clark connection

Despite clearly having little knowledge of the game, the film’s producers did make links with rugby league. Both Walter Greenwood and Sydney Howard were fans of the game.

In early 1935, the producers had asked the RFL if two sides could go down to London to film action sequences. The RFL, mindful of the deep economic depression that gripped the north, especially the mining regions, asked if parts of the film could be shot in the north.

So in the summer of 1935 the film crew went to Featherstone to record crowd scenes. Two hundred unemployed miners were hired as extras for crowd scenes at the rate of ten shillings a day, which was probably more than most of them received in unemployment assistance. Rovers and Huddersfield players were used for the action scenes.

There was one more connection too. Carver Doone, a six feet, eight inches tall Devonshire wrestler, played the unfeasibly large full-back around whom Alf has to dodge to score the winning try (oversized rugby league players were a cartoon staple of the day). But Doone himself was a highly successful wrestler who fought Douglas Clark, the English All-In Wrestling champion, no less than six times.

Duggie Clark was of course better know as the Huddersfield and Great Britain prop forward, hero of the 1914 Rorkes’ Drift test match and a future member of the Rugby League Hall of Fame.

Wrong time, wrong George...

There is an unconsciously surreal quality to the plot, which appears to have crammed as many cliches into the film as possible. It is a veritable compendium of cliche - harridan wife, cutesy animals, unassuming northern male, upper-class patron, dim-witted northerners, all of which appear bang on cue.

The film’s publicity material reveled in its stereotypes. Howard, it claimed, was a ‘lovable, homely Yorkshireman with a large appetite for roast beef and Yorkshire pudding’.

It’s difficult to know what audiences made of it. George Formby’s films were wildly popular and made millions, but Where’s George? seems to have been a flop at the box office.

It did suffer from one unforeseen problem, however. It went on general release in late 1935 but just a few weeks later, in January 1936, the reigning monarch, George V, died. 

Posters asking ‘Where’s George?’ were not felt to be appropriate in the circumstances and the title of the film was quickly changed to The Hope of His Side.

Thus renamed, the film sank without trace.

 [This post originally appeared in Forty-20 magazine in 2012]

This Sporting Life


-- This a short introductory talk I gave before a special screening of This Sporting Life at the wonderful Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds on 4 September. The screening was sponsored by Rugby League Cares.

"I’ll start with the best line in the film. Frank Machin, played by Richard Harris, meets the wife of the club chairman after his first match. 

‘You’re the new star’ she says. He looks at her, ‘We don’t have stars in our game. That’s soccer.’ ‘So what do you have?’ she asks. ‘Just people like me’ he replies. 

Which pretty much sums up what rugby league is all about.

It’s 49 years since the film of This Sporting Life was released. The first words you hear are spoken by Great Britain loose-forward Ken Traill. You’ll see Belle Vue and the great Trinity players of the 1960s. You’ll see the Trinity beating Wigan 5-4 in the 1962 cup quarter-final. Thrum Hall is used for the scenes outside of the ground. And there’s another ground shown too - tell me at the end if you spot it. 

So there’s some great footage of rugby league history.

But the film is far from perfect. It hasn’t aged as well other kitchen sink dramas like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning or The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Listen to the accents - God knows where Richard Harris thinks he is from but it’s certainly not Wakefield. Rachel Roberts doesn’t even attempt to change her Welsh accent. And generally Harris spends too much time trying to out-do Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire.

It also presents a very one-dimensional view of rugby league. The game is portrayed as nothing but violent and aggressive - there’s no sign of the artistry, the skills, the athleticism, the or creativity that also make the game. But this is partly because Storey was still angry about the way he was treated as a young ‘A’ team player at Leeds. 

His dad was a miner and he’d been brought up with the game, but he won a scholarship to Queen Elizabeth Grammar in Wakefield and then went to art school in London. You can imagine how he had his leg pulled in the dressing room. ‘I was permanently belligerent’ he later said. But his later play The Changing Room and his later novels presented the game in much more nuanced and rounded way.

But in reality this isn’t a film about rugby league. Lindsay Anderson, the director, uses the game to explain the doomed love story that is at the heart of the film and the book -  which is essentially about a relationship between an older woman and a younger man. 

