Empire of the Scrum: the history of rugby in Shanghai

In 1839 Britain declared war on Imperial China to defend its right to sell opium to the Chinese. The British occupied Shanghai and, at the war’s conclusion in 1842, the city became what was known as a ‘Treaty Port’ with a permanent British garrison and diplomatic and business settlement. As in the rest of their imperial world, the British colonialists established a local network of social and sporting clubs.

As Simon Drakeford explains in his exhaustively researched book on the history of Shanghai RFC, It’s Rough Game but Good Sportthe settlers set up the city’s first football club in 1867. As with their other cultural activities, the expatriate British mirrored the concerns of what they called ‘home’ and at that time played a football game that was neither modern soccer or rugby. The club did not last long and in 1881 a new Shanghai club was formed, this time committed to playing according to the rules of the Rugby Football Union. This too was short-lived. Other clubs were formed but died away. It wasn’t until 1904 that the recognisable Shanghai RFC came into existence. 

Rugby union became a significant force on the Shanghai sporting and social scene and remained so until the liberation of China by Mao Zedong’s communist forces in 1949. The club, like the rest of Britain’s imperial legacy on the Chinese mainland, was wound up in 1950 and the balance of its assets donated to the RFU. It wasn’t until the 1990s that rugby union was once again played in Shanghai.

It’s Rough Game but Good Sport describes in forensic detail not only the story of the club and rugby in Shanghai but also the social history of the city’s British expatriate community. Spurred on both by enthusiastic players and the Muscular Christian imperatives of the educational system, rugby had become the most popular football code in the port by the outbreak of World War One. Its influence spread and during the inter-war years the game was not merely the preserve of the British in the city but encompassed the French, American and Japanese occupying garrisons, and enjoyed regular tours from visiting European army regiments and Japanese university sides.

By 1939 the city boasted not only an English-speaking league but also a six-team Japanese league, the standard of which was equal to that of the Europeans. Indeed, on 8 December 1941 Shanghai RFC was itself defeated by the local Japanese students of Tung Wen College, a portent of what was to immediately follow. The day after, the Japanese army invaded and occupied the British settlement.

The community in which Shanghai RFC blossomed will be familiar to readers of J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun. Drakeford does not shy away from describing the racism of the British or the club. Horrendous descriptions of the way in which Chinese ‘coolies’ were treated, accounts of the arrogance of the colonialists, and of discrimination by the club itself - against both Chinese and British of the lower classes - recur throughout the text. No Chinese player took part the game until 1932, and he had been educated in England. It would be almost seventy years before significant numbers of Chinese players began to take part in the sport. 

Histories of sports' clubs are notoriously difficult to write successfully. Even the most accomplished, such as Chuck Korr’s West Ham United (1987), Richard Stremski’s Kill for Collingwood (1986) and Andrew Moore’s The Mighty Bears (1996), struggle to maintain a balance between administrative minutiae, repetitive seasons and narrative flow. Yet despite the fact that the book is almost 700 pages long, the tight integration between the sporting and social history of Shanghai means that It’s a Rough Game is never less than interesting. In terms of its command of detail, personalities and sporting history the book is comparable to Tom Hickie’s outstanding 1998 history of Sydney University FC, A Sense of Union.

Most importantly, the book provides historians with a new window into the social world of the British imperial expatriate community. Rugby was a not insignificant part of the recreational life of most British colonialist communities across the imperial world yet remains woefully unexplored beyond the usual Australia/New Zealand/South Africa axis. Yet as Ng Peng Kong’s 2003 history/memoir Rugby: A Malaysian Chapter described, rugby union played an important role both in maintaining the ‘Britishness’ of the expatriate community and in allowing them to resist or regulate the participation of the indigenous population. 

As a history of rugby and of the British community in Shanghai, Simon Drakeford’s book is an important contribution to the historiography of sport and of the British empire.

- - Simon Drakeford, It’s Rough Game but Good Sport: The Life, Times and Personalities of the Shanghai Rugby Football Club (Hong Kong: Earnshaw Press, 2014), Pp. xviii + 696. £47.20 (hb) ISBN 978-9-881-60900-7.

120 Years of Rugby League


On 16 November I gave the after-dinner speech to the annual dinner of the UK’s Parliamentary Rugby League Group to mark the 120th anniversary of the founding of the Northern Union. This is a transcript of my remarks:
"A Northern Union man all the way through."

"A Northern Union man all the way through."

We’re here to celebrate 120 years of rugby league, so I thought I’d start with a few quotations from what some people have said about the sport over the past century or so: 

‘Rugby league is heading down the path to extinction.’ Sydney Daily Telegraph journalist, Rebecca Wilson in 2010.

‘Great game, rugby league, such a shame it has to die.’ - Frank Keating in the Guardian in 2001.

‘The game of rugby league itself will die.’ - John Reason and Carwyn James in The World of Rugby in 1979.

‘Rugby League is dying.’ - Former All Black captain and NZ MP Chris Laidlaw in 1973.

‘it is still dying.’ Daily Telegraph [London] in 1954 after the first rugby league world cup.

‘Rugby à Treize est mort.’ L’Auto in 1940.

‘Is rugby league doomed?’ Sydney Daily Telegraph (again!) in 1934.

‘Rugby League will be a nine day wonder.’ Sydney's The Arrow, 3 August 1907, when AH Baskerville's All Golds arrived in Sydney.

‘In a year or two, the Northern Union will almost be forgotten.’ Pall Mall Gazette, 30 September 1895, less than five weeks after the meeting at the George Hotel in Huddersfield that formed the Northern Union!

Well, rugby league is still here - and in extremely rude health. Today the game has 36 nations affiliated to the Rugby League International Federation; domestically it is played in every county in England. Even these barest of statistics would be beyond the comprehension of the men who formed the Northern Union at the George Hotel in August 1895. 

The game they created has survived despite facing a level of hostility unique in world sport.

For a hundred years the rugby union authorities banned union players from playing rugby league - those that did were banned for life. The game wasn’t played in universities until 1968 and was not recognised by the armed forces until 1994. It was banned in France by Marshall Petain’s collaborationist Vichy government during World War Two. 

Even today, as the arrest of rugby league organised Sol Mokdad in the United Arab Emirates demonstrates, rugby league pioneers sometimes face obstacles undreamt of by other sports.

Yet despite such obstacles the game goes on and is stronger than ever.


Most importantly, it’s a thrilling and spectacular athletic contest. Even before the split in 1895, the northern clubs placed a premium on handling, passing and running with the ball. The scoring of tries - rather than goals - became the object of the rugby league. And it has never been afraid to innovate to ensure that the sport remains ‘a game without monotony’, as Hull official C.E. Simpson put it when teams became 13-a-side and the play the ball the ball was introduced in 1906.

