120 Years Since the Birth of Rugby League

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The George Hotel, Huddersfield - Birth Place of Rugby League

The George Hotel, Huddersfield – Birth Place of Rugby League

At 6.30pm on August 29th 1895 representatives of 21 rugby union clubs met at the George Hotel in Huddersfield. The meeting was a culmination of discontents stretching back a whole number of years, and at its conclusion a resolution was unanimously adopted declaring the formation of the Northern Rugby Football Union.

Football’s origins lay in folk football played at festivals throughout the Middle Ages. But as capitalism began to develop, folk football’s nature as a game involving large numbers of people, over huge spaces and for long hours ran counter to the imperatives of capitalism’s profit-making drive. Numerous laws that effectively banned folk football came into effect in the middle of the 19th century.

As the private school system developed around a similar time, each school, such as Eton or Rugby, codified its own rules of football. For the upper & middle class, playing forms of football was seen as character building. Indeed, violent actions such as hacking at the shins was encouraged. Private school graduates began setting up clubs in the cities and towns they now found themselves in and as workers struggles won them shorter working hours they began to use their free time for sport once more, first as spectators and then as players.

This threw up a problem – whilst gentlemen of independent wealth or government salaries could play without financial constraint, working class players lost wages for playing and worse if injured . A number of sports, particularly Association Football & Cricket resolved this by allowing players to become fully professional. The RFU officialdom instead decreed a strict amateurism.

In large part this was motivated by fear of ‘their’ game, of ex-schoolboys, being increasingly dominated by working class players. At the time the split began to develop, the English Rugby Union team was captained by Dicky Lockwood, the son of a labourer from Crigglestone near Wakefield.

But it was also a move of great hypocrisy. Whilst clubs were punished for securing jobs or paying an official fee to less well-off players, the England touring team of 1888 had been paid but absolutely nothing was done (as after all these were just expenses occurred by gentlemen!).

When Lockwood had to miss a Calcutta Cup game in 1984 in Scotland due to work commitments, he was barred from playing for his local club the same day despite an Eton house master the previous year being able to play for his club, Harlequins, in similar circumstances.

The Yorkshire RFU (YRFU) in particular contained some of the most vicious defenders of the amateur ideal, epitomised by one individual, the Reverend Frank Marshall. Marshall was headmaster of Almondbury School and was appointed as YRFU treasurer in early 1888. Marshall began a witch-hunt against any suspicions of breaches of the amateur rules which led to situations where those giving wedding presents to players were even investigated.

Contemporary cartoon featuring the Rev. Frank Marshall

Contemporary cartoon featuring the Rev. Frank Marshall

Such a witch-hunt hit the pockets of middle-class rugby club owners who both loss the attraction of some of their star players, as well as finding themselves missing lucrative fixtures when other clubs were suspended.

Seeking compromise, at YRFU meetings ahead of national RFU meetings, representatives of clubs agreed to push for the introduction of payments for broken-time (payment in compensation for wages lost due to playing rugby). In this they became joined by officials from Lancashire also, which prepared the way for the meeting at the George Hotel that August evening.

Although some changes, such as reducing team sizes down to 13 players a side and abolishing lineouts were adopted immediately by the Northern Union, others such as the ‘play of the ball’ and even the name Rugby League itself were later additions.

Although Rugby League thrived in the towns and cities of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria, for many years it was persecuted through any channel possible by the RFU officialdom – any player who played Rugby League received a life-time ban from playing Rugby Union amongst other things.

Whilst Rugby League players have generally remained closer to their working class roots than other sports – Dicky Lockwood organised matches to raise funds for the 1897-8 engineers lockout whilst even England captains such as Kevin Sinfield have joined strikers on picket lines in recent years. Whilst been born of the working class, like workers it is also a product of capitalism and has become increasingly commercialised, especially since the advent of the Super League almost twenty years ago. The clash between workers and capital runs through rugby league to this day.

Look out for the forthcoming Yorkshire Socialist Party pamphlet – Born of the Working Class: Rugby League & Capitalism

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