Frank Machin isn’t a rebel like Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning or Tom Courtenay in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. Instead, he’s a man trapped in a world and a relationship that he cannot control - and he lashes out with violence. 

At its heart, This Sporting Life is a film about those two great English obsessions: Sex and  Class. Ultimately it is a story about class and what it means to be a man and how to behave as a man - and because of its unique history, no sport illustrates these artistic questions better than rugby league... as we are about to see."

All Aboard for Wembley!

It's the time of year when the Challenge Cup gets serious. And to celebrate, we're taking a look at the forgotten London Transport posters that advertised travel to the Cup Final from 1929, when it was moved to Wembley, to 1939.

From the early part of the 20th Century, London Transport and its forerunners encouraged creativity among its designers. During the inter-war years its design department and the artists it commissioned produced some of the most interesting commercially-based art in the UK. You can find the online exhibition of London Transport art here.

The posters for events at Wembley were one small part of this output, which also included many other sports such as soccer, rugby union, cricket and ice hockey. The first rugby league poster of 1929 (below) was designed by Dorothy Paton, a member of the Society of Women Artists who had exhibited three paintings at the Royal Academy. She clearly could not differentiate between rugby league and rugby union!


Charles Burton's 1930 design was his only league poster, but its use of lines, in this case from the two spotlights, were a common motif in his work.


Perhaps the most interesting posters were produced by Heather 'Herry' Perry, who produced the 1931 (above), 1933 and 1935 posters (there was no 1932 poster as that year's final was staged at Wigan). The first is a startling depiction of players as semi-naked Greek athletes, a bold move for a woman artist in the 1930s.


Perry's 1933 poster is much more conventional, yet it still conveys life and movement. Unlike some of the artists she also appears to be aware that league was not union (a confusion seen in the 1929 poster) and shows a league scrum.


The 1934 poster was designed by Scottish artist Anna Katrina Zinkeisen, who also painted murals on the Queen Mary. It is very similar in concept to the 1936 poster but uses one of her favourite devices of two players to emphasise action.


Herry Perry's final rugby league poster of 1935 was again very different from her previous two. It is less abstract and may well have been based on a photograph of a match - the players loitering in the background seem too natural to be invented.


The 1936 poster is rather derivative of that of 1934 and was the work of Eric Lombers, whose style was generally more abstract than most of the London Transport designers - his 1939 FA Cup Final poster is a classic. He also desigend the poster for the infamous 1934 England versus Germany match at White Hart Lane.


Gill Lancaster only designed four posters for London Transport but the above poster for the 1937 Cup Final is easily the best, highlighting both the stadium and the activity and movement of the players.


The lacklustre 1938 and 1939 posters (shown below) were both the work of Yorkshire artists - Brian Robb from Scarborough and Sheffield-born Charles Mozley respectively - and are by far the weakest of the series.


When the Cup Final resumed at Wembley after the end of World War Two, London Transport no longer felt the need to advertise, possibly because the match had come to be seen as almost an exclusively northern day-out in the capital.

But one of the less well-known  legacies of the 1929 decision to move the Cup Final to London was these wonderful posters - all of which are available to buy from the London Transport Museum Shop.

-- This was originally published at rugby on 6 May 2011.

Phil Melling, 1947-2011


Phil Melling, educator, writer and rugby league evangelist, died on 11 November 2011. He was a man of great principle, limitless energy and extraordinary creative talent. Rugby league is far poorer for his passing.

Over 150 people attended his funeral at the DW Stadium. They came not only from his twin homes of Wigan and Swansea, but also from London, Ireland and numerous other places where he had left an indelible impression.

Phil was born into a mining family in Wigan in 1947, appropriately on 14 July, Bastille Day. He was bright enough to pass the eleven plus and went to Wigan Grammar School where, to his amazement, the boys were encouraged to play all types of sport except one: rugby league. 

Like thousands of others in the town, Phil had been taken to Central Park while he was still in infant school. To him this ban on rugby league seemed nonsensical, but as he grew up, he came to understand that it was part of a wider pattern of discrimination that the sport, and working-class people in general faced.

From Wigan Grammar he went to Manchester University and from on to Indiana University to work on his PhD. He arrived at Swansea University in 1978, where he became a professor and the founding head of the American Studies department, the first in Wales. 