And rugby league has led the way for other sports too, introducing floodlighting, substitutes and Sunday matches before soccer or rugby union. The game was importing stars from around the world in the 1900s - stars like Albert Rosenfeld at Huddersfield, Lance Todd at Wigan and Jimmy Devereux at Hull were adding cosmopolitan glamour to rugby league decades before Premier League became a destination for soccer’s global stars.

The sin bin and video ref - staples of many sports today - were pioneered in rugby league. And it was the second major sport after soccer to organise a world cup tournament when the first-ever Rugby League World Cup was held in France in 1954.

But I think that the game has survived and expanded around the world for more than just what happens on the pitch. 

Because what makes rugby league so unique is that it is a sport founded on a principle. The Football Association was created to draw up a common set of rules for all football clubs. The RFU was founded to standardise rugby rules and organise international matches. The MCC was founded to play cricket, and to regulate gambling on the game. 

But the Northern Union was founded on the principle of equal opportunity for all - that everyone should be allowed to play rugby to the highest level of their ability, regardless of their school, their status or their social background. 

The clubs that met at the George Hotel in August 1895 legalised broken-time payments because they felt that it was the only way that players who spent their working week in a factory, on the docks or down a mine would be able to play on equal terms with the doctors, lawyers and accountants who played for socially elite clubs. No-one, felt the Northern Union pioneers, should lose wages in order to play the game they loved.

This principle of equality of opportunity has been at the heart of rugby league ever since 1895. It was what drew the rugby players of Australia and New Zealand to start rugby league down under in 1907 and 1908. It was the principle that Jean Galia and his fellow pioneers followed when they established rugby league in France in the 1930s.

And it has meant that rugby league welcomed black players into the game at a time when other sports had turned their backs on them. George Bennet was capped for Wales in 1935, fifty years before Glen Webbe became the first Welsh black union international. Jimmy Cumberbatch was capped for England in 1936, forty years before Viv Anderson became England’s first black soccer international. And when Clive Sullivan lifted the RLWC trophy for GB in 1972, he did so as the first black captain of a British national team in any sport.

And while no-one would claim that the sport is free of prejudice or chauvinism, it has also a notable record of women’s involvement, from supporters’ club officials in the 1930s, to the women’s teams that played in Workington in 1954 to Julia Lee becoming the first senior match official in any football code in the 1980s.

But this principle of equality of opportunity has also allowed working-class people could play a leadership role in society. So in 1910, the first Northern Union touring side to Australia and NZ was led by Jim Lomas, a docker. The 1914 tourists were led by Harold Wagstaff, a delivery driver. 

Until relatively recently, outside of the trade unions, working people did not hold leadership positions in society. Nor until the 1960s did they usually travel abroad, unless in the armed forces or as emigrants. 

For a docker and a driver to lead a group of men to a country 14,000 miles away was therefore unprecedented. Until the 1950s cricket sides were always captained by privately-educated amateurs, and the England soccer side didn’t even play in the world cup until 1950, let alone tour other countries.

This, I suspect, goes some way to explaining the popularity of rugby league in Australia and the industrial regions of New Zealand - they could identify with British teams because the tourists were people just like the mass of ordinary Australians and Kiwis.

So rugby league’s strength has always been about more than the thrilling spectacle on the pitch. At its heart was the principle that ordinary people should have the opportunity to develop their talents to their fullest extent.

When Harold Wagstaff wrote his autobiography in the mid-1930s he began with the words: ‘I am a Northern Union man all the way through’.

This was more than a declaration of mere sporting affiliation. It was a acknowledgement of pride in the achievements of not just himself, but of a sport that allowed working-class men like him to develop their talents to the full and to take their place at the head of their communities. 

And to that extent, 120 years after the historic decision to breakaway from the RFU was made, we should all be Northern Union men and women today.

Conversion rates...

The greatest league to union convert? The young Jo Maso, who played for XIII Catalan before becoming a France union international, national team manager and IRB Hall of Famer. (credit: www.anciensrugbymen21.com)

The greatest league to union convert? The young Jo Maso, who played for XIII Catalan before becoming a France union international, national team manager and IRB Hall of Famer. (credit: www.anciensrugbymen21.com)

In the wake of Sam Burgess returning home, there’s a lot of talk about the ‘failure’ of rugby league players to convert to rugby union. To some extent this is a back-handed compliment to league - after all, it assumes that league players are so skilled that they should be equally successful at union - but it also implies that union players find it easier to convert to league.

But that’s simply not the case. A quick look at the historical statistics for union players converting to league tells a much more complex story.

Of the 35 England rugby union internationals who switched to league between 1900 and 1995, just eight went on to play international rugby league for Great Britain, and five of those had played league as youths. That's 23%, or slightly less than one in four.

For a bigger sample, Robert Gate's wonderful Gone North lists all 148 Welsh union internationals who switched to league between 1895 and the book's publication in 1986. Of those 148 internationals, only 28 went on to play for the Great Britain rugby league team. That's just 19%, or slightly less than one in five. Sure, everyone's heard of Lewis Jones and Jonathan Davies, but who remembers Stuart Evans or Dai Young, two Welsh union greats who were utterly out of their depths in league?

To put it bluntly, less than one in four rugby union players who switched codes reached the same heights in league as they did in union.

The moral of the story is simple. League and union are separate and distinct sports. You might be good at one, you might be good at the other - but you’re very lucky if you are good at both.

'Whinging Poms and Arrogant Aussies?' The roots of the rugby rivalry

-- This is an extract from 'The Tyranny of Deference: Anglo-􏰀Australian Relations and Rugby Union before World War II' published in Sport in History in 2009. It deals with the origins of the rugby union rivalry between England and Australia.

 Although in the 1850s the founders of Victorian (later Australian) rules football took their inspiration from the football that was played at Rugby School in England, it wasn’t until 1863 that a club which actually played the Rugby School code of football was founded in Australia, Sydney University Football Club. Over the next three decades New South Wales and eventually Queensland adopted Rugby football as their primary football code. In 1874 the Southern Rugby Union (SRU) was formed in Sydney as the governing body of the game in Australia. From its inception, the sport was closely associated with the universities and the Great Public [i.e. private] Schools. By the late 1890s, however, rugby had become a mass spectator sport in the eastern states, attracting considerable crowds, press coverage and public interest.

Part of its appeal among all classes was the opportunities it offered for competition between different countries of the Empire. As with cricket, the growth of rugby brought with it regular tours from teams representing New Zealand and, most importantly, Britain. In 1888 an unofficial British rugby tour organised by the sporting entrepeneurs Alfred Shaw and Arthur Shrewsbury had given added impetus to the popularity of the game. Rugby also presented an important an important form of cultural exchange, as young middle-class Australian males took up studentships at Oxford, Cambridge or the London and Edinburgh medical schools. Indeed, a number, such as C.G. Wade and S.M.J. Woods , even represented England or Scotland at international level.

