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Rugby’s Class War

125 years ago, rugby league was formed in a split with rugby union. The dividing lines were based on class – and shaped both codes for decades to come.

Towards the end of the 1984–85 Miners’ Strike I was stood on a picket line at a colliery near Wakefield with a local support group. ‘I can tell you the exact day the revolution will start’, a miner in his mid-fifties confided in me.

‘It’ll be on 4 May, when the Rugby League Challenge Cup final is played at Wembley. It’s the only day of the year we can get 90,000 miners into London without the police being suspicious’.

The revolution didn’t happen that May, nor did 90,000 miners attend that year’s cup final. But Wigan and Hull, the two clubs competing in what became a classic final, were emblematic of the link between rugby league and its industrial working-class base.

Wigan was a quintessential mining town, where National Union of Mineworkers’ president Joe Gormley was a regular on the terraces of its Central Park rugby ground. And Hull, based in the city’s fish dock area, had the rare distinction of being a professional sports club whose board of directors once included a Spanish Civil War veteran and local Communist Party leader.

The contrast with the other rugby — rugby union — could not be more marked. Union was the game about which Philip Toynbee reputedly said in the 1930s: ‘if you want to destroy fascism in Britain for a generation, put a bomb under the West Stand at Twickenham.’

Rugby union was, and is, a sport controlled by the privately-educated, the professional classes, and the establishment. League, in contrast, was historically dominated by miners, dockers, and the industrial proletariat of the north of England.

125 years since the birth of rugby league in August 1895, the mines and factories of the industrial north have gone, but the social chasm between the two rugby codes remains — an example of and a metaphor for British class society.

Rugby in Revolt

The Rugby Football Union (RFU) was founded in 1871 by privately-educated young men, but within a decade manual labourers poured into the game as players and spectators.

For the former public schoolboys brought up on ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ who now governed rugby, this threatened the natural order of things. ‘It must be candidly stated that the troubles of the union commenced with the advent of the working man,’ said England international Arthur Budd of Pembroke and Barts.

In 1886, fearful it would follow soccer and be dominated by working-class professional players, the RFU declared rugby an amateur sport, and punished professionalism by suspension or expulsion. ‘If working men desired to play rugby football,’ declared future RFU president Harry Garnett, ‘they should pay for it themselves, as they would have to do with any other pastime’.

Civil war broke out between the RFU leadership and the clubs of industrial northern towns, who realised that amateurism would discriminate against working-class players. They demanded players be compensated for the wages lost due to time taken off from work to play rugby, known as ‘broken-time’ payments. In response, the RFU suspended numerous clubs and players for suspected professionalism.

This was also an era of intense class warfare, especially in northern England. The famous Manningham Mills strike took place in Bradford in 1890. 1893 saw Hull dockers confronted by naval gunboats in the Humber, while a national miners’ strike led to troops shooting two dead and wounding sixteen at Featherstone, a pit village near Wakefield. It was also the year that the Independent Labour Party was formed in Bradford.

That link between rugby and the rising tide of working-class struggle is remembered today by a plaque on the wall of Featherstone’s Railway Hotel pub which reads ‘Following shootings at the nearby colliery in 1893, an inquest was held at this public house. In 1902 the famous Featherstone Rovers RLFC was formed here.’

The chasm between the northern clubs and the RFU became unbridgeable. Fearing they would be expelled one-by-one, on 29 August 1895 the top northern clubs met at the George Hotel in Huddersfield. They voted to leave rugby union, legalise broken-time payments to players, and form a new rugby organisation, the Northern Union. In response, the RFU banned for life anyone who played or was connected to the new game, a ban which was enforced for the next century.

The northerners proceeded to change the rules to make rugby more exciting for players and spectators. Teams were reduced to thirteen players, scrums restricted, and a premium placed on scoring tries rather than kicking goals.

A Democratic Sport

More profoundly, rugby league — as the new sport became known — was seen as an overwhelmingly working-class sport. Whereas soccer was a game for all classes, even if they did not often play together, rugby league became almost a mono-class game, administered by local small businessmen who themselves came from working-class stock.

Of course, in South Wales, the West of England and the Scottish Borders, rugby union retained a working-class following, but this was either too weak to threaten rugby union’s middle-class leadership, or a blind eye was turned to covert payments — known as ‘boot money’ — by union authorities keen to avoid another damaging split.

League’s origins as a revolt against amateur exclusivity also meant it saw itself as a democratic and inclusive sport opposing a hypocritical establishment. This was articulated in the common northern saying, ‘best in t’ Northern Union,’ which implied that the best in the game was the best anywhere, regardless of what its social superiors thought. TV commentator Eddie Waring regularly described the game as ‘the most democratic in the world.’

One notable feature of this democratic spirit was the sport’s early embrace of black players. In 1935 George Bennett became Wales’ first black rugby international when he played for the Welsh national rugby league side, almost five decades before Welsh rugby union selected a black player. England’s Jimmy Cumberbatch followed in 1937, forty-one years before Viv Anderson became England’s first black football international player.

Dozens more trod their path, with Roy Francis coaching Hull to a championship in 1956, Clive Sullivan captaining Great Britain to world cup victory in 1972, and Ellery Hanley coaching the national side in 1994.

It took some time before women also took their place on the pitch. During the First World War some traditional rugby league towns such as Wigan, St Helens, and Huddersfield women’s soccer thrived, not least because women were turned away from playing the oval-ball game there. It was only in the early 1980s that women’s rugby league teams began to be formed.

Post-Industrial Problems

The 1980s were also a period of profound change in the north of England. De-industrialisation, mass unemployment, and Thatcher’s assault on the trade unions tore apart the social fabric of the region. During the 1984–85 Miners’ Strike many of the northern pit villages which found themselves facing the full might of the British state were also home to rugby league clubs.

So when Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd paid £87 million in 1995 for the sport to switch its season to summer and merge historic clubs, the pent-up frustration following the defeat of the miners exploded across the game.

‘They’ve taken our jobs, now they want to take away our leisure,’ said one protester, while another argued ‘this sport always belonged to the working man. Now it belongs to the businessmen.’ Such was the force of the protests that the proposed club mergers were hastily abandoned.

Today, rugby league is still confronting the economic and social devastation of the post-industrial north. Five of the ten English clubs in its top division Super League – Huddersfield, Hull FC, Hull Kingston Rovers, Wakefield, and Wigan – came from postcodes which are in the 10 per cent most deprived in England, according to the government’s Index of Multiple Deprivation. Other clubs are in the bottom 20 per cent.

Yet many of the parliamentary constituencies in which those teams were based were part of the so-called ‘Red Wall’ that fell to the Conservatives in December 2019. The Tory pursuit of ‘Workington Man’ — the former Labour-supporting middle-aged male Brexit voter who watched rugby league — sought to exploit the deep-rooted dissatisfactions of the northern working class.

But as rugby league’s celebration of its 125th anniversary in August reasserted, the sport was born in rebellion against the very people who portrayed themselves as friends of working people. If the Church of England was historically the Tory Party at prayer, rugby union was the Tory Party at play.

Rugby league has survived for over a century because it is part of a continuum of working-class culture which extended from the trade unions to brass bands. And despite the worsening economic conditions of its heartlands, the continuing existence of the sport remains an act of defiance against the established sporting order.