When he arrived in Swansea almost immediately began work on establishing rugby league. His experience at Wigan Grammar prepared him for what to expect, and he was not disappointed. The rugby union establishment tried to stop the league sides using pitches, warned union players against playing league and some members of the university staff had ‘a quiet words’ with him about what promoting league could do to his career prospects.

But he was never going to be deterred and his work paid off. He was the founding chairman of the Welsh Amateur Rugby League and coached the Swansea University team to successive UAU rugby league finals. He became manager of the Welsh Students national side in 1988 and recruited Clive Griffiths to coach them. 

During his five years in charge the side won the European Student Championship three times and finished fifth in the 1989 Student World Cup, despite only having two universities playing the game. In 1990 he managed the Great Britain student team. His proudest moment came in 1992. The student world cup was held in Australia and Wales made it to the semi-final, where they lost to the eventual champions Australia.

Phil’s contribution to rugby league extended far beyond coaching and managing. For him rugby league was part of an international culture of the dispossessed and disenfranchised. His brilliant essay, Surfing the Hurricane, written as the conclusion to his 1994 biography of Dai Davies, Man of Amman, weaves rugby league into the works of authors like Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston and Chinua Achebe.

He wrote about the game from a unique perspective. His deep love for and knowledge of American literature allowed him to articulate the meaning of rugby league in a way that no other writer could. This was a man whose passion and intellect meant that he could talk about his beloved Billy Boston in the same terms as he would discuss the novels of William Faulkner or Ernest Hemingway.

He was especially proud of rugby league’s historic ability to integrate black players. As a young boy he had been captivated by seeing Billy Boston. In 2003 we collaborated as editors of The Glory of Their Times, a book that celebrated the history of the game’s outstanding black stars. He also wrote a seminal article in Our Game in 2000 about rugby league players who fought in the Spanish Civil War.

His talents and interests knew no bounds. He wrote fiction, two performed plays, Hotel Vietnam and The Day of the African, and four academic studies of American politics and culture. 

Phil commitment to the poor and oppressed extended far beyond the written word. A regular visitor to Guatemala, in 2001 he set up an educational charity, Study Guatemala, that built a school in Guatemala City that provided free education for local children.

He was working on a book about Hemingway and imperialism when he died - I once suggested to him that when he finished that he should wrote the definitive biography of Billy Boston. 'Billy's too important for me to write his biography,' he replied, putting Hemingway firmly in his place. But despite his subordinate position to Billy, Hemingway remained Phil's favourite author and he spent considerable time in Cuba, working in the archive at Hemingway’s last home.

Hemingway himself once remarked that 'as you get older it is harder to have heroes, but it is sort of necessary'. Phil was one of rugby league's necessary heroes.

Why six tackles in league?

Why does rugby league have a six-tackle rule? The short answer is that the rule was introduced in 1972 and has never seriously been questioned since.

But the roots of the rule go back to the very origins of rugby - and one fundamental question of the game: what happens when the ball carrier is tackled?

Unlike soccer, where the handball rule makes it impossible to use spoiling tactics by continually holding onto the ball, it is a problem affects all handling codes of football.

Rugby union’s solution, that a ruck, a maul or a scrum be formed so that forwards can push for the ball, came to be seen by founders of rugby league as unsatisfactory because it reduced the opportunities for open rugby.

They weren’t the only ones to think this way. Across the Atlantic, American and Canadian football abandoned union rules in the 1880s. They introduced their own type of play-the-ball, allowing the ball to be heeled, and eventually passed, back to the quarterback after a tackle.

In 1906 the Northern Union introduced the play-the-ball to overcome the problem of union rules, although there is no evidence that they were influenced by the North Americans. At the time, the play-the-ball was seen as a return to the original rugby union rule, where the tackled player put the ball on the ground for a scrum to be formed.

In fact it was a half-way house between the union scrum and the gridiron scrimmage. The Northern Union wanted to make the contest for the ball secondary to the running, handling and tackling features of rugby.

The ‘mini-scrum’

The play-the-ball was seen as a kind of two-man scrum, in which a tackled player had to get to his feet, put the ball on the ground and then try to heel it back to a team-mate, known as the acting half-back or dummy half.