Rugby thus became an important part of the imperial sporting network that included cricket, rowing and athletics. As with these other sports, the goal of rugby tours was to use sport to generate a sense of imperial unity. Welcoming the 1904 British rugby team to Australia, J.C. Davis, Sydney’s leading sports journalist of the time, encapsulated this when he wrote that sporting tours created ‘an extended feeling of appreciation and racial sympathy. They have incidentally shown to the muscular Britisher at home that the Britisher abroad and his sinewy colonial descendents are not aliens because thousands of miles of sea intervene.’

It was in this spirit that the governing body of English rugby, the Rugby Football Union (RFU), organised the first official rugby tour to Australia by a British representative side in 1899. Captained and managed by the Reverend Matthew Mullineux, the tour proved to be unexpectedly controversial. Mullineux was disappointed with the spirit in which the Australians played the game. Most of all, he was horrified by the widespread, and well-founded, rumours that players received money for playing, contrary to the amateur regulations of the sport.

For their part, the Australians felt let down because, contrary to expectations, the British team was not truly representative; only seven of the twenty-one players in the side had ever appeared in an international before. Most importantly, they were somewhat shocked at the highly competitive manner in which the British played the game. Much to their hosts’ surprise, the British tourists appeared to go all out to win, rather then to play the game for its own enjoyment, as would be expected by representatives of the home of ‘fair play’. The contrast between the rhetoric and the reality of British play was highlighted in a newspaper cartoon published during the tour, in which a British lion confronted a kangaroo:

Lion: ‘Look here, you don’t play fair!’ 
Kangaroo: ‘What do you call fair?’ 
Lion: ‘Well-er-you see, I didn’t come out here to get licked.’

Far from being temporary hiccough in international rugby relations, these problems were exacerbated during the next British tour of Australia in 1904. Captained by Scottish forward David Bedell-Sivright, the side departed Australia unbeaten before going on to face sterner opposition in New Zealand, but left a trail of controversy behind them. Foreshadowing Douglas Jardine, the captain of the 1932-33 English cricket tourists, much of the ill-feeling of the tour was generated by the behaviour of Bedell-Sivright, about whom it was said ‘his conception of football was one of trained violence.’

Two of the three test matches were punctuated by brawling between the British captain and his Australian adversaries and a match in Newcastle against Northern Districts was interrupted when he led his men off the field in protest against the dismissal of British forward Denys Dobson. The referee alleged that Dobson had sworn at him after being penalised at a scrum. Bedell-Sivright denied that one of his men would do anything so low and promptly marched his side off the pitch. Eventually they were persuaded to return, but the incident became notorious as another example of the ease with which the British dispensed with their principles of fair play when it suited them. 

The relationship deteriorated further during the first Australian rugby union tour of Britain in 1908.  Following in the wake of successful tours ‘Home’ by the New Zealand and South African national sides, the tourists - known as the Wallabies - were dogged by controversy and deteriorating relations with their British hosts. The Scottish and Irish rugby unions refused to play them because of suspicions that the Australians were professionals. On the pitch, the tourists were accused of being overly-violent and playing solely for the purpose of winning. Unprecedentedly, three players were sent off during the tour, including one, Syd Middleton, against Oxford University, the very embodiment of the amateur ‘rugger’ tradition.

For many in Britain, the tour demonstrated the moral deficiencies of the typical Australian. Scottish rugby writer Hamish Stuart claimed that ‘custom and the national idea have so blunted their moral sense that they are sublimely unconscious of their delinquency and are sincerely surprised when accused of unfair practice’. The Australians were reciprocally less than enamoured by their treatment in Britain. Returning home, James McMahon, the tour manager, complained that

as visitors to the Mother Country, as representatives of part of the British nation, [the players] could not understand and were certainly not prepared for such hostility as was shown them by a section of the press. 

In many ways these rugby disputes anticipated the 1932-33 Bodyline cricket controversy. Like the Bodyline events, the disputes were not caused by any Australian proto-nationalism but by the injustice felt by Australians when British sides did not abide by the supposedly British sporting values of ‘fair play’ or refused to accept their opponents asequally as British as they. This was precisely the basis of much of the anger of Australians during Bodyline. It was not so much that the English cricket captain Douglas Jardine was engaging in intimidatory tactics but that he appeared to have departed from the ethical code of the British gentleman and was using such tactics against fellow Britons. This feeling of betrayed loyalty was captured by an anonymous ‘Man in the Street’ who published a pamphlet in Sydney titled The Sporting English, a scathing attack on the English in response to the 1932-33 cricket tour and its aftermath:

We Australians are at a loss to understand why we, alone of all the Empire, are singled out for these continual attacks. We claim to be loyal to the throne, and to uphold the traditions of the British race. Also we pay our debts and are England’s very best customer within the Empire. When danger threatened, we were of the first to respond to the call to arms by the Motherland.

The underlying imperial loyalty of such complaints was made explicit by Wallaby captain H.M. Moran who, despite noting that his fellow tourists had ‘developed a dislike for everything English’, also pointed out that ‘there is one symbol of [Australian] unity with the nation of nations. It is the monarchy.’

An Australian will often express himself rudely about a visiting Englishman who behaves superciliously. That is common. He will frequently hurl angry criticisms at a British government. That, he considers his right. He will even in a pet be disrespectful to a British government, though this is rare. But to the King, no man with impunity may offer insult.

Thus what was being expressed by Australians in these sporting disputes was not an embryonic form of nationalism but a thwarted Imperial loyalty. And in attempting to deal with this frustration over the next three decades, far from being driven to greater hostility towards Britain, the Australian rugby union authorities sought to bend over backwards in an attempt to appease their tormentors.


Was rugby more dangerous than soccer in Victorian times?

Rugby or Soccer in 1888? Image from Mike Huggins'  Victorians and Sport.

Rugby or Soccer in 1888? Image from Mike Huggins' Victorians and Sport.

It’s often thought that one of the reasons that soccer became more popular than rugby in the nineteenth century was that it was less dangerous than the oval ball game. Indeed, the sociologists Eric Dunning and Ken Sheard made much of this argument in Barbarians, Gentlemen and Players (1979) their sociological investigation of the history of rugby (you can find my critique of the book here).

This may have been the belief of some people, but it wasn’t shared by the medical profession at the time. The Lancet - then as now the leading medical journal in Britain - argued that it was soccer which was the most dangerous of the football codes. Its 24 March 1894 issue it devoted a major article to the dangers of football, examining both soccer and rugby in detail, and came to the conclusion that: 

it is our opinion that Association, at first sight a tame game compared with the other, is possibly more perilous than Rugby Union; and that its modern developments, though in many ways so similar, are more certainly towards danger than are the developments in the tactics of the older branch.