It was seen by everyone in the game as a qualitative improvement over union’s method of restarting play, and the speed it allowed the ball to be passed to the backs was one of the reasons why French journalists in the 1930s nicknamed league ‘lightning rugby’.

But it was not without problems. Firstly, like the real scrum, it offered lots of scope for cheating and rule-bending. The team in possession would do anything to keep the ball, and the defending team would do anything to get it back. Penalties were common.

But the most obvious problem was that it gave the team in possession the option to completely monopolise possession, simply by the dummy half not passing or kicking.

One of the most infamous examples of the ‘creeping barrage,’ as it became known was at the 1951 Championship semi-final. A twelve-man Workington Town were defending an 8-5 lead against Wigan when Town’s captain-coach Gus Risman ordered his players not to pass or kick the ball for the last fifteen minutes of the match:

‘They would be tackled, play the ball to the acting half-back, who would move forward two yards and then go down in a tackle. He would then play the ball to the acting-half back, who would move forward two yards and then go down in a tackle. And so it went on ad infinitum.’

Bill’s Kill?

Clearly something had to be done and the RFL spent much of the 1950s and 1960s trying to find a solution.

One option was vigorously pursued by Bill Fallowfield. Within months of being appointed RFL secretary in 1946 he proposed a rugby union-style method of releasing the ball in the tackle.

Although opposed by most clubs and the rest of the league-playing world, Fallowfield tried a number of times to introduce a union-style rule to the game. Bizarrely, he was supported by the Duke of Edinburgh, who had presented the trophy at the 1955 Challenge Cup final and remarked that he didn’t like the play-the-ball. 

Experimental matches using the rule were played in 1958 and 1961 (a match played in by Ray French who described it as ‘a disaster’), culminating in possibly the most unattractive tournament in the history of rugby league, 1964’s ‘Bottom 14 Play-Offs’.

The farcical nature of the Bottom 14 cup finally killed off any hope that Fallowfield had of bringing in the rugby union rule. But it didn’t mean an end to the problems of the play the ball.

Saints go marching on and on and on...

In the end, the solution was not Twickenham but Transatlantic. Having given up on the union rule, Fallowfield proposed to the 1966 RL International Board meeting that it should adopt American football’s four downs followed by a turnover. The New Zealand delegates amended this to have a scrum formed on the fourth tackle, and, out of the blue, the game had a new rule.

Traditionally, Australian and New Zealand delegates opposed changing the play-the-ball rule. But Australia now had its own problem. St George had won the Sydney premiership ten consecutive times and were about to make it eleven later that year.

Although there is no evidence for St George fans’ belief that the rule was deliberately changed to stop them winning, the Dragons’ total domination meant that the Australian representatives were more receptive to ideas to make the game more competitive.

Back in England, the rule was trialled in the BBC2 Floodlit Trophy in October 1966. After a handful of matches it became obvious that it encouraged attacking play and speeded up the game considerably. From November 1966 four tackles became the rule for all matches.

It was a success throughout the league world. Australia’s Bill Buckley said the new rule had ‘revitalised’ the game. Although he didn’t know it at the time, the new rule also coincided with the end of St George’s amazing premiership run when Canterbury finally ended the Dragons’ streak with a 12-11 win in the 1967 preliminary final.

In 1972 four tackles were extended to six in the belief, which proved to be correct, that it would allow more structured attacking play to develop. In 1983 a handover of the ball to the opposing side, rather than a scrum, was introduced when the attacking side was tackled in possession on the sixth tackle.

The final break with the past came in the early 1990s when striking for the ball at the play-the-ball was outlawed, removing the last vestiges of the old ‘mini-scrum’ and making it simply a device for restarting play.

‘No Contest for Possession?’

Does this mean that there is no longer a ‘contest for possession’ in league, as rugby union critics claim?

Of course not. The controversy over stripping the ball in the tackle, the importance of ‘ball security,’ and coaches’ obsession with completing sets of six tackles shows that the struggle for the ball is as important to league as it is to union, but in a different way.

What’s more, there is far less of a contest for the ball in union than its supporters would like to believe. A 2005 report by union’s International Rugby Board admitted that 'the contest for possession [in rugby union] is largely predictable if not almost wholly guaranteed', finding that for every fourteen completed tackles, the ball was retained by the attacking side.