It returned to the subject over a decade later on 16 November 1907, following the split in rugby and the massive expansion in the popularity of soccer across Britain. It saw no reason to change its opinion:

Everything seems to show that the degree of danger incurred by players is greater in the dribbling than in the carrying game.

Of course, this does not decisively prove that rugby was less dangerous than soccer - just that many doctors thought it was. But, perhaps more importantly, it does demonstrate how easy - and mistakenly - it is to assume that today's preconceptions about the modern football codes were also shared earlier generations.

The Roots of Rugby League - a four week course

I'm really pleased to announce that I've teamed up with Heritage Quay at the University of Huddersfield to teach a free four-week course on 'The Roots of Rugby League' starting on Wednesday 14 October.

Over four Wednesday evenings - starting at 6pm and ending at 8pm - we'll be looking at the development of rugby from its origins in the folk football games of pre-industrial times all the way up to the outbreak of World War One.

Along the way we'll look at the emergence of rugby in the north of England, how it eclipsed soccer in popularity in the north, the 1895 split, the rule changes, and the emergence of the rugby league as we know it today.

The course is free and open to everyone. You don't need to do anything - just come along, listen and, if you want, ask questions and take part in the discussion. I'll be looking at historic documents, showing some rare films from the past and getting to the bottom of what makes rugby league tick. 

You can find the details of how to book your free place at the Heritage Quay website here.

I look forward to seeing you there.

Here We Go Again: 'English Rugby Union is not a middle-class sport'

Every time there's a major rugby union event in England, the press roll out the old cliche about 'rugby union no longer being the preserve of the middle-class'. There was a laughably fact-free discussion along these lines on BBC Radio 4's The World Tonight (starts 30 minutes in) on the eve of the world cup kick-off.

More interesting was Bed Dirs' article on the BBC Sport website, Is English Rugby Union Just For Posh Kids? which makes the point that 61 per cent of top-level English rugby union players went to private schools (67 per cent of the current England world cup squad are privately educated), as opposed to just 6 per cent of elite English soccer players. The figure for rugby league would be even lower. The percentage of the general population who go to private school is 7 per cent.

'Rugby Football at the Big Schools'. In 2015 as in 1918?

'Rugby Football at the Big Schools'. In 2015 as in 1918?

Defenders of the idea that rugby union is classless often argue that some of these players - it is never stated how many - originally went to state schools but were later given scholarships by private schools to play rugby there. This is undoubtedly true.

But this merely shows just how deeply rugby union is part of the middle-class world of private education. A cohort representing 7 per cent of the population occupy over 60 per cent of the places in the England squad - this makes the England more 'middle-class' than Oxford or Cambridge universities

More to the point, when was the last time a teenage soccer player was sent to a private school to improve his football skills and enhance his chances of playing for England? My guess would be never. 

But this should come as no surprise. Historically speaking, the social composition of rugby union has barely changed, as you can see in the following analysis of the social and educational backgrounds of England internationals between 1871 and 1895 that appeared in chapter five of A Social History of English Rugby Union (needless to say, the chapter goes into much more detail than this blogpost allows):

"Between the first international in 1871 and the advent of professionalism in 1995, 1,143 players were selected to play for England. We know the schools attended by 876 of them. The number of internationals who attended elementary, board, secondary modern or comprehensive state schools was just 66, not a significantly larger number than the 47 who were educated at Rugby School itself.

This leaves 810 who were educated at grammar or fee-paying schools. Of these, 155 went to schools identifying themselves as grammar schools, although this self-definition includes both independent fee-paying schools and state-funded secondary schools, leaving 655  who were unambiguously privately educated. In other words, 92.4% of all England internationals for whom we have school details went to fee-paying or grammar schools.

Of course, there were also players who had originally attended non-fee paying schools but won academic or athletic scholarships to private or grammar schools. Working-class scholarship boys such as Ray French and Fran Cotton featured especially in England sides of the late 1950s to the mid-1970s. But unfortunately there is no data available that would help us quantify their number. It is also the case that the social mobility of this period that was opened up in large part by educational opportunity proved short-lived and was certainly in decline by the mid-1990s.

We could therefore assume that this group would not significantly alter the overall picture. Moreover, the phenomenon of the rugby-playing ‘working-class scholarship boy’ highlights the fact that rugby union was part of the acculturisation process through which talented young students were assimilated into the middle class, rather than rugby union becoming ‘classless’ and moving down the social ladder in its appeal, as was the case with soccer.

What about the players whose schools we do not know? Of these 267 players, 25 attended university, medical school, naval academy or the Royal Indian Engineering College. We know that 68 of those for whom we have no educational data had what can be termed ‘middle-class’ jobs, ranging from sales managers and accountants to company directors and, in the case of John Matters who played for England in 1899, a rear admiral in the Royal Navy. And of those for whom we have neither educational nor occupational data, 15 played for socially-prestigious elite clubs such as Blackheath, Manchester or Richmond. This would indicate another 108 players that could be categorised as being clearly from the middle classes.

What of the remaining 159 players? There are 55 for whom we know only the name of the club for which they played. They played for clubs in the midlands, south-west or pre-1895 north that traditionally had a socially-mixed, cross-class playing personnel, making it impossible to draw any inference about their social background from their club. This leaves us with 104 players whose schools we do not know but who are recorded as having manual occupations, beginning in 1882 when storeman Harry Wigglesworth of the Yorkshire club Thornes made his debut.

The most common employment was that of publican, which provided gainful employment for 22 England internationals. Becoming a pub landlord was invariably an inducement to a player to stay with a club or to join a new one, offering an attractive way out of direct manual labour. Thirteen of these publicans became rugby league players. Indeed, 38 of the 104 manual workers went on to play league. The only other significant manual occupational groups were thirteen police constables and eight ship and dockyard workers who played for clubs on the south-west coast and were employed mainly in naval dockyards. 

We can therefore say that of the 1,088 England players for whom we have verifiable educational or occupational information, only 170 (or 15.6%) were unambiguously not part of the middle classes, either because they attended non-private or grammar schools or were employed in manual labour."

William Webb Ellis - back from the dead

I wrote the following short piece as the prologue to A Social History of English Rugby Union in 2009. At that time, the William Webb Ellis myth seemed to be fading away. But as anyone who saw Friday's opening of rugby union's world cup [which you can see below], it's back with a vengeance, And once again, expediency, this time commercial, has outweighed evidence...

Of the little that is known about William Webb Ellis, we can be certain of one thing. He did not invent the game of rugby football.