In league terms would be considered a ninety-two per cent completion rate. In contrast, a league side which retains the ball for only eighty per cent of its tackles would be considered to be doing well. In short, it is far easier to monopolise possession in union than it is league

Ironically, the IRB report also found that in the 1980s union teams turned the ball over to their opponents on average once every six tackles - just as in league. But in the 2000s, the ball was turned over only once in twenty-three tackles.

Rugby Evolution... Again

So the evidence is that rugby union’s version of the ‘contest for the ball’ results in less variation in the game and allows one side to dominate possession.

But this should come as no surprise - because this is precisely why rugby league introduced the play-the-ball and limited tackles in the first place.

This is because there is an ‘iron law’ of evolution for all the handling codes of football: the team in possession of the ball will do everything to keep hold of it. Players will cheat, coaches will scheme and rule-makers will fight a losing battle.

Rugby league’s genius is that it has always been sensitive to the needs of the game to adapt its rules to emphasise its spirit - running fast, passing accurately, tackling hard and scoring tries.

And, almost forty years since it was introduced, the six tackle rule has been crucial not only to preserving the essence of rugby league but also to its expansion around the world.

For anyone who wants to pick up an oval ball and run with it, the six tackle rule lets them do it better than any other football code.

1895: the aftermath

Most people know what happened at the George Hotel in Huddersfield on 29 August 1895. Twenty-one of Britain’s leading rugby clubs met to resign from the RFU and form the Northern Rugby Football Union, legalising ‘broken time’ payments to players and marking the start of what we know today as rugby league.

But what is not so well-known is how popular the split was among players and fans or how deeply the split affected rugby across the north of England. The split opened up a period of turmoil that caused passionate debate and enmities that would last a century and more.

No-one can doubt that the formation of the Northern Union had overwhelming support from players and supporters alike. Bradford’s players threatened to strike if the club did not support the new NU and supporters raised petitions in the pubs of Bradford calling for the club to back the split.

The club’s international three-quarter Tommy Dobson said that ‘all Yorkshire owes a debt of gratitude to the senior clubs for speaking out so plainly in favour of what should be the leading element in sport - truth’. Just six members resigned in protest.

At Leeds a special general meeting was held which voted decisively to support the splitters, resulting in two resignations from the club. Newspapers reported that the players in Huddersfield ‘naturally champion the Northern Union and a very large section of spectators of matches take the same side’. At Broughton Rangers, the motion to join the NU was moved by the club captain and carried unanimously. Hunslet, St Helens, Manningham, Hull and Leigh were similarly united.

Although they had attended the meeting at the George Hotel, Dewsbury did not join the NU and stayed loyal to the RFU. It was not a popular decision. A local journalist reported that ‘there wasn’t a single supporter who wouldn’t say “Let us have the Northern Union and the sooner the better”.’

The popularity of the NU was demonstrated at a special meeting in September of the Hull and District RFU (the forerunner of today’s Hull & District RL) which voted 33-24 to resign from the RFU and join the NU, even though the NU had no mechanism for district bodies or junior clubs to affiliate.

After the Aftermath

The summer of 1896 saw Lancashire’s two remaining big clubs join the NU. Both Salford and Swinton had balked at splitting from the RFU due to personal antagonism and organisational jealousy, but in April 1896 Salford held a special meeting to discuss joining the NU; only three people opposed the switch. Rochdale St Clements, Radcliffe, Werneth, Morecambe and many others followed suit that summer. Most of Warrington’s local clubs went at the same time, as did around fifty clubs which formed the Oldham Junior Rugby League.

At the same time in Yorkshire most of the clubs who had played in the first division of Yorkshire rugby union’s leagues decamped to the NU. Leeds Parish Church, that season’s champions, had only five votes against their switch of allegiance. In June 1897 Hull KR, that year’s Yorkshire cup and league champions, went over and the following summer most of what remained of the first and second divisions resigned en bloc to form the second division of the Yorkshire NU.

By June 1897 there were no rugby union clubs in the Halifax district, which was described by a Sowerby Bridge rugby union supporter as being ‘a hot bed of Northern Unionism bigotry’. At the start of the following season the Yorkshire Post reported that ‘in Leeds, rugby union football is practically non-existent’.