An unremarkable schoolboy, he lived his life in dutiful obscurity as an Anglican clergyman until his death in 1872. Four years later, however, a second life began for him when Rugby School old boy and benefactor Matthew Bloxam suddenly named Ellis as the boy who in 1823 first picked up the ball and ran with it. Bloxam offered no evidence for his claim. Nor did he provide any in 1880 when he reiterated his view. 

At the height of the war that split rugby apart in 1895, the Old Rugbeian Society set up a committee to investigate the true origins of the Rugby football. Despite considerable efforts, not one person came forward to support Bloxam. The committee found not a single eye-witness, not a solitary written word, not even a syllable of hearsay evidence to support the William Webb Ellis story. 

Nevertheless, the committee decided ‘in all probability’ that Ellis was the ‘innovator’ of running with the ball. In 1900 a plaque was erected at the school that proclaimed unhesitatingly that Ellis ‘with a fine disregard of the rules of football as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it’ in 1823. 

Not for the first time in the history of rugby, evidence had been outweighed by exigency.

'A Social History of English Rugby Union' wins best book award

I'm deeply honoured that A Social History of English Rugby Union was voted joint 'Best Academic Monograph on Rugby Union' by delegates to the 2015 'World in Union: Rugby, Past Present & Future' conference.

Held at the University of Brighton on 10-12 September and an official part of the 'Festival of Rugby' celebrations for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, the conference attracted over sixty of the world's leading scholars of sport in general and rugby in particular.

Alongside A Social History of the Rugby Union my co-winners were David R Black and John Nauright for their 1998 book Rugby and the South African Nation. The award for the best edited book of essays went to Greg Ryan for his Tackling Rugby Myths: Rugby and New Zealand Society, 1854-2004 and Tim Chandler and John Nauright's Making Men: Rugby and Masculine Identity. The prize for best popular history to Huw Richards' 2007 A Game for Hooligans: The History of Rugby Union

If you haven't read any of these books yet, you now have no excuse.

Miners and rugby league at the National Coal Mining Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maori, Kiwis and the Haka

There's an interesting video on the Follow-Rugby.com website that traces the evolution of the All Blacks' haka, demonstrating that the haka as we know it today has undergone some very significant changes over the past century.

However, the brief clip it shows of the 1922 haka is neither the All Blacks nor rugby union. It's actually the 1922 Maori rugby league tourists playing New South Wales Seconds at the Sydney Cricket Ground, a game the Maori lost 31-14. As well as a long take of the haka, the footage is notable for showing an early version of the play-the-ball, which looks like a mini-scrum (as its originators intended). 

YouTube also has footage of the haka being performed in 1926 by the New Zealand rugby league tourists to Britain, known at the time as the Professional All Blacks, at the first test match of the tour at Wigan. Oddly enough, it seems that Pathe News could not distinguish between league and union, so the clip is labelled as a rugby union match! The haka is led by Phonse Carroll, the NZ hooker who was a relative of Brisbane Bronco and Leeds Rhino Tonie Carroll and, more importantly, a conscientious objector in World War One.

To say the least, the tour was not a success - you can read the full story in John Coffey's excellent book The Tour That Died of Shame - but the British Pathe clip shows the two sides running out, the haka and some of the play. The first two players out for the British side are captain Jonty Parkin followed by Jim Sullivan. The Kiwis are led out by Mildred Mair (the wife of the tour manager), carrying a NZ flag and a stuffed kiwi, followed by captain Bert Avery.

At the time the match took place, hundreds of thousands of miners were locked out by the pit-owners - 40,000 in the Wigan area alone - and five months previously Britain had been gripped by the General Strike. Despite the hardships that were been inflicted on the local miners, fifteen thousand people turned out to watch an exciting 28-20 win for Britain. 

The Walter Camp myth and the origins of American football

Walter Camp in 1878

Walter Camp in 1878

This is the third article in a short series on the history of the rugby codes in North America. It looks at the origins of American football and its ‘creation myth’ of Walter Camp’s invention of a uniquely American game. The idea that American football was invented by Walter Camp is still widely believed by fans and academics alike, but is based on a misunderstanding of how rugby developed. For a more detailed discussion of the birth of American football, see my ‘Unexceptional Exceptionalism: the origins of American football in a transnational context’ published in the Journal of Global History in 2013.

Just like the William Webb Ellis legend, American football developed its own ‘creation myth’. In the same way that the Webb Ellis story painted a picture of a sport that owed everything to the public schools that supplied the the RFU with its leaders, American football’s tale emphasised how uniquely American its game was.

The story revolves around Walter Camp. He went to Yale University in 1875 and became the starting half-back for the university rugby team. But, so the story goes, he was dissatisfied with the rules of the game. He thought they were too vague and based on British traditions that were inappropriate for the ‘New World’.  In particular he thought the scrum was distinctly un-American, writing in 1886 that: 

English players form solid masses of men in a scrummage and engage in a desperate kicking and pushing match until the ball  pops out unexpectedly somewhere, leaving the struggling mass ignorant of its whereabouts, still kicking blindly where they think the ball may be.

To get rid of this problem, in 1880 he proposed that the scrum should be abolished and in its place the two sets of forwards lined up opposite each other. He invented the ‘snap’ when the ball is handed back to the quarterback to make the game less chaotic. Eventually the forward pass was introduced. 

But this tale of how Camp invented American football is its own scrummage of fact, fiction and supposition. The historical record is not that quite straight forward. 

The first and most glaring problem is that, when it came to playing rugby without a scrum, the Canadians got there first. 

In October 1875, a full five years before Walter Camp proposed abolishing the scrum in America, the first Canadian rugby enthusiasts had proposed precisely the same thing at a ‘Football Convention’. Nine clubs met to discuss the rules of the game in Toronto and decided to adopt the rules of the RFU. But three clubs voted against. These clubs essentially wanted to play rugby without the scrum. Eventually the reformers, led by McGill and Toronto universities, won the argument, and rugby in Canada began its evolution towards gridiron-style Canadian football.

Back in the USA, when Columbia, Harvard, Princeton and Yale students met in November 1876 to found the Intercollegiate Football Association (IFA) and agree a common set of rules, they adopted the RFU rule book including the scrum rules.

But arguments still raged between the elite football-playing universities of the U.S. east coast. The big debate was about the number of players in a team. The first IFA meeting voted for 15-a-side but Walter Camp’s Yale wanted 11-a-side. They had played 11-a-side teams ever since 1873 when a team of footballers from Eton College visited from England. Yale unexpectedly won the match, which was played under a hybrid set of rules. 

The Yale men’s surprising success convinced them that eleven men were all that were needed to play the game. Eventually in October 1880 the other universities agreed to Camp and Yale’s proposal. Rugby in America became an 11-a-side game. 