The Bradford and Huddersfield district rugby unions voted to disaffiliate from the YRU and affiliate to the NU. In 1899 Hebden Bridge, Ossett, Kirkstall and Alverthorpe flew the nest and in the summer of 1900 Keighley, Otley and Bingley decided that ‘the interest has gone out of rugby union’ and joined the NU.

NU triumphant

At its opening round in 1901, rugby union’s Yorkshire Cup, once one of the biggest sporting contests in Britain, which once attracted bigger crowds than the FA Cup final, and which at its height had 132 clubs, could only muster 11 clubs.

It is also worth noting that two of Yorkshire’s current leading rugby union clubs - Morley and Otley - owe their origins to the aftermath of 1895. The original Morley club joined the NU in May 1897 when a majority voted to leave the RFU. Two months later supporters of the RFU founded a new club, ‘Morley English Rugby Football Club’, to which the present union club owes its origins.

And the original Otley rugby club left the RFU in 1900 and played rugby league for six seasons before disbanding due to financial problems. The current Otley club was founded as a rugby union club only in 1907.

In the North West, Barrow - the region’s leading club - voted unanimously to join the NU in April 1897. Ulverston (who faced a petition raised by fans), Millom and the rest of the followed them in July. By the summer of 1897 the Lancashire Rugby Union had only thirteen clubs, focused on the traditional ex-public schoolboy sides.

The loss of the north-west Lancashire clubs had a knock-on effect on Cumberland and Westmoreland clubs, and at the start of the 1898-99 season Athletic News commented that rugby union in Cumberland had been reduced ‘to an almost vanishing quality’. By January 1899 there was not a single rugby union club left in west Cumberland.

RFU cuts off own nose

The near-death experience of rugby union in the North was not simply due to the Northern Union. It also owed something to the behaviour of the RFU. Immediately after the split the RFU declared that playing for or against an NU team was an act of professionalism, punishable by a life ban from rugby union. This immediately posed problems at a local level.

For example, Beverley FC were left with virtually no fixtures after clubs in the Hull and District Rugby Union voted to support the NU. When they played matches with NU supporting clubs the Yorkshire Rugby Union expelled them.

But it wasn’t just clubs that were threatened. Any player who had any contact with the NU was thrown out of the Rugby Union. In February 1896, a Wyke player was banned for life for travelling with Brighouse Rangers to a match at Leigh, despite not even playing in the match! Elland had two players banned because one of their players had earlier played for a rugby union side against a team which contained a NU player.

Most bizarrely of all, in January 1898 Goole RUFC were ordered not to play a charity rugby match against a touring Little Red Riding Hood pantomime troupe; this was deemed to be an act of professionalism because earlier on its tour the troupe had played in a charity match with Batley!

The old returns as the new

It was only after 1900 that rugby union in the North of England slowly began to rebuild itself. The Yorkshire Rugby Union led the way, encouraging new clubs to be formed by ‘the class of players who hitherto have been elbowed out in the evolution of professionalism’.

Clubs began to be formed by ex-public and grammar schoolboys. Old Dewsburians was formed ‘by some of the better class Dewsbury and Batley residents’. Hull and East Riding club was set up ‘by the sons of Hull and district’s leading citizens’ and Wakefield RFC was founded by ‘Grammar School old boys and others’.

In Lancashire, the Furness, Oldham, Leigh and Vale of Lune rugby union clubs were formed in a similar fashion. By 1907, it was estimated that over 180 of those currently playing rugby union in Yorkshire were former public schoolboys, which, considering that the YRU had barely twenty clubs, accounted for at least half the players in the county.

Heart and Soul

The traditional idea that the split in 1895 was a ‘breakaway’ from rugby union underestimates the sheer scale of what happened in 1895. The entire heart and soul of rugby in the north went over to the Northern Union. Its senior clubs were the strongest in England and its local junior sides (known today as community clubs) were at the core of rugby’s local appeal across the north.

The rugby tradition that had been created in the north since the Yorkshire Cup was first played for in 1877 and which had seen rugby become the dominant sport in Yorkshire, Cumbria and large parts of Lancashire was continued by the Northern Union. It was rugby union that had to recreate a new tradition of its own.

If the meeting at the George in 1895 signaled the start of rugby league as we know it today, the aftermath of the split showed that it was the Northern Union that carried on the historic traditions of rugby in the north.