This move to eleven players fundamentally changed rugby. With just six or seven forwards, instead of the normal nine or ten found in a fifteen-a-side team, a traditional rugby scrum was impossible. In rugby at this time, the aim of the forwards was not to heel the ball backwards but to dribble it forward through the opposing pack. Opponents could line-up several columns deep, preventing headway from being made for considerable periods. 

However, with fewer opposing forwards, dribbling the ball forward resulted in it quickly emerging out on the opponents’ side, giving them use of the ball to set up their own attack. Conventional scrummaging was completely counter-productive. Yale and the other teams playing eleven-a-side rugby therefore began to line their forwards up in a single line, which became known as the ‘open formation’, so that they could heel the ball behind them to their backs as quickly as possible. 

At the same time that teams were reduced to eleven, the ‘snapback’ - where the ball was passed backwards to the quarterback (itself the Scottish rugby term for the scrum-half) - was introduced. Two years later in 1882, the ‘downs’ rule was introduced, which gave a team three ‘downs’ to get the ball five yards upfield or hand it over to the other team (later increased to four downs and ten yards). 

True believers of the Walter Camp myth believe these changes were uniquely American. But similar changes would take place in Canadian rugby and in rugby league. Even blocking, which allowed players without the ball to be tackled, was not unknown in the early days of rugby and was used by Blackheath and at Rugby School itself. There was nothing specifically American about the way Walter Camp changed rugby. Even as late as December 1893 the New York Times could still call the American game ‘rugby’.

What did make the game uniquely American was not one of Walter Camp’s innovations at all. It was the legalisation in 1906 of the forward pass. Introduced to open the sport up and reduce its defensive brutality, more than any other change it was this that gave American football its distinctive character. Camp, by this time dubbed ‘the father of American football’, remained agnostic on this fundamental change that marked the definitive passage of rugby into American football. The gridiron game was now truly an American game, yet its origins lay not in the head of Walter Camp but in the debates about how to play rugby football that took place throughout the English-speaking world in the second half of the nineteenth century.

- - The full story of the fate of the rugby codes in North America is covered in my forthcoming book The Oval World.

Rugby League in North America in the 1950s

Match-day programme for Newcastle v American All Stars (1953)

Match-day programme for Newcastle v American All Stars (1953)

Rugby league's North American odyssey  began in September 1928 when, on the way back from their Australasian tour, the British tourists played two exhibition games in Canada. Two sides representing England and Wales played matches in Vancouver and Montreal, with England winning 30-17 and 21-18 respectively, the latter being one of the first league games ever to be played on a Sunday. The fact that touring sides from both hemispheres tended to sail via north or central America at the time meant that it didn’t require much imagination to see the possibilities which could open up for the game on the American continent.

Nor had not escaped the attention of those few rugby league supporters and officials who had been able to visit North America that their game bore more than a passing resemblance to American football, especially at the then more popular college level, where forward passing was relatively uncommon and the main difference between the two games was the blocking of opponents without the ball. Philosophically, the two games shared a focus on tackling, running with the ball and retaining possession, together with a common rejection of such rugby union shibboleths as the ruck, maul and line-out. As Jack Gibson somewhat mischievously pointed out in the 1980s, the two sports were basically the same game but with different rules. 

During the 1932 Lions' tour to Australasia the Australian Board of Control discussed the prospects for expansion into North America and recommended that two representatives from England and Australia go to the U.S. to organise a series of exhibition matches. The Board’s idea was to organise matches in conjunction with college football games, with the league teams playing their first half, followed by the first half of the gridiron game, then for the league match to be completed, followed by the second half of gridiron.

Despite this slightly odd proposal, the two tour managers, Oldham’s  G.F. Hutchins and Warrington’s Bob Anderton, enthusiastically backed Miller’s suggestion and proposed that the  R.F.L. should explore the possibility of establishing the game in the U.S. by organising a series of matches between England and Australia in 'the principal cities from New York to San Francisco' but the Council, probably because the game in England was being battered by the slump of the early 1930s, unanimously turned down the idea. 

These hopes for expansion were more than wishful thinking. Professional American football was something of a sickly adolescent in the 1930s, the N.F.L. only having been established very shakily in 1920, and was geographically confined to a handful of industrial cities in the East and Mid-West. Indeed, it wasn’t until the 1940s and 1950s that either the N.F.L. became established on the West Coast. Isolated in sporting terms from the rest of the country, the establishment of sporting links with Australia was a logical move, especially considering that in terms of distance, Sydney was almost as close to California as New York was. 

Despite the Council’s initial opposition, the fascination with America would not go away. At an R.F.L. meeting in June 1934 Brigadier-General A.C. Critchley, who the previous year had set up London Highfield, suggested that he should bring over a team of American footballers to learn the game: 'while these had never played rugby, he thought they could soon be trained and coached into the game and he would like to see them in action against our teams. He said there was a revulsion against the large number of casualties in the American game and that there might be possibilities for the Rugby League game in America.'

Nothing came of the suggestion, probably because the R.F.L. Council were none too impressed with Critchley’s record with London, which had made a huge loss of £8,000 in their first season and were about to moved North to play in Liverpool. Interest continued however. In 1936, the New South Wales R.L. discussed introducing the game to California with a representative of an American millionaire. The following year the R.F.L. Council agreed to send two teams to the U.S. to play a series of exhibition matches, following an offer from a Mr Ormsby of New York to organise and underwrite a tour, but the promises of finance never materialised.

However, the possibility of a very major breakthrough came in June 1939, when, apparently out of the blue, the R.F.L. received a letter from the secretary of the Californian Rugby Union. In it, he explained that California was considering abandoning union for league and asked 'for the Council’s views on the possibility of terms being arranged'. This was potentially the biggest development in the game since the announcement of the 1907 New Zealand tour to Britain.

Sensing that history could be made, the Council decided to pursue discussions, 'even to the extent of visiting California' noted the minutes of the meeting. The following month another letter arrived from California, this time from an exiled Rochdale Hornets fan, explaining the opportunities which were opening up for rugby league. That year’s annual R.F.L. conference met in a state of confident anticipation, with G.F. Hutchins, now the R.F.L. chairman declaring that he was 'happy at the prospect of America coming into the Rugby League'.

Sadly, it was not to be. Less than two months after the annual conference, World War Two broke out and, as with the 1940 tour of Australasia, which the Council had sanctioned at the same meeting, the Californian adventure was postponed indefinitely. It remains one of rugby league’s great 'what ifs'.

Although the war meant an end to any plans for expansion and even, to a large extent, contact with the rest of the league-playing world, it did not curtail North American interest in the game. In late 1943, and yet again apparently out of the blue, the RFL received a letter from the secretary of the Halifax (Nova Scotia) Rugby Union, announcing that they had “changed over from rugby union to rugby league” and asking for rule books to be sent over. Largely in response to the growing war-time popularity of Canadian football - which having started as rugby union had gradually adopted most of the features of American football - the rugby authorities in Nova Scotia had decided to ditch union and take up the more attractive game.

However, the difficulties of communicating regularly across the North Atlantic in the middle of a submarine war meant that the R.F.L. couldn’t provide any practical assistance and it wasn’t until 1946 that the rugby stronghold of the Maritime Provinces - Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island -  could make the switch as a whole. Nevertheless, the new game was quickly hailed as a success, having, in the word of the Halifax (Nova Scotia) Herald: “speeded up play and eliminated much that was deadly dull under the old Rugby Union code”. 

Despite this positive start, rugby league began to struggle in the 1950s as Canadian football made rapid strides in popularity throughout the country. It was not helped by identifying itself as “English Rugby”: the Canadians had simply changed the rules from union to league and didn’t call the sport rugby league. Indeed, the 1954 Canadian Rugger annual didn’t even mention that the Maritime Provinces played rugby league despite an article declaring 'English Rugby strong in the Maritimes'.

The reality was discovered by R.F.L. secretary Bill Fallowfield when he visited in 1954. He found the game in very poor health and proposed that the Canadians should stop calling the game English Rugby, suggested that there could be touring teams sent over from England and France, and recommended that they should approach the Canadian-born Lord Beaverbrook to become patron. None of these ideas were taken up and, despite rumours of tours to and from Canada in the 1950s, Canadian rugby league withered on the vine, finally dying out in the early 1960s.

However, the dream continued to flicker in the U.S. in the early 1950s. After an exploratory visit to the U.S.A. by New Zealand’s J.E. Knowling in 1952, the French Rugby League invited an American team to take part in the inaugural World Cup competition due to take place in 1954. A team was assembled by American wrestling promoter Mike Dimitro, who had seen rugby league in Australia during his time in the U.S. Navy in World War Two, and arrangements were made with the Australian Board of Control to tour Australia and New Zealand in 1953 in preparation for the tournament. Named the “American All Stars” the 22-strong team of gridiron converts consisted of enthusiastic college footballers plus the Pittsburgh Steelers' starting quarterback Gary Kerkorian playing at stand-off.

Despite never having played the game before, the All Stars performed reasonably well, winning 6 and drawing 2 of their 26 games down under. Al Kirkland, their star player, adapted so well that he was signed by Parramatta and became a first grade regular for them in 1956 before moving to England and playing briefly for Leeds. Vince Jones, the tourists’ vice-captain, later played for Oxford University in the rugby union Varsity match. The Americans, helped by Harry Sunderland, went on to play a five match tour of France at the end of 1953, winning one game but going down to the French national side 31-0 in front of 20,000 spectators at the Parc des Princes in Paris in January 1954.

But not everyone in the game was happy with these developments. The French invitation to the U.S. team had incurred the ire of the curmudgeonly Fallowfield who complained in a letter to France’s Antoine Blain in January 1953 that the Americans’ 'standard may in no way compare with that of our own, in which case it would not be practicable proposition to include the US team. If the team from the US is to be included then there appears to be no reason why a team from Canada should not also be invited.' 

Despite there being 'no reason' not to, he did not invite the Canadians, whose presence at the World Cup may have given the ailing game there a lifeline. Nor did he seek to invite Yugoslavia and Italy who were also playing rugby league at the time. And although it had been proposed that the 1954 Lions play in the U.S. on their return journey, the idea was never followed up.

In January 1954, the Americans were again “slapped in the face”, in Harry Sunderland’s words, by the R.F.L. Council when Sunderland tried to organise a floodlit game for the All Stars at Leigh on their way back home from France, causing Fallowfield to write to Mike Dimitro “pointing out the impracticability of arranging a game at short notice under favourable conditions”. With that, Fallowfield snubbed out the life of the only American team ever to play rugby league up to that time.

In fact, the probable reason for Fallowfield’s hostility to Dimitro’s team was because he was pursuing negotiations with a rival set of Americans, led by Californian gridiron writer B. Ward Nash. Nash wanted to use rugby league primarily as a game which could give America international sporting links by using American footballers to play international rugby league matches in their off-season.

In the absence of any serious soccer, rugby union or cricket in the U.S., and given the obvious parallels between league and gridiron, Nash believed that rugby league was the only team sport which could offer the U.S. serious international competition. Boasting of his strong links with N.F.L. club owners, he told the R.F.L. in 1954: 'large numbers of Americans are sincerely interested in furthering better relations with other countries and they have an idea that more international sports competition can be of great help. … If you are successful the interest could be tremendous, equaling our interest in the Olympic Games, international tennis and golf.' He also dangled the carrot of connections in high places; the vice-president of the U.S.A., a former college football player, was a personal friend who would be pleased to meet with rugby league representatives. His name was Richard M. Nixon.

Although Tricky Dicky fortunately never became involved, Nash set up an organising committee in California in May 1954 to plan for two Australia versus New Zealand games to be played on the way back from the World Cup in November. Despite widespread publicity in the gridiron press, only 1,500 spectators turned out for the match in Long Beach and 4,500 for the Los Angeles Coliseum match.

Hampered by some of the worst fog southern California had seen, Australia won both games easily but the losses amounted to over 6,000 U.S. dollars. Fallowfield returned from the games denouncing Nash as being a useless organiser and suggesting, with considerable chutzpah given his attitude towards Dimitro’s team, that an American side be invited over to tour.

At the August 1955 International Board meeting, it was reported that there were 21 American footballers interested in playing the game (one less than had actually toured with the All Stars, who also had over 40 players at the initial try-outs for their tour), a number of colleges interested in playing the game and possible financial backing from an athletics foundation. But the Board also argued about who should develop the game in America, with the southern hemisphere countries arguing bizarrely that England should take responsibility for the game on the Pacific Coast. 

Despite this failure to follow up the work already done, the rugby league flame continued to flicker on the West Coast throughout the 1950s. By 1957 it appears that many California club and university rugby union teams played 13 a side and had outlawed kicking directly into touch, almost spontaneously developing league rules to counter the stagnation rugby union rules brought into the game. Plans were also developed to send schoolboy teams over from Australia and the indefatigable Nash, obviously not a man to let Bill Fallowfield to deter him, sought the help of young former Qantas employee named Pete Rozelle. Two decades later Rozelle was famous as the N.F.L. Commissioner who turned the gridiron game into the most popular sporting phenomenon in America.

In 1960 Nash’s “North American Rugby Football League”, wrote to the R.F.L. asking to be considered for inclusion in that year’s World Cup. They had arranged for the great Australian forward Ray Stehr to coach them and organised finance through one of President Eisenhower’s cold war international relations funds. Despite this forethought, they received a blank refusal from Fallowfield.

At that, American rugby league slipped into a coma until the late 1970s when Mike Mayer, followed by a further trail of U.S. and Canadian pioneers in the 1980s and 1990s, once again brought rugby league’s North American dream closer to reality.

- - This article was originally written in 2000 for Our Game magazine. For the definite account of American rugby league be sure to read Gavin Willacy's outstanding 2013 book No Helmets Required.

The Rise and Fall of American Rugby 1906-15

Stanford v Cal in 1914: when the Big Game was played under rugby union rules

Stanford v Cal in 1914: when the Big Game was played under rugby union rules

In 1905 American football sailed into the greatest storm it had ever encountered. Since the 1890s there had been growing concerns about violence and brutality in the game. These worries came to a head in the 1905 season, when eighteen deaths and 150 serious injuries were sustained in matches. The outcry was so severe that Teddy Roosevelt - who had once said that Tom Brown’s Schooldays was one of two books everyone should read - met with representatives of Harvard, Yale and Columbia university football teams to encourage them to change the rules of the game to reduce its dangers. As a consequence, the following year the forward pass was introduced into the game.

But on the West Coast of America, disillusionment with the violence and commercialism of the American game was not so easily dislodged. Rugby had first been played at the University of California in 1882 but had been replaced by American football in 1886 as that code swept through US colleges. Now, two decades on in January 1906, the universities of California and Stanford announced that they were abandoning football altogether and taking up rugby union.

The decision to switch back could not have been taken at a better time. The triumphant All Black tourists were on their way back home from Britain and France, returning across North America - and they were keen to fly the flag in the USA for rugby and for New Zealand in particular.

Arrangements were hastily made and in early February 1906 the All Blacks arrived in northern California to play two exhibition matches against a British Columbia side from Canada. Despite being on tour for over six months, the tourists unsurprisingly romped home in both games, at Berkeley by 43-6 and then in San Francisco by 65-6. Despite the one-sided nature of the games, the press were effusive in their praise: ‘the superiority of rugby to our own amended game was demonstrated even more forcibly than at the very interesting contest of last Saturday,’ declared the San Francisco Chronicle.

The experiment was interrupted two months later when the San Francisco earthquake reduced much of the city to rubble. But support for rugby grew and California and Stanford were joined by the universities of Nevada, Santa Clara, the Pacific numerous northern Californian high schools and San Francisco’s elite Olympic athletic club. There was even talk of an American universities' rugby tour of New Zealand. 

And on the East Coast, where the All Blacks had played an unofficial match against a pick-up New York team when they arrived in the US, an Eastern Rugby Union had been founded in April by three clubs. Rugby was back.

The game’s international significance was enhanced by a changing world situation. Japan’s stunning victory over Russia in their 1904-05 war meant that the Pacific Ocean had suddenly become a region of intense diplomatic interest. The Anglo-Japanese Alliance was signed in 1902, causing consternation to the newly federated Australian government, whose ‘White Australia’ policy was based on racist fears of Asian domination. The Australians sought to counter fears that the British might abandon them to the Japanese by developing links with the United States. 

For its part, Teddy Roosevelt’s government wanted to demonstrate that despite Japanese success America was the dominant naval power in the Pacific. So in late 1907 it despatched a fleet of sixteen battleships on a goodwill tour of the region, calling at major ports on both sides of the ocean. In August 1908 it visited Auckland, Sydney and Melbourne. It did not go unnoticed in these cities that their guests had chosen to call this mighty display of sea power the ‘Great White Fleet’.

As part of this Australian-American courtship the 1908-09 Wallabies played three games in California on their way back from their tour of  Britain in February 1909. The Australians won all three matches, but the margins were sufficiently narrow to suggest that West Coast rugby was improving rapidly. 

And, despite the switch from gridiron to rugby, the ‘Big Game,’ the annual showdown between Stanford and California, showed no signs of diminishing in importance as northern California’s most important sporting event. In 1910 it staged the first example of what would become a staple of American college football, the ‘Card Stunt’, where members of the crowd held cards above their heads to form a word or symbol. 

Filled with hope for rugby, that summer an American Universities team of students from California, Stanford and Nevada made a sixteen game tour of Australia and New Zealand, the first overseas visit by a US representative rugby team. Despite only winning three and drawing two matches the students were never out-classed, and the tour was considered a success by all concerned. When they returned home in August the San Francisco Sunday Call was sufficiently impressed to ask in a headline ‘Will California Produce Rugby’s World Champs?’ 

Further evidence for this optimism was seen in 1912. The West Coast hosted an Australian touring side. They were known as the Waratahs, rather than the Wallabies, despite the fact that six of the tourists came from Queensland rather than New South Wales, the state that  had traditionally borne the Waratah nickname. They played eleven matches and lost by a point to both California and Stanford, although they played the former three times and the latter twice. Most significantly, they narrowly defeated the USA national side in its first-ever international by a mere 12-8.

But under the surface, all was not well. The Australians disliked the American approach to the game, feeling that the Californian tackling was too physical and that US players were apt to take advantage of the rules. Coming just four years after the split with rugby league in Australia, the tourists were determined to uphold the amateur ethos - and the American approach smacked too much of the professional attitudes that the gentlemen from down under had so recently rejected. 

For their part, the Americans were becoming frustrated with what they saw as the domination of rugby by forward play. In 1913 California suggested that teams should be reduced to 14-a-side by the abolition of one of the forwards. From his vantage point as the ‘Father of American football’, Walter Camp mischievously informed the sporting public that the Californians weren’t even playing the best type of rugby. ‘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,’ he argued. ‘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’.

Matters come to a head with the 1913 All Blacks tour of California. Any hopes that American rugby ascendency would continue its upwards trajectory were brutally extinguished by the New Zealanders. In thirteen unbeaten games they scored 508 points while conceding just two penalty goals, including a 51-3 demolition of the US national team at Berkeley. 

Only two sides kept the tourists below the thirty-point mark. American rugby was humiliated. Instead of promoting the game, the tour demonstrated that far from being potential ‘World Champs’ America was no more than a second-rate rugby nation. It was not a message she wanted to hear.

To make things worse, the University of California fell out with Stanford over the selection of the national team. In the midst of this confusion and demoralisation, voices began to be heard calling for a return to American football. As college football continued to grow in importance in the US, many in California felt isolated from the intense intercollegiate and increasingly nationwide rivalries of the sport. 

Played by a handful of local universities and now offering no prospect of international prestige, rugby’s appeal ebbed away. In 1915 California pulled the plug and declared that henceforth it would play football: ‘from now on it will be the American game for Americans. and, best of all, for California,’ declared the Daily Californian. Stanford carried on until 1919 before accepting the inevitable. Rugby’s second chance in America was all but gone.

- - For more on the history of rugby in America, pre-order my The Oval World (published in August) and read Gavin Willacy's wonderful No Helmets Required.

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.